Was the first world war a catalyst for change in the Middle East?

Was the first world war a catalyst for change in the Middle East?
By Libin Farah

The Middle East underwent a process of dramatic change during the early 20th century. The First World War (WWI) produced multiple outcomes that directly affected and changed the political, economic and social condition of the Middle East.

These outcomes include the collapse of the Ottoman empire which directly led to a new era of colonialism in the Middle East from the Western Powers. Western Imperialism resulted in the division of land and the creation of new borders which established nation states.

The roots of the current Palestinian conflict can be traced back to the aftermath of WWI as the British superimposed a Jewish homeland within Palestine which heightened religious and political tensions within the region. Also, resistance to imperial rule and a reclaiming of Arab identity made nationalism the most important unifying ideology in the region at that time.

This essay will explore the nature of each outcome and highlight the degree of change caused by WWI. While each outcome produced a significant degree of change the colonisation of the region by the French and British I believe to be the most eminent consequence as this transformed the region politically and economically. It was an entirely different to what the Arabs experienced under the Ottomans and it created the modern Middle East.

During the 18th and 19th century the Ottoman empire faced a gradual and inexorable decline due to internal and external pressures. Despite their weakening international position they were able to retain their Arab provinces till early 20th century and even made legislation to socially advance them during the 19th century. These reforms aimed to strengthen relations between Arabs and Turks by improving infrastructure, railways, telegraphs, an elaborate bureaucracy, an extensive Ottoman school system to widen education in the Arab provinces (Rogan, 2012).

These developments made the Arabs probably feel more connected to the Ottoman world by the start of the twentieth century than they ever had before (Rogan, 2012). The extent to which the Arabs under Ottoman rule were so closely associated to their rulers only intensifies the degree of change faced by the Arabs. It would take a major cataclysm to shake the Ottoman grip on the Arab world.

The First World War proved to be that cataclysm (Rogan, 2012). This meant that the form of political organisation that they were accustomed to for four centuries had disintegrated (Hourani, 2013).

While some Arabs may have questioned the Ottoman claim to be the caliphate they nonetheless represented a common political identity and by large a wider political community for Arabs and for Muslims (Hourani, 2013).

The dissolution of the empire, stimulated by WWI, was a catalyst for change because for the first time ex Ottoman subjects were forced to be politically conscious and actively consider how they should organize themselves politically (Hourani, 2013).

Therefore, War not only made change possible but also made people expect change. However, change did not come in the form of self-determined sovereignty but rather the collapse of the Ottomans was an opportunity for the Western imperialists the widen their spheres of influence.

The collapse of the Ottoman empire created a power vacuum in the Middle East which was assumed by Britain and France. The Paris peace conference (1919) awarded Britain and France with mandates to aid, assist and advise Arab states before they became fully independent (Hourani, 2013).

This sealed the political fate of the region as it introduced a period of Western colonialism. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) negotiated between France and Britain resulted in Arab provinces being carved up into a number of successor states, each under either British or French rule (Owen, 2000).

This agreement promised Syria and Lebanon to the French and Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan to the British as new spheres of influence (Christie and Masad, 2013). These mandates gave Britain and France overwhelming power such that they determined the new boundaries, what form of government would be established and how the region’s natural resources should be allocated (Owen, 2000).

These new borders were in accordance to British and French economic interest and were drawn arbitrarily bringing together groups of people with varying ethnicities, religions and languages who did not form coherent national communities (Christie and Masad, 2013).

The significance of this cannot be underestimated as the end of WWI led to the establishment of internationally recognized borders and the creation of new states marking the beginning of the modern Middle East as we know it today.

The European mandates only sought to accumulate wealth by exploiting the new nations as a means to increase their Great Power status in the international sphere with little to no consideration of the wants, needs and rights of the nations. British and French officials exercised their mandates in different ways.

The British introduced a monarchical system into Iraq with Faysal bin Hussain as a puppet to advance and protect British interests (Silverfarb and Khadduri, 1986). The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty (1922) military agreement meant that the British could station its military forces in Iraq, command a local military force, compel the king of Iraq to declare martial law and entrust its administration to a British officer (Silverfarb and Khadduri, 1986).

The British had almost complete control over the political and economic affairs of Iraq. The French had a more direct approach and while they were the imperial authority they lacked both political and religious legitimacy making their position in Syria inherently unstable, much more so than the Ottomans had ever been (Khoury, 2014).

The French exacerbated the Syrian economy by eroding industry through the expansion of their own economy which resulted in high inflation and unemployment amid the recovery from the devastation brought by WWI (Khoury, 2014). Additionally, the methods they used to control the colonies involved placing minority groups in power such as the French legitimizing Alawi (Shia) rule in Syria against the Sunni majority (Khan, 2016).

These mandates and dictatorial styles of ruling were a complete contrast to life in the Ottoman empire. Economic and political organisation was dictated by foreign powers and while they were militarily superior they were still insecure as they lacked political and especially religious legitimacy that was central to the Ottoman administration prior to WWI.

The new internationally recognized borders that divided communities and provinces were restructured into new political units known as nation states. These new states were given a somewhat artificial appearance with new names, capitals, currency yet there was a lack of social homogeneity and heads of states were puppets for the metropole (Owen, 2000).

The new citizens were expected to subscribe to a new cultural identity of being Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian etc. These new national identities did not correspond to any meaningful identity for most of the Arab world (Rogan, 2012). Large and diverse communities were now being governed solely by one centre of authority who imposed strict central control and hoped to produce cultural uniformity citizens (Owen, 2000).

The previous Ottoman regime had never been static and they permitted a degree of regional political autonomy as Ottoman governors worked with local Arab notables in governance (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013).

The replacement of the Ottoman political order by the creation of separate states forced wrenching economic and ideological adjustments upon the inhabitants (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013). Economically, an integrated system under a single imperial authority was now fragmented into separate states which altered patterns of commercial activity (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013).

An ideological conflict emerged following the collapse of the Ottomans allowing for ideas of pan-Arabism and Islamic solidarity which competed for Arab loyalty (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013). These new systems of government created a disparity between the state and society. The Ottoman empire had produced stable government and ensured that legislation and justice was in accordance with Shari’ah (Islamic law) (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013).

These new political and economic developments based on the Western model were entirely unfamiliar and undesired by the Arab people. Therefore, the Arabs had little political loyalty or affiliation to their foreign rulers, a significant change to Ottoman rule.

With the creation of new nation states must come a national identity that has the capability to unite all citizens. The Arabs suffered an identity crisis following the collapse of Ottomanism and emerging Westernization.

Ottoman decline at the end of WWI combined with European mandates propelled nationalism to the mainstream acting as the unifying ideology of the region. During the Ottoman period the Arabs were well incorporated into the regime however following the Young Turk revolution in 1908 the Arabs were marginalized of their political, social and cultural rights as the new regime aimed to ‘Turkify’ the Empire (Kayali, 2000).

Anti-imperial sentiments and the struggle for independence also became entangled with issues of identity as it made many Arabs look back within their own history to legitimize self-determination. Therefore, Arab nationalism was seen as the solution to remove colonialism and restore dignity to the people of the Middle East (Khan, 2016).

In this way nationalism had a defensive and survivalist character. These imperial frustrations intensified and were at the root of the nationalist movement which was partly ideological but more socioeconomic (Hourani, 2013). These frustrations were felt most deeply by the emerging middle class who were the new indigenous elite.

The urban, modern, Western educated middle class, known as Effendiyya, became the dominant social force in urban culture and politics and it was this group that politicized nationalism (Gershoni and Jankowski, 1997).

The growth of the Effendiyya, rapid urbanization and the weakening of traditional social frameworks also laid the groundwork for the absorption of modern political concepts such as the awareness of an Arab identity, Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism (Eppel 1998).

Problems in Palestine and the growth of Arab nationalism were occurring almost simultaneously and Arab solidarity intensified due to mass Jewish migration during the 1920s. The Balfour Declaration (1917), issued by the British government, promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Though the declaration itself did not specifically mention a Jewish state, it still gave legitimate grounds for Zionism and the international Zionist movement. The Balfour declaration contradicted a previous wartime agreement made between the British and the Sharif of Mecca known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence (1915-1916).

The British promised to authorize a united Arab Kingdom under Hussein in exchange for an Arab revolt against the Ottomans who were allied with the Germans in WWI. The Sharif upheld his part of the deal however the British made other arrangements such as the previously mentioned Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour declaration.

This infuriated many Arabs as the British had no concern for the wants and need of the Arab people yet they were safeguarding the aspirations of the Jewish community. In a letter from Balfour himself to Lord Curzon in 1919 he stated that “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country…The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism” (Balfour Organization Admin, 2014).

Furthermore, the intention was for Israel to become a recognized state “in accordance with the ordinary laws of political evolution” (Balfour Organization Admin, 2014). This developed a resentment and a hatred towards the West as promises were not kept and decisions regarding the future of Palestine were conducted at their own expense.

The Balfour declaration led to the mass immigration of Jews from around the world into Palestine. In 25 years (1920-45), Jews had gone from 11% of the population to 31% (Khan, 2016). Mass influxes of people meant that many natives were forcibly expelled from their homeland. From 1947-1949 900,000 Palestinians from 34 different Arab communities forcibly migrated.

The rising Jewish population supported by the West raised many concerns from Arab leaders. The Arab leaders all viewed Palestine as part of a larger entity, either the Ottoman empire or an Arab state embracing the fertile crescent (Brown, 1985).

The developments in Palestine acted as a stimulus for Arabism and Arab unity was displayed by Arab leaders who took political stances in rejection of Israel and the West. 10 out of 13 summit meetings between Arab leaders was on the issue of Palestine and the drive for Arabism against Israel (Brown, 1985).

The bouts of violence in 1920, 1921 and 1929 were a prelude to the far wider protracted eruption of 1936-1939, the Palestinian Arab revolt on the grounds of fear of the declining Arab population and total Judaization of the country (Morris, 2008).

This presented a new issue for Palestine as it went from a Arab province in the Ottoman empire, to being under a British mandate to then having another community forcibly imposed on them. Problem of territory and legitimacy are still contemporary issues today and Israeli Palestinian tensions continue to exacerbate and show little signs for alleviation in the near future.

In conclusion, all five outcomes listed above had the same watershed moment, WWI. the collapse of the four centuries long empire collapsed after defeat in the war. The British and French mandates established a new colonial era in the region which exposed many to exploitation that they had never experience before.

The creation of new nation states is a complete contrast to previous Ottoman political organization, thus emerged a modern Middle East. Arab nationalism was a far reaching and well received ideology in the region and was enhanced due to colonial exploitation. Lastly, the Palestinian crisis enhanced Arab solidarity and intensified anti-Zionist sentiments.

Therefore, the War was a catalyst for change as it acted as a something that transitioned the Middle East into the modern period. This transition I believe can be credited mostly to Western imperialism in the region. The impact of Western imperialism cannot be underestimated as Arab nationalism, nation states and the Palestinian crisis were all developments under colonial, particularly British, mandates.


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Balfour Organisation Admin, (2014). Perfidious Albion: Britain’s broken promises: the Balfour Declaration (1917) and its impact on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: what are our responsibilities today? | The Balfour Project. [online] Balfourproject.org. Available at: http://www.balfourproject.org/britains-broken-promises-the-balfour-declaration-1917-and-its-impact-on-the-israelipalestinian-conflict/ [Accessed 13 Mar. 2017].

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