The European powers had a long history of attempts to secure an imperial stake in the Middle East. Before 1914 the region was still poverty stricken. But by 1914 the first discoveries of petroleum had been made; today the Middle East contains the richest nations in the world.
The whole area was not to share in this new wealth. The major fields were found in southwestern Persia, in the river valleys of Iraq, and along the Persian Gulf. These new-found riches heightened the interest of the European powers, and in the 1930s, as American experts began to worry about the depletion of oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere, American business entered the area to compete with well-established French and British interests.
Although the Westerners tried to maintain sufficient control of the Middle East to ensure the orderly exploitation of oil, they also tried to avoid the cruder sort of political imperialism. After World War I the Arab territories of the old Ottoman Empire were administered as Western mandates, not annexed as Western colonies. The French had received the mandates for Syria and for Syria’s half-Christian neighbor, Lebanon.
The British, who already held a protectorate over Egypt, were given the mandates for Palestine and Iraq. The only major Arab state enjoying anything like full independence was Saudi Arabia. It was an essentially medieval state, the personal creation of a tribal chieftain, Ibn Saud (1880-1953). The postwar mandates, which brought so much of the Arab world under imperial control, frustrated the aspirations of Arab nationalists. In these nationalist movements the usual ingredients—Western education, hatred of Westerners, desire to emulate Western technology—were mixed with adherence to Islam and a feeling of a common Arab identity.
Arab nationalism was already focused on the special problem of Palestine, for by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 the British had promised to open this largely Arab-populated territory as a “national home for the Jewish people.” The immigration of Jews into Palestine, especially after the Nazis took power in Germany, raised their proportion of the population from about 10 percent to about 30 percent and caused repeated clashes between Arabs and Jews.
Caught between Jewish nationalism (or Zionism) and Arab nationalism, the British tried in vain to placate both sides. On the eve of World War II, the British restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine and Jewish purchases of Arab lands in the mandate. The seeds were thus sown for the acute Palestine problem of the postwar period.
The French made few concessions to Arab nationalism, infuriating the Syrians by bombarding their capital of Damascus while quelling an insurrection in 1925 and 1926. A decade later the expectations aroused by the Popular Front’s willingness to grant at least some independence to Syria and Lebanon were nullified when the French parliament rejected the draft treaties, intensifying the Arab sense of betrayal. Soon nationalist leaders in Algeria and later in Tunisia were discussing with the Arabs of Syria and Lebanon how to make common cause against the French.
The British attempted a more conciliatory policy by granting some of their dependencies nominal independence. In Egypt nationalist agitation after World War I led Britain to proclaim that country an independent monarchy under King Fuad I (1868-1936). The British, however, still retained the right to station troops there.
They also insisted that Westerners resident there be under the jurisdiction not of regular Egyptian courts but of mixed courts, on which Western judges outnumbered Eygptians. In 1936 an Anglo-Egyptian agreement provided for the eventual end of the mixed courts and the eventual withdrawal of British troops from the country, except along the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, Egypt continued to be closely allied with Britain.
Turkey, too, was undergoing a political renaissance. World War I reduced its territory to a cohesive national unit, the largely Turkish-populated Anatolia. To defend this core against further losses to the Greeks and to the victorious Allies, the Turks launched an ardent nationalist revival, dramatically extending the reforms begun by the Young Turks before 1914. The leader of this new political revolution was the gifted army officer Mustafa Kemal, who drove the Greeks from Anatolia and negotiated more favorable terms with the Allies at Lausanne in 1923. Under his guidance, the republic of Turkey was proclaimed in 1922, with a constitution modeled on Western parliamentary lines, though with a one-party system.
Kemal also imposed rapid, wholesale, and sometimes ruthless measures of Westernization. Women received the vote, began to serve as deputies in the parliament, and were, at least in theory, emancipated from Muslim restraints, though even Kemal did not dare to sponsor legislation banning the wearing of the veil in public. He did, however, require men to wear Western garb.
The sacred law of Islam was replaced by a European law code; polygamy was banned and civil marriage required; the Western calendar was introduced; and the building of new mosques and repair of old ones were discouraged. The Turkish language was reformed by the introduction of a Western alphabet—a measure of major importance, for only a fraction of the Turkish people had ever been able to master the old Ottoman Turkish, with its heavy content of Persian and Arabic words and its difficult Arabic script.
All Turks were now required to take surnames in the Western manner, and Kemal himself took that of “Atatiirk” (Father of the Turks). At his death in 1938 Atatiirk had revolutionized his country. Moreover, he had established its independence of the West, as the neutrality of Turkey during World War II was soon to demonstrate.
The example of Turkey was followed by the other traditionally independent major state of the Middle East—Iran (Persia). The Iranian revolution began in 1905-1906 in response to imperialist encroachments by Britain and Russia. The political structure inherited from the Middle Ages was changed into a limited monarchy with an elected parliament.
This revolution proved to be abortive, however. The country, with its powerful, wealthy landlords, its peasants, and its tribes, did not adapt itself readily to modern Western political institutions. The shah was unwilling to give up his traditional powers, and the British and Russians were unwilling to give up their spheres of influence. During World War I, therefore, they both stationed troops in an ostensibly neutral Persia.
The Russian Revolution eased the czarist threat to Persian sovereignty, and at the end of the war Persian nationalists forced their government to reject a British attempt to negotiate a treaty that would have made the country a virtual British protectorate. The leader of the nationalists was Reza Khan (1878-1944), an able army officer of little education who deeply distrusted the Russians.
He used his military successes to become, first, minister of war and then, in 1923, prime minister. Thereafter he tried to manipulate the Majles, or parliament, to his purposes, and he won the support of the army and the cabinet. After conferring with the clergy in the holy city of Qum, the forces of Islam also fell into line behind him. In 1925 the Majles deposed the Qajar dynasty and proclaimed Reza to be Reza Shah Pahlavi.
Reza Shah lacked familiarity with the West, and his erratic attempts to modernize his isolated country often failed. He ruled in increasingly arbitrary fashion, also demonstrating mounting sympathy for the Nazis. In 1941, after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the British and Soviets sent troops into Iran and forced Reza Shah’s abdication in order to secure the important trans-Iranian supply route to the Soviet Union.
The fate of Reza Shah was a reminder that some of the seemingly sovereign states of the non-Western world were not yet strong enough to maintain their independence against great powers. By World War II imperial ties had been loosened but by no means severed or dissolved; the full revolution against imperialism was yet to come.