Contemporary Politics in the Middle East
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Contemporary Politics in the Middle East

Beverley Milton-Edwards

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eBook - ePub

Contemporary Politics in the Middle East

Beverley Milton-Edwards

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The fourth edition of this dynamic and popular text provides a comprehensive introduction to contemporary politics in the Middle East. Fully revised and updated throughout, it features a new chapter on the Arab Spring and its aftermath, plus a wide range of vibrant case studies, data, questions for class discussion and suggestions for further reading. Purposefully employing a clear thematic structure, the book begins by introducing key concepts and contentious debates before outlining the impact of colonialism, and the rise and relevance of Arab nationalism in the region. Major political issues affecting the Middle East are then explored in full. These include political economy, conflict, political Islam, gender, the regional democracy deficit, and ethnicity and minorities. The book also examines the role of key foreign actors, such as the USA, Russia and the EU, and concludes with an in-depth analysis of the Arab uprisings and their impact in an era of uncertainty.

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Colonial Rule: Shaping the Destiny of a Region


Direct colonial rule in the Middle East in the twentieth century was relatively short-lived, yet its impact on the political systems of the region was immense and persists to the present day. The interest of various European powers, and of the British and the French in particular, can be dated to the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, but it was in the period between the First and Second World Wars that the potent force of the West made its lasting mark. Foreign interest in the region was nothing new and, when the European powers of the time became involved, the shadow of earlier Crusades fell over them, arming them with biblical and religious justification for their thinly veiled economic and strategic enterprises in the area. In addition, European interference in the Middle East was always competitive, with the French, Italians and British struggling with each other to secure their own national interests in the area. The more benign explanation for this colonial enterprise was that Europe was helping the Middle East fulfil its potential after centuries of backwardness and stagnation. This experience was not unique to the Middle East; rather, it was just one other area of the globe alongside Africa and South East Asia that was exploited as the Industrial Age created new demands for profit at its European base. Today, multinational corporations compete for markets in the region, but in those early days it was state power bolstered by emerging market capitalism that advanced into economically unconquered territory. Indeed, ‘today's globalization and yesterday's colonialism’ are perceived as really not so very different by authors such as Henry and Springborg in examining the nature of power and economy in the Middle East (2010, p. xiii).
The advent of European political as well as economic control over the region began in earnest in the 1880s with Britain's occupation of Egypt, and reached an apex after the First World War when Britain and France were awarded mandates and protectorates and the right to redraw boundaries and create new nation-states in the region. The record of colonialism, however, was poor. From 1918 onwards, the Middle East was plunged into political turmoil as the colonial powers struggled to exert their power and influence over their subject populations. A way of life that had evolved over many centuries of Ottoman rule was disrupted, fractured and shattered by the colonial powers keen to expropriate traditions and customs, make their mark and shape the region in the European mould of political, economic and social relations. The process of modernization introduced by the colonial powers resulted in social dislocation, with traditional tribal powers undermined by a new class of urban notables, a decline of the rural in favour of the urban, and the creation of new states such as Iraq and Jordan where boundaries took little account of pre-existing ethnic, religious and tribal configurations. Cities did not become more urban but more ruralized (Hudson, 1977, p. 143), and the state failed to meet the demands of the new urban mass, leading to political mobilization. The end product of all this was a political landscape that was first imposed on the region and then adapted by local elites, creating tensions that it has spent more than a century coming to terms with.
The impact of foreign intervention in the economy, politics and social fabric of the Middle East is subject to some considerable debate, led by scholars such as Charles Issawi and Roger Owen. Issawi (1982) outlined the matter in a plain fashion when he declares that ‘for every single [colonial] country the direct economic costs of empire [in the Middle East] far outweighed the direct economic benefits’ (p. 214). If there were no direct economic benefits to be derived from the colonial exploitation of the Middle East, what then of the legacy the colonizers left behind when they eventually withdrew, or were ousted from the region? Mainstream thinking typically ascribes a colonial legacy that has scarred the region, frustrated political as well as economic development, and that supports the continuing hostility, suspicion and distrust that still disfigures relations between this particular East and West. Yet, while authors like Owen (2004) also acknowledge this legacy, they factor in other dimensions such as the new political space which the creation of the colonially inspired nation-state produced in the Middle East. The secularizing nature of the state is also brought into the equation when measuring the degree to which colonialism was able to transform the pre-existing social, religious, economic and political structures of the region. Building up a black-and-white vision of colonizers and colonized in the Middle East, of economic and political winners and losers, as both Issawi and Owen argue, is highly problematic and does not truly represent the reality of the experience in the region. In this respect, one is reminded of the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian when the local rebels ask ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ The dialogue is worth repeating:

Box 1.1 Monty Python: ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’

The scene is set inside Matthias’ house. The room is dark and the plotters are gathered. Reg and Stan and Francis address their masked comrades.
Reg: They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers’ fathers.
Stan: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers.
Reg: Yes.
Stan: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers.
Reg: All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
Masked Activist: And the sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes … sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I'll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done …
Matthias: And the roads …
Reg: (sharply) Well yes, obviously the roads … the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads …
Another Masked Activist: Irrigation …
Other Masked Voices: Medicine … Education … Health …
Reg: Yes … all right, fair enough …
Activist near Front: And the wine …
Omnes: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That's something we'd really miss if the Romans left, Reg.
Masked Activist at Back: Public baths!
Stan: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now.
Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order … (general nodding) … let's face it, they're the only ones who could in a place like this. (More general murmurs of agreement)
Reg: All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
Peace, yes … shut up!
Reg: (very angry, he's not having a good meeting at all) what!? Oh … (scornfully)
(Monty Python's Life of Brian, 1979, transcript)
When Britain, France, Spain and Italy relinquished their claims and authority in the Middle East, other foreign forces attempted to fill their shoes. From 1945, for example, the USA became an increasingly important influence in the region, heralding an era of what some refer to as ‘neo-imperialism’ or ‘pax Americana’ (Zunes, 2009). Despite the decline of Cold War politics in the Middle East theatre, the American influence in the area persisted in the absence of a Soviet foe. This influence, however, began to dwindle in the wake of bruising interventions in Iraq, the NATO-led imposition in Libya in 2011, and the military showdown in support of local armed and allied forces in conflict theatres such as Syria. The American appetite for the neo-imperial project under the Obama administration waned markedly, leading to its declining influence and in turn the re-assertion of local regional power and that of states such as Putin's Russia (Pollack, 2016).

Merchants and missionaries

European interest in the Middle East was always part of the economic enterprise that started during the Industrial Revolution. As Europe expanded, its populations grew, industrial techniques were refined, transport and trade routes were developed, and it was inevitable that the impact of all this would wash up on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and extend its influence throughout Arabia and Africa. In addition, the economic expansion was accompanied by the growing political, cultural and social interest in what became known as the Orient. As the historian Albert Hourani (1991) points out, ‘behind the merchants and ship-owners of Europe stood the ambassadors and consuls of the great powers, supported in the last resort by the armed might of their governments’ (p. 268). The great powers engaged in eager competition for the markets of the Middle East, and throughout the century the British, Russians, Germans, French and Italians struggled with each other to gain an influence over the Ottoman provinces and their governors. In this respect, as Owen (1981) argues, throughout the nineteenth century, ‘the major force or group of forces behind the restructuring of Middle Eastern economic life can be shown to have come from Europe and from the world economy’ (p. 292). While local or internally driven reforms undertaken by Ottoman or Egyptian rulers played their part in the great economic transformation of the century, the European imprint had been rapidly established and its effects would reverberate over the whole region.
The vanguard nature of the capitalist adventure in the Middle East should not be forgotten, as it predates the more formal intervention of European governments in the region. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, European businesses, investors and merchants had long-established strong economic ties with the region. Their ambition was to turn the markets of the East towards the West, create levels of dependency, establish a local bourgeoisie ready to support the capitalist venture, and encourage the religious and political rulers of the Ottoman Empire to opt into western-based capital markets. The financial adventure in the region paid off in a number of ways, the most important of which was the increasing dependency of the Arab and Turkish markets on Europe. As Ayubi (1995) remarks, ‘The ever-increasing need not only for European expertise but also for European trade and finance eventually led to serious financial and economic difficu...


Zitierstile für Contemporary Politics in the Middle East

APA 6 Citation

Milton-Edwards, B. (2018). Contemporary Politics in the Middle East (4th ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)

Chicago Citation

Milton-Edwards, Beverley. (2018) 2018. Contemporary Politics in the Middle East. 4th ed. Wiley.

Harvard Citation

Milton-Edwards, B. (2018) Contemporary Politics in the Middle East. 4th edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Milton-Edwards, Beverley. Contemporary Politics in the Middle East. 4th ed. Wiley, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.