This post is in response to a post made by Thomas, found here.
Ignorant and poorly designed land divisions do appear to be a trademark of European imperialism in the Middle East. Apart from the territories mentioned in this post, Iraq serves as yet another example of an unfortunate division of land. When Iraq became a state under British mandate in 1920, it brought together an Arab majority that was itself divided between Shiites and Sunnis, a variety of tribal confederations that dominated the countryside, a large Kurdish population and Assyrian Christians in the North. Molding countries in this way is obviously problematic and destined to fail, as it is near impossible to create a centralized government that would be accepted by all the people of the country. Thus, it is unsurprising that an uprising broke out in Iraq that very year and that the conflict remained unresolved ever since, with European powers struggling to maintain stability in the area in order to protect the interests that originally attracted their attention (for more information on European involvement in Iraq in recent years, read here).
Monday, May 25, 2009
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Western Europe’s support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq throughout the 1980s and abrupt shift in attitude in 1990 provides much insight into European values in the region. As discussed in a previous post, Western Europe enjoyed very close relations with Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, despite Hussein’s oppressive and brutal regime. For the European powers, the real threat in the region was not Iraq but Iran, as the powers feared that the Islamic radicalism and anti-US sentiment bred by the Iranian Revolution might spread to other parts of the region and destabilize the control of incredibly vast supplies of oil held by pro-Western regimes (for more on Iranian history, read this post). Thus, Western Europe chose to ignore the fact that Hussein’s government was responsible for the relocation of 250,000 Kurds or for the gassing of Iranian soldiers and ethnic minorities in hopes that their financial support might help contain the menace of radical Islam. It is unsurprising that Western Europe continued its support of Iraq during the extremely violent Iran-Iraq War, with multiple European nations providing financial and military assistance. However, after war’s end in 1988, when the revolutionary impulse within Iran had moderated and the nation’s calls for the establishment of an Islamic order were largely abandoned, Europe began to open its doors to the country, restoring diplomatic relations with Tehran and sending firms to aid in the post-war rebuilding process. Two years later, Western Europe would label a new enemy in the Middle East, their one-time friend Iraq, whose intention to annex Kuwait upset European interests in the region (for more on Kuwait, see this post). In response to Iraq’s announcement of the annexation of Kuwait, Britain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands committed forces to Operation Desert Shield, a U.S. led operation designed to combat and reverse Iraqi aggression. This rapid reversal of European alliances during the 1980s underlines the darker side of Western Europe’s commitment to their economic interests in the region, a commitment that is not endangered by violations of human rights but rather only by the prospect of an anti-Western government.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Following Saddam Hussein’s rise to power under al-Bakr in 1968, the European powers shared a very intriguing relationship with Iraq that broke both with standard Cold War diplomacy and with the notion of British dominance in Middle Eastern affairs. While Iraq maintained its already well-established ties to the Soviet Union during the period between 1968 and 1988 and officially proclaimed a pro-Soviet, anti-US position, it gradually opened its doors to Europe. However, unlike the patterns of European involvement in other nations of the Middle East, Britain did not become the dominant trading partner, although British firms were consulted numerous times for technical expertise. In Iraq, it was the French who won the rights to a variety of construction projects under the new regime, as well as a contract to supply Mirage fighter aircraft vessels and tanks. Italy also became a trading partner with Iraq, providing the regime with sophisticated naval vessels and later several billions dollars to aid Iraq’s war effort against Iran. Throughout all this, the Soviet Union did supply the bulk of Iraqi military purchases in a relationship characteristic of Cold War relations between the Soviets and their client states. Yet it is important to note that, while Iraq was officially aligned with the Soviet Union in the years following 1968, the European powers were able to manipulate the country’s economic stance in their favor, creating meaningful and profitable relations that transcended Cold War politics.
Despite widespread opposition to European intervention in the larger Middle Eastern states (as discussed in this post), not all Middle Easterners viewed the West as an enemy. In the Gulf principalities – Bahrain, Qatar and the seven states that would later become the United Arab Emirates – Britain’s announcement in 1968 that it would withdraw from all its bases east of Suez was met not with enthusiasm but with uneasy by both the ruling class and the general population. To these small nations, the British were regarded as the guardians of their territories; without British protection, the principalities believed that they would quickly fall prey to imperial claims of regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thus, British influence was accepted and even welcomed by the three principalities for what turned out to be good reason, as after Britain’s 1968 decision Iran claimed sovereignty over Bahrain. However, although Britain retreated from its military bases, it did not abandon its interests in the region. Following Iran’s declaration, the British presided over a series of complicated and often heated negotiations that ultimately preserved the separate identity of the Gulf states. In so doing, the British not only laid the ground for the formal independence of Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE in 1971 but also secured three valuable trading partners for years to come.
While history has proven that European intervention – especially economic – in the Middle East has often come at the expense of native populations (as emphasized ealier in a post concerning Lebanon and Palestine), Kuwait highlights how this intervention is not always a destructive and tyrannical force. During the 1920s and 1930s, Kuwait’s economy, which had for centuries depended on shipbuilding and pearling, reached the verge of collapse; thanks to the worldwide depression and the introduction of the cultured pearl, Kuwait’s future looked bleak. However when Europe took interest in the country’s potential role as oil exporter, the tables quickly turned. European intervention came at the hands of British Petroleum, which signed an agreement with ruler Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah in 1934 authorizing the company to become owners in a concession known as the Kuwait Oil Company. Huge reserves of oil were discovered soon thereafter and commercial exports were underway by 1946. By 1953, oil revenues were $169 million and continued to rise throughout the following decades, reaching $21.7 billion after the price increases of the early 1970s. Thus, thanks to European economic intervention, Kuwait was transformed from a backward pearling state to a financial powerhouse capable of providing citizens with an existence free from taxes and with all the benefits of free education, health care, transportation and housing.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
European relations with the Middle East have historically revolved around economic interest, a reality that held true following the collapse of European imperialism in the region, as highlighted by actions taken by Europe following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The war was a conflict between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, both of which sought to recapture land lost in the Six-Day War. Since its creation, the main powers of Western Europe had supported Israel as their principal ally in the region. Being as Israel fought defensively in 1973 against nations supported by the Soviet Union, one would expect that Western Europe would not hesitate in fully supporting its longtime friend. While this was indeed the case throughout the course of the hostilities, Western Europe’s position quickly changed following the war as a result of action taken by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). After organized fighting on all fronts ended in late October, Israel continued to occupy Egyptian territory on the west side of the Suez Canal. This action in turn angered many in the Arab world and, as a result, the Arab countries of OPEC designed and imposed an embargo on all oil shipment to the Netherlands, as Rotterdam was the main port of entry for oil destined for Western European nations. The announcement brought about panic and confusion throughout Europe, where Saudi Arabian oil alone accounted for 21.6% of required oil in 1972. Amidst the chaos, the European Economic Community quickly caved to the demands of the Arab nations, releasing statements affirming Palestinian rights and pressuring Israel to retreat back to its 1967 borders. Europe’s quick shift in stance toward Israel reflects how fully European foreign policy in the Middle East is dictated by economic interests – in a time of crisis, the European powers did not think twice before turning on a state they had helped create in favor of protecting their precious oil supply.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 is a prime example of European reluctance to abandon imperial interests in the Middle East. After the Revolution of 1952 in which a young group of nationalistic and anti-colonialist Egyptian military officers seized control of Egypt in a coup, the British agreed to sign a treaty guaranteeing the withdrawal of British troops from the Suez Canal. The British withdrew on schedule in April of 1956 and for a few months the issue seemed to be resolved. However, Egypt’s unwillingness to conform its foreign and domestic policies to fit the Cold War interests of the Western powers quickly revived the conflict between Britain and Egypt’s Revolutionary Command Council under Nasser. In the early 1950s, the United States sought to create a network of alliances in the Middle East that would serve as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. The Baghdad Pact was the expression of this goal, relying on British influence in the region to sway the rulers and offering U.S. military and economic aid to countries that agreed to ally themselves with the West. While Egypt was in desperate need of the promised aid, Nasser declared that the pact was an extension of imperialism and therefore refused to join. Instead, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for the military equipment he desired. The resulting Czech arms deal not only addressed Egypt’s military needs, it also functioned as a successful assertion of Egyptian independence from Anglo-U.S. influence. Egypt’s defiance of Western interests in turn led the U.S. and British governments to withdraw a loan offer designed to help Egypt develop its agricultural base through the construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile. In order to fund the project, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, which, though built with Egyptian labor, was operated by a French company and had long supported the British Empire. The nationalization of the Suez Canal was celebrated throughout Egypt, as the canal had long stood as a symbol of Western exploitation – the British, on the other hand, did not share in the excitement. Determined to maintain imperial control in the region, the British refused to accept Nasser’s offer to pay compensation to the Suez Canal Company and instead resorted to warfare. In October of 1956, Britain, with the help of France and Israel, invaded Egypt with the goal of overthrowing Nasser and the threat he posed to European imperial interests. Though the Egyptian Army was no match for the aggressors, the attack was ultimately unsuccessful, as it faced both American and Soviet criticism. As a result, Nasser emerged from the conflict as an Egyptian and Pan-Arab hero who had defeated the imperial powers while Britain and France reinforced their negative image in the region. The Suez Crisis, therefore, highlights both the stubborn commitment of European powers to imperial goals as well as the nationalistic and anti-Western sentiment fostered in the execution of these aims.