Historical Perspective of the Middle East

By Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan

In the wake of the ongoing uprising in the Middle, a situation has arisen where the foreign powers are trying to find excuses to once again get into the region. The situation is similar to what the region witnessed during the world war-I.  This is a reality that owing to the strategic and economic significance of the region, Middle East has been the hub of the global conspiracies. Britain and France have maintained their influence on this historical region from late 19th century to 1970s. United States started its influence in the region since 1960s. Former Soviet Union however, maintained its regional affiliation through both covert and overt activities. Today, though US still maintain a dominant role in the regional politics, however, Arab monarchs have established substantial relationship with China, Russia, India and European Union. The region still remains a source of substantial reserves of hydrocarbons. It is presumed that, for every three barrels of oil in the world, two are in the Middle East and one in rest of the world.

Geographically West Asia; the region is popularly known as the Middle East. The region  was once known as the Near East, consisting of the countries, once part of the Ottoman Empire, prior to world War-I. During its prolonged occupation, Asia has been curved up by the colonial powers of Europe who designated its areas on the basis of their distance from London and Paris. Geographically, the areas farthest away from Europe began to be called as the Far East and the land situated between Far East and Europe (Eastern shores of Mediterranean) used to be known as the Near East. During the World War-II, an Anglo-Americans Middle East Supply Centre was established for this region, thus formally renaming it, as Middle East. The term has been precisely defined by the document of the British Foreign Office that listed about twenty one (21) countries, mostly Arabic-speaking countries of Asia, North Africa and other countries up to Iran. The region is located in South Western Asia and North Eastern Africa, where Asia, Africa and Europe converge.

In its history, Middle East has never been a geographic expression. Its economic and at time political recognition has been more prominent. Political map of the region has always been coined in West as per their perceived uses and abuses. In the 20th century, the uses remained strategic whereas abuses were in the form of foreign interventions. In 21st century the relevant criteria can be termed as “oil and turmoil”. The Middle East covers an area of about 7.3 million square kilometres. The population is about 200 million and approximately half of the population consists of Arabs or Arabic speaking people. The two other largest groups are the Turks and Iranians. There are also substantial number of Jews in Israel and some other minority groups.

As a crossroads of ideas and men, Middle Eastern recorded history is older and longer than any other part of the world. Middle East is the centre from where the most highly developed of all religious systems in the world; the Islam, the Christianity, and Judaism have arisen. In the early period, three major ethnic groups inhabited the modern Middle East; the Semitic, Aryans and Caucasian. The region is proud of being a founder of hoary world cities, foremost governments and earliest religious and ethical systems. Islam and the Arabs constitute a great part of the history of the Middle East. Last Messenger of Allah, Muhammad Peace Be upon Him, an inspired statesman, changed the history and destiny of Arabia and of much of the world. During the vast Muslim rule, Middle Eastern territory stretched from Spain in the West to the islands of Indonesia in the Pacific Ocean. Under the successive Muslim caliphs/ rulers, the Muslim Empire had expanded from the Arabian Peninsula to cover all of North Africa, Mesopotamia and Central Asia in a very brief period. In the course of its history, Middle East has undergone many fundamental changes, but it has maintained its heritage and primitive traditions. Political history of the Middle East is uneven. It has many ups and downs. Unlike the current number of states, the region remained as a single political unit, ruling even most parts of Asia and Europe.

From 14th century to the first half of the 20th century, Ottoman Turks ruled this region with absolute power. In 1914, Turkey entered WW-I on the side of the Central Powers and through a revolt by the Hashemite family (Sheriff Hussain-rulers of Hijaz), the British, Australians and French through a long and bloody battle in the Gallipoli peninsula defeated the Ottoman Empire, the last empire of the Muslims. The Middle East was then carved up by Britain and France into nation states, mandates and protectorates, all of which eventually became independent, following the World War II.

Through the Sykes-Picot agreement-1916, concluded between Britain and French, Middle East was portioned into the areas of influence of these two countries. Most of Palestine was kept under international control for the subsequent creation of the Zionist state of Israel. Britain did not honour to most of the promises, made by Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Hussayan, the Governor of Hijaz in 1915. In 1917, through the Balfour Declaration; indeed, a classified statement of the British Government, for the formal and unwavering support for creation of Israel; the Jewish homeland. It was made in  a letter from Arthur James Belfour (British Foreign Secretary)  to the Lord Rothschild; a leader of the British community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation. The document (letter) is kept at the British Library.

In the history of Middle East, most of political struggles have been revolving around two water ways; the Suez Canal and the Turkish Straits. In 19th century, world major powers developed their rivalry for the control of Turkish straits, which continued until Isthmus of Suez was pierced by a canal. The Turkish Straits are composed of the Bosporus in the north east, the Dardanelles in the South West, and the sea of Marmora between. The Suez Canal though much younger, yet strategically matched the Turkish Straits on international level. Militarily these water ways have always been of international significance. These passages remained centre of military planning of both world wars.  The modern-day Middle East, lying near the juncture of Europe, Asia, and Africa, has traditionally acted as a commercial, cultural, and military route between the worlds of East and West.

The world’s most sacred shrines and sites, particularly in Palestine, which is known as “the Holy Land.”, are located in the Middle East.  Various factions have conflicted on issues of access and possession of  these  sacred sites as the city of Jerusalem, which is revered by all three religions. To have a shortest route from Europe to Asia, in 1869, the French constructed a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, thus linking two seas; the Mediterranean and the Red. As the Industrial Revolution increased demands for markets and commodities, the 19th-century Europe grew ever more eager for a piece of the Arab world. In 1878, Britain assumed the administration of the island of Cyprus to use it as a naval base to guard the Turkish Straits and the Suez Canal, both of which were now vital to its access to India, the East Indies, and China. Accordingly, in 1883, British forces occupied the Nile Valley to crush ongoing Arab rebellions. Meanwhile, France established a protectorate over Tunisia, thereby creating its own defensive base directly across the Mediterranean Sea from France.

The Middle East besides being the cradle of civilization has also been a symbol of religious unity between Islam and Christianity. The Suez Canal in Egypt and the strait of Bab al Mandeb between Yemen and Djibouti are vital to sea trade between Europe and Asia. Any threat to security within the region could disrupt shipping between Europe and Asia, providing further pretext to US and Western to continue domination of the region politically and militarily.

With the discovery and production of oil, the geopolitics of the region has undergone tremendous changes.   Oil being the energy and motive power at domestic as well as in industries and transportation level has made the region most significant. Towards the beginning of 20th century, Middle East became significant as oil producing as well as an area of great oil reserves. By 1960, the region became the major single supplier of oil in international market. Major regional oil producer countries have been; Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. According to a report the desert sands of Middle East hold two of every three barrels of oil in the world. As per some of the estimates, Iraq’s reserves alone are equal, to those of Russia, the United States, China and Mexico combined. Oil experts say that many barrels of oil is oozing through Iraq’s geology, which has the second largest proven reserves of oil on the planet, only next to Saudi Arabia.

Today the Middle East is reported to hold over 900 billion barrels of crude oil reserves. This is about 67 percent of the total oil reserves in the world. 99 percent of these are located in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf and the remaining one percent in Egypt. Owing to increase in the proven oil reserves, Middle East and North Africa are likely to control 83% oil reserves of the world by year 2020. The industrialized World is mainly dependent on the Persian Gulf States for their supply of oil. Oil is the principal factors for the increasing geo-economic importance of the region in international affairs. Owing the wealth of the this black gold, all major industrial countries like; US, China, India, EU and even Russia are eying on the political landscape of region. If the situation is not handled by the regional countries, OIC or the Arab League, Middle East would again become the hub of global conflict in the days to come.

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