Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Europe and the Arab Countries between the Wars

Steve Muhlberger

The colonial gains in the Middle East made by France and Britain after the First World War were very fragile.   Nonetheless.  France and Britian’s presence in Arab countries  had a big impact.  In other words, the area was in a ferment.

Political arrangements of Arab-speaking countries:.

The former Ottoman Arab provinces had been ere divided up between Britain and France under the supposed suppervision of the League of Nations.  Their rule was considered to be a "mandate."  This was an acknowledgement of principle of “self-determination of peoples,.” because independence meant to be the goal of the mandate.

Britain’s mandates:  1. southern Syria, now becoming known as “Palestine,” which was quickly divided into the mandated territories of Palestine and Transjordan.  2. the mandate of Iraq (formerly known in Europe by its ancient name of Mesopotamia).

French mandates:  Syria and Lebanon.  Actually much more complicated than this—Syria was made up of a number of separate territories which were reorganized a number of times.  Lebanon given a special separate status:  it had been an autonomous, mostly Christian region, under a loose French supervision since the 1860s.  Now a bigger Lebanon was created, including more Muslims, to make the area around Beirut a more sustainable separate state, in which French influence would be stronger.

Arabian peninsula:   Some of this, too, had been under Ottoman control, but Ottoman rule had been weak, and much of it under no outside control.  Before the war, there had been many small emirates, whose rulers were in much the same political situation as Arabian leaders before Muhammed—balancing interests of the settled and nomadic populations.  On the coast,  there were British protectorates (acquired in the past to secure the route to India); in the interior, effective independence, formal subservience to Turks,  warfare between emirs.  After the war, there was the eventual coalescence of two independent states, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but British influence remained dominant.

All  these colonial governments were insecure.  Revolts in Morocco, Libya, Egypt before 1922, Syria, Iraq.   The instability of  the formerly Ottoman Middle East was particularly troublesome.  Reasons

During the war the desire to use Arab nationalism against the Turks led the British to support Arab leaders, with either short term goals or long-term, unrealistic imperial goals in mind.  In fact, two contractory strategies.  The India Office supported Ibn Saud, the ruler of the Nejd region of NE Arabia; the Foreign Office supported the family of the Sherif of Mecca, Hussein.  They hoped he would be a symbolic “Islamic pope” whom the British could use to dominate the area.

The Ibn Saud strategy inititally failed when he proved unable to control his own home area.  But the success of the Husseini family under Feisal and Ali ibn Hussein proved to be almost as much trouble for Britain.  Allied success at one point put Feisal in the position of being king of Syria and potentially king of the whole Middle East, but to satisfy the French, the British had to abandon him.  Eventually the family was paid off by making Abdullah ibn Hussein emir of Transjordan and Feisal king of Iraq.  But the whole area was disturbed by the process and nationalists—a small but influential group in the various cities of Palestine, Syria, and Iraq -- were unhappy with the settlement.

Modern military technology made possible at least temporary control of this whole area.  Machine guns, armored cars, airplanes made it impossible for nomads or mountaineers to stand up against even the small armies that France and Britain could devote to those areas.  (The first use of poison gas bombs anywhere was by the British in Iraq.)

It is no accident that the boundaries of the 1920s in the Middle East are the boundaries of today.  Military technology had finally eliminated the possibility of nomadic resistance to central authority.  Even the establishment of Saudi Arabia—which looks in many ways like the rise of an old-style Middle East empire beginning with nomad troops—was ultimately successful because Ibn Saud was able to use armored cars and machine guns in a devastating manner.

So if there was always trouble in the Middle East, there was also a great increase in Western European influence.  The military impact was not the end of European influence or even its most important aspect.  Economic domination was far most important.

Why did Britain and France want these areas?

We don’t think of the 20s and 30s as a period of colonization and settlement.  But at that time Europe was full of peasants—or at least countrypeople—and for many of them, land of their own was unattainable.  The government of France in particular, but also the government of Italy, could make political hay out of offering land and “a red-roofed farmhouse” in North Africa to potential immigrants.  Settlement was seen as the best way to secure the colonies.  Algeria was of course the most obvious example of this, but settlement took place in Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya, too, and of course there is the special case of Palestine (in the next lecture).

Even though the red-roofed farmhouse was an important symbol of colonial enterprise, most Europeans, once they got to North Africa or Palestine did not stay on the land very long.  The real opportunities were not on the family farm.  Rather, they were in ownership of large mechanized estates—beyond the means of most—or in the cities.  Europeans in the Arab countries quickly gravitated to those areas where they had a distinct advantage:  government employment, technical fields (mechanics), or business (even at the shopkeeper level).

The very presence of the colonists—or even of the colonial powers in areas w/o European settlement—was transforming the various Arab societies into more urban, more commercial, more modern societies.

This modernization was rapid, incomplete, and very tumultuous.  Many parts of the Middle East had been, before the war, underpopulated economic backwaters.   The presence of European rulers and interests, the changing of the rules of government in commerce to mesh with the European system, accelerated the pace of life.  (One example of rule change:  central registration of land to individuals, instead of ownership regulated by the local community, which made possible more accurate taxation and absentee ownership and investment of distant capital in land.)

There were tremendous population increases.  Cause? Uncertain. Effect:  tremendous absolute growth and land shortages, resulting in  migration to the city.

In this period, there was also the growth of a new indigenous elite:  Old landowning families often imitated Europeans, adopting both the legal and commercial customs of the occupiers, and the way of life.  (Their advantages in registering land, as go-betweens with colonial government.)  Also, those who got technical or European education quickly began to imitate the European way of life.

Example:  Cairo, which long had been a center for the absorption of Western influences (for example, newspapers), became the film center of the Arab world.  There were cinemas before 1914; the first Egyptian film Zaynab (from the first Egyptian novel) was made in 1925; the first Egyptian talkie was made in 1932.  (First feature movie anywhere was made about 1908; the first talkies 1925-28).  Soon Egyptian films shown all over the Arab world—meaning in cities all over the Arab world.

As the result of these economic changes,  the leading groups in the Arab countries tended to be very impressed by Western European culture.  Some turned to nationalism, a nationalism that was secular in orientation).  Women’s education began to improve and the loosening of restrictions on them began to take place in advanced urban areas.

An Islamic orientation toward politics  was fairly rare.  Nationalists were reasonably loyal to Islam as their culture, but they did not take their lead from religious leaders.  Religious leaders, in the Arab world as in Turkey, were symbols of backwardness.

The big exception:  Saudi Arabia, where Ibn Saud had created his state with the active help of the Ikhwan, who were followers of the Wahhabi ideal of a purified Islam.   They wished to tame the anarchic bedouin spirit and use it as a weapon of Holy War against the corrupt customs of the towns of Arabia.  Ibn Saud used them then suppressed them, but still thought of his rule as justified by his support of a puritanical creed.  Ibn Saud used both the armored car and religious symbolism.  But at this stage, only an isolated place like Saudi Arabia could make this combination work—it was not seriously tempted by Western technology or culture.

So the interwar period was a turbulent time for the Arab countries.

First, there was an uprooting of the population, both physically and culturally.
Second, there was a polarization of society.  Economic pressure on rural society, the migration to the cities created many people who were poor and cut off from their former social networks.  Conflict within Arab society between new rich and new poor resulted..
Third, nationalist agitation grew.  New elites in the cities struggled with the occupiers even as they learned from them.

In some places, there was just the beginning of an effective resistance.  But elsewhere the struggle was considerable.

In Egypt—nationalists fought against both the royal government and British domination—successfully enough to get Egypt recognized as a member of the League of Nations.   In 1927, Iraq obtained British recognition of independence and a promise of League membership in 4 years time (and the British actually followed through).  In 1928, Transjordan independent (though like Egypt and Iraq, it was still dependent on the British, who kept military bases at strategic points in all these places).
Syria and Lebanon signed treaties with France in 1936 which were to lead to eventual independence (though they were not ratified in France).

Fragility of the colonial hold can beseen in these agreements; the developments are reminiscent of the agitation in India at the same time.

A final factor comes into the picture at this time:  Oil.

In the years before WWI, petroleum became recognized as a strategic resource, especially for naval uses.  The post-WWI world saw an explosion in the use of internal combustion engines for cars and planes.  This was a spur to exploration, especially since most of the world’s known oil was in a single country—USA.   Soon it was found in Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and finally in Saudi Arabia.
During the interwar period, Middle East oil was not all that important.  The Great Depression and vast reserves in Texas kept supplies high and prices low.  The competition for the Saudi Arabia concession half-hearted, and for small amounts.  A British diplomat did not hesitate to advise King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia to take a higher American offer for the exploration and development rights, rather than a lower British offer.  He, like many other people, thought there was no oil in Saudi Arabia, and that the £50000 offered was “money for nothing.”

World War II had a big effect here, as in India.

Thus, the Arab Middle East became a volatile hot spot in the post-World War II era.  Nationalism and oil alone would have guaranteed this.  But there was one more ingredient that focused the attention:  the issue of Palestine.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.