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READ: The Middle East and the End of Empire

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

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Second read: key ideas and understanding content

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Where does the term “Middle East” come from? What countries does the region include?
  2. What was the Sykes-Picot Agreement?
  3. Why was the Suez Canal important?
  4. What did Gamal Nasser do to provoke invasion by the British, French, and Israelis? How was the invasion stopped?
  5. What policy did Mohammad Mossadegh implement in Iran? Why did he take these actions and what was the result?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Nasser and Mossadegh both nationalized important resources in their countries. They both challenged British economic imperialism. But their efforts had two very different outcomes. What do you think explains these two different outcomes?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Middle East and the End of Empire

Photo of three Middle Eastern leaders from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt smiling with their hands joined together in the air.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
During the Cold War, Middle Eastern leaders sought to cast off the burden of old European colonialism. But they had to account for a Cold War between two new imperial superpowers.

Middle from where?

What are the first words that come to mind when you hear the term "the Middle East"? Your answer probably depends on where you live. For a lot of Americans, "conflict," "oil," and "Islam" might come to mind. Many Americans think that Middle Eastern conflicts are inevitable and based on ancient religious disputes. But this is a misconception. The idea that conflict is inherent to the Middle East might be rooted in the fact that the United States has fought a series of seemingly unending wars in the region for the last two decades. Those wars, like earlier conflicts in the twentieth century, have a lot to do with oil. But they also have a lot to do with colonialism. What does colonialism have to do with the Middle East? The term "the Middle East" is itself a British colonial invention. It takes a European point of view, geographically speaking. Along with the "Near" and "Far East," British imperialists coined the term in the nineteenth century. During the Second World War, the American military adopted and popularized the term. But no one can seem to agree on where the Middle East is. Some argue it includes everything between Egypt and India. Others say that North Africa and Central Asia are included. No matter where you draw its borders, it's a contested term. Speaking of drawing lines, let's take a look at World War I, European colonialism, and how the modern Middle East came to be.

Drawing lines on a map

By 1914, the Ottoman Sultans ruled a crumbling empire. For 600 years, the Ottoman Empire dominated much of what we now call the Middle East. Their influence shaped the cultural, political, and religious character of a vast region from Morocco to Iraq and from Egypt to Eastern Europe. But beginning in the nineteenth century, the empire began to decline, and many of its territories fell to European control. During the First World War, the Ottomans sided with the Central Powers against Britain and France. In 1916, British and French diplomats signed a secret treaty called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided Ottoman territories into European spheres of influence. Basically, British and French diplomats got together in a room and drew lines on a map to determine which of them would control what Ottoman territories. At the same time, other British diplomats were meeting with Britain's Arab allies and promising them the same territories, but they didn't keep this promise. After World War I, British and French imperialists divided the Ottoman territories between them. The communities living in many of these territories would not gain independence until after World War II. The lines drawn by secret treaties like the Sykes-Picot agreement helped set the borders of many modern Middle Eastern nation-states. But the borders drawn by Europeans reflected European priorities. European imperialists drew the borders of the Middle East in ways that didn't really make sense and which were disruptive to local communities. Some ethnic groups, like the Kurds, watched as their territory and populations were divided between several different nation-states. Some, like the Palestinians, didn't get a nation-state at all. Direct European control faded in the 1950s, but informal colonialism continued to shape regional politics. Soon, American and Soviet influence arrived as both superpowers sought to gain allies in their Cold War struggle against each other. Let's explore the connections between decolonization and the Cold War by looking at the two most populous Middle Eastern nations: Egypt and Iran.
Map of the globe with countries that make up the Middle East highlighted in green. This map includes North Africa, which is often excluded.
There are many different ideas about what counts as the Middle East, and many people exclude North Africa, as shown on the map on the left. By TownDown, CC BY-SA 3.0. The Middle East overlaps considerably with former Ottoman territories, as shown on the map on the right. By Chamboz, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Map of the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East into four territories. Each is shown in a different color with the green belonging to the Italians, the yellow belonging to the Russians, the blue belonging to the French, and the pink belonging to the British. Three areas are left uncolored and marked with the letters A, B, or C to signify that they are independent Arab states.
The Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Middle East between the French, British, Italians, and Russians. By Paolo Porsia, CC BY-SA 2.0. That legend is a little hard to read, but it’s pretty interesting, so here is a closer look.
Zoom to previous map legend.

Egypt’s canal

In the late nineteenth century, a new canal in Egypt reshaped global networks. Before 1869, if Europeans wanted to sail to the Indian Ocean, they had to travel about 12,000 miles around Africa. The Suez Canal cut that trip in half. This thin strip of water, and the events that surrounded it, captures a wide array of trends in the modern Middle East. Colonialism, resistance, regional conflicts, and global Cold War confrontations all swirl in the waters of the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal is in Egypt, but it was built by a private company—jointly owned by French investors and Egyptian leaders. When Egypt ran into money problems, the government sold off its shares to the British government. In effect, this meant that a British and French company now owned an incredibly important and profitable canal that cut 120 miles through Egypt. Control of the canal eventually led to a British occupation of Egypt and decades of colonial control. Even after Egypt gained independence in 1922, the Suez Canal Company continued to own and profit from the canal. Informal colonialism ensured that countries like Egypt remained dependent on European nations through treaties, concessions, protectorate or mandate status1, or economic influence. In 1956, the Suez Crisis collided spectacularly with the Cold War as one Egyptian leader sought to end Egypt's dependence on Europeans. In 1956, a charismatic Egyptian leader named Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the canal and nationalized it—placing the canal and its profits under Egyptian control. In response, Britain, France and Israel invaded. The crisis escalated until the United States and the Soviet Union intervened. In a display of how much global power had shifted away from European empires, pressure from the two superpowers forced Britain and France to back down. When President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the Egyptian people—and Arab people in many nations—celebrated him as an anti-colonial hero. They gave him credit for defeating the British, French, and Israeli armies. But American and Soviet intervention had been the deciding factor. The face of global power had shifted dramatically. Leaders like Nasser now had to navigate new relationships with the superpowers.
Photo of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaking to one another on a set of brick stairs.
Gamal Abdel Nasser with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister, at the Bandung Conference. The Bandung Conference gathered representatives from many African and Asian nations who wanted to cooperate and resist imperialism and neo- imperialism, public domain.
A map of northern Egypt. On the right is a zoomed-in portion of the map that shows the Suez Canal and how it connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
A map of northern Egypt showing the Suez Canal in 1883, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. David Rumsey Collection, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Iran’s oil

One of the reasons the Suez Canal was so important was its ability to quickly move Middle Eastern oil from the Persian Gulf to European and American markets. European imperialists worked hard to control the Suez Canal, but they also sought direct control over oil in countries like Iran. Thanks to a concession signed 50 years earlier, by 1951, Iran's vast oil wealth was controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which despite its name, was a British company2. British control of the nation's most valuable resource became increasingly unpopular with the Iranian people. In 1951, three days after becoming Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized control of Iran's oil, seizing production and profits from the British company and placing it in the hands of the Iranian government. The Iranian people celebrated this move, but the American government did not, siding instead with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The US decision was partly based on the misperception that Mossadegh was a communist. Without American support, Mossadegh failed where Nasser had succeeded. The American navy set up a blockade, preventing Iran from selling its oil. Unintimidated, Mossadegh refused to back down—so the United States organized a covert, CIA-planned coup. Despite Mossadegh's popularity, the coup removed him from power and reinstalled the unpopular shah (monarch), Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. While in power, the shah aligned himself with the United States and ran his country as a repressive dictatorship. In 1979, a revolution overthrew the shah and established a revolutionary government, which was suspicious of foreign involvement—especially American involvement.

Legacies of colonialism and decolonization

Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal worked out in Egypt's favor, but Mossadegh's nationalization of Iran's oil was undermined by foreign interference. Despite their different outcomes, both cases illustrate how the Cold War and decolonization shifted global and regional power. Many Middle Eastern nations fought against formal and informal colonialism. Leaders in decolonizing nations had to be strategic in order to survive. And they had to account for new kinds of imperialism, which no longer had a European face. The United States and Soviet Union competed against each other to gain allies and influence in the Middle East. But to people in the region, the Americans and Soviets were simply new faces on the old imperialism. So, the next time someone tells you "the Middle East is a violent place" or that "problems in the Middle East are the result of ancient religious conflicts," you should remind them that many of the worst conflicts in the region are direct results of twentieth-century colonialism and Cold War politics. Remind them of how quick imperial powers have been to incite violence whenever their access to Middle Eastern oil was threatened. How might this quite recent history factor into policy decisions today?
Photo of a document that outlines the covert operation to remove Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq from office and establish a pro-Western government.
Confirmation for execution of Operation Ajax, a covert American operation to remove Mossadegh from office. Public domain.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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