The Middle East is in turmoil — civil wars, brutal insurgency, millions of refugees fleeing to Turkey, Jordan and Europe, bombings on the streets of Paris and Brussels, Palestinian statehood unresolved, Gaza rockets, the Intifada continuing with stabbings on the streets of Jerusalem. Russia warns that the Middle East is bringing the world to the brink of World War Three.
Why the Middle East?
But the Middle East has not always been so important. The modern history of the area can be divided into three phases:
- The first phase began in the nineteenth century when Britain, France and Russia developed their imperialist ambitions. Whoever controlled the Middle East controlled the trade routes to India. What became known as the ‘Eastern Question’ was the policy of Britain to prop up Turkey as a buffer against Russian ambitions to obtain a Mediterranean sea port. The First World War saw the end of this phase, with Britain and France replacing Turkey as protectors of Palestine, Arabia, Mesopotamia and Syria.
- The second phase occupied the period between World War One and World War Two. To understand what happened then we need to recognise the new factor which emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century — Zionism, the movement to create a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. In 1917 the Balfour Declaration committed the British Government to support the creation of a national home for the Jews in Palestine. The declaration also said that nothing should be done to infringe the rights of the Palestinians. Yet ancient conflicts reawakened as Arab as well as Jewish nationalism grew. Today many Arab organisations still consider the Balfour Declaration to be “a crime against the Palestinian people”.
- The League of Nations after the First World War gave Britain the mandate over Palestine which she held until 1948. On May 14, 1948 Israel declared itself an independent state, and was formally recognised by the United Nations. So began the third phase and the bitter conflicts which have continued ever since. What made the Middle East so important globally over this period is that the world’s economies have been heavily dependent upon Middle East oil and gas.
Looking back over this history …