Skip to main content
Select Source:



Pan-Arabism is the concept that all Arabs form one nation and should be politically united in one Arab state. The intellectual foundations of pan-Arabism were laid down in the early decades of the twentieth century, in the context first of Arab alienation from Ottoman rule and later in response to the imperialist partition of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The doctrine became politically significant in the postWorld War II era, when it produced the drive for integral Arab unity that culminated in the union of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic (19581961). Since the 1960s pan-Arabism has receded as a meaningful political aspiration, giving way to the acceptance of the reality of the existing Arab state structure overlaid by a continuing sense of Arab cultural unity and political solidarity.

Both as theory and practice, pan-Arabism was a child of its times. Its roots lay in the linguistic unity of elite culture across the Arabic-speaking world, where classical Arabic provided a common means of communication transcending geographical barriers, and in Arab awareness of their historical importance as the people responsible for the spread of Islam. This latent Arab consciousness was politicized in the early twentieth century, when educated Arabs in the Fertile Crescent provinces of the Ottoman Empire began to chafe at growing Ottoman centralization as well as at their partial exclusion from participation in Ottoman rule due to the growth of Turkish nationalism. With parallel aspirations for autonomy developing in the several Arabic-speaking provinces of the empire by the preWorld War I years, these first nationalist stirrings in the Fertile Crescent had an implicitly pan-Arab character. The proximate referent for an explicit pan-Arabist ideology was the Arab-run state that emerged in greater Syria by the close of World War I as a result of the wartime Arab Revolt. Although crushed by the French in 1920, Emir/King Faisal's short-lived Arab Kingdom was thereafter a constant reminder of the united Arab polity that might have been were it not for the machinations of imperialism.

An explicit ideology positing the existence of one Arab nation and calling for the unity of all Arabs emerged in the interwar years. Articulated particularly by ideologues from the new mini-states of Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, it was in large part a reaction to the externally imposed division of the Arab East. Its key spokesman was the Iraqi educator Sati' al-Husri (18801968), whose numerous essays hammered home the message that language and history were the main determinants of nationhood and consequently that the Arabs, united as they were by one language and a shared history, deserved a parallel political unity. Husri's message was reinforced and deepened by Arab pedagogues of the interwar era, whose histories of the Arab nation expounded on the concepts of linguistic unity and a glorious Arab history reaching into antiquity. By the 1940s the doctrine of the existential reality of the Arab nation had been internalized by much of the younger generation, generating new political movements dedicated to working for Arab political unification. The most important of these was the Ba'th or Renaissance Party formed in Syria in the 1940s, an organization that rapidly found adherents in other eastern Arab lands. Its slogan"one Arab nation with an eternal mission"encapsulated the pan-Arabist vision; its 1947 programthat "[t]his nation has the natural right to live in a single state and to be free to direct its own destiny"set the pan-Arabist agenda.

Pan-Arabism became a major political force in the decades after World War II. The circumstances of the postwar erathe entry into political life of a younger generation imbued with pan-Arabist ideas; individual Arab countries obtaining a greater measure of independence from foreign domination, and with it a greater ability to pursue pan-Arabist goals; the existence of the common problems of Western imperialism and the new state of Israel, both of which were perceived as necessitating Arab cooperation to be successfully addressedprovided a receptive medium for the flourishing of political pan-Arabism. The new League of Arab States (formed 1945), although strictly a confederative arrangement in which the separate Arab states retained freedom of action, nonetheless indicated the new postwar mood envisaging greater inter-Arab cooperation in the future. The Ba'th and other pan-Arabist political parties grew in size and influence in states such as Syria, Iraq, and Jordan from the 1940s onward, occasionally succeeding in stimulating a measure of inter-Arab political cooperation and at least lip-service to the goal of Arab unity from their governments. Most meaningful politically was the emergence of a new champion for pan-Arabism in the 1950s, in the person of Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser) of Egypt. Although his own nationalist outlook was at base primarily Egyptian nationalist, Nasser nonetheless perceived the desirability of greater inter-Arab cooperation in order to attain the goal of complete independence for the Arab world. Nasser's successes in opposing Western imperialism in the mid-1950s made Nasser and Egypt the natural focus of pan-Arabist hopes.

The high point of pan-Arabism as a political movement came in 1958, when pan-Arabist activists in Syria approached Nasser to request the integral unity of Egypt and Syria. Not without reservations, but also snared by his own previous advocacy of Arab nationalism as a mobilizing slogan, Nasser assented. The result was the United Arab Republic (UAR), a new state uniting Egypt and Syria under Nasser's leadership. The creation of the UAR set off considerable agitation for unity with the UAR by pan-Arabist enthusiasts in other eastern Arab states such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, agitation resisted only with difficulty by more localist leaders and forces concerned about their own prospects in any unified Arab state.

In the end Nasser's reservations about the UAR were borne out. Frustrated by their marginalization within the counsels of the regime, and opposed to the socialist measures being introduced by the early 1960s, in September 1961 elements of the Syrian military revolted, expelled their Egyptian overlords, and effectively terminated the reality of the UAR (although Egypt retained the name until 1971). The breakup of the UAR was a crucial setback for the pan-Arabist goal of integral Arab unity. To be sure, the dream did not die; when Ba'thists seized power in Syria and (more briefly) in Iraq in 1963, both governments immediately entered into "unity talks" with Nasser. These collapsed (as did the subsequent but less substantial initiatives aimed at negotiating Arab federation initiated by Mu'ammar Gadhafi of Libya in the early 1970s) on the rock of political power-sharing. A further and greater setback for pan-Arabism came in June 1967 with the stunning military defeat of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria by Israel, an Arab catastrophe in which the leading exponents of pan-Arabism, Nasser and the Syrian Ba'th, were indelibly discredited as potential leaders of the drive for Arab political unity.

As a political movement, pan-Arabism has receded since the 1960s. Just as the context of the postWorld War II decades provided the necessary medium for its earlier flourishing, so changed conditions since the 1960s have contributed to pan-Arabism's fading. The gradual consolidation of the power and legitimacy of what were initially artificial Arab states; the end of overt imperialist domination, thereby undercutting much of the reason for inter-Arab solidarity; the growing acceptance of the reality of Israel; the increased clout of the Arab oil monarchies, regimes apprehensive about what Arab unity might mean for them; not least the growth of the rival transnational ideology of Islamism, many of whose spokesmen view Arab nationalism as an alien, Western-inspired concept designed to subvert Muslim unity: all these developments of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have worked against significant movement toward Arab political unity.

Politically, pan-Arabism has stalled since the 1960s. Other than the union of Yemen and North Yemen in 1990, a local development with no broader nationalist implications, there have been no further mergers of separate Arab states since the formation of the UAR in 1958 (the forced "merger" of Kuwait with Iraq in 1990 was quickly reversed by international opposition, including that of most other Arab states). The post-1970 leaders of those states that had led the pan-Arabist movement in the 1950s and 1960sAnwar al-Sadat and Husni Mubarak of Egypt; Hafiz al-Asad of Syria; intermittently Saddam Husayn of Iraqall concentrated on promoting the interests of their respective states, rather than on pursuing integral Arab unity, during their long tenures in power. There have been various regional organizations of Arab states created since the 1970s, the Gulf Cooperation Council formed in 1981 by the six Arab monarchies bordering the Persian Gulf being the most durable and meaningful; but these have been confederative arrangements that guarantee the territorial integrity of their members.

If political pan-Arabism is in eclipse, what remains? The League of Arab States continues to exist, and through its various subsidiary organizations has fostered an impressive level of interstate Arab cooperation in the economic, social, and cultural fields. Inter-Arab migration for occupational or educational reasons boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, driven particularly by the demand for Arab labor in the Arab oil states. Literally millions of Arabs lived, worked, or studied in Arab countries other than their homelands in the 1970s and 1980s; this inter-Arab migration decreased from the mid-1980s onward. Perhaps most important in perpetuating and deepening a shared Arab consciousness in recent decades has been the mass media. First radio, then television, more recently the Internet and the emergence of Arab media outlets capable of reaching Arabs everywhere have spread a common Arab culture and kept "Arab" issues, Palestine being the most vital, at the forefront of Arab awareness. Political pan-Arabism may be stalled; but an abiding sense of the Arabs as one people with a common culture, similar problems, and shared aspirations has increased and penetrated more deeply into the fabric of Arab society.

The temporal trajectory of political pan-Arabism was thus significantly different from that of the cultural Arabism on which it was in part based. Whereas the former emerged, flourished, and then declined over the course of the twentieth century, the latter has steadily increased and disseminated more widely. Arabism is by no means an exclusive identity; it exists in tandem with affinal ties, a longstanding self-definition as part of the Muslim community (for most Arabs), and a more recent loyalty to the state in which Arabs live. But it remains part of the blend of referents that define collective identity, shape popular sentiment, and inspire political action.

See also Anticolonialism: Middle East ; Nationalism: Middle East ; Pan-Islamism ; Pan-Turkism .


Cleveland, William L. The Making of an Arab Nationalist: Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sati 'al-Husri. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. A careful biography of the seminal pan-Arabist ideologue.

Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. A recent comprehensive survey.

Dawn, C. Ernest. "The Formation of Pan-Arab Ideology in the Interwar Years." International Journal of Middle East Studies 20 (1988): 6791. Focuses on pan-Arabist histories.

Devlin, John. The Ba'th Party: A History from Its Origins to 1966. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1976. An account of the main pan-Arabist political party.

Haim, Sylvia G., ed. Arab Nationalism: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. A useful anthology with an extended introductory essay.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17981939. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. A magisterial survey of modern Arab thought including nationalism.

Jankowski, James. Nasser's Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002. A study of Nasser's and Egypt's pan-Arabist involvement.

Jankowski, James, and Israel Gershoni, eds. Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. A collection of essays suggesting new perspectives on Arab nationalism.

Nuseibeh, Hazem Zaki. The Ideas of Arab Nationalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1956. An articulation of the premises of Arab nationalism written at the height of the movement.

James Jankowski

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pan-Arabism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Pan-Arabism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 16, 2017).

"Pan-Arabism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from




Pan-Arabism is a Western term for the ideological and political project Arabs refer to as Arab nationalism. This projects central premise is that all those who speak Arabic, from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west, share a common history, heritage, and culture, and are therefore members of a single nation whose destiny it is to overcome the artificial boundaries imposed by colonialism and achieve independence and unity.

Like all nationalisms, Arab nationalism claims ancient roots but is actually of relatively recent origin. The term Arab was used by neighboring peoples to designate an ethnos based in the central and northern Arabian Peninsula from well before the emergence of Islam in the seventh century CE, and among Muslims the Arabs enjoyed a distinctive status as the people to whom God chose to send his final and most complete revelation, transmitted by an Arab prophet, Muhammad (c. 570632), in the Arabic language. But in the later Ottoman period, the term was often used by literate urban folk to denote the uncultured nomads of the desert. Premodern identities in what is today called the Middle East were generally framed in religious, kinship, tribal, occupational, and local or regional terms, or in terms of ones loyalty or subjection to a particular ruler or state, such that before the nineteenth century no one in what is now referred to as the Arab world would have considered oneself an Arab in the modern national sense of the term.

Arab nationalism was a product of the social, cultural, and political transformations that the predominantly Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire underwent in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. These transformations included the disruptive effects of the regions growing integration into a Europe-centered world economic and political order; efforts by the Ottoman ruling elite to centralize power and create a modern state that could withstand European encroachment and counter separatist movements among its subject Christian peoples; the spread of modern schools; and the complex encounter with European ideas, institutions, and practices, disseminated and mediated largely through new print media. These processes helped foster what would come to be called the nahda, the Arab cultural renaissance that was centered in Ottoman-ruled geographic Syria (encompassing the present-day states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan) and in Egypt, which opened the way to a protonational and largely cultural Arabism.

After the Ottoman constitutional revolution of 1908, politically active Arabs (largely from the educated upper and middle classes) tended to advocate greater autonomy for the Ottoman Empires Arab provinces while remaining loyal to the Ottoman framework, seen as the only bulwark against European colonial domination; only a few marginal groups and individuals went so far as to call for Arab independence from Ottoman rule. But after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Ottoman repression and centralization, as well as wartime hardships, alienated many Arabs from Ottoman rule. Meanwhile the British, seeking local allies against the Ottomans, established secret links with Husayn (c. 18541931), the quasi-autonomous ruler of the holy city of Mecca, who hoped to escape Ottoman control and carve out a state for himself and his Hashemite clan, and through him with Arab nationalist activists in Syria. In 1915, bolstered by Britains promise to support postwar Arab independence under Hashemite rule and equipped with British weapons, money, and advisors, the Hashemites and their allies revolted against Ottoman rule in the name of the Arab nation and participated in the Allied military campaign that eventually defeated the Ottoman forces.

It was only with the end of Ottoman rule over the Arab provinces that significant numbers of their inhabitants began to see themselves as Arabs in a new national sense, though that identity was never uniform, uncomplicated, or uncontested. Arab nationalist hopes for independence and unity were soon frustrated as the victorious Allies reneged on their wartime promises and instead divided the former Ottoman Arab provinces into several new states ruled by Britain or France as mandates, which their new subjects accurately perceived as a thinly disguised form of colonialism. Arab nationalists held fast to their vision of a unified Arab nation; yet over time distinctive national identities (Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian, and so on) took root in these new states, often in tension with a widespread and persistent but contingent sense of common pan-Arab identity. This tension was further complicated by the fact that many of the new Arab states contained substantial minorities that were either non-Arab (e.g., the Kurds in Iraq) or non-Muslim (e.g., Christians in Lebanon), or came to be dominated by minority groups (e.g., the Alawites in Syria, the Sunnis in Iraq).

As the eastern Arab lands won independence from colonial rule in the 1930s and 1940s and many Egyptians began to see their country as part of a wider Arab world, the question of Arab unity came to take center stage. The League of Arab States, established in 1945, proved ineffectual, and in the 1950s the cause of Arab unity was championed by a new pan-Arabist movement based in Syria and Iraq (the Bath, from an Arabic term for renaissance) and by the new regime in Egypt led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (19181970). Despite the rhetorical commitment of key Arab leaders to pan-Arab unity, however, the only real experiment in unificationthe merger of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic in 1958 under Nassers leadershipfoundered after just three years. Israels victory in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War was a major defeat for the radical Arab nationalism espoused by both Nasser and his Bathist rivals. Thereafter, Pan-Arabism as a political project went into decline, sidelined by authoritarian regimes (whether monarchical or republican) concerned mainly with their own survival and rejected by the Islamist movements that emerged as those regimes main opposition.

Nonetheless, thanks to transnational migration, the spread of literacy and mass communications, and more recently pan-Arab satellite television broadcasting, many Arabic speakers today participate in a common cultural-political field in which the same cultural products are consumed and what are perceived to be common problems are addressed, including autocracy, economic underdevelopment, social inequality, the plight of the Palestinians, and U.S. hegemony and intervention. As a result, despite the continuing salience of separate state nationalisms, distinctive local forms of spoken Arabic, the deep divisions within the Arab world, and its failure to achieve even a modicum of equitable economic integration, much less pan-Arab political unity, a variable and contingent but nonetheless significant sense of common Arab identity (and sometimes solidarity) persists.

SEE ALSO Nationalism and Nationality; Pan-Africanism


Jankowski, James, and Israel Gershoni, eds. 1997. Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kayali, Hasan. 1997. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 19081918. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Khalidi, Rashid. 1991. Arab Nationalism: Historical Problems in the Literature. American Historical Review 96 (5): 13631373.

Khalidi, Rashid, Lisa Anderson, Muhammad Muslih, and Reeva S. Simon, eds. 1991. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zachary Lockman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pan-Arabism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Pan-Arabism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 16, 2017).

"Pan-Arabism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from



movement and doctrine for arab political unity.

Pan-Arabism, the desire or drive for Arab political unity, was largely, albeit not entirely, a product of World War I, when much of the former Ottoman Empire was awarded to British or French mandates by the League of Nations. Arab attention in the ensuing two decades focused on obtaining political independence from European control as opposed to broader discussions of social reform or the adoption of a particular political system. In the process, budding Arab nationalism and vague formulations of Arab unity became increasingly interwoven with support for Palestinians in their opposition to Jewish land purchase and immigration under the British Mandate.

As the Arab leadership organized to resist foreign occupation, it fostered a debate over which elements of the Arab heritage could best be employed as symbols around which to shape the image of Arab states. Some Arab writers continued to assert the primacy of Islamic bonds while others, like the Syrian educator Sati al-Husari, rejected Islamic sentiments in favor of a unified Arab nation bound by ties of Arab culture. Emphasizing the secular components of the Arab heritage, al-Husari envisioned an Arab nation, unified politically, and similar to the nations of Europe.

As late as World War II, pan-Arabism in the sense of a political movement aimed at unifying the Arab nation remained centered on Iraq, Syria, and the Arabian peninsula. The Baʿth Party in the 1940s called for comprehensive Arab unity in the form of a single Arab state stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf. Neither Egypt nor the Maghrib, the western Islamic world traditionally comprising Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and later Libya, played a significant role in pan-Arab movements until after the end of the war.

In the 1950s Gamal Abdel Nasser and the United Arab Republic (UAR) coopted the pan-Arabism of the Baʿth Party. Nasser argued that the Arab nations enjoyed a unity of language, religion, history, and culture, which they should exploit to create their own system of cooperation and defense. The peak of both Nasser's popularity and pan-Arabism as a political movement occurred between the 1956 Suez crisis and the June 1967 ArabIsraeli war. The collapse of the UAR in 1961 followed by the Arab defeat in 1967 dealt a severe psychological blow to the prestige of Arab leaders and the confidence of the Arab people; it is considered by many to constitute the Waterloo of pan-Arabism.

Over the next two decades, only a few Arab governments, notably Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, continued to promote pan-Arabism in terms of practical political union. As other Arab states established themselves and began to define and pursue national interests, their commitment to pan-Arabism was increasingly perfunctory. By the end of the twentieth century, its time as a widely accepted doctrine and political movement had passed; and if panArabism was not dead, it was surely a spent force. By the 1990s, Islamist political movements, inspired in part by the successful Iranian Revolution of 1979, were growing in popularity and strength throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, often supplanting the earlier enthusiasm for pan-Arabism.

see also baʿth, al-; husari, sati al-; nasser, gamal abdel; qaddafi, muammar al-; united arab republic (uar).


Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1946.

Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Haim, Sylvia, ed. Arab Nationalism: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17981939. New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Khalidi, Rashid; Anderson, Lisa; Muhammad Muslih; et al., eds. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

ronald bruce st john

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pan-Arabism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Pan-Arabism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (December 16, 2017).

"Pan-Arabism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from


Pan-Arabism, general term for the modern movement for political unification among the Arab nations of the Middle East. Since the Ottoman Turks rose to power in the 14th cent., there have been stirrings among Arabs for reunification as a means of reestablishing Arab political power. At the start of World War I, France and Great Britain, seeking allies against the German-Turkish alliance, encouraged the cause of Arab nationalism under the leadership of the Hashemite Sherif Husayn ibn Ali, a descendant of Muhammad. As ruler of Mecca and a religious leader of Islam, he had great influence in the Arab world, an influence that continued with his two sons, Abdullah (Abdullah I of Jordan) and Faisal (Faisal I of Iraq). From the 1930s, hostility toward Zionist aims in Palestine was a major rallying point for Arab nationalists.

The movement found official expression after World War II in the Arab League and in such unification attempts as the Arab Federation (1958) of Iraq and Jordan, the United Arab Republic, the Arab Union (1958), the United Arab Emirates, and the Arab Maghreb Union (see under Maghreb). The principal instrument of Pan-Arabism in the early 1960s was the Ba'ath party, which was active in most Arab states, notably Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Gamal Abdal Nasser of Egypt, who was not a Ba'athist, expressed similar ideals of Arab unity and socialism.

The defeat of the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the death (1970) of Nasser set back the cause of Pan-Arabism. In the early 1970s, a projected merger between Egypt and Libya came to nought. However, during and following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Arab states showed new cohesion in their use of oil as a major economic and political weapon in international affairs. This cohesion was fractured by the signing of the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel and by the Iran-Iraq War. Pan-Arabist rhetoric was used by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in an attempt to stir opposition the UN coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War, but many Arab nations joined the anti-Iraq coalition.

See G. Antonius, The Arab Awakening (1946, repr. 1965); H. a Faris, ed., Arab Nationalism and the Future of the Arab World (1986); B. Pridham, ed., The Arab Gulf and the Arab World (1988).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pan-Arabism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Pan-Arabism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 16, 2017).

"Pan-Arabism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from