Empire and Imperialism: Middle East

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Empire and Imperialism: Middle East

In the modern era, the Middle East, broadly defined to include North Africa, was the seat of a major empire, that of the Ottoman Turks. Ottoman rule at its height dominated Eastern Europe through Hungary and extended across the Middle East and North Africa to include Algeria, with Iran and Morocco excluded from Turkish authority.

Global Imperialism, Europe, and the Ottomans
to 1914

From the eighteenth century onward, the Ottomans were directly threatened by the imperial aspirations of two land-based empires, Russia and Austria (Austria-Hungary after 1867). In addition, the Ottoman Middle East became unwittingly embroiled in the rivalries of two seaborne empires, Great Britain and France, illustrating the global scope of imperial competition.

The treaty ending the French and Indian War in North America in 1763 saw France cede not only Canada to Britain but also French claims to India. The swiftest route to India for Britain lay through Ottoman territory, first overland via Syria and Mesopotamia, then by the Suez Canal once it opened in 1869. The British empire centered in India defined British strategic interests in the Middle East as preserving the security of the Egyptian Suez Canal route and dominance in the Persian Gulf to block other powers access to India. By 1914 and the outbreak of World War I, Britain had occupied Egypt (1882), extended its interests to include southern Mesopotamia and the oil fields of southwest Iran, and had backed Kuwaiti secession from Ottoman-controlled Mesopotamia.

France, the first to occupy Ottoman land in the Middle East, invaded Algeria in 1830 and colonized it. France later occupied Tunisia in 1881 and took Morocco in 1912, while Italy invaded Libya in 1911. By 1914, the Ottomans controlled no territory in North Africa, nor in eastern Europe, where their remaining possessions were lost in the Balkan Wars of 19121913. Ottoman rule remained in Anatolia and in the central Arab lands of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq after World War I), and portions of the Arabian peninsula.

The Causes, Ideology, and Theories of Imperialism

European imperial expansion in the Middle East to 1914 was a small part of a global takeover of non-Western lands from the mid-nineteenth century onward that saw nearly all of the African continent and independent territories in Asia either occupied or forced to bow to European demands, as in the case of China.

Scholars attribute this imperial expansion to several impulses; the primary factors were the desire to control markets or natural resources and European continental rivalries extended to denial of lands to a rival. Behind the specific reasons lay the basic driving force of European technological superiority established by the scientific and industrial revolutions, creating a reservoir of power and skills lacking in non-European regions. This facilitated conquest and fueled attitudes of racial superiority referred to as Social Darwinism. A transference of Darwin's theory of natural evolution to societal development, this theory justified white domination of non-whites because they had evolved to a superior level of civilization.

More recent approaches to the study of imperialism have expanded the range of scholarly inquiry. Cain and Hopkins's theory of "gentlemanly capitalism," where individuals close to power influenced decisions based on their own investments in areas such as Egypt, has attracted attention, but other studies point to the greater complexity of imperial associations, challenging previous assumptions. Occupation did not automatically mean economic dominance, as shown by France's control of the Imperial Ottoman Bank and the fact that its economic interests in Egypt were greater than those of Britain, the occupying power, demonstrated in the work of Jacques Thobie and Samir Saul.

Intertwined with such economic penetration of non-Western areas was the nature of the indigenous response, whether nationalist or, for minorities, often collaboration with overseas capital. Further complicating matters is the question of the impact of outside investment on local economies, possibly leading to Lebanese migration to the Western hemisphere, as Akram Khater has shown, at the same time that Europeans might be migrating to northern African countries for economic opportunities lacking in their own lands, processes seen in the scholarship of Mulia Clancy-Smith, Robert Tignor, and Roger Owen.

Finally, much recent scholarship has approached imperialism, Middle Eastern or otherwise, from the vantage point of ordinary people, European or the colonized. This approach automatically makes available many more sources than those found in official government archives, and especially calls attention to the role of women as either part of the imperial venture or the objects of it in the imperial imagination and representation of non-Western women.

World War I and the Mandate Period

World War I saw the Ottomans ally with Germany and Austria-Hungary, primarily against Russia, its traditional rival, which formed an Entente with Britain and France.

By war's end, Russia, following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, had renounced imperial ambitions, but Britain and France hoped to gain further spoils, against each other if necessary. All possessions held by the losers were to be taken by the victors, but outright imperial acquisition was barred by American disapproval. Consequently, the mandate system was devised. Under League of Nations supervision, mandate rule meant that all imperial spoils of World War I could be taken by the victors only on the promise that they would prepare the inhabitants for independence at some undetermined future date. There were three classes of mandatesA, B, and Cthe last being those areas least prepared for future self-governance. The Arab lands to be handed over to Britain or France, those under Ottoman sway in 1914, were Class A mandates, deemed closest to self-rule following tutelage by their European overlords. Britain received mandates for Iraq and Palestine, the French for Syria and Lebanon.

Scholars have attributed differing imperial ideologies to Great Britain and France. They consider the former to have governed with more regard for local authority and practices, remaining aloof from local culture, whereas France undertook a mission civilisatrice, or civilizing mission, that signified more direct involvement in local culture and governance. Intended to promote admiration for France that would secure the French occupation, this process has been referred to by Deguilhem as "intellectual colonization."

British Mandates: Iraq and Palestine

The British mandate for Iraq was affected by its attempt to renege on their wartime promise of 1916 (Sykes-Picot Agreement) to acknowledge French paramountcy in Syria. They did so by installing in Damascus Emir Faisal ibn Husayn of the Hejaz. When the British ploy failed and the French ousted Faisal, Britain gave him the kingship of Iraq in 1921 as compensation and agreed to lessen the scope of its mandatory powers. In return, Faisal agreed to host a British military presence in Iraq; the Hashemite dynasty he created lasted to 1958.

The Palestine mandate contradicted the official intent of that arrangement. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Britain had promised the Jewish national movement, Zionism, that it would sponsor the growth of a Jewish national home in Palestine; it was understood that Palestine would become a Jewish state. This was done for several reasons: immediate wartime propaganda; sympathy for past Jewish suffering in Europe; and for strategic reasons of empire, to justify a British presence in Palestine to block any potential French threat from Syria/Lebanon to Egypt and the Suez Canal.

The Balfour Declaration was written into the British mandate for Palestine. Thus, the people Britain would prepare for self-government were not the Palestinian Arabs, but the future Jewish majority once enough immigrants had arrived; Jews were at most 12 percent of the population in 1920. The legacies of this decision are the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflicts.

French Mandates: Lebanon and Syria

French officials divided Syria into districts to encourage factionalism, hoping unsuccessfully to weaken Syrian national awareness and resistance to their rule.

At the same time, France arbitrarily enlarged the area it called "Lebanon" by adding to it land considered part of "Syria," in order to establish a more stable base of operations in alliance with the Maronite Catholic community that had campaigned for French rule and protection. This new area, present-day Lebanon, incorporated many more Muslims and non-Maronite Christians, ultimately endangering Maronite minority rule and fostering civil strife in the 1950s and 1970s. Although the mandates did not officially end until 1946, both Syria and Lebanon had their independence recognized in 1945 by the newly formed United Nations.

Pre-1914 Imperial Possessions

France granted independence to Tunisia and Morocco in 19561957 after little nationalist strife, primarily in the hope of retaining Algeria, which it had incorporated into the French governmental system, making it part of France. Algerians achieved independence in 1962 after a brutal seven-year war for independence costing an estimated one million lives, mostly Algerian.

Egypt, under British occupation, gradually acquired more self-governance, but it took nationalist resistance, as in North Africa, and a revolution in 1952 to create the circumstances leading to full British withdrawal in 1956. As for Libya, Italy's defeat in World War II led to the creation of the Idrisid dynasty that reigned until ousted by Muammar Qaddafi in 1969.


The most lasting legacy of Anglo-French imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa following World War I was the creation of states where none had existed previously, the boundaries drawn to suit Anglo-French interests. Out of the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire emerged Iraq, never unified previously, a Syria truncated by France's taking its land for the expanded Lebanon, Palestine (intended to become Israel), and, as a result of wartime alliances and tribal rivalries, the creation of Saudi Arabia and the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. In addition, Turkey became a state by repelling a British-encouraged Greek invasion and establishing its independence in the Anatolian heartland of the former Ottoman Empire.

These new states, other then Turkey, Iran, and the newly formed Saudi Arabia, remained under foreign occupation or, in Iraq's case, tied to the former occupier, until the decolonization area following World War II. Their sociopolitical trajectories were quite different, starkly contrasted in Turkey's secularization process undertaken by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) and the creation of the fundamentalist Wahabbite Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

As a result, the nature of national identity and the basis of allegiance to these new states has varied and occasionally been challenged, leaving open the question of Islam as the ongoing basis of loyalty for most Muslims. Turkey itself has seen since World War II the renewed strength of Islam in the public sphere, in part a byproduct of its democratization process. Iran, whose Pahlavi dynasty sought to follow Ataturk's example, experienced an Islamic revolution in 1979 seen by many Iranians as repudiation of American imperial influence on the late shah. Syria and Iraq underwent strenuous secularization driven by Baathist socialist regimes, but the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the name of democracy may lead to a new regime strongly influenced by Shii Islam and strengthened ties to Iran, which the U.S. has designated as part of the "Axis of Evil."

These experiences illustrate the ongoing complexity of the process of state formation and creation of national and religious loyalties, processes set in motion before World War I but only fully attempted afterward. They demonstrate that the impact of European imperialism on the broader Middle East has persisted and has yet to be resolved, with new dynamics put in place by the United States' intervention in Iraq whose consequences will be far-reaching and possibly contrary to the goals articulated by Washington before the invasion.

See also Anticolonialism: Middle East ; Colonialism ; Nationalism: Middle East ; State, The: The Postcolonial State ; Westernization: Middle East .


Aldrich, Robert. Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion. London: Macmillan, 1996. Overview of French imperial ideology.

Andrew, Christopher, and A. S. Kanya-Forstner. The Climax of French Imperial Expansion, 19141924. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981. Study of French domestic policy debates over imperial goals during World War I.

Cain, P. J., and Anthony Hopkins. British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction. New York: Longman, 1993.

. British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 16881914. New York: Longman, 1993.

Chaudri, Nupur, and Margaret Strobel, eds. Western Women and Imperalism: Complicity and Resistance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Clancy-Smith, Julia. "European Empires, Settler Colonialism, and Sources of Knowledge about Women in Islamic Cultures." In Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. 6 vols. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004. Critical discussion of questions of gender in imperial context.

Cloarec, Vincent. La France et la question de Syrie, 19141918. Paris: CNRS, 1998. The best study of French imperial policy and Anglo-French rivalries for the period.

Deguilhem, Randi. "Turning Syrians into Frenchmen: The Cultural Politics of a French Non-Governmental Organization in Mandate SyriaThe French Secular Mission Schools." Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 13, no. 4 (2002): 449460. Good case study of the variations found in applying the mission civilisatrice.

Kent, Marian, ed. The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire. 2nd ed. London and Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 1996. Survey of the views of all combatants during the war.

Khoury, Philip S., and Joseph Kostiner, eds. Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. While ranging well beyond World War I, the essays engage conceptual variables such as the state and chieftancy.

Lieven, Dominic. Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2000. Comparisons of the Russian, British, Hapsburg, and Ottoman Empires with extensive bibliography.

Monroe, Elizabeth. Britain's Moment in the Middle East, 19141971. 2nd ed. London: Chatto and Windus, 1981. Updated edition of the classic account (first published 1963) of British imperial policy in the region.

Owen, Roger. The Middle East in the World Economy. New York: Methuen, 1987.

. State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Overview of the subject that engages theoretical perspectives.

Owen, Roger, and Robert Sutcliffe, eds. Studies in Theory of Imperialism. London: Longman, 1972.

Saul, Samir. La France et l'Egypte de 1882 à 1914: Intérêts économiques et implications politiques. Paris: Comite pour l'Histoire Economique et Financiere de al France, 1977.

Thobie, Jacques. Ali et les 40 voleurs: Impérialismes au Moyen-Orient de 1914 à nos jours. Paris: Messidor, 1985. Thobie is the leading scholar of French imperialism in the late Ottoman period and after World War I.

. Intérêts et impérialisme français dans l'Empire ottoman: 18951914. Paris: Impr. nationale, 1977.

Tignor, Robert L. Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 19451963. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Charles D. Smith