The history of empire involves a confusion. In the minds of many, it is associated with European rule over large parts of the developing world that forever stains the reputation of the West. But empire has taken many non-Western forms, especially in the Middle East. Beginning with the Umayyad dynasty in seventh-century Damascus, a series of Muslim caliphates established far-flung rule, sometimes spanning the Mediterranean. In subsequent centuries, they were followed by the Ottomans, who extended their rule to the Balkans, and the Omani Sultanate, which in the nineteenth century spread from the Persian Gulf to parts of Iran and Pakistan, as well as to Muslim East Africa. Only in the later stages of the history of empire were the Europeans a significant part of this story.
Across the Middle East, this varied experience of empire has impeded the development of nation-states like those in Europe and therefore helps account for the region’s lack of stability. Indeed, for many Middle Eastern regimes, the question of how to guarantee a reasonable degree of order with the minimum degree of coercion has not been resolved.
One major reason for the violence and instability in the Middle East in recent decades, however disturbing it is to contemporary sensibilities, is that for the first time in modern history, the region lacks any kind of imperially imposed order. The fact that democracy has so far failed to take root—even in countries where it has shown some promise, such as Tunisia—is an indication of the debilitating legacy of imperial rule. Empire, by providing a distasteful but enduring solution to order, has inhibited other solutions from taking hold.
The depressing but undeniable reality is that empires in one form or another have dominated world history (and especially Middle Eastern history) from early antiquity into the modern era because they offered, in relative terms at least, the most practical and obvious means of political and geographical organization. Empires may leave chaos in their wake, but they have also risen as solutions to chaos.
OUT OF ORDER
For centuries, the Golden Age of Islam in the Middle East was an imperial one. This history unfolded primarily under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates but also under the Fatimid and Hafsid ones. The Mongol empire could be cruel beyond measure, yet the Mongols primarily subjugated and destroyed other empires: the Abbasid, Khwarazmian, Bulgarian, Song, and so on. The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Balkans and the Habsburg empire in central Europe conspicuously provided protection for Jews and other minorities consistent with the most enlightened values of their particular age. The Armenian genocide did not occur at a time when the Ottoman Empire fully ruled the region, but during a period when Young Turk nationalists were in the process of superseding the empire. Monoethnic nationalism, more than multiethnic imperialism with its cosmopolitan quality, has been more lethal toward minorities.
The Ottoman Empire, which governed the Middle East from Algeria to Iraq for 400 years, collapsed after World War I. In 1862, the Ottoman foreign minister, Ali Pasha, prophetically warned in a letter that if the Ottomans were ever forced to give in to “national aspirations,” they “would need a century and torrents of blood to establish even a fairly stable state of affairs.” In fact, more than a century after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East has still not found an adequate replacement for the order that empire imposed.
Until the end of World War II, the British and French imperial mandate authorities governed the states of the Levant and Fertile Crescent, from Lebanon to Iraq. Then, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were imperial both in terms of their power dynamics and their influence on Middle Eastern regimes. The United States had de facto alliances with Israel and with Arab monarchies in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula; the Soviet Union backed Algeria, Nasser’s Egypt, South Yemen, and other countries aligned with or sympathetic to Moscow’s communist line.
The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, and the influence and ability of the United States to project power in the region has been steadily diminishing since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Regrettably, without the presence of empire in some form, the region gradually entered a period of turmoil, with the collapse or destabilization of regimes: Libya, Syria, Yemen, and so on. To wit, the Arab Spring demonstrated not merely a yearning for democracy but also the rejection of tired and corrupt dictatorial rule. In short, without some degree of imperial influence, the Middle East, and the Arab world in particular, has often evinced a “fissile tendency…towards division,” as the Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith has written.
The idea that empires have brought some modicum of order and stability to the Middle East runs counter to much contemporary scholarship and journalism. According to the consensus view, it is the absence of democracy, not empire, that accounts for the region’s instability. That position is understandable. With the experience of modern European colonialism still fresh in many countries, scholars and reporters remain preoccupied with the crimes of the British, French, and other European powers in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Because we live in an era of postcolonial atonement and revisionism, it is only natural that the misdeeds of European powers in past centuries loom large. The challenge is to move beyond those misdeeds without minimizing them.
This is not to suggest that the actions of European powers in the Middle East were innocent; quite the contrary. The least stable parts of the region today are those that bear some of the clearest imprints of European colonialism. The wholly artificial borders of the Levant, for example, were constructed by the United Kingdom and France after World War I. Thus, the borders of modern Syria and Iraq fail to reflect the nature of well-functioning traditional societies that had long operated without hard territorial boundaries. Modern states divided what should have been kept whole, as British and French imperialists sought to impose order on a landscape made up partly of featureless desert terrain. As the twentieth-century intellectual and Middle East area specialist Elie Kedourie has wryly noted, “What otherwise can boundaries be when they spring up where none had existed before?”
Indeed, the oppressive Baathist states that emerged in Syria and particularly Iraq in the second half of the twentieth century were wrought by European empire. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and the result was chaos; the United States did not intervene in Syria in 2011, and the result was also chaos. Although many blame U.S. policy for what transpired in both countries, an equally important driver of events in each case was the legacy of Baathism, a deadly mix of Arab nationalism and socialism in the style of the Eastern bloc conceived partly under the influence of Europe during the fascist era of the 1930s by two members of the Damascene middle class, one Christian and the other Muslim: Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar. For it wasn’t only colonialism, but also the dangerous European ideologies of the early twentieth century that made the Middle East the least stable of all regions.
Empire, which had once stabilized the Middle East, indirectly destabilized it later.
The tragedy of the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has as much to do with the West’s dynamic interaction with the region as it does with the Middle East itself. Marshall Hodgson, arguably the greatest modern-day chronicler of the history of the Middle East, has written that the “rooted discontent and disruption” of the Islamic world, expressed through anticolonialism, nationalism, and religious extremism, are ultimately reactions to its greater contact with the threatening industrial and postindustrial world on its peripheries, of which Western imperialism was naturally a byproduct.
Of course, Europe and the United States did not intend to create this reaction. But the West’s dynamism in the realm of ideas and technology both overwhelmed and forcibly modernized the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, amplifying the ill effects of imperialism. Thus, Marxism, Nazism, and nationalism, all ideas rooted in the modern West, influenced Arab intellectuals living in the Middle East and Europe and provided the blueprint for the regimes that culminated in the rule of the elder and younger Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. An autopsy of those shattered countries would reveal not only local but also Western pathogens. Empire, which had once stabilized the Middle East, indirectly destabilized it later.
Consider Syria. Between 1946 and 1970, the country experienced 21 changes of government, almost all of them extralegal, including ten military coups. In November 1970, the Baathist Air Force general Hafez al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, a branch of Islam that bears affinities with Shiism, took control in a calm and bloodless coup—a “corrective movement,” as he called it. Assad would govern until his natural death 30 years later. He proved to be among the most historic, if underrated, figures of the modern Middle East, turning a virtual banana republic—the most unstable country of the Arab world, no less—into a relatively stable police state. But even Assad, who ran a less bloody and less repressive state than Saddam did in Iraq, was unable to govern without abject barbarity at times. In response to a violent uprising against his rule by Sunni Muslim extremists, he killed an estimated 20,000 people in the Sunni-dominated city of Hama in 1982, a crackdown that was as effective as it was brutal. The price to stave off anarchy was severe, making the elder Assad’s success at achieving stability in Syria qualified at best. Such was the legacy of Ottoman and French imperialism.
Or take the case of Libya, which consists of disparate regions and lacks any historical cohesion apart from its colonial past. Western Libya, known as Tripolitania, is more cosmopolitan and has historically gravitated toward Carthage and Tunisia. On the other hand, eastern Libya, or Cyrenaica, is conservative and has historically gravitated toward Alexandria in Egypt. The desert lands in between, including the Fezzan to the south, have only tribal and subregional identities. Although the Ottomans recognized all of those separate units, Italian colonizers fused them at the beginning of the twentieth century into a single state, one that proved so artificial that, as with Syria and Iraq, it was often impossible to govern except by the most extreme means. When the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled in 2011, exactly 100 years after the Italian takeover, the state simply disintegrated. As with Syria and Iraq, the fate of Libya shows how lethal the aftermath of European imperialism can be.
FIT FOR A KING
By contrast, countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, whose origins predate both European colonialism and Islam itself, have had an easier time. The latter, for example, is buttressed by a distinct pre-Islamic identity under the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines. The regimes of these countries may be sterile and oppressive, but the order they impose is not in question. The issue is how to make such systems less overbearing. Yet even Tunisia has struggled since its own popular uprising ignited the Arab Spring in late 2010. The country bravely hobbled on as a democracy in its capital and other major cities, even as central control in the provinces and borderlands weakened, until it slid back into autocracy last year under President Kais Saied. Nevertheless, Tunisia remains the most hopeful example of a democratic experiment in the region. That only demonstrates just how difficult it has been in the Middle East to copy the West’s political blueprint for establishing a noncoercive order. Instead of democracy, the modernizing autocracy—itself derivative of European imperialism—has provided the readiest answer to the specter of anarchy.
The least oppressive regimes in the Middle East have been the traditional monarchies of Jordan, Morocco, and Oman. Because of their inherent and hard-won historical legitimacy, they have been able to govern with the minimum degree of cruelty despite being authoritarian. The Hobbesian laboratory of the Middle East proves that along with empire, monarchy has been the most natural form of government. Oman, for example, has functioned as an absolute royal dictatorship with somewhat progressive policies and modest individual freedoms for decades. It constitutes one proof among many that the world cannot neatly be divided into evil dictatorships and exemplary democracies but rather constitutes many gray shades in between. Foreign correspondents generally understand this, but intellectuals and politicians in New York and Washington have a poorer grasp.
Witness Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, in which there is a genuine social contract between ruler and ruled. The rulers provide competent, predictable governance and smooth transitions of power, allowing for an enviable quality of life; in return, the populations do not challenge their hold on power. Oil wealth has had much to do with it. But the Gulf rulers have also evinced a hard-headed, Machiavellian empiricism that is amoral rather than immoral. They consider the anarchy unleashed by the many attempts at democracy during the Arab Spring to be proof that the West has no useful lessons to teach them.
DIGNITY, NOT DEMOCRACY
Of course, that is still not the whole story. The Middle East hurtles forward, if not in a linear direction. Digital technology, including social media, has flattened hierarchies and emboldened the masses, who consequently hold the powers that be in less and less awe and more and more to account. Dictators obsess about public opinion in a way that they never used to in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Meanwhile, even though the seaborne empires of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British helped usher the Middle East into a world trading system in the early modern and modern eras, the intensity of that interaction is overwhelming the region as time goes on. The future of the Middle East will manifest an even greater fusion with both the West and with the many crosscurrents of globalization. That could eventually change the region’s politics. But precisely because the age of empire in the Middle East lasted so long—since before the birth of Islam, in fact—no one should expect a quick end to this unstable postimperial phase. After all, there is nothing more perennial in the world of politics than the search for order.
Of course, the region is not quite done with empire. The United States, although weakened by the Iraq war, remains the most dominant outside force in terms of security and military deployment, with air and sea bases ringing much of the Arabian Peninsula between Greece in the northwest, Oman in the southeast, and Djibouti in the southwest. Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road Initiative envisions a network of energy routes from the Persian Gulf to western China, anchored by a state-of-the-art port at the southwestern tip of Pakistan. Beijing, with a military base at Djibouti, contemplates other such bases at Port Sudan and at Jiwani, by the Iran-Pakistan border. In addition, the Chinese government has been investing tens of billions of dollars in an industrial and logistical hub along the Suez Canal in Egypt and in infrastructure and other projects in both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The United States and China have no colonies or mandated territories. They do not rule people beyond their own borders. But they do have imperial interests. And at this historic juncture, those interests require stability, not war, especially as China’s investments are integrating it more deeply into the internal workings of Middle Eastern economies. The recent Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to reestablish formal bilateral relations, and the Biden administration’s public response to it, indicate how empire, or rather a loose version of it, may yet help stabilize the Middle East. And with relative stability, regimes may have an incentive to loosen internal controls somewhat to generate more entrepreneurial societies able to survive the rigors of a more connected and tightening global economy. The Saudi regime, for example, despite its abysmal human rights record, has been steadily opening up its society by loosening restrictions on women and integrating them into the work force. This process is being watched closely around the Arab world and could provide a model for more flexible regimes and for resisting political Islam.
The journalist Robert Worth, after years of deep reporting in the Arab world for The New York Times, has written that, through it all, what the Arabs ultimately want is less democracy than karama, or dignity: a state, democratic or not, “that shielded its subjects from humiliation and despair.” Empire, be it Ottoman or European, provided stability but little dignity; anarchy provides neither. More consultative governance, in the fashion of reforms in the home-grown traditional monarchies of Morocco and Oman, can thread a middle path. It is in that direction that the best hope may lie for the Middle East’s continued evolution, even though it won’t necessarily follow a Western script.