Good, Bad and Ugly: The Historical Evolution of the Middle East

Middle East Map 1
Middle East Map 1

The Middle East region as defined in this article includes the Arab countries, Iran and Turkey. Due to its geo-cultural characteristics, the Middle East includes countries from both North Africa (these countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have been also defined as Mediterranean countries) and Asia. The Middle Eastern countries share many attributes that unify them such as language, religion, history, culture and common aspirations. The Middle East is the biggest source of world’s most valuable energy sources (oil), which has shaped the relations the region enjoys with other parts of the world and its role in the International Community and on capital markets throughout the globe. The region, however, is enduring slow development, political instability, extremism, terrorism and many ominous prospects of constant conflicts and turmoil. In the past, a perceived Soviet threat to the region, the Suez crisis, the rise of the Arab nationalism, establishment of the state of Israel, the Iranian revolution, the two Gulf wars, the Iran-Iraq war, rise and fall of ISIS, civil war in Syria and Libya and persisting Palestinian Intifada have all contributed to Western concern as well as political and military involvement. In recent time the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on Twin Tower in New York have intensified Western worries about the Gulf and its surrounding region. Religious diversity, therefore, actually characterizes the region, though the Muslim faith enjoys primary status in many countries. Religion in the Middle East still continues to play its traditional roles, including exertion of the political power that prevents structural and institutional changes.

What is the Middle East?

The very term “Middle East” was invented in the early 20th century as a function of imperial strategy. Coined by American Admiral Mahan in 1902, the term “Middle East” reflected a new awareness of the unity not only of the Ottoman domains, but of those wider areas, former Ottoman provinces, Arabia and Iran which lay between Europe and India and the Far East: the “Middle” distinguished it from these areas.[1] Common usages of the label can be located in the Second World War when the British military established a Middle East command in the area under the authority of the war office. After 1945 the term “Middle East” acquires general international currency. In the Soviet world, the area was known as “Central East” and “Near East”.[2]

Cultural and Territorial Definition of the Middle East

The definition of the Middle East has geo-cultural dimension rather than merely a geographic one.  As influential historian Marshall Hodgson for “Islamdom” to be defined as the area of the Nile on the West to the Oxus on the East.[3] This he said, was the cultural core region of Muslim society because it was here that most authoritative states and courts held sway during the heyday of Islamic rule and provided the cultural models which rest of the Muslim world followed.


The traditional demarcation of the Middle East generally followed Hodgson’s notion of a cultural core, but moved the center to the West, excluding the Oxus region and placing it in Central Asia, while expanding the Middle East to include North Africa (the so-called Maghreb or West). It is bounded on the West by the Atlantic beaches of Morocco and stretches east across North Africa, into Arabia, through Iran, and finally merges into Central Asia, South Asia, northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. In the Southwest, the region does not reach beyond the Sahara and in the Southeast is halted by the Arabian Sea. In the North, the frontier is naturally set by three inland seas; the Mediterranean, the Black and the Caspian, and then finally by the peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Within this region, there are vast deserts, modern cities, snow-capped mountain ranges and important natural resources; water, oil and natural gas.

The spatial range of the Middle East, which can be pictured as centered on the axis of North Latitude 38, and extending from the Southwest to the Northwest over an expanse of approximately 7 million sq. miles. Within this region, there are in shape and name some 20 countries.

Some writes include Turkey, Sudan… but Beverly Milton-Edwards specifically refers eighteen states to define the Middle East.[4] He argued that Turkey should be regarded as the Southern European state though Turkey has had a long association with the region throughout Ottoman ruler. Sudan is an African state with Islamic tendencies.

Middle-East: Western Perception and Orientalism

A pervasive prejudice regarding the Middle East prevailed in the West against the region and its peoples. The Orient, for example, was a term which grew out of European fascination with the Middle, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Oriental society, however, was portrayed in a negative manner and seen as symbolizing everything the West was not. The Muslim Empires of the Middle East have been depicted in Europe as vast tyrannies where political action was completely suppressed under the iron rule of a despot; the West, in contrast, was seen to favor citizenship and participatory government.

These dark assessments are typical of much of the standard scholarly western understandings of pre-modern (and modern) forms of Muslim government in the Middle East. But if we analyze the Middle East on the basis of western outlook our total effort to understand the Middle East may become fruitless. However, in 1978 Edward Said published a book entitled “Orientalism” aimed to challenge, criticize and shake the foundations and assumptions at the heart of the western-based academic study of the Middle East. He argued, “that any western representation of the Middle East as a culturally specific entity must be seen as an expression of hegemonic authority, applied to dominate the disenfranchised, dehumanized and voiceless  Muslim ‘others’ by turning them into objects and ‘types’ who can be manipulated and exploited.” Said also stated that “the western understanding of the Islamite has less to do with the Orient than it does with our world.[5]

The Construction of the Middle Eastern State

The modern Middle East is a product of evolution over centuries and millennia of the states and culture of the region, and the impact on the area, and in particular on the Ottoman Empire, of the 19th and early 20th century European economic and political system. For almost four centuries, most of the Arab world consisted of provinces under the Ottoman-Turkish rule. The end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I between Britain and France divided and kept most of the Arab world under their imperial control.[6]

Thus it was First World War which founded the modern state system in the ME that was to endure more or less thereafter. In the Arab region from which Turkey was expelled, the British and the French defined a set of new territorial entities which later became states: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Trans Jordan and Palestine. Out of the Turkish area of the Ottoman Empire, a new Turkish state was created in 1920. In 1923, the treaty of Lausanne defined the boundaries and independence of the new Turkish state. In another area vacated by Turkey, the Western parts of the Arabian Peninsula, in the rebellious province of Yemen, and independent state emerged in 1918. Elsewhere a new aspirant to power, the coalition of tribes led by the Saudi family rose in central Arabia and, in a series of campaigns, conquered fourth-fifth the peninsula. In 1926, they proclaimed a new state, the kingdom of Hejaz and in 1932 the kingdom of Saudi Arabia named by regional convention after its ruling family.

Thus the Arab world was fragmented and lay under colonial rule. Britain had established a ring of client states from Kuwait at the top of the Gulf to Aden in the southwest, the better to protect its strategic interests. British, however, directly and indirectly, sought to extend their domination in several parts of the Arab world through treaties and connections with loyal rulers. Many years after the end of the World War II, parts of the Arab world were still struggling against colonial domination. The French imperial presence in Algeria ended in 1962, in the Maghreb (Morocco) and Tunisia in 1956 and in Syria and Lebanon in 1946. Indeed the political independence of such states mostly achieved following the decline of European influence in the region after Second World War and during the increasingly powerful ascendancy of the USA. Yemen was the first state to achieve Independence in 1918 and the most recent was UAE in 1971.

The Impact of the Colonial Legacy

The impact of the colonial legacy on the new Arab societies has been enduring.

First, the colonial order setup traditional systems of the governance with absolute family rule in most of these Arab states. Over the years, the colonial benefactors offered their loyal Arab regimes financial subsidies, know-how, and military and political support. The political structures and territorial boundaries were quickly marked, recognized, and institutionalized to maintain the status quo. What was forged as political entities were not for reasons of coherence and economic viability nor because of historical antecedent but, rather, to accommodate imperial interests. The new states, as Quotient points out, “Were created more or less willy-nilly, by European diplomats when World War I ended in 1918”.[7]

As Roger Owen remarks, “As far as the Middle East was concerned, it was generally the dominant colonial power that first created the essential features of a state, by giving it a capital, a legal system, a flag and internationally recognized boundaries.”[8]

State System in the Middle East

The states and state system of the region are diverse and subject to competing typologies drawn and established by academics on the subject. These are useful in that they help us ascertain political patterns of government and the manifestation of political life in the region. A number of scholars including Giacomo Luciani, Ilia Harik, Roger Owen, Simon Bromely, Nazih Ayubi and many other after their classification and model which will be discussed in below. Owen takes a structuralist approach in his model, focusing on class and economic relations, both internally and externally generated. Through this particular lens he identifies three state types which are common in the region:

  1. The Colonial state, which existed in the post-world war I period in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq was distinguished by “central administration”, the policies of the colonial power, and colonialism as a conduct for external influences.[9]
  2. The immediate post-independent state, where national liberation movements struggled to consolidate a state system based on western forms of government through supporting socialist or other ideologies. I.e. Iran, Libya, UAE, Yemen.
  3. The authoritarian state, where participatory democracy is absent and one-party rules supported by a strong military and internal security structure dominates. Under this typology, Owen addresses one-party states (e.g. Syria and Iraq), family rules (e.g. the Gulf States) and even the examples of Libya under Jamahiriya rule.

Harik establishes a useful typology, which differs from Owen’s by arguing that many contemporary Arab states are indigenous products of the region rather than colonial creations identifies five traditional Arab states, types:

  1. The imam-chief system- ‘authority in a sanctified leader’ (Yemen, Oman, Hajaz, Iran).
  2. Alliance system of chief and imams- authority is invested in a tribal chief supported by virtue of his identification and or alliance to prominent religious leaders (Saudi Arabia).
  3. The traditional secular system with authority invested in a dynasty-free from religious attributes (Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon).
  4. Bureaucrat-military oligarchy type- authority originates in urban-based garrison commander, who in time develop and extensive bureaucratic apparatus. Coercion is the major feature of this state type (Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia).
  5. Colonial-Created system: States carved out of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire on the basis of foreign imperial interest in the absence of a credible local base of authority to erect new structures (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel).[10]

This Harik’s model points out alternative perspective such as the political power of a tribe, ethnic group of a religious leader, also highlights alongside formal power bases such as the military.

Using the political economy perspective, Ayubi analyses that all Arab states are, to one degree or another, authoritarian, engaging in coercive measures against citizens, while also remain distant from them. In addition, he identifies two state types:

  1. Nationalist rhetoric and
  2. The thwart (wealth) state type, ‘relaying for survival on kin-based relations, but above all else on financial capital, or wealth.’[11]

Dynamics of Middle East politics and Government: Authoritarian Political Structure

Structure is the form of the system and the pattern of interaction among specialized units and institutions such as executive leadership, legislatures, courts, bureaucracies, and a myriad of non-governmental entities that serve the public interest. The structural patterns of the governance in the Arab states have been shaped by tradition and habit as well as by existing realities of political and economic power configurations. Non-participatory political structures are complemented with weak institutions that serve to heighten the centralization of authority within the oligarchic rule. Despite claims of reform, leaders continue to keep a very tight reign on all powers of the state. In most Arab states, no competitive political parties, associational groups, or organized political activities are permitted to function without restrictions. In some states, such activities are totally banned.[12]

Professionalizing public service, rationalizing government organization and structure, and building institutional capacity of the state remain claims rather than achievements. Recruitment to top administrative posts is primarily based on personal loyalties and nepotism, depriving decision process of independent, professional input. Administrative discretion is reduced to administrative subservience. Whether in presidential systems such as Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia or in monarchical ones such as Kuwait, Morocco and Saudi Arabia; the political and the bureaucratic elites are integral parts of the same structure.

For the security and survival of the regime rulers often sought support and alliances with dominant foreign powers, able and willing to offer protection and support for their own reasons and interests. The results have been: (a) further alienation of leaders from their people; (b) diminishing the League of Arab States to a state of powerlessness, even irrelevance, in dealing with the most profound issues facing Arab societies. Despite its dominance and influence over all aspects of society, the Arab world and the ruling elites failed to act strategically on matters of domestic or international interests.

Succession and the Legitimacy of Authority

The usual way for reaching the apex of authority in the Arab state has been through either inheritance or military takeover, with few exceptions, for example, Algeria, Lebanon and Palestine. Inheritance dictates succession in monarchist regimes such as in the six Gulf States, Jordan, and Morocco. During the past three decades, former military officers or their surrogates ruled in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. Neither method of succession ensures that a representative, qualified, or competent person will ascend to the seat of power. In all these countries, people have little say in who governs, even when the country’s constitution, if it exists, begins with “we the people…”.[13]

Ironically, in presidential systems as in monarchies, heads of Arab states tend to develop a strong bond with the position of power, in success and in failure, ‘in sickness and in health’. The term limit for Arab heads of states is ‘till death do us part’. As Schneider notes, in several countries in the Arab world, father has bequeathed power to a son while in the others, the pattern seems ready to repeat itself. That has been a formula or economic and political stagnation.

After the death of Hafez el-Assad, former President of Syria the ruling party and the parliament moved swiftly to amend the constitution and abridge laws and procedures in order to appoint the son, Bashar el-Assad. In Egypt, for 52 years the military ruled, almost half of these years under the rule of a former officer, Hosni Mubarak. Election after election, only one name appeared on the ballot and the public was asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is no way different from his predecessors. In Libya, following his 1969 military coup, col. Muammar al-Qadhafi had ruled Libya for 40 years; eight American Presidents have changed office during the same period. In Saudi Arabia, a hereditary monarchy, no popular elections were conducted till 2004 when the first municipal elections were conducted and were limited to males of a certain age.


Governance is the exercise of public authority through a complex mix of institutions (executive, legislative and judicial), their interactions, behaviors, and management of public policies. William Quandt correctly concluded that “the biggest challenge facing the Middle East in the years to come is the development of better systems of governance…; this means governments that are accountable in some acceptable manner, to their people.”[14]

Governance in the Arab countries faces numerous challenges; extensive personalization of power, denial of fundamental human rights, widespread corruption, and the prevalence of unelected and unaccountable systems of authority. Arab governance failed to deliver the promised human development and to produce authentic, representative institutions with the capacity to serve and to defend rule of law as well as public interests. Public participation in policy making in the Arab states is either restricted or banned.

The political landscape of the Arab state manifests a highly centralized system, beset by nepotism and political patronage, and burdened by its own weight of swelled ranks of ill-trained public employees. Formally, all important personnel recruitment and budgetary decisions continue to be made according to the personal wishes and preferences of the chief of the state. Elected bodies, when they exist, even the judiciary, are shadowed and influenced by the same political characteristics. Establishing links between public organizations and citizens to enhance relevance and improve commitment to communities is perpetually ‘under consideration’. Rarely and Arab state seeks citizen’s participation as ‘a process through which stakeholders’ influence and share control over development initiatives, decisions and resources which affect them.[15]

The American Factor

For many decades, US policy steadily defended the political status quo in the Arab world. During the Cold War era, preoccupied with containing Soviet Russia, maintaining the flow of oil, and protecting Israel, the USA was unwilling to take chance with political change that may produce assertive, independent, or effective Arab governments. With the end of the Cold War, market demands for oil, and the US military superiority prompted the redefinition of American objective in the Middle East. As President George H.W. Bush stated (August 1990) just hours after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: “The security of Saudi Arabia is vital-basically fundamental-to US interests and really to the interests of the Western World.”[16]

Thus, the strategic importance of oil and the power that comes with it has become a key American objective in the region. Earlier, Pelletrau, Assistant Secretary of State during President Bill Clinton’s administration, outlined the US’ main objectives in the region as:

  1. Maintaining our steadfast commitment to Israel’s security and well-being.”
  2. “Enhancing security arrangement that assures stability and unimpeded commerce.” [17]

Cultural Features of the Middle East: Heterogeneity and Homogeneity

The Middle East is consists of nearly 20 countries, are vary in size, type of government, and endowment of natural resources, they share many attributes that unify them such as language, religion, history, culture, and common aspirations. Under the Ottoman Empire, which preceded the era of ‘grand interference’, loyalty and identity in the region was bound together through a unified law, political system and taxation as well as by religion, clan, tribe, family, class, language and ethnic group. A common language, Arabic, and common religion Islam, played an important part in forging a sense of identity, even if it did not always result in unity at a political level. Through language and Islam, Arabs share a common history in the region.

Family Loyalty

In the Middle East young people are aware of the attitudes of their elders, anticipate their reactions, and often family and community concerns take precedence over individual inclinations or desires. The patriarchal society represents a male-dominated society. The societies in the Middle East depict the picture of male domination. The rights of men, the husband, brother, father or nephew prevailed. Women were left unprotected. The Scenario Changed and got momentum with the Revolution of 1979 in Iran which established hide-scale participation of women in state activity.

Religion in the Middle East

The region is host to many religions and religious groups. It is where Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam were propagated. Among Muslims, there are Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, Alawite, Wahabi and Druze groups. In the Christian community, there are Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Maronites, Assyrians, and Protestants. The religious importance of the region cannot be underestimated, as billions across the globe turn to it for prayer, pilgrimage and worship and the generation of religious sites which are thousands of years old. Charles Lindholm used the words ‘Middle East’ and ‘Muslim’ as if their meaning were self-evident and as if the Middle East and Islam were coterminous. The territory of the Middle East as the religion of Islam are closely intertwined, since it was from Arabia that Islam originated and spread, as the prophet Muhammad’s (s) Charismatic annunciation of a new shared belief system created a new mode of being in the world that permanently reconfigured the region’s previously existing cultural models for living in Saudi Arabia exerts a significant role and influence in an overlapping series of regional and Islamic arenas.[18] Unlike the West, religion in the Middle East still continues to play its traditional roles, including exertion of the political power that prevents structural and institutional changes.

Lack of Unity in the Middle East States: Shi’a-Sunni Dimension

The differences between the two main schools of thought in Islam, Shi’aism and Sunnism (is an ideological one) have great ramifications on Middle East politics. Arab world in which Sunni governments were dominant have always contested with Shi’a dominated Persian Gulf. Arab leaders ruthlessly trapped themselves with US strategy to create an ethnoreligious divide in order to further isolate Iran. They welcomed imperialists and seeking US interests and floating themselves towards consumerism instead of Islamic ideals and unity. It seems that the Arab world has always experienced lack of unity. Despite Arab nationalism which has been a point to converge on, it has always been subject to division based on political believes and ideas. However, one can probably argue the hardest blow to Arab unity came in 1991 when Saddam invaded Kuwait.[19] This put an end to any reasonable plans for a united Arab world as one Arab nation had attacked another. After the liberation of Kuwait by American troops and the permanent presence of the US in the region, the consensus among Arab states completely dissolved.

The Arab world is enduring a crisis of unprecedented intricacy and extent. The Arab governance systems so far have failed to produce institutional capacity to meet their responsibilities in a globalizing world. Among reasons cited are: autocratic, self-serving, unaccountable, and unrepresentative regimes. Methods of succession and undemocratic practices of the leader perpetuated incompetence of leadership and intensified the difficulties of the state. Failures of the regimes are not limited to mismanagement of development, but also resulted in many other deficiencies such as slow progress in building a civil society, applying the rule of law, and attaining general equity. Arab political leaders, enjoying their absolute power, have been unwilling to permit the emergence of competing or independent powers of decision making in the society. With each political leader designating his successor and relying on foreign powers to support it, the perpetuation of the status quo is ensured. This has become one of the most fatal historical dilemmas facing the current Arab political system that paralyzes orderly political development and perpetuates incapacity to function effectively.


[1] Roger Adelson, London and the Invention of the Middle East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 19940,p.22

[2] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, 2000 Years of History: From the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson press, 1995), p. 27.

[3] Charles Lindholm, The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change (London: Blackwell Publishing Limited., 1996, p. 7.

[4] Beverly Milton Edwards, Contemporary Politics in the Middle East (New Youk: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2000), p. 165.

[5] Edward Said, Orientalism, 2nd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Publishing, 1995), p. 65.

[6] G. Lenczowski, The Middle East in World Affairs, 3rd ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962), p. 39.

[7] D. Quataerd, “Foreword”, in E. Davis and N. Gavrielides, eds., Statecraft in the Middle East Oil: Historical Memory and Popular Culture (Miami: Florida International University Press, 1991), p. 41.

[8] Roger Owen, State Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 13.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ilea Harik, “The Arab States”, in G. Luciani, ed., The Origin of the Arab States (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 235,237.

[11] Nazih Ayubi, Overstaying the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (London: IB Taurus, 1995), p. 245.

[12] Report of the UNDP and Regional Bureau of the Arab States, Building a Knowledge Society (New York: Arab Human Development Report, 2003), p. 22.

[13] H. Schnider, In Middle East, Term Limit is Death, Washington, Reproduced in St. Petersburgh Times, November 28, 2004, p. 7.

[14] William B. Quandt, “The Middle East on the Brink, Prospects for Change in the 21st Century” Keynote Address, Middle East Institute Annual Conference, Washington DC, September 29, 1995.

[15] J. Wolfensohn, “Participation Works”, World Bank News, Vol. XV, No. 8, 1996, p. 1.

[16] J. Pollack, “Saudi Arabia and the United States 1931-2002”, The Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol.6, No.3, 2005, pp. 1, 39.

[17] R. H. Pelletreau, Statement Before The House of Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, 1994, p. 2.

[18] Kazem Alamdari, Why the Middle East Lagged Behind: The Case of Iran (Baltimore: University Press of America, 2004), p. 235.

[19] Parsi Trita, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), pp 140, 148.