The revolutions in the Middle East have thrown the imperial powers into crisis.
That is because the control of the region has been at the heart of the West’s project for more than 100 years. The great powers have used every means at their disposal to maintain their grip throughout that time.
In the 19th century the world’s then dominant powers, Britain and France, took over parts of the Middle East using military power. They installed compliant regimes in other areas.
Britain was mainly interested in using the area as a staging post to expand its empire eastwards. That was one reason for seizing Egypt in 1882.
The rest of the Middle East remained outside the West’s direct control until the First World War.
Italy joined in the imperial scramble, taking over the area that is now Libya in 1911 (see below).
The areas that now make up Iraq, most of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Palestine were under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which was centred in Turkey.
During the First World War, Britain convinced Arab leaders to revolt against this empire, which was allied with Germany. In return, it claimed it would support the establishment of an independent Arab state in the region.
Britain’s leaders were lying, of course. Their real motivation was oil.
Western companies paid minimum sums to local rulers to gain control of areas thought to contain oil.
Just as today, representatives of the great powers disguised their theft and domination. They used words such as “liberation” and “self-government” to justify their imperial intervention.
French and British officials encouraged the playing off of Sunni against Shia Muslims—and Christian against Muslim—as it suited their aims.
The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 carved the region into British and French spheres. British and French diplomats simply drew lines on a map, dictating the fate of millions.
They used a ruler—which explains why the borders of many Middle Eastern countries are remarkably straight.
This act of imperial horse-trading demonstrated that neither Britain or France would permit the creation of genuinely independent Arab states.
The region’s oil was now lubricating the wheels of international diplomacy.
Every redrawing of the political map generated resistance. British officials imposed kings on Iraq and Egypt, only to face pressure from independence movements a few years later. Britain strengthened the role of the tribal sheikhs, who became their local tax collectors and law enforcers.
But even their support for the British administration failed to contain an explosion of anger in 1920, when the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate over Iraq.
British troops eventually put down an insurrection in Iraq, and crushed protests and strikes in Egypt.
Colonial officials followed a two-pronged strategy—brutal repression of mass protests coupled with an effort to forge an alliance with local elites.
Discredited Arab leaders also have a long pedigree—every imperialist intervention has found local rulers willing to cooperate with the occupiers.
By the 1920s, the sheer extent of the region’s oil reserves had become clearer—and oil was becoming the key commodity for global capitalism.
In the 1950s, Britain’s foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd put the West’s argument with brutal simplicity: “At all costs these oilfields must be kept in Western hands. We need, when things go wrong, to ruthlessly intervene.”
The US became the dominant power in the Middle East after the Second World War. It has pursued a twin-track strategy to secure its control.
One is backing the Arab rulers. The US fears that popular resentment in Arab countries could erupt and push the rulers to challenge its interests, or that revolution could bring about fundamental change.
Such fears were underlined when Egypt’s nationalist president Gamal Abdul Nasser challenged the West in the 1950s and 1960s. And they were stoked further when revolution toppled key US ally the Shah of Iran in 1979.
This is why the US backs Israel, a reliable ally that acts as a “watchdog” in the region. Israel was crucial to breaking the challenge posed by Nasser, and remains vital to the US today.
Western powers have launched a series of wars to retain their dominance. The first attempt to crush the Arab nationalists during the Suez Crisis in 1956 ended in humiliating failure for Britain, France and Israel.
But Nasser and other nationalist leaders attempted to limit the scope of the revolutions, though any blow to imperialism was a threat to the West.
So in 1967, Israel launched its Six Day War, crushing the Arab armies. Following this defeat it became “pragmatic” for the Arab regimes to end their hostility to imperialism.
Egypt and others embraced the US and made peace with Israel. Regimes that refused to do the same faced isolation and military attack. The “Arab front”, as the US called it, was broken. Now came heavy repression and the transformation of the region into pro-US dictatorships.
They adopted neoliberalism, and this, along with the concentration of oil wealth in the hands of a few families, left Arab societies more polarised.
The Middle East is still the “greatest material prize in history”.
This is why the West continues to look to client states or intervention to preserve its interests.
One of the aims of the wars on Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001 was to reassert US dominance. Instead, it exposed its limits. But oil remains capitalism’s obsession—and it needs to keep a strong guard over it.
Most of the Middle Eastern states were firm allies of US imperialism—until the outbreak of the revolutions this year threw the situation into flux.
The Arab ruling classes remain firmly integrated into global capitalism. A number of dictatorial regimes backed the United Nations resolution on intervention in Libya. Some—including Saudi Arabia—have already sent troops to repress the movement in Bahrain.
But the intertwining of the struggle against imperialism and the Arab regimes opens up the possibility of ridding the region of outside influence and moving to a truly democratic society.