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Arab nationalism in the years 1900-2001 Essay

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How significant was the presence of foreign powers as an influence on the nature and growth of Arab nationalism in the years 1900-2001

Throughout the century it is evident that the presence of foreign powers has had a substantial influence on the nature and growth of Arab nationalism which has suffered many peaks and troughs over the years. The fluctuations of Arab nationalism have come as a by product of what is a combination of foreign country’s power hungry self interest and demand for greater natural resources such as oil and greater land. What was once a strong anti-ottoman feeling in the early 1900’s began to develop largely into anti west sentiments which were largely geared towards anti imperialism once the mandate system was set up during the 1920’s. Moreover, after conflict between borders and a continuing anti Zionist affection shown during the Arab Israeli conflict, Arab nationalism began to rise through the 1950’s and peaked after the Suez crisis, and a largely anti imperialist action of nationalising the Canal in 1956.

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Over the century the Arab Israeli conflict has been more of an integral influence on Arab nationalism than any other. The 1917 Balfour Declaration recognized the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine severely undermining the Sykes-Picot agreement[1] that had aimed to hand over control of Syria, Lebanon and Turkish Cilicia to the French and Palestine, Jordan, and Baghdad to the British. Walter Zander argues that this declaration was simply out of British ‘‘strategic interest’’[2] Increased Jewish immigration in to Palestine added greater strain to tensions between them and the Arab states. Problems continued in 1936 when Arabs launched a spontaneous rebellion against British rule and the increasing Zionist presence in Palestine[3]. Arab nationalism had developed into an anti imperialistic ideology following the mandate system created and maintained and increased its anti Zionist feelings more and more.

During the post World War Two period in 1945 League of Arab States was founded and Egypt, Syria, and Iraq and Lebanon united to work for Arab independence and to oppose Zionist aspirations in Palestine[4].With violence between Arabs and Jews reaching uncontrollable levels and Britain withdrawing its military personnel from Palestine in 1948. Moshe Gat stated that Egypt, and indeed the entire Arab world, regarded the establishment of the state of Israel ‘‘as one of the most heinous crimes in history,’’[5] emphasizing how much hostility the Arabs truly met Israel with. Israeli troops took the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in 1954 and with Nasser recently seizing power, a strong anti Zionist feeling was further developing. Following the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 when Nasser acted against the British and their imperialism showing the Arab world they had a voice, significantly more Arab masses began to follow him, and his anti Zionist ideology allowing Arab nationalism to peak during these years.

Martin Kramer supports this by highlighting how young colonels, such as Nasser now wanted to ‘‘propel the Arab world to unity, power and prosperity.’’[6] The creation of the PLO in 1964 supports this by demonstrating the anti-imperialistic views Nasser wanted to implement, and by doing so, making his anti Zionist feelings heard labeling them the ‘‘forces of evil’’[7] The Arab Israeli conflict reached boiling point in 1967 resulting in the outbreak of the Six-Day War after border clashes between Israeli and Syrian forces.[8] The influence of Britain and France was substantial as they clearly sympathized with Israel. Deals such as the Sykes Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 highlighted their imperialistic intentions and sympathy towards Israel. This clearly promoted greater anti-Zionist feeling amongst the Arab world and would eventually develop into a strong anti-west feeling that provided a platform for Arab nationalism to take off from.

Despite there being a strong anti Ottoman feeling during the early 1900s, World War One was a catalyst for change and in 1920 a clear turning point transpired. In 1915 the McMahon Correspondence came about where under McMahon’s demands, Hussein would encourage the Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire and enter World War I on the side of the allies in return for the independence of Arab states. A meeting was held in order to decide the fate of territories formally under Ottoman control. The League of Nations awarded a mandate over Syria to France, and a mandate over Israel and Palestine to Britain. The League of Nations took no territorial integrity into consideration when doing this, and, run by the allies, self interest took priority as each vied for power within the Middle East.

Dr Nigel Ashton supports this by stating that the mandates ‘‘sowed the dragon’s teeth’’ which eventually grew into a ‘‘complex of tensions and despotisms that constitute the contemporary Middle East’’[9] The creation of the new modern states was carried with no cultural, historical or political knowledge over where the ideal place to establish borders would be, and therefore, without regard to natural or human boundaries, they were made according to distinct territorial entities. The creation of these states meant that each one had to follow self interest and this created border disputes among Arab states for oil and strategic assets. Essentially, the mandate system can be seen as ‘‘the first manifestation of the ultimate goal to abrogate the colonial system’’[10] which many European states were still pursuing. Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, as did Syria[11] and this was a period where many post-colonial nations in the region were first feeling their nationalist muscle, a prime example being Egypt and Nasser during Suez Canal Crisis in 1956.

Consequently, tensions rose and Arab nationalism became anti imperialist and anti west due to the burden they had placed on the Arab nations. The creation of independent states was however an ‘‘important issue in the decolonization process,’’ [12] which would have affect in the long term removal of European power in the Middle East. However, the border disputes also took place amongst the Arabs themselves and great distrust began to emerge, as was evident when Iraq invaded Kuwait after a border dispute over oil in 1980. The Kuwaiti Government had hoped to force Mr. Hussein to the bargaining table, and negotiate a border truce and a non-aggression pact. Instead, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait driving its ruling family into exile. Henry M. Schuler, states that from the Iraqi viewpoint, the Kuwait Government was ”acting aggressively – it was economic warfare.”[13] Moreover it can be argued that if not for leaders such as that of Kuwait and Hussein himself, these disputes may never have occurred.

Further influence on Arab nationalism has been the ‘Superpower’ statuses of USSR and the U.S.A. In response to the U.S.A’s refusal to fund Nasser’s plan to build the Aswan High Dam, he nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956[14]. Martin Kramer describes Nasser’s next astute move as ‘‘positive neutralism,’’ [15]as he played foreign powers against each other and instantly received funding from the USSR. Arab nationalism subsequently seemed to be aligning with the USSR through Nasser and it seemed that although the Arab states followed an anti imperialistic ideology towards Britain, they contradicted themselves by allowing the Soviet Union to have a sphere of influence within the Middle East. Western powers grew to perceive Arab nationalism as a threat rather than a political idea to positively engage with, a succession of aggressive and ill-considered policies led Arab states to turn to the Soviet Union for support.

In 1955 the Bagdad Pact that was signed however was an exemplary Cold War agreement reflecting the priority the Eisenhower administration gave to containment of the Soviet Union through collective security agreements.[16] This pact led Iraq into alignment with the U.S.A and after previously being non-aligned, clear divisions became evident throughout Arab nationalism. The pact indicates the transformation of the passive negative principle of nonalignment into an active and positive policy of neutrality. Fayez Sayegh highlights the importance of the Bagdad Pact stating that it essentially brought the ‘‘cold war from the outskirts and into the Arab world.’’

[17] Moreover, it became evident that the policy of neutrality followed by Arab nationalist now meant independence. This allowed for the pursuit of self interest without ideological constraint meaning they didn’t have an ideological characteristic and could pursue things simple because it was in their own interest and nothing else. Arab relations with the U.S.A deteriorated after their ties with Israel did not agree with Arab nationalism and the strong anti-Zionist feeling which was promoted by leaders such as Nasser. This was in contrast to the relations with the Soviet Union who had strengthened their ties with the Arab states by supplying them with arms since 1955.[18]

Furthermore, we can not overlook the cultural developments and this largely stemmed from the repercussions of the Ottoman Empire. Turkification in itself as Martin Kramer states, ‘‘threatened the cultural status quo.’’[19] Kramer shrewdly illustrates how this clearly raised the need for a separate a separate Arab identity. The Arabs rebelled against the Ottomans and longed for a separate cultural identity in relation to their writings and language. Arab identity was due to their own religion and language for a long time foreign presence acted as glue to foreign imperialism creating a bond of solidarity.

Martin Kramer goes on to note that the Arabs did share ‘‘a vague admiration for the liberal democracies of the West’’[20] implying that Arabism did not develop into full-fledged nationalism straight away, but did argue for the existence of secular Arab culture. Nevertheless, the discontent Arab states shared during the Ottoman period came to be known as the ‘Arab awakening’ and this cultural revival evidently reduced the influence of foreign powers within the Middle East allowing Arab nationalism to grow. This however was not always a simple task as the struggle was not only against anti-imperialism, but against the would be Arabs themselves. Nationalists aimed to ‘‘educate them to an Arab identity,’’ preferably by persuasion and not by force.

To conclude, I believe the presence of foreign powers throughout the past century has been extremely significant in relation to the nature and growth of Arab nationalism. As Martin Kramer states, Arab nationalism represents ‘‘rapid birth, rise, and decline of any modern nationalism’’ highlighting the result of inconsistent ideologies, and the broad spectrum of countries which were present in the Middle East over the last one hundred years. Foreign powers have continuously had an influence on nationalism in the Middle East beginning from the Ottoman Empire during the early 1900’s, and spanning into its anti-imperialist development sparked by the presence of Britain and France and the creation of the Mandate system by the League of Nations.

Due to the on going Arab Israeli conflict Arab nationalism has essentially always been anti-Zionist and this peaked through the years after the Suez Canal Crisis where Nasserism took off and Arab states united to support their anti imperialist policy. The increasing influence of the USSR due to frequent arms deals cemented their place in the Arab world however the U.S.A did not share this same luxury as it leaned towards Israel. Eventually peace settlements were made in the Middle East as in 1969 where Israel accepted the Resolution 242.[21]

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[1] Teach MidEast www.teachmideast.org

[2] Arab Nationalism and Israel – Walter Zander

[3] Teach MidEast www.teachmideast.org

[4] Teach MidEast www.teachmideast.org

[5] Nasser and the Six Day War 5th June 1967- Moshe Gat

[6] Arab nationalism: Mistaken Identity Martin Kramer

[7] Palestine National Charter of 1964

[8] Teach MidEast www.teachmideast.org

[9] Dr Nigel Ashton, review of Western Imperialism in the Middle East, 1914–1958

[10] Civilization and the Mandate System under the League of Nations as Origin of Trusteeship – Nele Matz

[11] people.virginia.edu/~jrw3k/middle_east_timeline/middle_east_timeline.htm

[12] Civilization and the Mandate System under the League of Nations as Origin of Trusteeship – Nele Matz

[13] Thomas C. Hayes, 1990

[14] Teach MidEast www.teachmideast.org

[15] Arab nationalism: Mistaken Identity Martin Kramer

[16] Jankowski, James. Nasser’s Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic

[17] Arab nationalism and Soviet-American relations – Fayez Sayegh

[18] www.labour-history.org.uk- Assess the impact of the Suez Crisis on Cold War politics

[19] Arab nationalism: Mistaken Identity Martin Kramer

[20] Arab nationalism: Mistaken Identity Martin Kramer

[21] Teach MidEast www.teachmideast.org

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