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The Ottoman surrender of Jerusalam: Hussein Effendi el Husseini, then Mayor of Jerusalem, centre, meeting with Sergeants Sedgwick and Hurcomb of the 2/19th Battalion, London Regiment, to surrender, on the morning of December 9, 1917 (Library of Congress/American Colony Jerusalem)

The 21st century has been brutal to the Middle East. The Levant has collapsed. The stable Ba’athist dictatorships that held together Iraq and Syria have given way to multilateral civil wars. Lebanon has never recovered fully from its own collapse more than 40 years ago. The Arab/Israeli conflict may be entering a new phase, but its resolution remains as elusive as ever. Roughly 20 million Levantines are stateless or displaced, creating a refugee crisis with global implications.

On the peninsula, Saudi Arabia’s leadership is undergoing its first generational handover since 1953; its young Crown Prince seems intent upon changing the face of this starkly conservative kingdom. Yemen is experiencing its second devastating civil war in 60 years. The Gulf Cooperation Council is in a standoff with one of its own members, Qatar.

Egypt went through four governments in under three years before (apparently) stabilising beneath a pro-Western, anti-Islamist strongman. Libya became a full-blown failed state. Turkey — still a Nato ally — is shedding the last vestiges of Kemalism to become an Islamist autocracy. Iran entered 2018 facing its second set of anti-regime protests in a decade; in between, it deftly negotiated international acceptance of its nuclear and missile programmes and an end to the sanctions crippling its economy. The Sunni/Shia rift that is nearly as old as Islam has entered its bloodiest phase in centuries. Russia has reestablished itself as a power player. Changes to global energy markets threaten revenues throughout Opec. Raging Islamist terror manifested a caliphate whose social-media savvy guarantees its salience even if it loses all of its territory.

American — and Western — responses have varied widely. President Bush believed that American military might could awaken millions of hidden pro-Western liberal democrats. Many of Bush’s fiercest critics argued that the seemingly grassroots, and grossly misnamed, “Arab Spring” uprisings marked that awakening. President Obama put “daylight” between the US and Israel, edged away from traditional Arab allies, and instead sought working relationships with the region’s two largest, most mature, best disciplined Islamist organisations: the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran.

President Trump began his term urging the leaders of Sunni Arab states to drive the Islamists from their midst, and strengthening traditional American alliances with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. His National Security Strategy, released towards the end of his first year in office, cast these moves as part of “a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology. It is based upon the view that peace, security and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad.” The resultant strategy thus prioritises stability, sovereignty and interstate negotiations as core American interests.
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Lawrence James
September 5th, 2018
9:09 AM
The baleful history of the Balkan states after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the greater Serbia created in 1918-1919 suggest the history of the nation states in the Middle East will be unhappy. Whatever their faults, the British and French administrations in the Levant, Palestine and Egypt kept their inhabitants from each other's throats and dampened down religious antipathies.

Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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