Monday, September 3, 2012

Arab History Essay

Arab History Essay

The history of the Arab world in the twentieth century is primarily affected by the idea of Arab nationalism. The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war created a whole new situation, for the Arab nationalists had to consider their options seriously. For some the preservation and independence of the empire as a Muslim state was essential. Although they were opposed to the policies of the central government, they feared that its collapse would pave the way for European rule. Others felt that the war provided an opportunity to obtain independence for the Arabs with the help of the enemies of the empire. 16 The debate was settled in June 1916 when the Arabs decided to revolt against Ottoman rule and enter the war on the side of Britain and France. (Furgani, 1997)

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The Arab revolt was declared and led by the Hashimite leader Sharif Hussain of Mecca, who had been promised by the British that they would guarantee the liberation of the Arabs and the throne of an Arab kingdom consisting of the Arab parts of Asia. (Tibi, 2001) These promises strengthened the hands of the sharif and his sons in persuading reluctant nationalists to join the revolt. They succeeded also in persuading a large number of Arab army officers who had been part of the Ottoman officer corps to leave the Ottoman army and join the Arab revolt and its army. (Tibi, 2001) Although the Arab nationalists were able to form a government in Syria in 1920 and declare Faisal, son of Sharif Hussain, as king, the government lasted only four months. French forces overthrew it in July.

Britain had already agreed with France to carve up the Arab East between them with France assuming control over Syria and Lebanon and Britain assuming control over Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. The League of Nations sanctioned this colonial control by calling it a mandate system under which Britain and France were expected to prepare the mandated areas for political independence. By 1921 Britain had succeeded in installing Faisal as king of Iraq, and his brother Abdullah was given the crown of Transjordan, again under British mandate. (Furgani, 1997) Syria and Lebanon were ruled directly by France, as was Palestine by Britain.

Another important historical event that had serious impact on the Arab nationalist movement was the British government’s declaration in November 1917 of support for the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. These commitments on Britain’s part were obviously irreconcilable with those made to the Arabs. “If it came to the point, Britain would always prefer her need for good relations with France to her desire to establish an Arab State in Syria; and the Zionists could bring greater pressure to bear in London than could the Arabs.” (Leeman, 1992)

The first generation of Arab nationalists who led the Arab revolt and fought for the independence of the Arab region from Ottoman rule ended up in power but with the approval and under the patronage of a new colonial regime that was imposed on their countries by France and Britain. This was made easier by the very nature of the mandate system, which tended to rule indirectly through indigenous elites. For the elites it was an act of replacing one dominant foreign power by another. Once their economic interests were preserved, they found no reason to challenge the ruling foreign power.

The failure of the Arab revolt to achieve political and economic independence meant that the next phase in the evolution of Arab society had to entail the elimination of European domination and its agents -- the Arab governments that France and Britain had installed. Although Britain and France granted Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but not Palestine, formal independence through treaty arrangements, the independence was so constricted as to be meaningless. (Furgani, 1997) While the history of the interwar period was shaped by European colonialism and its local elites who succeeded in consolidating their positions of economic and political power, other forces that eventually undermined these positions were at work.

As the structure of the economy changed, another class of petty bourgeoisie -- bankers, shippers, exporters and importers, insurance agents, and so on -- tied to the international economic system also emerged. As World War II came to an end, the configuration of social classes and their interests had undergone a major change since the establishment of governments in the Arab region. While economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of traditional elites -- landed aristocracies, large industrialists, and Ottoman-trained military officers turned politicians -- other newer classes with different aspirations and needs began to come to the fore.

While the traditional elites had by the end of World War II associated their political and economic fortunes with imperialism, the new classes were challenging the status quo in search of new social and economic order. (Leeman, 1992) The opportunity to replace the old order forced itself upon the Arab region when the state of Israel was created in 1948 in Palestine. The creation of Israel turned out to be the most serious challenge to face the old order since it demonstrated its unwillingness and inability to preserve an Arab Palestine. This failure exposed the bankruptcy and destroyed the political legitimacy of the first generation of Arab nationalist regimes.

It goes without saying that the failure of the Arabs and Pan-Arabism in 1948 was one of historic proportion from which Arab nationalism has never recovered. Explanations and rationalizations abound, ranging from collusion between imperial powers, Arab regime bankruptcy, superior enemy technology, and others. (Furgani, 1997) The old nationalist order that came to power in the aftermath of the Arab Revolt and the imposition of the mandate system was displaced by a new, younger generation of nationalists in a succession of military takeovers in the core Arab countries of Syria ( 1949), Egypt ( 1952), and Iraq ( 1958). (Leeman, 1992)

One of the most important developments in the twentieth-century Arab world has been the rise of the importance of oil as a source of income, wealth, and political power. In turn, as was noted earlier, this led to a shift in the leadership of the Arab world from the core countries of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to the family regimes of the oil states. This shift, which became evident in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab defeat, was accelerated and dramatized after the 1973 October war, which was supposed to end the occupation of the Arab territories of the Sinai, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza, which Israel had captured in the 1967 war. (Tibi, 2001)

History will show that the decision by the Arab oil states to reduce their output and place selective embargo measures on their oil exports for a few months in the name of the Palestinian cause was a brilliant, profitable act that increased dramatically their income, wealth, and political power within the Arab world. History will also show that Arab nationalism has never given nor will it ever likely give so much power and wealth to so few in such a short period of time. Let us remember that the combined population of Saudi Arabia and the other family regimes in the Gulf is less than 10 million or less than 5 percent of the combined Arab population. (Leeman, 1992)

It is important to point out that the dramatic increase in oil wealth and income destroyed whatever prospects there might have been for some meaningful economic achievements at the Pan-Arab level. The decisions of the 1980 Arab Summit Conference provide a good illustration. At that conference it was agreed among other things to adopt and fund a Joint Arab Development Decade. Yet this joint program was funded to the tune of only $5 billion, or $500 million per year. (Furgani, 1997) One need not point out how inadequate this amount of funding is relative to the massive needs of the Arab countries and their combined population of 200 million. Yet it should be pointed out that the combined military spending of the Arab states in 1984 amounted to more than $61 billion with the GCC states alone spending $28 billion. (Tibi, 2001)

It would be no exaggeration to say that petromoney brought into being classes whose economic and political prosperity had become dependent on this distorted pattern of wasteful spending. These classes include military and civilian bureaucracies, beneficiaries from contracts, commissions, agencies, transactions, recruiting, land speculation, construction of infrastructure, industrialists, importers and exporters, among others, all of whom have become increasingly dependent on the international capitalist system. Given this system of relations and given the vast amount of resources at the disposal of the state, the state itself had become a formidable force in each and every Arab society while the role of intellectuals and nationalist thinkers was eroded and marginalized.

It is obvious from the changes that were brought about by the oil wealth that the concomitant rise of the influence of family regimes requires that the whole concept of Arab nationalism be revisited for rigorous analysis to see whether it can be salvaged and restored to the unifying role it was once thought it could play. (Furgani, 1997) It is very difficult to envisage any serious change in the present thrust of Arab society, which at the current phase of Arab political history is anchored on the premise that the sovereignty of the state takes precedence over Pan-Arab issues and on the central importance of petromoney in Arab economies.
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