Impact of European Colonialism on the Modern Middle East

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

While the Europeans never settled the Middle East in large numbers, nor did they colonize it like they did Africa or India, they certainly left their mark on the region, as this lesson demonstrates.

A Different Kind of Colonization

When you think of colonization, you likely think of one of two different types of endeavor. You may think of John Smith at Jamestown in the early 1600's, building the first of a series of colonies that would eventually become the United States. Or you may instead think of European efforts in places like India or Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, where people were all but enslaved and convinced that their ways of life were inferior to those of the Europeans.

However, while the Europeans were building colonial empires abroad in places like Asia and Africa, they were building very different colonies in the modern Middle East. Here, in places still under the nominal control of the Ottoman Empire, and later nominally independent, Europeans constructed a different type of society. In this lesson, we'll look broadly at this effort, while at the same time looking at a specific instance that still resonates today.

The Good Aspects

For some Middle Easterners, colonization wasn't such a bad thing during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. This was especially true in minority religious communities. In Lebanon, for example, the Maronite Christians found a defender in the French, just as the Druze found a supporter in the British. Meanwhile, merchants increased the amount of trade, while new technologies poured into the region.

Nowhere was this more true than in Egypt. While still nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and its leader, Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), were eager for independence. The British and French were happy to provide technical advisors for all aspects of this effort. However, there was one job in particular that the Europeans were eager for the Egyptians to undertake, the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869 and joined the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea.

Egyptian leader Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

The Bad Aspects

Of course, the Europeans were far from fair in these endeavors. While some families may have seen their wealth and stature increase, it was really the European merchants and advisors that benefitted most from the new state of affairs. European colonialism in the Middle East reinforced tensions between religious groups, many of which still exist today. However, the economies of the countries involved also suffered, which meant that the Europeans felt the need to protect their investments.

This was especially true in Egypt. Due to a collapse in prices during the global economic depression of the 1870's, Egypt soon ran out of money to pay for the Suez Canal. As a result, it turned to the Europeans, especially the British. However, in exchange for financing the canal, the Europeans expected more operational control. This would not bode well for anyone.

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