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The Middle East: Nationalism, Modernization & Conflict (1836-2014)

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  • 0:01 Usurping Sultans
  • 1:40 Attempts at Modernization
  • 5:12 Mandates & New Neighbors
  • 7:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Few regions have experienced such an intertwined relationship with the West as the Middle East, which has also had a bumpy road to modernization. This lesson looks at how the Middle East became increasingly nationalistic, often due to Western actions.

Usurping Sultans

By the late 18th century, Europe was looking for new places to expand. Most famously, the 13 American colonies had successfully won their independence from Great Britain, forcing the British to shift much of their colonial ambitions to India and Australia. Always eager to get under the skin of their cross-channel rivals, the French saw an opportunity to weaken the British, as well as grow their own empire.

By now Napoleon had a great deal of power in France, and it was time to demonstrate what he could do with that influence. He organized that by moving against the Ottoman Empire in Egypt and Syria; he could provide for a stable base for French ships to attack routes leading from Australia and India back to Britain. As such, in 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. While he faced a much larger Ottoman army, Napoleon's skill and the training of his troops meant that the French were only pushed out by the arrival of a British army.

While Napoleon was unsuccessful, he did prove that the great powers of the Muslim world were ripe for subjugation. Of course, such subjugation required diplomacy—getting bogged down in a war with a massive enemy would drain a country's resources. Instead, the Europeans tried to influence sizable areas of the Middle East to accept advice and financing, both of which came at a price.

Attempts at Modernization

The first country to accept such advice on the terms of the Europeans was actually a province within the Ottoman Empire: Egypt. While technically not independent, Egypt's ruler, Muhammad Ali, was determined to make his province much stronger, with an eye to being stronger than his Ottoman masters.

By the middle of the 19th century, high cotton prices had convinced Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali's son and successor, to take the risk of helping to finance the construction of the Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Needless to say, he knew he could make a great deal of money off of tolls for using the canal from British shipping, as it would save them almost a month of sailing around Africa. What he didn't know was the instability in the price of his main export: cotton.

During the 1850s, political instability in the United States caused cotton to have an artificially high price. By 1861, that instability had resulted in the American Civil War. While Union ships blockaded Southern cotton, Egyptian cotton could not be exported fast enough! Egypt made fortune upon fortune until 1865. Then, with the resumption of trade with the American South, the price of cotton plummeted. Suddenly, Egypt could no longer pay its bills, causing it to borrow money from the West. In exchange, the West took full ownership of the Suez Canal.

Two other countries had notable attempts at modernization, although both were some years later. Both Turkey and Iran had been the centers of great empires, namely the Ottoman and Qajar Empires. By the 1920s, those empires had disappeared, leaving the modern Republic of Turkey and the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran.

Both countries modernized heavily through the 1920s and 1930s, working to be on par with Western European states. In fact, Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, went as far as to use the Latin alphabet to bring his country to modernity. However, Turkey and Iran ended up taking completely different routes.

By the outbreak of World War II, Turkey was frightened by the German advance and offered to enter the war on the side of the Allies. However, the Allies agreed that a Turkish defeat would threaten oil supplies in the Middle East and, therefore, urged neutrality. Meanwhile, the leader of Iran, Reza Shah, felt that Hitler had all the answers. Needless to say, this made his Soviet neighbors, as well as the Western Allies, very nervous.

As a result, Iran was invaded in the middle of the war from all sides, Reza Shah was deposed, and instead his son was named king. The younger king, Mohammed Reza Shah, spent more of his time and money in the pursuit of becoming a wealthy playboy than the leader of a developing country. As a result, he was eventually overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Mandates and New Neighbors

Remember, until the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Middle East, and not all those regions had been as proactive about development as the Egyptians had. With the fall of the empire after the war, the new League of Nations decided to establish mandates to help the new territories become viable states. These countries with training wheels were under the supervision of another major power.

Ironically, given attitudes today, many of these countries begged for American oversight. However, isolationists in America kept the U.S. out of the League of Nations, meaning that the new mandates of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan were assigned to the French and British. These colonial powers saw their new mandates as essentially new colonies, although a greater level of local control was given to the local governments. That said, European garrisons stood by in case anything got out of hand.

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