A Brief History of the Middle East

Foreword. I started out to write a brief history. I failed. It turned into a lengthy document which is still only a superficial history. I hope you can persevere and come to the end of the post with a better understanding of the web that is the Middle East. I should also acknowledge vox.com. Some of the maps were borrowed from their site.

Another point of clarification. I have used the term Shiite throughout the post. Some people use Shia. Shia is the plural of Shiite.


I have always been fascinated by the Middle East. Maybe it was those books about Lawrence of Arabia I read as a child. I continue to read about the history to try and understand how we got to the mess we have today.

I just finished reading a book – Inside the Middle East by Avi Melamad – which gave me a more Arabic perspective even though it was written by an Israeli. It is a bit out of date as it talks about the situation up to 2014 but the history filled in a few blanks. It inspired me to try and outline the last hundred years in the Middle East, and how the current mess was set in train by World War 1.

Before World War 1 (before 1914)

The starting point is a map of the Middle East before the first world war.

Middle East 1914

The British (the pink bits) were established as the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) was in decline. Persia was still a force. The centre of the peninsular was an independent Arabia. It was home to nomadic tribes. Much of Arabia was a desert. Israel did not exist. Both English and French were keen to have more control or at least influence in the region,

When WW1 happened, the Ottoman Empire was the enemy of Britain. Britain was keen to enlist the nomadic Arabic tribes in the independent area of Arabia to fight or at least distract the Turks. After the disaster of Gallipoli, the idea was to divide the Turkish forces and fight lots of minor battles so they could not regroup into a single force and advance west towards Europe.

Lawrence of Arabia (1917)

Enter T. E. Lawrance. Lawrance was a loose cannon who was interested in Arabic culture and history and spoke the language. More by his own efforts than by military strategy he became accepted by many of the nomadic tribes. He was close to Fiesel who was one of the most powerful leaders. Lawrence understood that the British army was ill-equipped to fight in the desert regions but the nomadic tribes with camels were a fearsome force.

Lawrence decided he could lead a force across the desert from the south of the peninsular and attack Damascus which was a major Turkish stronghold. It was inconceivable to the Turks that anyone would attack from the desert so the guns pointed towards the sea.

To do this Lawrence a complete outsider to the Arabs, had to unite all the major tribes and get them to cooperate in a way they had never been able to do in the past. He convinced them that if they worked together, after the war they would have their own country stretching from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

During the journey, he took the city of Aquaba. The British followed the Arabs into Damascus taking the easier but more obvious route from Egypt.

Sykes-Picot Treaty (1916)

Behind the scenes, the British and French were working on a secret treaty to divide up the Middle East after the war. A relevant fact from the period is that the borders between many countries were fluid. For example, the borders between British and French areas which now include Syria, Jordan and Iraq were not clearly defined. The result was that different ethnic, tribal and religious groups were fitted between lines on maps.

Sykes-Picot division of the Middle East

A question that has never been clearly answered is if Lawrence knew of the treaty when he was negotiating the alliance between tribes in 1917. He promised the British would give the Arabs their own country after the war in return for their support. Was he deceived, or did he deceive Fiesel?

The Balfour Declaration (1917)

The Sykes-Picot treaty was secret but in 1917 the British government announced through Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour the following:

” His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

In other words, the British Government was telling the Arabs that they were going to take a section of Palestine – which was part of the Ottoman Empire – and create a Jewish state. This occurred in spite of the assurances from Lawrence and the army that the Arabs would have their own country.

The reason often quoted is it was a quid pro quo for support from the Jewish financial community in Europe to fight the enemy. As can be imagined, the Arabs were less than thrilled.

Post World War 1

The final carve-up happened as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Here the victors negotiated the split of the Ottoman empire. Two interesting players from the British team were Churchill and Lawrence. Lawrence was all for giving Fiesel control of most of the captured lands but in the end, lost his argument.

The major changes were:

  • Turkey became the largest country but was only a fraction of the original Ottoman Empire.
  • Persia became Iran and was under British influence
  • Iraq was what had once been Mesopotamia. The word Mesopotamia means the land between two rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates.
  • Arabia was a single country however in 1932 it split to become Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Muscat, Oman and the UAE.

One theory as to why the various lines were drawn on maps was a political imperative to make the area unstable. It was considered good foreign policy to set up the countries for failure by creating internal divisions within countries, and friction between countries. The desired outcome was to make oil secure. No one country could dominate oil production.

The British Mandate 1922-1939

Britain was made the governing power of Palestine following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. Jews started moving into Palestine in order to create a Jewish state. In 1890 the Jewish population accounted for 5% of the population of Palestine. By 1939 it had grown to 40%. Such a large influx (250,000) with an agenda to build their own country obviously caused some conflict with the Arabs who had lived there for centuries.

Violent outbursts continued through the early decades of the twentieth century and Britain set up a royal commission headed by Lord Peel. The Peel Report (1937) concludes that reconciliation is impossible and that the only solution is to set up two states, with the Jews occupying a small territory in the north of Palestine and Jerusalem retained as a permanent British mandate. Reluctantly the Jews accepted this proposal, on the grounds that a small state is better than none. It was categorically rejected by the Arabs.

When WW2 began, the British put a limit of 75,000 immigrants per year for Palestine over the next five years. The restriction did not work. By 1940 the population was 450,000 and has grown to 9 million today

In 1948 David Ben-Gurion who was head of the Jewish Agency proclaimed the state of Israel and was supported by the USA. Palestine was divided. The United Nations soon supported Israel against Arab objections. The Arabs who had fought in WW1 to support the British expecting their own country had lost.

Sunni and Shiites Origins

The split between Sunnis and Shiites occurred soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 632. It was brought about by a political division. The justification was the line of succession of the head of the Muslum religion.

When Mohammad died without a successor, a cousin was chosen to follow as successor. This continued for two more generations (all successors were killed incidentally) until the fourth appointment in 661.

A group objected to the chosen successor. At stake was vast wealth and power gathered over decades through taxes and tributes paid by tribes under the banner of Islam. The rebel group were called Sunnis. They prevailed and chose a successor. The split continues to this day with both parties practising similar forms of Islam but fighting between themselves. Reminiscent of Catholics and Protestants 100 years ago.

Sunni and Shiites Today.

The map above shows the split today. While some countries are mainly one branch or another, in some cases the minority party rules. In Syria, the majority are Sunni 60%. Shiites are 5%. To confuse the issue another group, the Alawites who are more aligned with Shiites make up 11%. The Alawites and Shiites, however, are not on friendly terms but the Alawites rule through Bashar Al-Assad. So a Sunni majority 60% and the Shiites 5% are ruled by the Alawites 11% who are sort of aligned with Shiites but don’t consider them allies.

In the world today there are about 1.6 billion Muslims. About 90% are Sunni and 10% Shiite. The two major religious powers are:

  • Iran as the Shiite leader
  • Saudi Arabia as the Sunni leader.

They fund and support rebel groups in many other countries to promote their religion and try to gain further power. They have alliances with countries that share their version of Islam and in some cases fund rebel groups in countries that do not. Further on that later.

Today religion is one of the major divides in the Middle East. For centuries people from both religions lived in harmony. In the last century as a result of drawing lines on maps and forcing different religious and ethnic groups together into one country, conflict has arisen. Much of the conflict is under the banner of religion but is more related to politics, power and influence.


With the discovery of oil, the picture became more confused. Now the areas with oil are targets for takeover by other countries. ISIS took over oil fields to fund their caliphate.

Oil fields in the Middle East.

Foreign countries also try to ensure continuity of supply and use wars as an excuse to manage oil. After the US went into Iraq Exon suddenly appeared to take over the oil fields. Sadam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass destruction sounded very much like a grab for oil.

Persia to Iran

Persia started with Cyrus the Great in 551 BC and expanded to be one of the most powerful countries over the next hundred years before eventually declining.

In 1935, Persia requested it henceforth be known by the Persian name Iran. It was to recognise those in the country who were not native Persians. It also marked a point where the country had freed itself from the control of Britain and Russia. The Shah Mohammad Reza was trying to modernise the country as oil became a significant part of the economy.

From 1974, the Shah had serious cancer and was not able to carry out his duties. He had created a centralised government and was the main decision-maker. He became a bottleneck to the modernisation he was trying to achieve. More importantly, he created a power vacuum that was begging to be filled.

Opposition had sprung up from the religious right led by Ruhollah Khomeini who was in exile at the time. Eventually, in 1979 the Shah was forced to abdicate and Khomeini took over to create the Islamic Republic of Iran. He became Ayatollah Khomeini and enforced Sharia law on Iran.

Arab versus Persian

The Persian empire may have ended, and Persia is now Iran, but there is still a divide between the Persian and Arab worlds. A lingering distrust between the two ethnic groups transcends religion.

In 651 the 400-year-old Persian dynasty was conquered by Sunni Arab Muslims. The Persians converted from being Zoroastrians to Islam. The Sunnis ruled until 1501 when the Shiite ideology was adopted. Since 1500 the Persian have been ruled by non-Arab Shiite dynasties that compete with Sunni Arab and Sunni Turkish powers for dominance.

The rivalry between Shiite dynasties ruling Persia and the major Sunni political powers – both Arab and Turkish – intensified because the Shiite dynasties ruling Persia were of non-Arab origin. Being a Persian Shiite is worse than just being an Arab Shiite.

Types of Government

There are at least six types of government in the Arab world. Some countries have a mix of types.

  1. Monarchies. Countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the UAE are ruled by monarchs. They tend to be more stable than other types of government.
  2. Theocratic rulers. Countries like Iran are ruled by religious leaders such as an Ayatollah or Supreme Leader. These countries have sharia law as the foundation of their legislative system so the top religious figure is the leader.
  3. Army ruler. These types of government come and go. In Egypt, the Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coalition to remove the President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, from power and suspended the Egyptian constitution of 2012. In some cases, they resign their military roles but still retain the support of the army as el-Sisi has done today.
  4. Democracy. Israel is the closest to a western democracy but other countries have limited democracy.
    Iraq is an Islamic democracy for example where politicians are elected within an Islamic framework.
    Lebanon is a type of democracy however certain positions must be held by religious appointees.
  5. Presidential republic. Syria has a President who does not rule by sharia law, but who rules the country with an iron hand. He only represents a minority ethnic group (Alawites) but single-handedly rules the country with the support of the military.
  6. Semi-presidential representative democratic republic. Yemen’s politics nominally takes place in a framework where the President of Yemen is the head of state, while the Prime Minister of Yemen, who is appointed by the President, is the head of government. Although it is notionally a multi-party system, in reality, it is completely dominated by one party, the General People’s Congress

Radical Islamic Politics

As with most observations about the Middle East, there is no one type of radical politics. There are two poles in radical Islamic politics.

One pole is non-militant Islamist fundamentalists. A government may want to impose Sharia law on the population, however, they are accepting of other religions. For centuries Muslims and Christians lived side by side without problems. Prior to the creation of Israel, the area was largely Muslum and there were few problems with Christians who lived in the same towns and villages. It is not to say there are two sets of laws, but countries such as Iran prefer to convert through words rather than guns.

The other pole is the militant fundamentalists. They see their duty to eliminate all Christians and other faiths from the face of the earth. They want to create a global caliphate. ISIS held this view and believed just as crusaders wanted to wipe out Muslims centuries ago, their role is to wipe out all non-muslims. Worse than non-muslims are Muslims who practice another form of Islam.

One fact that is overlooked by Western media is that in the last decades, more Muslims have been killed by Muslim radicals than non-muslims. For example, al-Qaeda was responsible for the killing of more than eight thousand people between 1998 and 2011, and that almost all of its attacks took place in Muslim and Arab states.

Salafi-Jihadi ideology

The guiding principles of the radical fundamentalists can be captured in the Salafi-Jihadi ideology. The following is an extract of their principles from the book I mentioned earlier – Inside the Middle East.

Salafi-Jihadi ideology is the school of thought that guides, inspires, and motivates many of the major militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and dozens of others operating today.

The core belief of Salafi-Jihadi ideology is that Islam will thrive again once it adopts the codes, laws, and values as they were in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his first four successors, the rightly-guided caliphs. To implement the codes, law, and values, Salafi-Jihadi calls for proactively and violently spreading and implementing its ideology.

The core difference between political Islam and militant Islam when it comes to the creation of the caliphate is that while political Islam’s core concept is takwin, the need to focus today on creating the conditions and global caliphate. Takwin represents the belief that it is necessary now to establish a global caliphate—and that the realization of this goal requires uncompromising ideological rigidity.

The values and goals of Salafi-Jihadi militant Islam are:

  • To urgently establish a global caliphate in which every aspect of life is governed by a strict orthodox interpretation of sharia.
  • To overthrow all current political structures in the Muslim and Arab world because the current governments and rulers do not rigidly enforce sharia and are therefore illegitimate.
  • That the use of violence is justified, even critical, to establish the caliphate; that all means necessary to achieve the caliphate are acceptable.
  • That it’s necessary to wage war on the West and its values because they threaten the Islamic religion and Islamic civilization.
  • That it’s necessary to wage war on the Jews and the State of Israel.
  • That it’s necessary to wage war on Shiites.

Religious Alignments

The Sunni world is led by Iran. The Shiite world by Saudi Arabia. While they are not in direct conflict, they both have proxy wars in surrounding countries.

Iran financially supports a number of groups within other countries. In other cases, they do not receive support from Sunni countries. It is not all about religion.

  • Syria is supported by Iran even though Bashir Al-Assad is Alawite which is closer to the Shiite religion.
  • Hezbollah in Lebanon is supported by Iran
  • Turkey is 85% Sunni but is not closely aligned with Iran.
  • In Yemen, Iran supports Houthi rebels
  • Afghanistan is a majority Sunni country but Iran is not a major supporter
  • Hamas in the Gaza strip is supported by Iran in their fight for Palestinian independence
  • The Muslim Brotherhood who have been significant in both Jordan and Egypt are aligned with Iran
  • Iraq is also closely aligned with Iran. Since the US toppled Sadam Hussein, a Shiite, the 63% Shiite majority has taken power. In typical Middle East politics, Iraq is also aligned with and dependant on the USA. The US is, of course, opposed to Iran particularly in relation to nuclear weapons development, and Iran’s opposition to Israel.

Saudi Arabia has a number of alliances.

  • Saudi is fighting in Yemen against Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
  • Israel sees Iran as a threat so is aligned with Saudi although obviously, not religiously aligned.
  • UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan are Shiite nations and are pro-Saudi.
  • The USA supports the Saudis primarily to safeguard oil

Israel Occupied Territories

The map below shows the three occupied territories. The West Bank, Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip.

Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip has 1.8 million population who are largely Sunni. It is about 25 miles long and 3 to 7 miles wide. The area is only 365 sq km. Unemployment is around 45% and 80% receive some sort of international assistance.

Israel moved their settlements and military out of Gaza in 2005. It was left in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas evolved from the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1988 they published a charter and described them as a branch of the Brotherhood. Their focus then, and now is the elimination of Israel. They have no interest in negotiating peace and see the struggle as going on for generations. Much of their funding originally came from Iran.

They contested elections in 2006 after the death of Yassir Arafat who headed up the Palestine Authority. To their surprise, they won beating Fatah who was the more moderate opposition and favoured by the Western World. As the new government, they had to manage roads, water and development. Their vendetta against Israel was pushed into the background.

Generally speaking, they did a good job. They brought crime under control and made a lot of improvements to the lot of the Arab population. Fatah however did not accept Hamas and there were many assassinations and civil disturbances. Hamas offered Israel a 10 year guaranteed ceasefire if Israel withdrew. The whole situation was complicated by ad hoc attacks on Israel by a range of disaffected groups. Israel retaliated and the conditions deteriorated. A truce was off the table.

Israel also started implementing restrictions on imports after putting a blockade on Gaza. For example, cement was restricted. Israel claimed it could be used to reinforce tunnels. Hamas said they could not rebuild after the Israeli attacks. Similarly, fertilizer was restricted as it could be used in explosives, but it also meant farmers could not produce enough produce to feed the population.

After being elected in 2006, there were bloody encounters with both their internal rivals and Israel. Hamas decided they would not hold elections and ruled as a dictatorship ever since.

Over the years, Israel has been attacked with rockets and mortars and has closed the borders between Gaza and Israel. Since it borders Egypt, Hamas also needs the support of Egypt to smuggle in weapons and goods through tunnels. Since Egypt and Iran are on opposite sides, Hamas has distanced itself from Iran and become more dependant on Egypt. Hamas is clearly the government in the Gaza Strip but is now more focused on fighting Israel than looking after their own people.

West Bank

The West Bank was captured from Jordan during the six-day war in 1967 and is considered occupied territory. It includes East Jerusalem and part of the Dead Sea. Size is 5,700 sq km. The population is 2.7m Palestinians and 400,000 Jewish settlers. Another 200,000 settlers live in East Jerusalem.

The settlements are considered illegal by the international community. From UN resolutions to the International Court, the findings have been consistent. Settlements should not be in place.

While Israel controls 60% the West Bank directly, the Palestinian Authority has some power over the remaining 40%. It is Fatah controlled and claims, as do Hamas, to represent the whole of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority has said the West Bank should be part of Palestine and a roadmap was created. Palestinians must end all attacks on Israel, whereas Israel must dismantle outposts. Since neither condition has been met since the roadmap was “accepted” by all sides, final negotiations have not yet begun on major political differences.

The Golan Heights

The Golan Heights were also occupied as part of the six-day war in 1967. It is two thirds under the control of Israel and one third under the control of Syria. The Heights cover 1800 sq km. The population is around 50,000 of which half are Palestinians and half Jewish settlers.

It has been considered occupied territory by the international community and settlement illegal however in 2019, Trump said he recognised it as part of Israel. The unilateral declaration is being challenged by law experts who say land seized under defensive or offensive wars cannot be annexed under international law.

Arab Allegiances

One thing I read about the differences between Western and Arab cultures made a lot of sense. Allegiances in Western countries are relatively solid. In Arab countries they are fluid. Today my brother is my friend. Tomorrow my brother attacks my friend and he becomes my enemy.

Within the Middle East are hundreds of groups. Some are political and some militant. They are funded by different groups (countries, ethnic groups, international affiliates) and their source changes from time to time. They merge and split on a regular basis. Something negotiated with Group A may change when Group A splits into Groups B, C and D. From outside the Middle East, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to see all the shifting allegiances and motives of power groups. It is easy to focus on a country but extremely difficult to see what is going on within that country as power and allegiances shift behind the curtain.


It is difficult enough to understand each country in the Middle East but think also about refugees. According to the UNHCR, there are 13.5m refugees who are displaced persons from Syria and 2.7m have left Afghanistan. These people are in Turkey, Jordan. Lebanon and Egypt. Some are displaced within their own country. For example, Syria had a population of 22m of which 6m are displaced within Syria. The others had left Syria completely.

If a country is receiving millions of refugees, it changes its approach to the country of origin. Regardless of ethnic or religious similarities, the overwhelming driver is the return of those refugees to their country of origin.

The Problem and the Solution

Think about the diverse forces at play in these countries – religion, generational rivalries, ethnicities, Arab v Persian, money, ambition, different political systems, oil to mention a few. Add populations with low education levels, corruption, poverty, displacement by wars, subject to foreign interference, bound by religious laws and isolated from world events, and you have a recipe for exploitation from all sides.

Take one example. We hear about Russian support for Syrian Bashir al-Assad against the Kurdish. The Kurdish did most of the work under American direction to drive out ISIS from Syria.

America no longer wants to know about the Kurds. In the ultimate contradiction, the US criticises Turkey for persecuting Kurds in Turkey and ignores al-Assad persecuting Kurds – their recent allies – in Syria.

Russia wants guarantees relating to oil and supports the current Syrian government to get those guarantees. The Kurds have nothing to offer. The US says nothing about the persecution of their recent allies.

What a mess! We need not worry of course as Trump has put his son-in-law Jared Kushner on the job so we can all relax. Jarrad and Donald will sort it out.

The western media focuses on Israel because there is a Jewish diaspora in most countries who want to hear about Israel, The rest of the turmoil is too complex. Israel is only one of the problems. In fact, it is a smallish problem.

If you want to go to the core of a solution, look at improving the lot of the common man in all the Arabic countries. Education and equality are the only likely solutions. The danger is that sometime before those generational changes can take place, a war will break out that will destroy the whole region.

The goal of the Sykes-Picot treaty was to create an unstable region that would be easy to control so that oil would not be impacted by a strong regional power. What happens to the Middle East when oil is no longer critically important to the western world?

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