Chapter 1: The Search for Sovereignty in an Insecure World
The Arab state system that now exists across the Middle East and North Africa and the origins of its particular style of presidential rule are the result of a combination of colonialism, Arabism, and the new world order of sovereign states that was introduced after 1945 under the aegis of the United Nations.
Although Europe established very few formal colonies in this region, the boundaries of three sets of Arab states — those in North Africa, in the Fertile Crescent, and in the Arabian Peninsula — and their international acceptance were largely the work of British and French governments anxious to establish spheres of influence on the far side of the Mediterranean Sea and along the land and sea routes running east to India. This process began in Arab North Africa, starting with French invasion and occupation of Algeria in 1830. The process continued with the establishment of a protectorate in Tunisia in 1881, followed by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 and of Sudan in 1898, and then the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911. Finally, it was rounded out by the French declaration of a protectorate of Morocco a year later.
European military and political expansion east of Suez, though not the establishment of spheres of cultural and commercial influence, was checked by the existence of the Ottoman Empire, which was closely allied to Britain in an effort to prevent Russian influence from spreading outward toward the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. However, once the Ottomans decided to enter World War I on the German side, plans were put in place for an imperial carve-up of the Arab provinces of the empire. The result was that the British established themselves in what was to become Iraq, Palestine, and — after 1922 — Trans-Jordan (later Jordan). Meanwhile, the French also created two new states, in Syria and Lebanon.
All these entities were technically termed “mandates,” a form of international trusteeship devised by the powers controlling the new League of Nations to conform to what was seen as “the spirit of the age,” a reference to Woodrow Wilson’s call for national self-determination in Europe. Nevertheless, they were run more like colonies than nations-to-be, not withstanding a certain amount of international oversight and Britain’s obligation to adhere to the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 promising to encourage the development of a Jewish national home in Palestine. As is well-known, the disputes engendered by this promise were to lead, by 1947, to Palestine’s violent partition into what emerged as the new state of Israel in May 1948 and two Palestinian entities, the West Bank and Gaza, under, respectively, Jordanian and Egyptian rule.
In the Arabian Peninsula, power before World War One was divided among several entities: the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and a few family administrations that had managed to maintain an uneasy form of local independence, notably the successive states created by the house of House of Saud based in Riyadh and the Imams who controlled the mountainous interior of western Yemen. This system continued largely intact into the oil era which began in the 1930s with the ruling families cementing their hold on power with the use of their new wealth, distributed along familiar lines of patronage to their relatives and tribal and merchant supporters.