Why There Are So Many Arab Countries – A History of the Middle East (Part 2)

This installment deals with the history of the Arab people starting with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. For earlier developments, see the previous installment.

The Rise of the Ottoman Empire

(Wikimedia commons)

Much as a variety of Germanic peoples destroyed the Western Roman Empire, in some cases moving into territory that they did not previously inhabit to do so, the Eastern Roman Empire faced an invasion from the east, in the form of the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuk Sultanate gained and lost territory against the Byzantine Empire for years before itself fragmenting in 1300. One of the ten successor states of the Seljuks, Osman, began conquering nearby Byzantine and Turkish towns in 1299, and soon began expanding the tiny beylik into a new empire. The first few Ottoman sultans concentrated their conquests in Europe, gaining a foothold in eastern Thrace (which remains part of Turkey to this day) and conquering the Balkan Peninsula in a matter of years. Some areas escaped large-scale military action by voluntarily becoming vassals of the new sultan, but many worked against Ottoman control in secret.

Constantinople held out long after the surrounding area had become Ottoman, falling in 1453 and becoming the Ottomans’ new capital. In 1492, the Spanish expelled the Umayyad caliphate from its borders. In the early 1500s the Ottomans managed to depose the Fatimid and Abbasid caliphates, claiming the Maghreb, the Nile watershed, the Levant, most of the Arabian Peninsula (including Bahrain and Qatar), and Mesopotamia and gaining a border with the empire of Persia. Their hold extended briefly as far south as Oman and Yemen. The borders of the Ottoman Empire would shift continually, as wars against Austria, Romania, Russia, the Portuguese Navy in the Persian Gulf, and Savafid Persia waxed and waned. Baghdad in particular frequently changed hands between the Ottomans and the Savafids, and various parts of Oman and the Trucial States oscillated between Portuguese, Omani, Ottoman, and Savafid control. The Savafids increased the prevalence of Shia Islam in the regions under their control, and it remains a majority in Bahrain. Most of Yemen became independent in the 1630s.

The Ottoman Decline

From approximately 1683 until the beginning of World War 1 in 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of decline. Despite its success in gaining control over close to a third of Europe and nearly all of the Arab Middle East, the Ottomans had failed to keep pace with the technological advancement of Western Europe, and the need to constantly put down small insurrections and armed incursions on most of their expansive borders took its toll. The decline of the Ottoman Empire and the activities of the 30+ countries that emerged from its territory is a massive topic in itself, and is treated in much greater detail here.

By 1719, Oman was a great enough maritime power that it gained control over Zanzibar, the Comoros, and the cities of Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam on the African coast, which were the capitals of colonial Kenya and Tanganyika, respectively. Selling African slaves to Britain, in addition to the more traditional pearling industry, formed the backbone of the Omani economy.

In 1777, Qatar rose to prominence as a trading center like Bahrain as a result of immigration from Ottoman-occupied Mesopotamia. Its prominent Al Khalifa family would go on to gain control over Bahrain and become the island nation’s modern royal family.

In 1830, France began a colonization effort in Africa, starting with the Ottoman city of Algiers. The rest of modern Algeria would follow in 1872 and Tunisia in 1883. In 1832, Britain established a colony covering the southern half of modern Yemen, called South Yemen, while the northern half lost its independence and return to Ottoman control in 1872.

In 1850, Great Britain outlawed slavery within its possessions. Without the largest market for its slaves, the Omani economy collapsed, and divisions within the empire led to Britain stepping in as a mediator, lest the state become an Ottoman or Persian vassal again. At Britain’s suggestion, the East African coast, the Comoros, and Zanzibar were separated from Muscat’s control and soon became British or French colonies. Many families from Muscat fled to Zanzibar.

In 1853, seven sheikhdoms located between Oman and Qatar signed an agreement with Britain. It was at this time that the area around them became known as the Trucial Coast, or the Trucial States.
In 1861, Great Britain offered a treaty guarantee of the Al Khalifa family’s rulership over Bahrain, leading to the islands becoming a trade center that rivaled and even exceeded Muscat and Qatar. The population of the islands swelled with immigrants from elsewhere in the Arab world and even India. This did not stop Bahrain from becoming an Ottoman vassal state within a few years.

In 1882, as part of the incipient Scramble for Africa and to maintain control over the Suez Canal, Britain established a protectorate over the Nile watershed, though Egypt and Sudan remained nominally under Ottoman control until the British established a formal colony over the region in 1914. In the years leading up to World War I, France, Italy, and Spain would continue the Scramble, claiming Djibouti and Mauritania, the three provinces that comprise modern Libya, and Morocco as colonies from the weakened Ottomans, respectively. Somalia also fell, this time to the English and Italians.

In 1913, the Ottomans lost control over Qatar, signaling the permanent waning of their influence in the Trucial States.

World War I to Modernity

With the eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire already a given when World War I erupted, and the imperialist impulse operating strongly throughout Europe, France and Britain decided how they would divide the Ottoman lands among themselves in 1916. The Sykes-Picot Agreement drew a line across the parts of the Ottoman Empire not already under European or independent control—Anatolia, the Northern and Southern Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula—and assigned areas of French control and influence above that line (in the Northern Levant and Anatolia) and British below the line (Mesopotamia, the Southern Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula). The exact lines between the various territories would shift in later years, in particular to add the area around the city of Mosul to the British Mandate, and eventually, Iraq.
With this in mind, the British encouraged the Arabs to revolt against their Ottoman occupiers. In particular, they encouraged the Hashemite family (the descendants of the Banu Hashem clan, Muhammad’s people) to lead the Arabs against the Ottomans. The family patriarch and Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali of the kingdom of Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast), led the uprisings, with the understanding that his sons would lead any Arab nations that emerged from the war.

The war ended in 1918 with Ottoman control largely broken except for eastern Thrace and western Anatolia. Eventually, the Young Turk movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk would create the modern state of Turkey, including a vast swath of what might otherwise have become an independent Kurdish state. The other Kurdish land was divided between the French and British Arab-majority mandates.

In the Arab world, the Sykes-Picot Agreement came into effect, assigning Hussein bin Ali’s son Faisal to rule the Northern Levant (under the French, and now called the French Mandate of Greater Syria) and his son Abdullah to rule the Southern Levant (under the English, and now called the British Mandate of Palestine).  The Syrians regarded the French regime imposed on them as illegitimate, and Faisal attempted to lead them in open revolt against their colonial status. Losing that war, he fled to Mesopotamia, where the British crowned him King of Iraq. Kuwait, like the Trucial States south of it, asserted and maintained independence.

Within the British Mandate of Palestine, the British maintained a much stronger influence on the coastal region, which they called Palestine proper and which would become the state of Israel in the 1940s. King Abdullah’s authority was limited to the rest of the territory, known then as Transjordan. France divided Greater Syria into a group of parliamentary states, most of which are currently within the modern country of Syria. (Lebanon gained independence, and Alexandretta joined Turkey in a questionable plebiscite.)

Further south, Hussein bin Ali succeeded in freeing Hejaz from Ottoman influence. In neighboring Nejd, the interior of the Arabian Peninsula, one Ibn Saud emerged as a powerful warlord. With British backing, he and his forces cleared the Ottomans from Nejd. Within a few years, he conquered Hejaz and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula north of independent Oman and British/Ottoman Yemen, eventually calling his new kingdom Saudi Arabia. Within his borders, he and his armies enforced the edicts of the fanatical, fundamentalist Wahhabi/Salafist school of Islam, creating a great deal of friction with the rest of the Islamic world, since his territory now included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia and Iran would emerge as particularly fractious rivals, since the two states were effectively theocracies run by opposed branches of Islam and dominated by ethnic groups that had warred for centuries.

From the new state of Iraq, Faisal attempted to pursue a pan-Arab agenda, with an main goal of uniting Iraq with Syria, but non-Arab peoples (such as the Kurds, who were close to 20% of Iraq’s and Turkey’s population) within both countries did not find that agenda palatable. Even if they had, the threat of British and French reprisals kept the idea from getting far.
In the 1930s, Britain and France let their mandates over the Middle East expire and signed treaties confirming various borders, spawning the independent states of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

The remainder of the 20th century was marked by several trends:

1. Continued colonial influence in African Arabia until each nation gained its independence, mostly in the 1950s. In some cases, such as Libya and Somalia, this involved uniting provinces controlled by different imperial powers. (France and England had seized and split Libya in 1943). Zanzibar gained independence from its British colonizers and then joined also-newly-independent Tanganyika, creating the new nation of Tanzania. The Comoros gained independence from France and then suffered a long and strange history of coups d’état.

2. Coups establishing military dictatorships in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958), Syria (1961), Algeria (1965), Mauritania (1964), Libya (1969), Tunisia (1987), and Sudan (1989), many of which persisted until the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 and some of which continue today. As a result, the Hashemite dynasty rules today only in Jordan.

3. Attempts at unions between various Arab states in 1958, 1963, 1972, 1972 again, and 1974, mostly spearheaded by Egypt under Gamel Abdel Nasser and Libya under Muammar Gadhafi, which failed repeatedly due to perceptions of unequal partnership (especially with the powerful Egypt) and the desire of the new kings and dictators of Arabia to remain in full control of their territories rather than delegate power to a regional authority.

4. The consolidation of the authority of somewhat weak central governments in Yemen and Oman. In Yemen’s case, the British half and the Ottoman/Communist half united in 1990, leading to civil war and eventual reconciliation. For Oman, the formal termination of the Imamate in its interior and assumption of national-level authority by the capital united the country.

5. The unification of the seven Trucial States into the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain and Qatar also attempted to join, as an eighth and ninth Emirate, but failed to reach a power-sharing agreement and remained independent. All three countries are now fantastically wealthy.

6. Hostility with the Western world and with Britain and the United States in particular over the inclusion in and treatment by the state of Israel of Arab-majority areas, most of which have since become known as the Palestinian territories.


The twenty-three entities of the Arab world have much in common culturally, historically, and religiously. Except for Lebanon, they are Muslim-majority states; like much of Africa, their recent history is defined by occupation and division by foreign powers. The modern borders between Arab states are largely artificial, but have persisted due to intervention from the outside and instability or authoritarianism from within preventing unification at various times. The most natural states in the Arab world are the small monarchies and emirates of the Persian Gulf region: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. In a very real way, some of the Arab world’s borders are what they are because, due to the imperialist legacy of the Ottoman Turks and various European powers, the Arab world has been unable to actualize a unification movement such as those that united the principalities of Italy in the late 19th century.
While pan-Arab sentiment is not extinguished, its luster is lacking at the moment.  Many of the Arab nations have been culturally distinct long enough to resist future attempts at union (Egypt, Tunisia, Oman, Yemen, the Persian Gulf states), have unusual political situations that makes uniting with their neighbors presently unpalatable (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Algeria, Morocco), or have large and vocal non-Arab minorities worried that a pan-Arab agenda would silence their voices (Algeria, Western Sahara, Iraq).
Thus comes the Arab world, a group of 21 countries (and several semi-autonomous territories) with a common language and cultural heritage and a large number of borders between them.

Now that the Arab Spring revolts have toppled or greatly weakened many of the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world, and with them many of the reasons that previous Arab unity efforts failed, a new wave of pan-Arabism might arise, leading to a more united Arab people. In any case, this fascinating part of the world may yet surprise us with its complexity.

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