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Imperialism is no solution to the Mideast's disorder

Many of the region’s most critical issues are directly linked to colonial policy

Zaid M. Belbagi

Published: Updated:

Amid the current turmoil in Yemen, Aden’s statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1905, is a constant reminder of calmer, more prosperous times. Similarly, Egyptians of a certain age lament the dilapidation of Cairo as they remind themselves of a time when the streets were regularly cleaned with bleach under British administration.

These examples have been brought to the fore by a highly controversial piece by Robert Kaplan in Foreign Policy magazine, which argues that given regional upheaval, “The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East.” Novel though this premise is, it fails on two counts: first in not providing a credible solution to the region’s problems, and second in ignoring the strong link between imperial policies and today’s challenges.

The relative order and organization of Amman, Manama and Abu Dhabi today is often related directly to British influence. Though the leafy capitals are convincing examples of British expertise and engineering, there is another former territory that is anything but an example of post-colonial serenity: Iraq.

Its implosion was arguably the beginning of a chain of events that saw regime failure across the region. Followed by waves of sectarian violence and the rise of the monstrous Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iraq is an example of the hopeless failure of the strongmen who characterized the post-colonial Arab world.

In the 1990s, Professor Barry Buzan noted how the Arab world exhibited the most successful transplants of 19th-century European nation-states. Through a hybrid of nationalism, repression, patron-client economic models and Western support, a generation of strongmen stifled development to retain power. The conflict present in the Arab world today is not a consequence of a lack of order, but rather a failure of governance over generations.

Many of the region’s most critical issues are directly linked to colonial policy

Zaid M. Belbagi

Kaplan claims that “imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been. The challenge now is less to establish democracy than to reestablish order. For without order, there is no freedom for anyone.” Such casual commentary fails to address the essential issues with governance. Good governance must supplant repression as a means to build stable and secure societies.

Fifteen years ago, the first Arab Human Development Report warned of “a poverty of opportunities.” Today, this challenge is all the more acute as demography and instant communication have raised the stakes for governments. Unemployment in the Arab world currently stands at 25 percent. Reports of conflict across the region distract from the real frontline battle, one of a generation of under-occupied and disenfranchised youth.

Foreign rule does not solve such problems - in fact, the last demographic bulge in the region is what spurred an end to colonialism. The 1920 Iraqi rebellion against British rule was a youth-led movement (incidentally, today’s insurgents revel in associating themselves with the same movement).

Time and again, regimes are found unable to meet the basic needs of their citizens, whether educational, security or humanitarian. Under such circumstances, these models are collapsing, leaving the field to lethal non-state actors.

Utopian societies?

Faced with such chaos, disciplined colonial societies have been heralded as utopian. What such analyses fail to recognize is that many of the region’s most critical issues are directly linked to colonial policy. Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria were created through colonial plans, as European powers drew lines in the desert and introduced policies favoring minorities, dividing communities, and thus laying the foundation for today’s problems.

The Palestinian problem, the perennial calamity the region must deal with, was spawned during the British mandate. Repeated commentary of the region’s woes in Syria and Iraq have directly found their roots in the dissolution of the Ottoman empire and the subsequent 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France that carved up the Middle East.

The consequences of these policies reverberate today. Indeed, the rabid nature of modern sectarianism is often directly linked to colonial policies of divide and rule, whether French machination in the fabric of Lebanon, or the British role in Iraq’s myriad tensions.

Since independence, much of the Arab world has been governed with an iron fist. The political narrative of the region has been one of repression and order in the place of good and accountable governance. Half a century of highly-centralized authoritarian rule served the West as a means of maintaining control and stability, but the regimes lacked a crucial commitment to development.

Regional upheaval is a loud call for a change to these established patterns, for citizen-centric societies to be built from the ashes of collapsed despotic regimes. From the traditional Western policies of propping up friendly autocrats, subverting civil movements, and the catastrophic modern military invasion and occupation of Iraq, the West has been a major contributor to regional instability.

On the 65th anniversary of the Arab League, the region must look to the current disorder much as Europe did after World War II. The current conflict is an opportunity to create a voluntary regional union of equally progressive societies, geared toward stable development.

Note: The title of Robert Kaplan's piece, "It's time to bring imperialism back to the Middle East," was changed to "The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East," following a change in the original title in Foreign Policy Magazine upon Kaplan's request.

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Zaid M. Belbagi is a government communications expert with experience in providing strategic advice in the Middle East. He is commentator on Gulf affairs, being a member of the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum (OxGAPs) and formerly a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS). He regularly appears on TV.


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