Evolution of the situation in the Middle East
After World War II, the states in the Middle East that had not yet acquired independence obtained it without violence. All the states were nominally independent, but Great Britain remained very influential in Egypt until 1952-1956; in Iraq until 1958; in the Gulf Emirates until 1971, and in Jordan as well.
The kingdom of the Saud dynasty, first founded in 1744, had been conquered since 1925 in the vacuum left in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saud family took over most of the peninsula militarily, holy cities included, at the expense of, among others, Yemen (1932). In 1945, Saudi Arabia became an ally of the United States thanks to its oil and received in return the assurance of security.
The Wahhabis were rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in Egypt by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna in an anticolonial context. The rigorism preached by the Wahhabis sought to rebuild a militant Islam, which in the mid-1950s was opposed to Nasserite Pan-Arabism.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for their part, had actively helped the “free officers” to seize power. They were marginalized, then repressed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was assassinated (1949). The movement was radicalized with Sayyid Qutb, who opposed Pan-Arabism and preached an offensive Islam. He was executed in 1966. Imprisoned, persecuted, the Muslim Brotherhood embodied a both theocratic and populist movement that was well integrated among the dispossessed.
Almost all the monarchies, except for Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan, were overthrown by military coups. The small Gulf Emirates and Kuwait, protected by the Anglo-Saxons, escaped this fate.
During the 1950s and the 1960s, Pan-Arabian nationalism seemed to triumph. The prestige of the USSR, after its launching of Sputnik (1957), brought various Arab regimes to more or less adopt a Socialist-leaning posture in the 1960s (Egypt, Syria, South Yemen, Iraq, and Algeria). Secular regimes, or those claiming to be secular, had the upper hand. And yet there was no lack of failures: the Syrian-Egyptian union (1958-1961) broke down, among other reasons, because of Egypt’s paternalism. In Yemen, Egypt got bogged down as it faced Yemeni mountain dwellers supported by Saudi Arabia (1964). Most of all, in 1967, the disastrous defeat of the Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) in their conflict against Israel really turned the tables. The region then obviously became militarily dominated by the Hebrew state.
The Palestinian national question
The Palestinian issue, up to that point considered to be a problem of refugees who had been despoiled of their land, soon became the Palestinian national question. And yet between 1949 and 1967, the West Bank and Gaza, now claimed in order to constitute, with East Jerusalem, a Palestinian state, were in the hands of the Arab countries: the West Bank had been annexed by Transjordan, and Gaza depended on Egypt. Nothing was proposed to the Arabs of Palestine other than to wait for a possible victory of the Arab armies, which would restore a homeland for them.
As for the national Palestinian movement, it came out into the open shortly after the Arab defeat of 1967. Thus far instrumentalized as refugees, the Palestinians became the Arabs’ newly found honor because they dared, as in the Battle of Karameh in 1968, to stand up to Israeli tanks. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) intended nothing less than to create a “democratic Palestine,” which implied defeating Israel and a religious-minority status for those Jews who had been in Palestine before the institution of Israel. The Fatah’s Utopian program was to be achieved thanks to guerrilla warfare—after all, the Vietnamese were foiling five hundred thousand US troops—and help from the Arab countries. As for the movements of the left or the far left such as the George Habash’s PFLP or Nayef Hawatmeh’s DFLP, they saw themselves as the revolutionary vanguard fated to bring in the Arab masses of the Near East in its wake by challenging all the existing regimes.
The PFLP’s publicity terrorism, which consisted in hijacking planes, made the Palestinian national question widely known as of the summer of 1968. But no state would have allowed that a movement, no matter how popular, be allowed to negotiate illegally with a foreign state, which the PFLP claimed to do in Jordan after having hijacked two US planes. The Black September repression (1970) cut off the Palestinian national movement from Jordan, its essential base.
The active participation of Palestinians in the Lebanese civil war hardly advanced the Palestinian cause. Anwar El Sadat sent back Egypt’s Soviet advisers (1972), made overtures to Washington, and considered a limited war intended to improve his capacity to act upon a situation dominated by Israel. In October 1973, the Israelis were surprised to discover that they had dozed off on an excessive feeling of superiority, and the Sinai border was far from their vital concerns.
The process of colonization in the West Bank was accelerated with the rise of the Likud (1977).
The peace signed with Egypt after Anwar El Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem (1979) and the Oslo Accords (1993) intended among others to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, were responded to with the assassination of Sadat (1981) and that of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1995). Did not Saudi Arabia’s offer, in 2002, of the Arab League’s recognition of Israel in exchange for a return to the borders of 1967 come too late?
Everything indicates, when examining the map of the West Bank, that as far as the coalition in power in Israel was concerned, the physical possibility of creating a state was no longer on the table nor, in fact, the political will to contribute to it. Contrary to what Yasser Arafat thought in 1969, time will not have worked in favor of the Palestinians. A territory cannot be disputed only with demographic growth.
In his own way, General Ariel Sharon got rid of Gaza, which was waging its war on its own. With the passing of years, Israel found itself with a neutralized Egypt, then an occupied Iraq, in any case divided for a long time, and soon a Syria in civil war, while the Palestinian question moved into the background with the rise of Islamist radicals leading multicontinental jihadism against a backdrop of quarrels between Sunnis and Shias.
In addition to the Palestinian question, the major events in the Muslim world for the past forty years or so have been a militant Islam in Saudi Arabia and a theocratic state in Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s diffusion of militant Islam
The oil crisis, a consequence of the war of October 1973, caused the price of oil to quadruple, giving Saudi Arabia considerable means. The country took advantage of this situation to undertake a systematic militant re-islamization of societies from West Africa to Indonesia, where a sustained campaign, together with financial assistance, the building of mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools) equipped with preachers sowed the ground on which Islamism has proliferated. A rival of the Muslim Brotherhood and much more powerful financially, Saudi Arabia did not produce any thinkers, contrary to Egypt, Syria, and other countries.
Creation of a theocratic state in Iran
In Iran, in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a revolutionary theocratic state, which was offered to the Muslim world as an example. It lashed out at the United States, which it called “The Great Satan,” and at Israel, “The Little Satan.”
This message from Khomeini, a Shia and a Persian, was inadmissible to Saudi Arabia. The ayatollah’s tactical qualities may have been indisputable, but the coherence of his strategy was questionable. He had no allies, could not solicit the atheistic USSR, and despite his anti-Israelism, could not champion the Sunnis. So it was he alone against the world. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq began hostilities against Iran, he was universally supported except by Syria, which could not suffer a Baas rival, and by Israel, which did not want a battle-hardened Iraqi army. According to Henry Kissinger, the ideal situation for the United States was for the two adversaries to be worn down. Iran, unconquered, was finished off by an embargo.