From the October 2004 Idaho Observer:
Middle East, as we know it, a construct of the West
Lines in Arabian sand over which there has been so much fighting were drawn by a British aristocrat in 1922
By Tom Fowler
Are the countries of the Middle East ancient nations? How old is the secular, civil history of these dozen or so countries that make the evening news every night?
It would surprise many people to learn that most of those countries have only been around since 1922.
Through schools, the media and government officials, Americans are given the impression that the countries that comprise the Middle East of today are old countries that have fallen into decay, corruption and decline. Many, if not most Americans, form their opinions about the Middle East based upon this incorrect, foundational perception.
A brief history
With the British colonization of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire found itself at odds with the British Empire. The British held control of India, Egypt and the Sudan in Northern Africa and the Suez Canal, which was the access point through the Red Sea, to the Arabian and Indian Oceans. The Russians, soon to be allied with the British against the Germans, were a threat to the Ottoman’s eastern territories.
The Ottoman Empire included much of the ground that was once the Roman Empire and dated to about 1000 AD. The followers, and eventually the ancestors of the 13th Century warrior Osman, conquered and commanded a vast area around the eastern end of the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and south to the Arabian Sea. What are now known as Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel (Palestine), Syria, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, were all part of the Ottoman Empire.
The region south of Turkey was generally known as the Arabian Peninsula. It was loosely governed by the Ottoman government from Constantinople, Turkey. Most areas were governed by local strong men or Islamic religious leaders. Islam’s holiest locations, Mecca and Medina, were within the Ottoman Empire in present day Saudi Arabia.
The only people called Arabs were people from the Arabian Peninsula, not all Semitic Muslims, as seems commonplace today.
The population of Arabia was almost all Muslims. The Muslim culture was dominant and life revolved around their faith with most people’s lives touched only by the governing of the local Muslim leader. They had no other strong government as the Ottoman’s were content to leave the local controls in place.
By 1914, with the advent of the "Great War," sides were being chosen and the Young Turkish Party (The Young Turks), which controlled the government of the Ottoman Empire following a coup in 1913, decided to forge a secret alliance with Germany because of their promise to not divide up their Empire if they won the war.
Not knowing of the secret pact between Constantinople and Berlin, Churchill seized the Turkish Warships "Reshadieh" and "Sultan Osman I" being built under contract for Turkey in British shipyards. These were two of the most powerful warships on the planet and the British wanted them for service against Germany whom they were about to go to war with. This upset the Turks enough to drive them into cooperation with the Germans.
With Germany’s surrender to Allied forces in 1918, the victors got to split up the spoils of war. These included the Arabian lands of the Ottoman Empire. The American late entry into the war turned the tide militarily against the Germans. The help that came from Wall Street was even more important. The British were so indebted to J.P. Morgan and other U.S. financiers that the U.S. government (soon to assume that private debt) and the creditors got important input into the post war settlements.
Divide and divide again
Quite simply, the region we call the Middle East was a semi-autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire for a long period of time. It ended with the British and American victors drawing lines on the map of the region following the Armistice of 1918, finally putting an end to the Ottoman Empire. In dividing a tribally-oriented group of people into arbitrary countries, the British and Americans continued the western policy of weakening their opponents by dividing them into smaller units. They then attempted to graft new secular governments onto these predominantly Islamic cultures.
We are now at war with those artificial constructs of the American and British governments of just 80+ years ago. When Sir Mark Sykes, a British aristocrat, set pen and ruler to the map of the old Ottoman Empire he drew the playing field for the conflicts to come for the next century.
If the U.S. and Britain truly wanted freedom and democracy to develop in the region, they would accept that secular governments are not the natural orientation of these populations. Muslim law and secular law do not easily coexist in the region, as the Muslim law always trumps secular law and religious leaders are always supreme. We don’t understand this concept in the West where secular law is the norm.
Perpetual war in the Middle East is entirely a construct of the West to exploit Arabian oil. While compassionate people would view western policies in the Middle East as a dismal failure, corporate people, on the other hand, view western policies in the region as extremely successful—and profitable.
Considering the two statements above, people who do not stand to make $billions in profits through the exploitation of oil might like to pull western influence from the region and allow the Arabic people a chance to restore their own sense of balance to the Arabian Peninsula; those who wish to suck the last drop of oil from the Middle East prefer that the region remain angry and unstable.
Since the influence of corporations is greater than the sentiments of compassionate people, western leaders are now attempting to perpetuate conflict in a region that has been at war since the West drew its oily lines in the Arabian sand in 1922.