Wars and Rumours of Wars: What to do about the Middle East?
by Joshua Brady L6
The Middle East is a region of perennial conflict. At least, it seems that way. Ever since the collapse of the British and French empires after the Second World War, the Middle East has been plagued with wars, ethnocides, and despots of all kinds. How can this be rectified, and is rectification even possible? To answer these questions, the context to the Middle East of today must be known.
It all stems from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, which controlled most of the Middle East until 1918. The lost territories of the Ottomans were divided primarily between France and Britain. France received a mandate over Syria and Britain received the mandates of Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. The house of Saud was funded by the Britain too, which lead to the Saudi conquest of the majority of the Arabian Peninsula. There are three key issues that stemmed from these events.
The first is borders. The borders of these mandates were drawn up according to what suited the trade networks of each empire. But when those mandates became countries after World War 2, the borders no longer served this purpose, and began to affect the region very negatively. The borders drawn up by France and Britain’s stretched over multiple ethnic and religious areas. Shi’ites and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs were all brought into the same society. People who previously had never lived together were lumped into the same country, and naturally tensions arose. These tensions would go on to culminate in civil wars like in Syria and brutal oppression like in Iraq.
The second issue is Israel. However one views the creation of a Jewish state, it cannot be denied that the creation of Israel has caused massive strife throughout the Middle East. From its inception, Israel and its neighbours have been involved in conflicts. And it is reasonable to say that these conflicts may not have occurred if Britain or another European power had not been in control of Palestine.
The third issue is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia practices a branch of Islam called Wahhabism, which it projects across the Middle East via Saudi funded schools, Saudi media outlets, and Saudi funded mosques. This spreading of Wahhabi ideology may have been an indirect cause of ISIS, as Wahhabism is the ideology that they claim to follow. With the majority of the population of the Middle East practicing either Sunni or Shia variations of Islam, the conscious and sometimes confrontational promotion of a third alternative has led to further raised tensions.
So, now that the context to these issues is known, how can they be solved, if at all? Of course, if these issues were so simple that a Sixth Form student could devise the solutions they wouldn’t be issues in the first place, but is definitely worth speculating on.
As the border issue goes, the first solution was ‘nation building’. This means for a government to undertake various policies in order to create a new national identity for its people, sometimes through education, sports, media, and even conscription. Such a thing was, and arguably is, necessary for the people of Syria and Iraq today, but the problem with it is that it has demonstrably failed in some aspects, as ethnic/religious tensions are still rife within those countries. Also, nation building can often manifest horribly, as seen in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Potentially the border issue could be solved by ‘simply’ redrawing the national boundaries of Syria and Iraq to correlate with ethnic regions. However, this would mean despots ceding power and mass relocation of people among other things, which would be politically and logistically nightmarish.
The issue of Israel is perhaps harder to solve, as for many it ultimately comes down to ‘who do I like/dislike more?’, since both sides have behaved immorally in the past. As it stands, the Israel/Palestine region is still in conflict, and with east-west tensions only rising the situation doesn’t look like it will calm any time soon.
Despite this, there don’t seem to be any other viable solutions to this conflict. One could stop the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by allowing one side to annex the other, but this would only escalate tensions afterwards.
The problem of Saudi Arabia, at least in my mind, is a bit clearer. Currently, we supply arms and trade with the Saudis, and they use some of the weapons in Yemen and some of the profits to develop the spread of Wahhabism. I see the answer simply – we should cut off arms sales to the Saudis and look to others for our oil. Much like blood diamonds, nice things do not justify immorality.
To conclude with a sentiment too often repeated, the already boiled over cauldron of conflicts that is the Middle East has no easy solution. Syria and Iraq, Israel and Palestine, are all in bad situations, but the alternative situations all seem to be worse. Bar Saudi Arabia, I believe there is no clear way of dealing with the Middle East. For now, we must merely hold a policy of not making a larger mess than the one we have helped so much to create, in the hope that it will deescalate the entire situation. To end on an optimistic note with the quote from which the title of this article was taken: ‘…ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.’