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Influences of Western Imperialism in the Middle East

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016


This paper argues that despite its imperfections, Western imperialism has contributed profoundly to the Middle East in three key areas: 1) in politics, 2) economy, and 3) status of women. Defining Western imperialism as the period encompassing the fall of the Ottoman Empire and throughout the duration of the mandates system, the various influences attributed to the modernization project of European powers, chiefly Britain and France are traced.

Political reforms instituted by the European powers had limited success but is significant in evidencing the promises of secularization vis a vis theocratic rule or Islamic fundamentalism through the experiment in what is now Turkey. Turkey’s decision to assimilate into the European family of nations enabled it to establish stability and development for its people. Its European-style democracy serves as a role model to exemplify the compatibility of Islam with the Western concepts of democracy, liberalism, and freedom. Western imperialism also initiated economic reforms in the Middle East with the introduction of industry and technology. Britain introduced the use of machines to develop primitive tools for the exploration of oil in the Middle East. The development of the petroleum industry led further to the constructions of railroads, buildings, medical facilities, and other infrastructure. More importantly, petrodollars that have since flown in made the oil-rich countries in the region prosperous, made social programs available, and improved the people’s standard of living. Lastly, Westernization had a profound effect on the status and position of women in the Middle East. The changes in legislation, education, and participation in the workforce became emancipatory for women. Women became professions and established women’s organizations.


Whether or not Western imperialism has been helpful to the overall development of the Middle East as a region and as a people is a source of continuing debate. Many scholars and political analysts agree that Westernization, chiefly, the modernization era that the European colonial powers instituted in the Middle East, albeit forcefully, has spurred profound and positive changes that would not have been possible had the region been left alone (Louis, 1986; Lockman, 2004). Still others contend that the development and growth of the Middle East would have sustained itself towards a more stable form of development if the colonial powers had not intervened in its affairs (Fieldhouse, 2006).

Today, the Middle East is a region mired with war, ethnic conflict, and economic crisis. Far from its glorious days when ancient Mesopotamia was at its peak or when the Ottoman Empire was at the crux of advancement, the situation in the Middle East today is volatile, unpredictable, and unstable politically and economically (Fieldhouse, 2006). The history and dynamics leading up to these events is complex and there is not one single factor that could be attributed to the political and economic decline in the region. Nonetheless, it could be forcefully argued that Western imperialism is not a substantial cause for the current woes in the Middle East. The modernizing and democratizing effort that the Western colonial powers initiated in the Middle East did not entirely fail: Turkey is its greatest success (Lewis, 1995). Rather, it was the failure and the refusal of other Arab cultures to accept integration fully and the inability of the Western powers to balance competing local interests in the region which led to severe military clashes, religious rebellions, and war that led to anti-Westernization feelings, or the opposition to what some call the “Westoxication” of the Middle East (as cited in Hanson, 1983). In hindsight, despite the shortcomings of Western imperialism in the region which partly contributed to its instability, the ideology of Westernization made profound influences in the Middle East. This paper argues that Western imperialism’s modernization project in the Middle East contributed positively by 1) introducing democratic ideals and the concept of secularization, 2) initiating the modernization of the economy, and 3) improving the status of women.

In support of this thesis, the paper is divided in five subsections. The first section provides an overview of Western imperialism and delimits the scope to which we analyze the influence of Western imperialism. The second section deals with the Western political project in the Middle East and how it promoted the separation of the Church and State as embodied in Turkey’s current form of government. The third section deals with Westernization’s contribution in developing the petroleum industry and spurring industrialization and modernization in the economy. The fifth section tackles how Westernization profoundly contributed to uplifting the status of Middle Eastern women.

Westernization in the Middle East

Western imperialism: an overview

Western imperialism is one of the most significant socio-political events that have shaped the Middle East to what it is today. Scholars classify the Middle East as a region still enveloped by continuing forms of imperialism from the West (Lockman, 2004) – the most recent of which is U.S. imperialism through the forcible occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the maintenance of military bases in the region. Western imperialism, as will be defined in this paper, refers to the phenomena that started in the 17th century where the European countries started expanding their influence to the Middle East through direct colonial rule world and until the early 20th century when former Arab colonies gained liberation (Fieldhouse, 2006).

Western imperialism in the Middle East took three primary forms: 1) direct colonization, 2) diplomatic pressure on the sultans of the Ottoman empire to accommodate European economic interests, and 3) treaties with Muslim chiefs providing access to the British to the seaports in southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf (Amster, 2005). World War I saw the Ottomans ally with Germany and Austria-Hungary, primarily against Russia, its traditional rival, which formed an Entente with Britain and France. At the end of World War I, and the fall of Ottoman Empire, Britain and France were out to take spoils of war but were prevented by the Americans to make direct colonies, hence, the signing of the mandates system in 1920 under the supervision of the League of Nations (Lockman, 2004). The mandate rule gave the European victors rule but with the condition that the rulers prepare the mandates toward self-rule eventually. Under the mandates system, Syria and Lebanon were given to France and Palestine and Iraq, to Britain. Because of political and economic interests in the region by the rulers themselves and the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1971 which established Jewish settlement in Israel, the growth of Islamic nationalist movements prevented the transition to democratic self-rule among majority of the Middle Eastern nations (Fieldhouse, 2006). However, during the second half of the 19th century, economic concessions began to be made between local leaders and European powers, leading to the development of infrastructure and industries in the region (Lewis, 1995). Local rules sought loans from European banks and granted concessions to European businesses for the building of railroads, canals, banks, telegraph lines, and others. In the second half of the century, new forms of European imperialism emerged. Rulers granted concessions to European entrepreneurs for the building of canals, railroads, and telegraph lines; operation of banks; and marketing of primary products (Fieldhouse, 2006). They also sought loans from private European bankers. When the local leadership in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt defaulted on the loans, European businesses assumed financial control – leading to widespread unrest, rebellion, and ethnic clashes (Yapp, 2007). The great cost of such wars and their detrimental impact on European economic interests eventually led to the dismantling of the mandates and the proclamations of independence among Arab countries: Egypt (1922); Turkey (1923); Lebanon (1941); Jordan (1946); Kuwait (1961); Syria (1961); Libya (196); Qatar (1971); United Arab Emirates (1971); and Bahrain (1971) (Lockman, 2004). The independence of countries under French and British mandates ended direct occupation in the region but the remnants of Westernizing influence in politics, economics, and culture influenced the social milieu in the Middle East at varying degrees.

Political influence: secularization and democracy

Although the political influence of Western imperialism in the Middle East is limited compared to what was originally envisioned, it was able to prove that democracy and Islam are not incompatible. The prevailing belief was that materialistic Western-styled democracy will never see eye-to-eye with the fundamental tenets of Qur’an, the Islamic bible, and the Shari’a, the body of Muslim laws (Lockman, 2004). In fact, many of the rebellions and revolts that characterized majority of European mandate in the Middle East came out of opposition from Islamist groups denouncing the separation of Church and the State and the “demonization” of the concept of Islamic government. While Western imperialism was not successful in quelling Islamic fundamentalism and rigid Arab nationalism in the region, it was able to prove the benefits of secular government opposed to theocratic rule in the formation of modern Turkey, which was the first Islamic country to embrace the separation of religion and the state and to establish European-style democracy.

The Westernization of Turkey arose from the realist position that for the latter to assimilate smoothly into the new geopolitical order after World War I and to evade the unceasing threat of war from Europe’s imperial powers, it would have to be “a constitutive part of the West.” Upon realizing that the European powers outdid and outpaced the Ottoman Empire’s military and economic capabilities, and for the survival of the Turkish Republic, there was a need to emulate the strategies applied by the West. Hence, the westernization process of the Ottoman Empire started and aimed at modernizing the political and military life of the republic about to be formed. The logic dictating secularization was that the superiority of the West in almost all aspects would destroy whatever gains the Ottoman Empire had. Instead of falling into the hands of European powers, it decided to be sovereign and secure.

The westernization process in Turkey started with the implementation with western-oriented political reforms and the forging of close security cooperation with Europe. A top down modernization process gave way until Turkey’s proclamation as a sovereign republic in the 1920s. Prior to its declaration, the Turkish Grand National Assembly the Islamic structure in the legal system. In 1923, the Caliphate was abolished by virtue of a new constitution passed (Smith, 1998).

The modernization process in Turkey had two objectives. The first objective is to transform Turkey into a secular state with the state and religion covering two different spheres. Religion was defined as a private activity and an issue strictly between the believer and God. The second objective was to come up with a centralized form of government to see to the modernization process and transform Turkey into a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation state. This modernization inspired by Europe accelerated Turkey’s growth in almost all areas. It has become one of the most affluent countries and is looking at a potential membership in the European Union. Its position in international politics is strong as evidenced by its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), associations with the European Economic Community, and its strong alliances with Western nations.

Turkey’s secularization and western-styled modernity challenges other Arab nations who refused complete integration into the new geopolitical order. Many Arab nations have rejected democratic governance despite the people’s openness to western ideas about politics (Lockman, 2004). The European powers’ strategy of integration also failed and even sparked more animosity towards the West. The European powers’ alliance with autocratic and unpopular governments and their collusion with human rights abusers gained the distrust and rejection of traditional Islamists in the region (Lewis, 1995). Moreover, the democratic government initiated did not actually result to genuine empowerment among the people but was limited only to the upper echelons of society and select ethnic groups (Fieldhouse, 2006). However difficult the democratic project in the Middle East may be, the fact the secularization initiated by Europe has led to modernity in Turkey gives hope that the interaction between Islam and Westernization is not fully contradictory and that some elements of Western-styled governance can be integrated into Islamic tenets for the welfare of the Arab people.

Economic reforms and industrialization

Despite the richness of mineral resources in the Middle East, it was Western imperialism, particularly Britain that paved the way for the industrialization of the petroleum industry. This in turn contributed significantly to the region’s economic prosperity. Along this trend of industrialization came the most visible aspects of Western influence such as the development of infrastructure (roads, railroads) and amenities (telegraph lines, banks, communications) which were initiated by Western concession holders (Grunwall & Ronald, 1960).

While the vastness of oil reserves in Mesopotamia and Iraq were famed, it was only in late 19th century that Europe began taking serious interest in developing the oil industry. Before European intervention, oil was used for subsistence and tool used were primitive and antiquated. When capital began to flow in the Middle East, the European powers saw in the oil resources a promising commercial potential. Hence, there were several oil explorations requested from Constantinople in the guise of archaeological explorations. It was in 190s that the Anglo-Persian Oil Company came upon the first commercially viable oil in the region. The British soon dominated trading in the Middle East, making up 75 percent of the total. German capital soon began to flow into the region after German companies won concessions to construct railways from Turkey to Baghdad in early 1900s (Youngquist, 1999). The construction of the railway intensified the exploitation of oil in Iran and many British and German businessmen were granted concessions covering almost 20 kilometers. In 1904, demand for oil grew as the British Royal Navy converted its fuel from coal to oil, prompting the transport of oil cheaper as well as faster. Soon, British political advisers saw the future of world geopolitics in oil and the government itself provided full diplomatic cover for businessmen bidding for concessions in the oil explorations. In 1911, a British-German consortium (Royal Dutch Shell, German capitalist C.S. Gulbenkian, the British-owned National Bank of Turkey, and German Deutsche Bank) won exclusive rights to explore oil within the imperial border. Mergers of oil companies soon grew and the British established a dominant position in the oil exploration activities and trade in the region until the oil-rich countries decided to nationalize the petroleum industry (Youngquist, 1999).

The introduction of industry and technology to exploit oil for commercial purposes resulted to significant prosperity among Arab nations. Before this kind of technology was introduced, these nations were severely underdeveloped. Some of the countries that benefitted significantly from the petroleum industry include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman, and Bahrain. The development of the oil industry in many Arab nations led to the creation of wealth unprecedented in the history of the world. For instance, Saudi Arabia transitioned from a nomadic societal system to a highly organized and prosperous nation all in the span of 60 years (Youngquist, 1999). This trend applied to many poor Middle Eastern nations. Prior to accumulating oil wealth, these countries had no social programs offered, poor medical facilities, no infrastructure, no public and private means of transportation and lack of electricity. The petrodollars stemming from the nationalization and development of the oil industry which was initiated by the European concessionaries and governments resulted to establishment of social programs, welfare services, employment, and prompted a higher standard of living for many.

Improving the position and status of women

One of the most far-reaching consequences of Western imperialism is the shift of status and position of women in the Middle East. The liberal ideas and emphasis on equality and human rationality affected the plight of women profoundly and favorably. The direct occupation of the European powers led to reforms in the laws being practiced that concerned women. Moreover, urbanization and industrialization resulted to the emergence of middle classes who were schooled in European-styled schools (Herrera, 2004). Western thought became embedded in traditional Islamic philosophies. Soon, many organizations formed theories on Islamic modernity based on the teachings of European philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx (Tibi, 1997). One consequence of Western ideas was the foundation of secular nationalist thought and the emergence of nationalists from Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. These secular nationalists proposed the end to the “Islamic project” because they argued that the Qur’an acknowledged the accommodation of Western thinking and institutions (Tibi, 1997). Minority groups and women embraced this and wanted greater political involvement. An Egyptian nationalist Qasim Amin pushed for women’s emancipation as a national political project. The interplay of such factors led to the change in the status of women during the period of Western imperialism.

The renewed thinking influenced by Westernization impacted Muslim women greatly. During the mandates system, chattel slavery was abolished in all European dependencies. The practice of polygamy and concubinage was made illegal in some countries. Despite its continued practice in the remote areas of the region, the practice was soon made taboo because of Westernization. In Turkey and Iran for instance, polygamy became a socially unacceptable practice for those in upper and middle classes (Ata, 1984).

Women’s growing participation in the workforce also became emancipatory for them. Instead of being cloistered in their homes and being subject to their husband’s bidding, the agricultural land required more people to work the farms. Peasant women became a building block of the industrial development in many countries such as Iran and Turkey. As a result of this economic emancipation, women started to enjoy rights which were previously denied them. Turkey’s economic modernization program brought the onslaught of female workers. Furthermore, when First World War ended, the loss of life among the male population required active involvement of women in the economy (Fieldhouse, 2006).

Women also benefited from the modernization program by gaining access to education. In the 1970s and 1980s, as part of Turkey’s transition to European-style democracy, education was made public and a substantial number of women took advantage of the opportunity to learn. Western social scientists who managed the schools brought their liberal orientation and emphasized on concepts of equality, rationality, and freedom (Herrera, 2004). Muslim women were also exposed to the plight of women in Western countries – women who were active participants in society. This led to the acculturation of women, especially those in the middle classes, to Western ideas of women’s emancipation. The “women’s professions” were soon populated with nurses and teachers. As the number of women enrolled in the universities grew, women also became scientists, doctors, and members of parliament, as in Iran (Ata, 1984). Women’s rights organizations and organizations struggling for women-focused reforms grew. For instance, in Iraq, the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights was created and the first women’s magazine Layla was published. These reforms, unfortunately, were not sustained when the democratization efforts were revered to dictatorship in Iraq and under a theocratic regime as evidenced by the experience of women in Iran. The reversal toward Islamic theocracy initiated by Ayatollah Khomeini banned women from employment, education, and other professions and relegated them to their previous roles as cloistered and isolated housewives. Still the most repressive authoritarian regimes who did not follow the path of democracy and westernization continue to prevent the emancipation of their women, as in the experience of Yemen.


While the Western imperialist project is admittedly imperfect and even most of the time violent, it has brought profound contributions to the development of the Middle East in three key areas. In politics, Westernization paved the way for the efforts to secularize and democratize previously feudal and autocratic regimes in the Middle East. As evidenced in Turkey, European-style democracy and the separation of the religion and state continues to challenge rising Islamic fundamentalism in the region. In the economy, Western imperialism brought industry to the region and developed the vast oil resources to make them commercially viable. The prosperity from the oil industry transformed underdeveloped nations into prosperous ones and led to the construction of railroads, modern infrastructure, and telecommunications. Socially, Western imperialism contributed greatly to improving the status of women in the Middle East. By involving them in the workforce, changing legislation, and giving them access to education, women became more aware of their rights and have become more active participants in development.

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