Chapter Three: The Middle East and the Impact of Imperialism

The Impact of Imperialism on the Region

“Everybody did empire.”

-Niall Ferguson, 2011

Imperialism was nothing new in the world when European expansion began impacting the Middle East. As Ferguson said, “everybody did empire” (2011). It’s important to distinguish, however, between imperialism as it was “done” in antiquity and medieval times, and its modern form. Political developments in Europe, such as the Magna Carta, and the Treaty of Westphalia, followed by economic transformation from global trade and industrialization led to a completely different form of imperial power. Europeans brought their ideas, institutions and technical inventions with them, and many of them became standards for the whole world.

There are many terms for the uneven power relationships which developed between European states and the area we know as the Middle East today. This chapter discusses these power relationships and their importance for the Middle East. The term “imperialism” can be a “catch-all” to describe the relationship between a powerful country with a less powerful country. Rather than compete with other ways of using the term, and perhaps furthering the confusion surrounding its usage, we use “imperial dynamics” in this chapter. At the same time there is a classical meaning for empire, with reference to the empires of antiquity such as the Greeks and Romans.

When economic historian Niall Ferguson says “everybody did empire” he is de-emphasizing the power European empires had over the rest of the world. In fact, European settler colonialism made a major global impact, evidenced by the ubiquitous European linguistic, cultural and institutional practices found worldwide and in global systems. The English language we are using to write this book, for example. This imperialism has been experienced as global dominance by colonized countries, and especially by indigenous cultural communities. Ferguson admits that certain institutions (2011), developed and established globally via European colonialism, must be internalized by countries worldwide attempting to gain equal footing in global affairs and financial systems.

In the Middle East, there have been varying degrees of interference by outside powers. Not all countries of the Middle East were colonized: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan remained sovereign. Algeria illustrates another end of the spectrum. It was considered by France, not as a “colony” but as part of France proper. Similarly, the Belgian King Leopold II considered Congo his personal possession.

Countries were at times defined in more independent terms, although they remained under the control of foreign government. For example, “protectorates” were territories endowed with semi-autonomous government. The Sultanate of Egypt (1914-1919) was one of those, a short-lived protectorate of the British Empire. A local king was placed in power, but the purpose was mainly to sever it from the Ottoman Empire during World War I (L.O.C., Egypt). This was before the League of Nations and the Mandate System, which codified an international policy of gradual self-rule for colonized countries.

Due to these varying levels of sovereignty, and the fact that even countries which were not actually colonized had to contend with European power, “colonial dynamics” refers to the varying levels of influence and power European countries have had over Middle Eastern countries. The era of “imperial dynamics” starts roughly with “The Great Game”, between Britain and Russia during the 19th century. This refers to their competition over territory between Russia and the Indian subcontinent. Russia was seeking access to a warm water port, while Britain was seeking access to its most valuable colony, India. The Middle East was the arena for this struggle.

The era of colonialism is often placed in the past, but for many colonized groups, its effects are ongoing. Formal imperialism, with direct control of colonies around the world, and the ability to implement imperial policy from the “mother country”, has been curtailed since roughly mid 20th century when the Bandung conference of 1955 (p.57) was convened by colonized countries. Powerful countries continue to have the power to set the standards for participation in global economics and political affairs that less powerful countries must follow, however. Furthermore, indigenous groups in many Western countries continue to protest ongoing colonialism that affects their communities, as protests in the Middle East also often portray Western countries as imperialists.

Key Concept: Imperial Dynamics

Imperial dynamics refer to the relationship between a stronger country and a weaker country. The form it takes for the dominated country can range from “colony” to “protectorate” to “mandate”.


An example of Western dominance seen as imperialism in the Middle East is the case of Dr. Muhammad Mossadegh, who was prime minister of Iran. In 1953 he was duly elected but was forcibly removed by British intelligence, and the U.S. CIA. Subsequently, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (son of Reza) was put on the throne, and the CIA trained his notoriously brutal secret service, Sazeman e Et-tela va Aminiyat e Keshvar (SAVAK).This background information helps explain much of the negative rhetoric about the U.S. in Iran, and especially the accusation of imperialism.

The subsequent events, especially the Shah’s misguided reforms he called his “White Revolution”, eventually led to resentment among the people, across all classes and demographics.


Key Figure:Mohammad Mossadegh Prime Minister, Iran, 1953

Image ofMohammad Mossadegh Prime Minister, Iran, 1953, while visiting the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., Prime Minister ​
Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran (left) chatted with Associate Justice William O. Douglas. Harry S. Trum. C.C.0, via Wikimedia

Mohammad Mossadegh Prime Minister, Iran, 1953, while visiting the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., Prime Minister ​
Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran (left) chatted with Associate Justice William O. Douglas. Harry S. Trum. C.C.0, via Wikimedia

Clerics leveraged the popular dissatisfaction with the Shah, and organized a revolution to overthrow him in 1979. It was at that time several revolutionaries took 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran for 444 days (until 1981). A deep rift developed between the U.S. and Iran as a consequence, and hostilities quickly rose between Israel and Iran, as well. These events continue to frame the way Iran is viewed in the U.S. and explain the mistrust between the two countries.

One of the reasons clerics were able to lead the revolution is that they are connected to the people at a grassroots level in Iran. Neighborhood mullahs, who usually provide administrative assistant at the local mosque, are very connected to the families there. They preside over births, deaths, marriages, etc. At the same time a very prominent cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, was issuing anti-government propaganda that these clerics could rally behind. Eventually, it was Khomeini who became the leader of Iran, usurping the Shah. This began the era of theocracy in Iran.


Key Figure: Ayatollah Khomeini

Image of the Ayatollah Khomeini, C.C.0

Image of the Ayatollah Khomeini, by Desconhecido, from Wikimedia Commons C.C.0

After the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the mandate system was implemented in the Middle East. Palestine was one of the mandates, as were Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Mesopotamia (as Iraq was known). This followed Wilson’s ideals for the League of Nations and was intended to be a method of transition from a condition of colonization to independence. France, Britain, and Russia had negotiated a treaty, the Sykes-Picot Agreement. They agreed in secret on how to divide Ottoman territory amongst them once the war was over.On the political level, the impact of European imperialism can be seen in the form of new notions of national identity. Former imperial powers became nation-states, or their former provinces did. The trade networks and other activities that supported the empire’s power at one time, did not go away but were often subjugated by the new rules of trade agreements with European countries. These agreements favored the interests of the European brokers. The present-day borders of the Middle East were steadily implemented as European powers gained control of provinces of the Ottoman Empire, such as Egypt, and north and West Africa.

These developments, more than the other factors of economics and culture, shaped the geographical definition of what we call the “Middle East.” These events impacted national boundaries and cultural identities in the region. By the time World War I began France and England had enough control over those communities they could conscript from them to bolster their armies, while Germany allied with the Ottomans who conscripted many for the German side.