The Scourge of Neocolonialism in the Middle East

Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana coined the word neocolonialism (from izquotes.com)

I want to have an honest chat about neocolonialism, because I currently live in a region which would look entirely different if not for that scourge. I want to look at the recent history of neocolonialism in the Middle East.

First, not everyone agrees about what “neocolonialism” is. Is it any intervention by a foreign power in the affairs of another country? Is it interference in a former colony by the former colonizer? I like the moderately broad definition adopted by the Encyclopedia Britannica: “the control of less-developed countries by developed countries” through economic, political, cultural, or other pressures. A simple example? The CIA-backed 1953 coup in Iran, setting up an oppressive anti-communist autocracy (which was later overthrown in a pro-Islamist people’s revolt).

Under this broader definition, neocolonialism is not — despite its name — new. It was originally coined to describe the tactics of former colonizers, but we have come to understand that former colonizers merely use the same tactics which global powers have used since the beginning of history to dominate smaller states. The Roman Empire destabilized its enemies, supported “coup d’etats” for pro-Rome rebel leaders, demanded tribute from smaller states, and used its economic clout to devastate entire regions. The same is true for every regional or global power which ever existed.

However, that does not make neocolonialism acceptable. I will state it clearly — I think neocolonialism is one of the greatest causes of misery for the human race. Neocolonialism has undermined the natural right of human communities to rule themselves. It has robbed entire countries of their natural resources. It has started, lengthened, and ended wars for the benefit of far-away governments. It has enriched local and international elites and impoverished entire cities.

This modern overview of neocolonialism in the Middle East begins with the oft-cursed Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which Britain, France, Russia, and Italy agreed to divide former Ottoman territories after World War I. As you can see in the map below, the borders of the modern Middle East hardly resemble the borders of the original agreement:

From economist.com

But the original agreement is symbolic of neocolonialism not because its borders lasted but because it was signed secretly by developed Western powers, then forced on Arab and Middle Eastern countries. The Allies had actually promised Arabs their own country for their role in the war against the Ottoman Empire, but instead Britain and France ended up ruling the Middle East in “mandates” which were promised as temporary but had no specified ending point. “Lots of countries have strange borders,” says Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut. “Yet for Arabs, Sykes-Picot is a symbol of a much deeper grievance against colonial tradition. It is about a whole century in which Western powers have played with us and were involved militarily.”

Where the British and French did not directly rule, in the Arabian Peninsula and in Iran, they exercised extensive influence. The creation of Saudia Arabia in 1927 was only possible because of British support. Iran was divided by Britain and Russia in 1907 into nominally independent colonies and then occupied completely by British and Soviet forces during World War II. And after the Second World War, the creation of Israel — though perhaps necessary — was done without consulting Arab nations in a way which has inspired conflict to this day.

After World War II, the Americans joined the neocolonial run on the Middle East. They inked a deal with Saudi Arabia to exchange oil for its protection in the region. They supported anti-Soviet dictators and toppled pro-Soviet democratic governments. They supported Israel far beyond its needs for survival and created lasting antagonism with Arab countries. And in 2003, they invaded Iraq to topple a belligerent dictator and set up democracy. It is widely considered, both within and without the United States of America, as one of the worst foreign policy moves since Sykes-Picot.

Enough of the sins of the West. The problems in the Middle East do not begin and end with Britain, France, and the United States. Surely some of them are internal to the various countries — corrupt elites, sectarian conflict, and social inequality have all played a part. But there are neocolonial influences in the Middle East which are not discussed often enough, and I believe they are just as important as anything the West has done: powers both regional and non-Western.

The two poles of regional power in the Middle East are Iran and Saudi Arabia, and they have been increasingly active in recent decades. In Lebanon alone, Iran has financed the creation of a military and political powerhouse in the Shia Hezbollah which now rivals the central government for control of the country, while Saudi Arabia recently detained Lebanon’s prime minister and appears to have forced him to resign briefly. Across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has exported a brand of rather extreme Sunni Islam which has been associated with its monarchy from the beginning, while Iran has financed the development of relatively extreme Shia Islam. The terrorism indirectly caused by these efforts has been destructive to many smaller countries. And they are not the only regional culprits — Israel and Qatar are among the many other regional players who use neocolonial methods to influence less developed neighbors for their own benefit.

But in recent years, new international players have begun to emerge in the power politics of the Middle East. Turkey, always powerful due to its size and Ottoman legacy, has recently interfered extensively in Syrian and Iraqi politics. Russia has joined with Turkey and Iran to defend strongman Bashar al-Assad in Syria and tip the scales of the Syrian Civil War against rebel groups. China, which became Iran’s biggest trade partner during the recent Western sanctions, has inked new trade and development agreements with that country as well as with Saudi Arabia and with Egypt. China’s deals may ostensibly be only economic in nature, but 50 years of Western “economic” aid to the developing world should teach us all to be skeptical of the supposedly disinterested nature of such aid.

Xi Jinping of China and Ayatollah Khamanei of Iran (from scmp.com)

These modern changes in the neocolonial exploitation of the Middle East are discouraging. Since the Iraq invasion, Western nations have tried to diminish their heavy-handed approach to the Middle East. But the void, which was supposed to be filled by democracy and local sovereignty, seems instead to have allowed regional and international players to manipulate economies and conflicts to their own advantage. Is this inescapable in a globalized world? Will smaller countries always be partial client states of one or more powerful large countries, either regional or international?

I don’t know. But it brings to mind a potential goal for the United States going forward. As a nation, we should support maximal local sovereignty in every region of the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, everywhere. That means abandoning the sort of neocolonial US behavior which led to the Iran coup or the Iraq invasion, definitely. It means curbing the power of American and Western multinational corporations, surely. But it also means applying pressure to new neocolonial powers like Russia and China when they attempt to undermine democracy, buy up key local industries, or support autocratic client governments.

Is this idealistic? Yes, but I suppose idealism is part of most goals. Since American foreign policy is always guided by some combination of philosophies besides self-interest, perhaps we can make opposition to neocolonialism a central pillar of American foreign policy in the coming generation. And perhaps that effort would make the world a little better.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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