Europe and Arabia: A Geopolitical Perspective

Geography helps explain the complicated history between Europe and the Middle East.

The Arabian Peninsula is seen on a Norwegian globe from the 1950s
The Arabian Peninsula is seen on a Norwegian globe from the 1950s (Magnus Halsnes)

As different as the Quran is from the New Testament, or the constitution of France is from the constitution of Saudi Arabia (which is, in fact, the Quran), these differences are arguably less important than those which seperate the geography of Europe from the geography of the Arab world.

Europe is a region of islands, peninsulas, mountains, rivers, forests and marshes: natural barriers that have historically hindered the development of a unified European identity. The Arab world, on the other hand, is in effect an enormous coastal desert, stretching for nearly 8,000 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and yet, with the exception of some notable mountain ranges around its edges, containing few internal barriers of any sort. This comparatively open landscape of the Arab world has allowed it to achieve a level of linguistic, religious and cultural unity that Europe has rarely if ever been able to match.

While the desert and its coastal seas act as unifying force within the Arab world, the fact that significant supplies of freshwater can be found in just a few scattered areas within its gigantic territory (mostly in mountains, as in Morocco, Algeria and Yemen, or in rivers, as in Egypt, Sudan and Iraq) has meant that the pan-Arab identity it has fostered must compete with a wide assortment of intra-Arab identities, which in most cases have been far better than pan-Arabism at winning the allegiances of their inhabitants.

In addition, the geographic division between the Middle East and North Africa has led to sharp ethno-linguistic and political divisions between Arab and Berber peoples within countries like Morocco and Algeria.

The desert geography has also tended to make the Arab world relatively poor. This too is in stark contrast to Europe, which has become rich as a result of the commercial navigability provided by its numerous slow-flowing rivers, long coastlines and sheltered seas and fjords, as well as by its luck in possessing a temperate climate and natural resources like freshwater, farmland, timber and coal, and proximity to the natural riches of the Americas that it was able to access and exploit.

These opposing geographies have underlain the great historical contest between the “civilizations” Europe and the Arab world have cultivated for themselves. The advantage was first with Europe, arguably, as Italy, led by Rome, was able to conquer the entire Mediterranean basin as well as Mesopotamia, defeating the Carthaginians (a powerful Semitic empire based out of what is now the Arab state of Tunisia which had controlled much of North Africa and Spain and were ethnically linked to the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean) and other African and Middle Eastern groups in the process. Even following the decline of the Christian Roman Empire, most of the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa continued to be ruled by Rome’s successor, the Greek-led Byzantine Empire (which was also Christian), for several hundred years.

Eventually the tables turned, however, and around 600 CE the Arabian Peninsula united under Muhammad and then expanded its control outward during the rule of his immediate successors, quickly conquering Spain, most of France (for a very brief period) and a large part of Asia.

In turn, the Arabs were invaded and occupied by Central Asian groups like the Mongols and Turks; however, in a sign of Arab influence, most of the conquering Turks ended up adopting the religion of the conquered Arabs and long outlasted the Mongols.

While the Arabs then lost their beloved Spain after a more than 700-year-long struggle with Christian forces to keep hold of it, the Muslim Ottoman Turks made up for the loss by conquering all of Southeastern Europe as far as the Austrian capital of Vienna, which they besieged in 1529 and again in 1683. Muslims also continued to spread the faith into Southeast Asia: many of the ancestors of people living of what is now Indonesia, which today has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world by far, adopted Islam during the 1400s, almost a millennium after the death of Muhammad.

Of course, the Europeans ultimately regained the advantage over their Muslim neighbours. During the late 1400s, the Portuguese first sailed a route to India which avoided passing through Turkish or Arab-held territory while, around the same period, the Spanish reached the Americas and the Russians surged into Muslim Turkic Central Asia, conquering territory they mostly continue to hold today.

The greatest blow to Islam then fell in the 1700s and 1800s as the Muslim Mughal Empire, which at its height had governed over almost a quarter of the world’s population, lost its hold on the Indian subcontinent to the British. The colonizing Europeans also took over Muslim populations in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.

1908 French cartoon shows Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria taking territory from the Ottoman Empire as Sultan Abdul Hamid II looks on
1908 French cartoon shows Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria taking territory from the Ottoman Empire as Sultan Abdul Hamid II looks on (Le Petit Journal)

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the Ottoman Turks forfeited Southeastern Europe and the Arab world in a series of assaults aimed at them by European powers like the British, French, Russians and Austrians. The Persian Empire was heavily intruded upon by both the British and Russians. Finally, in the 1970s, the last super-sized Islamic state, Pakistan, was divided into two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which do not even border one another anymore since India lies between them. Today Pakistan and Bangladesh are the world’s sixth and eighth most populous countries, respectively.

For many people, the battle between Europe and Arabia, or between the West and Islam, continues to this day.

After losing its main source of wealth when Europe stole the control of trade with India and China away from it, most of the Middle East seemed likely to become somewhat irrelevant to global politics. Instead, it gained a new source of wealth in the modern era: oil. As recently as 2010, more than 15 percent of world oil production occurred in Saudi Arabia alone while an additional 15-20 percent occurred in other Arab countries and 40-50 percent occurred in the Muslim world as a whole.

The Muslim world also accounts for close to a third of world natural gas production (led by Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Algeria) and is estimated to possess over 60 percent of the world’s “conventional” proven reserves of natural gas (not including gas from shale) as well as over 50 percent of non-shale oil reserves and over 75 percent of oil reserves that are neither from shale nor from oil sands.

Today, partly as a result of the energy wealth it has gained during the past century, the Arab world has a population of approximately 380 million (in contrast to a century ago when its population was significantly smaller than even any of the major European nation states were at the time, without even counting the Europeans’ overseas empires) and a nominal gross domestic product of just under $3 trillion. This means that, if the Arab world could somehow reunite politically, it would have the third largest population and fifth largest economy in the world. It would, in other words, become a great power again.

Needless to say, few of the Arab world’s neighbors want to see any serious pan-Arab union come into being. Arab unification was in fact very briefly attempted in modern times, in a formal sense, with the joining of Egypt and Syria to form the United Arab Republic, which lasted from 1958 to 1961. From a purely geopolitical perspective, the potential of such cooperation between Arab countries is especially worrying to regions like Europe because of the Arab world’s shared religious identity — and, to a lesser extent, shared cultural traditions and linguistic affiliations — with other parts of the Middle East and Muslim world.

(The “classical” version of the Arab language, which is understood by scholars and clerics in every country of the Islamic world — and by many other people too, to varying extents — because it is the language of the Quran, is one potentially important example of a unifying factor throughout the Middle East).

If combined with non-Arab Middle Eastern neighbours Turkey and Iran, the population of the Arab world would rise to more than 530 million and its GDP would rise to more than $4 trillion. The states that comprise the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, meanwhile, have a combined population of approximately 1.6 billion and a GDP of approximately $7 trillion — and they do not even include the estimated 180 million Muslims living in India, 25 million living in China, sixteen million in Russia or twenty million living in the European Union.

While in the West there is much talk of the Muslim world being stuck in an economic decline, Muslims actually continue to have a higher per capita income than Hindus do or than Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa do. Many Muslim countries have a higher per capita income than China does, even today following decades of rapid Chinese economic growth. The past decade has in fact been a terrific one for most Muslim economies with oil and gas prices rising sharply, the developing world as a whole growing solidly and a number of countries with large Muslim populations, most notably Indonesia, Turkey, India and Nigeria, growing very quickly.

Apart from economic growth, the Muslim world’s geopolitical trajectory has also been positive in the past generation, mainly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union having freed about 60-90 million Central Asian Muslims (the exact number depends on whether or not you count Afghanistan as part of Soviet-occupied Central Asia) from Russian rule, along with the resource-rich, centrally-located region of Eurasia they inhabit.

Since then, some Muslims have been hoping or pushing for a further Islamic geopolitical revival which many non-Muslim countries would obviously not be happy to see. Pan-Islamic sentiments have, to varying extents, found their way into local and regional disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world in places like Kashmir, western China, Palestine/Israel, various African countries, various Southeast Asian countries, the Caucuses (both within Russia and without) and the Balkans. Arguably, technologies like the Internet have been strengthening pan-Islamic identities as well.

The West has, of course, generally aimed to gain influence within the Arab world, in part to prevent it from ever becoming too closely united. Europe, Russia and the United States have historically been focused on gaining influence in Egypt, for example, as Egypt has by far the largest population of any Arab country, is more internally stable and united than any other large Arab country and is strategically located, sitting directly in the center of the Arab world and encompassing the Suez Canal.

Ibn Saud, kind of Saudi Arabia, meets with American president Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, February 14, 1945
Ibn Saud, kind of Saudi Arabia, meets with American president Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, February 14, 1945 (USN)

The West has also focused on gaining influence in the Persian Gulf, in particular by allying itself closely with the tiny energy-rich Gulf monarchies (Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain) as well as with the royal family of Saudi Arabia and, not too far away, the Israelis, the Iraqi Kurds and the royal family of Jordan. Given that the West is in some ways more powerful today than at any time in history (largely as a result of the rise of the US, which was completed with the fall of the Soviet Union) and that the Persian Gulf region is sharply divided between Arabs and Iranians, Sunnis and Shiites and Iraqis and Saudis, gaining influence there has not been too difficult for the West to achieve.

And so, even leaving aside social values or issues explicitly tied to religious belief, many Arabs believe the West is acting unjustly or aggressively toward them. Most believe that the current political borders of the Middle East are artificial, imposed on them a century ago by ignorant or sinister British and French politicians. There is certainly truth to this, though, in defence of the British and French, some of the borders that were drawn actually did accurately reflect some of the existing social and geographic divisions within the Arab world.

With a number of possible exceptions, such as Kuwait and Lebanon (which arguably should not have been created as independent states), Israel and Palestine (which arguably should have been created as a single state, perhaps even including neighboring Jordan as well) and Kurdistan (which arguably should be created out of parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, though even this is more complicated than it is often portrayed), it is not clear that the borders in the Middle East could actually be all that improved upon. But of course, this is a topic worth debating in much greater detail.

It is also not only the Christian world that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of Arab lands. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refuse to give up Arab-inhabited regions of the Fertile Crescent they possess; a more consistent geographic or cultural rendering of Middle Eastern borders should perhaps have included Turkey handing over its province of Hatay to Syria (as Syria still officially claims it should) and Iran handing over its province of Khuzestan to Iraq.

Yet most people who complain of Western-imposed artificiality among the borders of the Arab world are not concerned with either of these areas, even though both are significant to the politics of the region (especially Khuzestan). Indeed, while Arab bitterness toward Europe’s past imperialism remains wholly justifiable, complaints of imperialistic European map-drawing in the Arab world nevertheless tend to be somewhat exaggerated. If you want to see truly unfair and dangerously-drawn borders the Europeans were responsible for, you should not even begin to think of the Middle East but look instead to regions like West Africa.

This story originally appeared at Future Economics, November 15, 2015.

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