After World II, the global power calculus changed dramatically and this had a profound affect on the Arab and Muslim world. Britain and France were no longer the powers that they once were, and this provided opportunities for the emerging Arab states to gain independence. The United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers and the Middle East became a major theater of Cold War conflict. And thrown into all this was Israel and oil.

The modern history of the Middle East is shaped very much by oil wealth, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Arab nationalist, jihadist and Islamist movements.

There was an oil rush after World War II.

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com ; Brief history of Islam barkati.net ; Chronological history of Islam barkati.net

European Occupation After World War II

After World War II, European nations — namely Britain and French — slowly loast their the grip on power but their military bases remained. The French were able to regain control of their territories in North Africa and Syria and Lebanon. Power sharing arrangements were forged between France and Britain, which occupied Syria and Lebanon during the war, with the understanding that the two countries would be given independence relatively soon.

After India became independent, the Middle East remained the one place in the world that Britain continued to have some degree of influence. The British still controlled parts of Yemen, the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf in the 1950s. The British policy was to support independence and unity among Arab nations while keeping its interests intact by friendly agreements and trying to help the countries advance economically and technologically.

In the 1940s and 50s, populations in the Middle East continued to rise. The overall population became younger. People began migrating to the cities in large numbers. While life in the villages remained largely unchanged, things were changing dramatically in the cities. In urban areas, polygamy and illiteracy decreased. The use of contraceptives and opportunities for women increased. Schools were built. Homes received electricity. Even though rates of infant mortality and of infectious disease remained high, health care was improving and people were living longer.

Independence After World War II

Most of the countries in the Middle East achieved independence in the late 1940s and 1950s, wrote historian Albert Hourani “by manipulation of political forces, both internal and external, and by negotiations which were relatively peaceful, in spite of moments of popular disturbance.” The early leaders were mostly royals and educated elites that were able to win independence but were unable to appeal to ordinary people and rule with popular support.

The newly independent nations inherited the means of controlling the government: the police, military and bureaucracy. Many foreigners left. Many of their professional and administrative positions were taken over the local educated middle class.

Bernard Lewis wrote: “Western-style parties and parliament almost inevitably ended in corrupt tyrannies, maintained by repression and indoctrination. The only European model that worked, in the sense of accomplishing its purposes, was the one-party dictatorship.”

Maintaining the dictatorships was expensive. Money was spent on the army, police, intelligence services, planning organizations, bureaucrats that ran the government, bureaucrats that ran the public sector enterprises, and pay offs to the ruling classes, tribal leaders and key supporters. Relatively little money was left over to help ordinary people and the poor.

The division of the Arab world into separate states was imposed on them and undermined their political unity and ultimately the power of a unified Arab people.

Arab Nationalism

Gamal Nasser of Egypt, King Saud of Saudi Arabia and Yasser Arafat

The rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser renewed bonds between Arabs and Arab states at a time when modernization was tearing them apart and gave Arabs a strong sense of pride.

Goals of the nationalist movement including improving economies and raising the standard of living through development of national resources, land reform, extending social services, universal education and emancipation of women. Islam was viewed by nationalists as backward and an obstacle to progress.

The Arab nationalist movement was shaped very much by Marxist, Communist and socialist thinking. It emerged at a time when the Soviet Union was looking outward, socialism was very fashionable in Europe and the world was being defined in terms of communist and capitalist, East and West and the developed world and the Third World. The primary bond of the Pan-Arab movement were social reforms aimed at creating a more egalitarian society, independence from the super powers and hatred towards Israel, . European-style Arab nationalism replaced tribal alliances and European imperialism. Nasser inspired coups throughout the Arab world in the 1950s and 60s. Other voices for Arab nationalism included Anton Saadah, leader of the fascist Greater Syria movement, and Sadam Hussein, who promised to achieve an Arab golden age through violence.

The defeat of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967 effectively spelled the end of the Arab nationalist movement, which in the end was largely failure. The only thing is dramatically increased was tensions between Arabs and non-Arabs.

Cold War and U.S. Involvement in the Middle East

Nasser and Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union

After World War II, as the world was divided up into the West and the Communist East, the Arab nations were given new options, Neither the United States or the Soviet Union had much of a presence or interest in the Middle East or North Africa before World War I. Anxious to rid themselves of their British, French and American meddling, the new countries of the Middle East turned to the Soviet Union for support.

In 1957, when Eisenhower was president, the Soviet newspaper Izvestia said: “the U.S. has “openly announced its intentions to undermine United Nations efforts to restore peace and security in the Middle East, to rekindle the flames of war in that part of the world and thereby aggravate the international situation... Washington’s new line in the Middle East is an almost exact replica of the United States policy and actions, which, in their time, sparked grave international conflicts and led to the Communist threat.”

During the Cold War, battle plans were drawn up in the event that the Soviets took over the Persian Gulf oil fields. The end of Cold War and Soviet support was the final nail on the coffin for communism and socialismm and with them Arab nationalism, in the Middle East.

Six-Day War

On May 19, 1967, after months of high tension between Israel and Egypt, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser demanded that United Nations forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula. To almost everyone’s surprise, the United Nations forces left. Nasser then moved Egyptian troops across the Sinai to the border of Israel, signed a military pact with Jordan and established a blockade on the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea, Israel's outlet to the Eastern half of the world, and closed it to Israeli shipping.

Six Day War- Conquest of the Sinai, June 5-6

Fearing an imminent strike by the Arabs, Israel launched a preemptive strike on June 5, 1967, thrusting into the Sinai, destroying nearly the entire Egyptian Air Force, and soon afterwards engaging Jordanian and Syrian forces. In six swift days Israeli forces swept west to the Suez Canal, East to the Jordan River, and north over the Golan Heights.

Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria and captured the Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt; East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria. For years Syria had used the Golan Heights to rain shells on northern Israel.

Book: “Six Days of War” by Michael B. Oren (Oxford University Press 2002) is regarded as an excellent book.

Background for the Six-Day War

Nasser had been condemning Israel and giving rebel-rousing speeches about freeing Palestine for years although he admitted privately that Israel was militarily superior. His speeches however stirred up calls for action by Arabs and accusations that he was “hiding” behind United Nations troops. His declarations against Israel were about machismo and saving face as much as anything. His army was not prepared for a war with Israel.

Israel on the other hand was ready. When Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban visited the United States before the war he said that Israeli forces has superior training, motivation and communications and could defeat the Arabs on three fronts in less than two weeks if they were allowed to shoot first. Many Israeli citizens were fearful that they were going to be annihilated. Some dug trenches in their backyard and parks were prepared to serve as cemeteries.

Israel had been armed by the United States. Syria and Egypt were armed by the Soviet Union. The prime minister of Israel was Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levi Eshkol. There was a lot of tension in Israel at the time and many people wondered if Eshkol was up for the job. The famous one-eyed Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan played a major part in the war, displaying reserve, courage and “MacArthur-like insubordination.” Ariel Sharon led the ground offensive in the Sinai.

Fighting in the Six-Day War

Six Day War clashes between Israeli and Egyptian forces

Historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft said, “Never in the field of human conflict had so much been achieved by so few so quickly.” The Israelis first defeated Egypt withing hours after launching an attack on the Sinai by catching the Egyptians unprepared and destroying their air force on the ground. Instead of conducting an organized fighting retreat, the well-armed Egyptian infantry simply ran away.

Jordan forces joined the fight after the attack on Egypt was launched. Units of the Jordanian Arab Legions fought courageously at Ammunition Hill and other places but ultimately were pushed out of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Within 72 hours the Israelis captured the West Bank and Jerusalem.

An Egyptian general later told Newsweek, when the strike began, “I was meeting with all the other Sinai comanders near te Suez Canal. If they had known this the Israelis could have wiped out our entire command with one bomb right at the beginning. As it was, when the first shells hit around 8 a.m. not a field commander was with his troops. I rushed back to my unit...Although I had lost all communications, I knew the Israelis had already destroyed our air force because they ruled the skies.

Fighting in Jerusalem the Six-Day War

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan on day three of the war. After seizing Mt. Scopus, the highest point in the city, Israeli paratroopers dashed down the Via Dolosa, captured the Temple Mount and celebrated the seizure of the Western Wall with dancing, weeping and the blowing of a ram’s horn.

Battle of Golan Heights

Worried about the political repercussions of the taking of the Temple Mount, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had ordered his troops to surround the Old City but not capture it. He was overruled by the Israeli Cabinet

The Israeli flag was raised over the Temple Mount. Moshe Dayan ordered it taken down. Ten days later he met with the Waqf, the charitable trust that controls the Temple Mount, and told them they could retain control over the Temple Mount and Jews would be prohibited from praying there.

Capturing the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War

With Jordan and Egypt out of the war, Israel was able to concentrate its forces on the Syrian front. In one the largest traffic jams in history massive amount of armor and troops were moved from the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts to the Syrian front. Israel’s small size made this possible.

It took the Israeli army only 30 hours to capture the Golan Heights. Israeli soldiers climbed the plateau and overran Syrian gun emplacements. By June 10, Israeli troops had captured all of the southwestern corner of Syria, including the Golan Heights

The capture of the Golan Heights was a great achievement for the Israelis. The reasoning went that with the Golan Heights in Israeli hands, the Syrians could no longer use it to rain shells down on Israeli territory.

Dayan gave the order to take the Golan Heights. He initially opposed the attack, reportedly out of concerns over provoking the Soviet Union, a close ally of Syria. But ordered it four days into the war, bypassing the prime minister, by giving commands directly to the northern commander.

In the 1970s he said he regretted the move because the Syrian shelling threat was largely a myth. He said most of the firefights with the Syrians were provoked by Israelis and the main supporters of taking of the Golan Heights were kibbutzniks who wanted more farmland.

End of the Six-Day War and Afterwards

Israeli troops entering Jerusalem in the Six Day War

The Six-Day War ended on June 11 with a United-Nations-brokered cease-fire signed by representatives of Israel and Syria. By July, United Nations forces were patrolling cease-fire lines set up along the Syrian-Israeli frontier and the Suez Canal.

The United Nations rejected a Soviet-sponsored resolution that condemned Israel and called for restoring the 1949 armistice. Negotiations between the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States failed to make any progress to solve the matter. United Nations demands that Jerusalem be partitioned were rejected by Israel. Indar Jit Rikhye, an Indian general with the United Nations, said, “I think you’re going to have a major Middle East war and I think we will still be sorting it out 50 years from now.”

After the Six-Day War, Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem (previously held by Jordan), the Gaza Strip and Sinai (previously held by Egypt) and the Golan Heights (previously held by Syria) and claimed all of Jerusalem. It denounced the armistice agreement of 1949, which had established Israel’s borders, and declared it was going to hold on to conquered territory, including Jerusalem. Jews who viewed the West Bank as a gift of God to the Jewish people were happy. Others felt the land should be traded for peace. The Golan Heights were annexed Israel in 1981.

The Six Day War was a terrible blow to Arab prides. Dreams for united Arab World, ushering in a new Golden Age, evaporated and were replaces by dictatorships, squabbled between Arab nations and a rise in sectarian and religious violence. Many Arabs blamed the defeat, not on Israel's military skill, but on a lack of faith in Islam, this launching the movement toward a militant, political Islam.

Israel called for direct Arab-Israeli talks to restore peace and settle differences. The Arab nations rejected the offer and continued to not recognize Israel as a state. Some have suggested that the conflict was a “calculated war of conquest” by Israel. Historians have largely discredited this theory. At that time of the war Dayan and others worried aloud about the burdens and unpleasantries that comes with occupation. Israel continues to occupy the the Golan Heights. The Sinai was given back to the Egyptians as part of the Camp David Peace Accord. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip were handed over to the Palestinians after the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993.

Oil Crisis and Oil Embargo

gasoline rations printed by the US government but not used, 1974

The Arab countries announced an oil embargo against the Europe on October 17, 1973, ten days after the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, in order to raise prices and pressure the United States into reevaluating its position on Israel. It ended in March 1974.

The 1973-74 oil embargo made Saudi Arabia into a major Middle Eastern power and a country that the world was forced up to and recognize. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia played a major role in the oil embargo in which the Arab nations hope would force the West to take a more ant-Israeli position. He was involved in a similar effort during the Six-Dar War in 1967. Saudi Arabia imposed a total embargo on the United States and Netherlands because they were regarded as the most friendly to Israel.

The oil embargo caused an Energy Crisis. The price of oil quadrupled; there were shortages and gas lines throughout the world. Efforts to conserve energy, search for alternative energies and get gas guzzlers off the road dates back to this period.

Money went to the oil-producing states who made heaps as they increased production. Saudi Arabia did particularly well because it controlled 30 percent of total production of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), founded in 1973 around the time the embargo wa launched. Between 1973 and 1980, Saudi Arabia's oil revenues soared for $4.3 billion to $90 billion. The growth rate averaged more than 10 percent a year. GDP per capita peaked at $28,600 in 1980. It later declined to a fourth of that.

A second oil shock occurred after the 1978 and 1979 revolution in Iran when that country cut off its oil exports and consumers and companies went on a spree of panic buying. Crude oil prices topped $80 barrels in today's dollars. The high oil prices spurred development of new oil fields. There was so much development in fact that supply increased through the 1980s that there were oil surpluses and the price of oil fell.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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