The survival of Israel, the coming of the Cold War and a huge rise in the demand for oil revolutionized the politics of the Middle East after 1948. Israel focused Arab feeling more sharply than Great Britain had ever done. It made pan-Arabism look plausible. On the injustice of the seizure of what were regarded as Arab lands, the plight of the Palestine refugees and the obligations of the great powers and the United Nations to act on their behalf, the Arab masses could brood bitterly and Arab rulers were able to agree as on nothing else.

Nonetheless, after the defeat of 1948-9, the Arab states were not for some time disposed again to commit their own forces openly. A formal state of war persisted, but a series of armistices established for Israel de facto borders with Jordan, Syria and Egypt that lasted until 1967. There were continuing border incidents in the early 1950s, and raids were carried out upon Israel from Egyptian and Syrian territory by bands of young guerrilla soldiers recruited from the refugee camps, but immigration, hard work and money from the United States steadily consolidated the new Israel. A siege psychology helped to stabilize Israel’s politics; the prestige of the party that had brought about the very existence of the new state was scarcely troubled while the Jews transformed their new country. Within a few years they could show massive progress in bringing barren land under cultivation and establishing new industries. The gap between Israel’s per capita income and that of the more populous among the Arab states steadily widened.

Here was another irritant for the Arabs. Foreign aid to their countries produced nothing like such dramatic change. Egypt, the most populous of them, faced particularly grave problems of population growth. While the oil-producing states were to benefit in the 1950s and 1960s from growing revenue and a higher GDP, this often led to further strains and divisions within them. Contrasts deepened both between different Arab states and within them between classes. Most of the oil-producing countries were ruled by small, wealthy, sometimes traditional and conservative, occasionally nationalist and westernized, elites, usually uninterested in the poverty-stricken peasants and slum-dwellers of more populous neighbours. The contrast was exploited by a new Arab political movement, founded during the war, the Ba’ath party. It attempted to synthesize Marxism and pan-Arabism, but the Syrian and Iraqi wings of the movement (it was always strongest in those two countries) had fallen out with one another almost from the start.

Pan-Arabism had too much to overcome, for all the impulse to united action stemming from anti-Israeli and anti-western feeling. The Hashemite kingdoms, the Arabian sheikhdoms, and the Europeanized and urbanized states of North Africa and the Levant all had widely divergent interests and very different historical traditions. Some of them, like Iraq or Jordan, were artificial creations whose shape had been dictated by the needs and wishes of European powers after 1918; some were social and political fossils. Even Arabic was in many places a common language only within the mosque (and not all Arabic-speakers were Muslims). Although Islam was a tie between many Arabs, for a long time it seemed of small account; in 1950 few Muslims talked of it as a militant, aggressive faith. It was only Israel that provided a common enemy and thus a common cause.

Hopes were first awoken among Arabs in many countries by a revolution in Egypt, from which there eventually emerged a young soldier, Gamal Abdel Nasser. For a time he seemed likely both to unite the Arab world against Israel and to open the way to social change. In 1954 he became the leader of the military junta that had overthrown the Egyptian monarchy two years previously. Egyptian nationalist feeling had for decades found its main focus and scapegoat in the British, still garrisoning the Canal Zone, and now blamed for their part in the establishment of Israel. The British government, for its part, did its best to cooperate with Arab rulers because of its fears of Soviet influence in an area still thought crucial to British communications and oil supplies. The Middle East (ironically given the motives that had taken the British there in the first place) had not lost its strategic fascination for the British after withdrawal from India.

It was a time of strong anti-western currents elsewhere in the Arab world, too. In 1951 the King of Jordan had been assassinated; in order to survive, his successor had to make it clear that he had severed the old special tie with Great Britain. Further west, the French, who had been forced to recognize the complete independence of Morocco and Tunisia soon after the war, faced troubles that by 1954 had grown into an Algerian national rebellion, which was soon to become a full-scale war; no French government could easily abandon a country where there were over a million settlers of European stock. Moreover, oil had just been discovered in the Sahara. In the context of this stirring Arab world, Nasser’s rhetoric of social reform and nationalism had wide appeal. His anti-Israeli feelings were not in doubt and he quickly had to his credit the success of an agreement with Great Britain for the evacuation of the Suez base. The Americans, increasingly aware of Russian menace in the Middle East, meanwhile looked on him for a time with favour as an anti-colonialist and potential client.


He soon came to appeal to them far less. The guerrilla raids on Israel from Egyptian territory, where the most important Palestinian refugee camps lay, provoked irritation in Washington. In 1950, the British, French and Americans had already said they would provide only limited supplies of arms to Middle East states and only on such terms as would keep a balance between Israel and the Arabs. When Nasser carried off an arms deal with Czechoslovakia on the security of the cotton crop, and Egypt recognized communist China, second thoughts about him hardened. By way of showing displeasure, an American and British offer to finance a cherished project of internal development, a high dam on the Nile, was withdrawn. As a riposte, Nasser seized the assets of the private company that owned and ran the Suez Canal, saying its profits should finance the dam; this touched an old nerve of British sensibility. Instincts only halfdisciplined by imperial withdrawal seemed for once to be coherent both with anti-communism and with friendship towards more traditional Arab states, whose rulers were beginning to look askance at Nasser as a revolutionary radical. The British prime minister, Anthony Eden, too, was obsessed with a false analogy, which led him to see Nasser as a new Hitler, to be checked before he embarked upon a career of successful aggression. As for the French, they were aggrieved by Nasser’s support for the Algerian insurrection. Both nations formally protested over the Canal’s seizure and, in collusion with Israel, began to plan his overthrow.

In October 1956, the Israelis suddenly invaded Egypt to destroy, they announced, bases from which guerrillas had harassed their settlements. The British and French governments at once said freedom of movement through the Canal was in danger. They called for a cease-fire; when Nasser rejected this they launched (on Guy Fawkes’ Day) first an air attack and then a seaborne assault on Egypt. Collusion with Israel was denied, but the denial was preposterous. It was a lie and, worse still, from the first incredible. Soon the Americans were thoroughly alarmed; they feared advantage for the USSR in this renewal of imperialism. They used financial pressure to force a British acceptance of a cease-fire negotiated by the United Nations. The Anglo-French adventure collapsed in humiliation.

The Suez affair looked (and was) a western disaster, but in the long run its main importance was psychological. The British suffered most; it cost them much goodwill, particularly within the Commonwealth, and squandered confidence in the sincerity of their retreat from empire. It confirmed the Arabs’ hatred of Israel; the suspicion that it was indissolubly linked to the West made them yet more receptive to Soviet blandishment. Nasser’s prestige soared still higher. Some were bitter, too, that Suez had at a crucial moment distracted the West from eastern Europe (where a revolution in Hungary against its Soviet satellite government had been crushed by the Russian army while the western powers fell out). Nevertheless, the essentials of the region’s affairs were left by the crisis much as before, animated by a new wave of pan-Arab enthusiasm though they might be. Suez did not change the balance of the Cold War, or of the Middle East.

In 1958 an attempt was made by Ba’ath sympathizers to unite Syria and Egypt in a United Arab Republic that briefly bore fruit in 1961. The pro-western government of the Lebanon was overthrown and the monarchy of Iraq swept aside by revolution that year, too. These facts heartened pan-Arabists, but differences between Arab countries soon reasserted themselves. The world watched curiously when American forces were summoned to the Lebanon and British forces to Jordan to help maintain their governments against pro-Nasser forces. Meanwhile, fighting went on sporadically on the Syrian-Israeli border, although the guerrillas were for a time held in check.

However, from Suez until 1967 the most important development in the Arab world was not there, but in Algeria. The intransigence of the pieds noirs (the French settlers) and the bitterness of many soldiers, who felt they were asked to do an impossible job there, nearly brought about a coup d’etat in France itself. The government of General de Gaulle nevertheless opened secret negotiations with the Algerian rebels and in July 1962, after a referendum, France formally granted independence to a new Algeria. Angrily, a million pieds noirs migrated to France, to embitter her politics. Ironically, within twenty years France was to benefit from over a million Algerian immigrant workers, whose remittances home were essential to the Algerian economy. As Libya had emerged from United Nations trusteeship to independence in 1951, the entire North African coast outside the tiny Spanish enclaves was now clear of European supremacy. Yet external influences still bedevilled the history of the Arab lands as they had done ever since the Ottoman conquests centuries before, but now did so indirectly, through aid and diplomacy, as the United States and Russia sought to buy friends.

The United States laboured under a disadvantage: no American president or Congress could abandon Israel. The importance of Jews among American voters was too great, although President Eisenhower had been brave enough to face them down over Suez, even in an election year. In spite of America’s clean hands, therefore, Egyptian and Syrian policy continued to sound anti-American and prove irritating. The USSR, on the other hand, had dropped its early support of Israel as soon as it ceased to be a useful weapon with which to embarrass the British. Soviet policy now took a steady pro-Arab line and assiduously fanned Arab resentment over survivals of British imperialism in the Arab world. Marginally, too, the Russians earned a cheap bonus of Arab approval in the later 1960s by harassing their own Jews.

Meanwhile, the context of the Middle East’s problems was slowly changing. In the 1950s there were two important developments concerning oil. One was a much greater rate of its discovery than hitherto, particularly on the southern side of the Persian Gulf, in the small sheikhdoms then still under British influence, and in Saudi Arabia. The second was a huge acceleration of energy consumption in western countries, especially in the Untied States. The prime beneficiaries of the oil boom were Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait and, some way behind, Iran and Iraq, the established major producers. This had two important consequences. Countries dependent upon Middle Eastern oil - the United States, Great Britain, Germany and soon Japan - had to give greater weight to Arab views in their diplomacy. It also meant big changes in the relative wealth and standing of Arab states. None of the three leading oil producers was either heavily populated or traditionally very weghty in international affairs.

The bearing of these changes was still not very evident in the last Middle East crisis of the 1960s, which began when a much more extreme government took power in Syria with Soviet support in 1966. The King of Jordan was threatened if he did not support the Palestinian guerrillas (organized since 1964 as the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO). Jordanian forces therefore began to prepare to join in an attack on Israel with Egypt and Syria. But in 1967, provoked by an attempt to blockade their Red Sea port, the Israelis struck first. In a brilliant campaign they destroyed the Egyptian air force and army in Sinai and hurled back the Jordanians, winning in six days’ fighting new borders on the Suez Canal, the Golan Heights and the Jordan. For defence, these were far superior to their former boundaries and the Israelis announced that they would keep them. This was not all. Defeat had ensured the eclipse of the glamorous Nasser, the first plausible leader of pan-Arabism. He was left visibly dependent on Russian power (a Soviet naval squadron arrived at Alexandria as the Israeli advance guards reached the Suez Canal), and on subsidies from the oil states. Both demanded more prudence from him, and that meant difficulties with the radical leaders of the Arab masses.

Yet the Six Day War of 1967 solved nothing. There were new waves of Palestinian refugees; by 1973 about 1,400,000 Palestinians were said to be dispersed in Arab countries, while a similar number remained in Israel and Israeli-occupied territory. When the Israelis began to plant settlements in their newly won conquests, Arab resentment grew even stronger. Even if time, oil and birth rates seemed to be on the Arab side, not much else was clear. In the United Nations, a ‘Group of 77’ supposedly non-aligned countries achieved the suspension of Israel (like South Africa) from certain international organizations and, perhaps more important, a unanimous resolution condemning the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem. Another called for Israel’s withdrawal from Arab lands in exchange for recognition by its neighbours. Meanwhile, the PLO turned to terrorism outside the disputed lands to promote their cause. Like the Zionists of the 1890s, they had decided that the western myth of nationality was the answer to their plight: a new state should be the expression of their nationhood, and like Jewish militants in the 1940s, they chose terrorism - assassination and indiscriminate murder - as their weapons. It was clear that in time there would be another war, and therefore a danger that, because of the identification of American and Russian interests with opposing sides, a world war might suddenly blow up out of a local conflict, as in 1914.

The danger became imminent when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur in October 1973. The Israelis for the first time faced the possibility of military defeat by the greatly improved and Soviet-armed forces of their opponents. Yet once again they won, though only after the Russians were reported to have sent nuclear weapons to Egypt and the Americans had put their forces on the alert around the world. This grim background, like the possibility that the Israelis themselves might have nuclear weapons they would be prepared to use in extremity, was not fully discernible to the public at the time.

This, however, was not the only way in which the crisis transcended the region. The problems of the Ottoman succession left behind in 1919, of which Israel’s emergence was only a part, had been successively further poisoned, first by the inter-war policies of Great Britain and France, and then by the Cold War. But it was now to become clear that there had been a much more fundamental change in the Middle East’s world role. In 1945 the world’s largest oil exporter had been Venezuela; twenty years later this was no longer so and most developed economies depended for much of their oil on the Middle East. In the 1950s and for most of the 1960s the British and Americans had been confident of cheap and assured supplies from the region. They had managed what once had looked a possible threat to their access to Iranian oil in 1953 by overthrowing an unfriendly Iranian government, exercised informal controlling influence in Iraq until 1963 (when a Ba’ath regime seized power there) and had no difficulty in retaining Saudi Arabian goodwill. But the Yom Kippur War ended this era. Led by Saudi Arabia, the Arab states announced they would cut supplies of oil to Europe, Japan and the United States. Israel had to face the frightening possibility that it might not always be able to rely on the diplomatic support it had always found outside the region. It might not be able to go on counting on guilt about the Holocaust, sympathy and admiration for a progressive state in a backward region, and the weight of Jewish voters in the United States. It was not a good moment for the United States and its allies. In 1974, with 138 states members of the UN, there were for the first time majorities in the General Assembly against the western powers (over both Israel and South Africa). Though for the moment the UN agreed to put a force into Sinai to separate the Israelis and the Egyptians, none of the region’s fundamental problems was solved.

The impact of ‘oil diplomacy’ went far beyond the region, however. Overnight, economic problems that had been tolerable in the 1960s became acute. World oil prices shot up. Dependence on oil imports everywhere played havoc with balance-of-payments problems. The United States, floundering in what had become an Indo-Chinese morass, was badly shaken; Japan and Europe appeared to face full-scale recession. Perhaps, it seemed, a new 1930 was on its way; at any rate, the golden age of assured economic growth was over. Meanwhile, it was the poorest countries among the oil importers that suffered most from the oil crisis. Many of them were soon having to face rocketing price inflation and some a virtual obliteration of the earnings they needed in order to pay interest on their large debts to foreign creditors.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!