The Middle East is an area in the world that is rich in history, culture, linguistic, ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity. The region is bordered by the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea on the west, the Zagros mountain range and the Persian Gulf to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south and the Turkish border to the north.
All throughout history, the region has been a hotspot for conflict and opportunity, crisis and knowledge. As one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world, the Middle East has seen more than its fair share of history. It is the home of the three abrahamaic religions and to vast amounts of natural resources.
In the distant past, the region had been home to conflict due to its central trading location along the Silk Route, acting as a shipping gateway to Europe and North Africa through the Meditteranean, as well as due to the religious conflicts that have taken place over the area that occupies the fertile crescent – Israel, Palestine, Lebanon & parts of Syria.
Governance of the region has shifted from empire to empire as they continued to rise and fall. The last empire to hold the entire Middle East region was the Ottoman empire. After the Ottomans were defeated in World War I, the Republic of Turkey was born, and all the areas south of the Turkish border that it previously controlled, were in the hands of the British and French empires, known as the British and French mandates.
That time period brought about a new conflict in the Middle East, mostly due to the borders that the French and British had drawn up by themselves and among themselves. The region was previously border-less with the regional structure being more tribal, familial and ethnic rather than national. After the borders were drawn with little regard for the demographic breakdown of the region, it created tensions that had largely not yet been experienced between a nation and another in the Middle East.
A lot has taken place since then, including almost a century of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, civil wars, regional proxy wars and the Arab Spring. But one of the most persistently consequential issues of the middle east remains the self-determination question and the fragility of the nation-state.
The nation-state in the Middle East varies, from near-failed states such as Yemen & Iraq, countries always on the verge of instability such as Lebanon & Jordan, and absolute monarchies in the Gulf. The young emirates and kingdoms that border the Arab Gulf have historically been more stable countries domestically for various reasons, while the countries across the Levant have generally had one domestic upheaval after the other, also for various reasons.
One of those reasons is the centrality of the governance systems that exists in the Middle East region, coupled with a lack of political and civil rights. Democracy is definitely lacking in the region, and without ways in which people, groups and organizations can peacefully and productively express their grievances, conflict and violence tends to arise. The central governments generally refuse to decentralize and give autonomy to other regions, demographics or even to open up the political process to other political parties.
Add the low quality of life in some areas of the middle east, economic stagnation, a lack of employment and upward social and economic mobility, as well as repression of any dissenting voice and marginalization of minorities, and you get groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and even ISIS emerging as a result. It creates a vacuum of legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens in which non-state actors can begin to permeate the national fabric of the country, especially extremist groups. These factors also make it easier for popular revolt to take place, but also leaves the risk of a brutal crackdown on protesters. This creates generations of grievances that will only compound.
Add the chaos of the Arab Spring into the mix, and the competing governance forms in the Middle East championed by absolute monarchies in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and the end result is constant cyclical movement between revolution and counter-revolution.
Self determination is a central tenant to international law and the Geneva conventions that give individuals the human right to be able to determine their own process by which a person controls their own life, or by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government.
Again, this is severely lacking in the Middle East region. Due to the same factors that contribute to a volatile nation-state with weak institutions, such as marginalization, repression, and a lack of opportunity, the self determination question is often raised.
There is perhaps no other conflict in the world that is as centered on the question of self-determination as the israeli-palestinian conflict. In this instance, the Palestinians’ century-long quest for freedom from foreign intervention, occupation, and brutal repression is ultimately a matter of one question: whether they have the freedom to declare their independence and continue down the course of history as an independent state. As history can tell us, that has not yet happened, and as the present shows us, a resolution to this question is as far away as ever.
The lack of resolution can also be attributed to the same reasons that contribute to the weakness of the nation-state in the Middle East region. When central government’s crackdown on dissent, deny autonomy and even manage every aspect of another group that identifies as independent or its own stand-alone national group from making day-to-day decisions on its own, it is bound to inevitably want to either peacefully or via conflict, seek its own secession.
The Kurdish Independence Question is also a prime example of this. The Kurdish population is spread throughout Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Armenia, but have never managed their own affairs or even had the national united homeland that they’ve always desired. After decades of marginalization and conflict, the Kurdish population in northern Iraq was given some autonomy and even its own regional parliament, and became known as the Kurdish Regional Government. In Syria, due to the civil war, the Kurdish groups in the north have demanded more autonomy and are currently using the instability as an opportunity to negotiate for it. In Iran & Turkey, the desire for autonomy any attempt at expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo is cracked down upon.
The history of the Middle East, alongside the pervasive issues that have formed political and civic life in the region, such as the weakness of state institutions and centralization of governance, as well as the question of freedom, or lack thereof, of self-determination are necessary to understand the dominant issues that have historically led to the crises that plague the Middle East today.
Crises in the Middle East
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