Home » Middle East / Islam » Concerning Middle Eastern ‘Backwardness,’ Part 2: Post-Colonial Foreign Exploitation

Concerning Middle Eastern ‘Backwardness,’ Part 2: Post-Colonial Foreign Exploitation

This is the second article in a series designed to counter the argument that some sort of Arab exceptionalism is responsible for the so-called ‘backwardness’ of the Middle East, or that the Arabs should stop the “tired old narrative” of blaming foreigners for their problems. At first glance, it does indeed seem to be an intellectually lazy, evasive argument to simply blame foreigners for all of your problems, but upon closer study of the modern history of the region, it is simply difficult to come to any other conclusion. Merely dismissing colonialism or any other form of external meddling as “a thing of the past” is naïve, and claiming that it is not useful to dwell on such matters is ridiculous, and very easy for someone who comes from a country which has never suffered from the venom of colonialism. One must study the root of a problem in order to reach a successful solution. The dismissive American English expression “that’s history,” is a telling example of how many North Americans fail to take into account powerful historical factors when considering contemporary issues.

The failure (so far) of democracy in the Arab states has not been due to a lack of local desire for it. The Arab Barometer polls (taken in Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Palestine) have in fact shown that the overwhelming majority of people in the region think that democracy is “better than any other form of government,” and would be good for their own respective countries. Moreover, it was found that the more religious people in the poll were just as supportive of democracy as the less religious ones.

One major factor in the regional democratic deficit has been external interference, especially from the United States. Specifically, the support for authoritarian regimes, the undermining and destruction of legitimate and genuine democratic movements, and the arming of various local players against each other. As regional expert Rashid Khalidi observes, instead of the ostensible “promotion of democracy,” “superpower meddling in the internal affairs of the countries of the region often served exactly the opposite purpose.”

It is state suppression that prevents democracy, rather than a lack of public support for it. If this state suppression is adequately robust, it can quash democratic movements easily, such as the Soviets did in suppressing the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 in response to the Prague Spring liberalizations. When Soviet support of repressive regimes in Eastern Europe ended, democratization movements began there, just like when U.S. support of Latin American authoritarian regimes dried up. When superpower meddling in sub-Saharan Africa ended after the Cold War, democratization also occurred there. One commentator has observed that, “the security establishment is most likely to give up when its financial foundation is seriously compromised.” For example, democratic transition was possible in parts of sub-Saharan Africa because “decomposition of the military and security establishments opened up the political space in which demands for democracy could be pressed.”

Empirical studies have shown that foreign interventions rarely lead to democracy, and in fact often lead to a democratic decline, or even civil war. A 2008 study found that “both US and Soviet interventions result in significantly lower levels of democracy.” Another study finds that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within 10 years less than 3 percent of the time, and concludes that “intervention does little to promote democracy and often leads to its erosion.”

The curse of the Middle East is that foreign interference and exploitation simply does not stop. Nowhere does the West interfere more in local politics, even in the rest of Africa, than in the Middle East. Only perhaps with European and then U.S. domination over Latin America, which has now mostly ended, do we find a level of exploitation on par with that found in the Middle East. As Rashid Khalidi writes, the Middle East is “the most coveted region of the world and the most penetrated by foreign interests. It is thus vulnerable, as it has been throughout its history, to external intervention that could easily divert or distort outcomes.” Just as decolonization was occurring in the region, its people had to endure a period just as poisonous as the colonial experience – the ‘neo-colonialism’ or ‘neo-imperialism during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the U.S. backed absolutist monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Iran, most of the Arab Gulf states, and other authoritarian, non-democratic regimes, such as those in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Tunisia, while the Soviet Union, whose role in the region was much smaller than America’s, generally supported and aligned itself with authoritarian nationalist regimes. Neither of the superpowers did more than pay lip service to local democracy, civil society, or human rights.

American interest in the region was predicated upon the need to fill the power vacuum left by the eventual withdrawal of the western European powers, and fear of Soviet influence, but most of all, upon the region’s vast oil reserves. During the Second World War, the U.S. itself had been the primary supplier of Allied oil, but had terminally exhausted one third of its total reserves. In 1933, an American consortium of oil companies that became the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) had signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia for exclusive oil rights, and their explorations turned fruitful in 1938. On February 14, 1945, aboard the USS Quincy heavy cruiser on the Suez Canal, President Roosevelt met with King Saud of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was unique in that it had not been colonized by the Europeans, and was therefore open to U.S. influence. Thus commenced a key event in America’s pernicious relationship with the region.

By 1980, Jimmy Carter explicitly stated that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” In 1948, President Truman signed NSC 10/2, giving the newly formed CIA authorization to undertake “covert action” anywhere in the world  in order to protect U.S. interests abroad. This was used many times in the Middle East.

FDR Ibn Saud Quincy Meeting Roosevelt

FDR and King Saud aboard the USS Quincy in 1945.

Overthrow of Mosaddegh

Perhaps the most egregious instance of the foreign undermining of democracy in the Middle East is when, in 1953, the CIA and MI6 together toppled the democratic, parliamentary, constitutional, secular regime of nationalist president, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh was a civil libertarian who had been democratically elected to power in Iran in 1951, was the first Iranian to receive a doctorate of law from a European university, and authored a book advocating the establishment of European-style laws and democracy in Iran. Mosaddegh’s crime was that he nationalized Britain’s quarter-billion dollar Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which he did in a non-violent way, totally concurrent with British law (and the British themselves had recently nationalized their own coal, steel, and railway industries).

Mosaddegh Time Man of the Year Iran

Mosaddegh was Time’s Man of the Year in 1951. In this article, Time explains that Dr. Mosaddegh was chosen as the “Man of the Year” for his moral integrity and courage to stand up to the British and despite all the odds continue his campaign for nationalizing Iranian Oil.
In a plan that they called Operation Ajax, the CIA and MI6 bribed influential figures, compelled Iran’s major newspapers to spread anti-Mosaddegh propaganda, and provoked street violence which resulted in three hundred deaths. The United States then replaced Mosaddegh with Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, who ruled with an iron fist for 26 years. After the coup, the CIA helped the Shah create SAVAK, Iran’s intelligence and security service, which brutally enforced a police state. Washington also providedthe Shah’s regime with an arsenal of modern weapons and 40,000 military advisors to teach the Iranians how to use them. These same weapons naturally fell into the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini after the revolution. Pahlavi murdered and torturedtens of thousands of political dissenters, abolished all political parties but his own, and looted the national treasury. In 1976, Amnesty International declaredthat Iran had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.”
Opposition to the Western-backed Shah directly led to the revolution of 1979, which established an Islamic, authoritarian regime which supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has been called“the quintessential case of both superpowers not only failing to promote, but actually undermining, Middle Eastern democracy.” As one of the foremost experts on this topic, Steven Kinzer observesin his book All the Shah’s Men: an American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror:

Operation Ajax taught tyrants and aspiring tyrants [in the Middle East] that the world’s most powerful governments were willing to tolerate limitless oppression as long as oppressive regimes were friendly to the West and to Western oil companies. That helped tilt the political balance in a vast region away from freedom and toward dictatorship.

In March, 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first U.S. official to officially admit that “the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh,” that “the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development,” and that it is easy to see why many Iranians resent America for this. Later, in President Obama’s well-known Cairo speech in 2009, he too acknowledged that “the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”

Suez Crisis

In 1956, after the U.S. reneged on their promise to provide funding for the Aswan Dam in Egypt, President Nasser announced that he would nationalize the Suez Canal Company in order to fund the dam and other development projects. Nasser promised to fully compensate the company’s British and French shareholders at market value, and not to close the Canal, but this wasn’t enough for the Europeans, and they determined that military action was needed to safeguard their ‘assets.’

In response to the nationalization, Israel, Britain, and France invaded Egypt, managing to severely damage the waterway without actually capturing it. The action was internationally condemned, and the U.S. quickly pressured them to withdraw, for fear of a large-scale war, which could turn nuclear should the Soviets intervene (which they had threatened to do). The intervention resulted in between 1500 and 3000 dead, and only served to solidify Arab perceptions of the Europeans as colonialists, and to drive the Egyptians into the open hands of the Soviets. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden defended his actions by saying that “Prompt military action was necessary,” because “if Nasser ‘got away with it,’ it would mean disaster for British interests in the whole Middle East.”

After the 1956 Suez Crisis, the U.S. largely took over the role of imperialist meddler in the region, with the Soviet Union not far behind. In early 1957, President Eisenhower asked Congress to approve the Eisenhower Doctrine, which pledged economic and military aid, as well as direct military intervention to any Middle Eastern regime seeking assistance against “international communism.”


The U.S. meddled in Iraq’s affairs for forty years, fomenting coups, stirring up Kurdish separatists, and funding the Ba’thists against the Communists under Abdul Karim Kassem. In 1963, the CIA supported the Ba’athist repression of more than 10,000 people in the Iraqi Communist Party. Thousands of victims, whose names had been provided by the CIA, were executed by Ba’athist death squads, who had been armed and advised by the Americans. Among those on the CIA’s payroll in 1963 was a 26-year-old Saddam Hussein.

Later, in the 1970s, the CIA realized that they had in effect, not only created a monster, but, much worse, created a monster who did not have U.S. interests in mind. Saddam openly courted the Soviets, and made America’s two closest allies in the region, Israel and Iran, his mortal enemies. In response, in 1972 the Nixon administration authorized the CIA to fund and equip Kurdish rebels in Iraq’s north. Three years later, when the Kurds were no longer needed, three hundred thousand Kurds in makeshift camps just across the border in Iran were ignored. Kissinger is quoted at this time as saying, “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

When it became clear in the summer of 1982 that Iraq was in danger of losing the Iran-Iraq War (which the U.S. had encouraged them to instigate), the U.S. began supporting them with intelligence and weapons sales, (the Soviets also provided thirteen billion dollars worth of weapons to Iraq, and sold weapons to Iran as well). The

According to a 1994 investigation by the Senate Banking Committee, dozens of biological agents were shipped from the U.S. to Iraq during the mid-1980s under license from the Commerce Department, including various strains of anthrax, subsequently identified by the Pentagon as a key component of the Iraqi biological warfare program. The Commerce Department also approved the export of insecticides to Iraq, despite widespread suspicions that they were being used for chemical warfare. They were indeed used, against the Iranians and Iraq’s own Kurdish population in the 1980s, and the U.S. protected Saddam’s regime from suffering any international sanctions as a penalty. Later, such WMD programs (by now long-gone) were ironically used as justification for the American-led invasion of Iraq.

During the infamous Iran-Contra debacle, the Pentagon supplied Iran with 504 TOW missiles in 1985 to be used against Iraq, and planned on selling another four thousand, before being exposed. The Americans were apparently concerned with Saddam’s success in the Iran-Iraq war, and were afraid he would target Israel next (the Israelis themselves also “supplied Iran with a steady stream of arms, ammunition, and spare parts”). Later, during the 1990s, the U.S. spent over 100 million dollars trying to overthrow Saddam’s regime, all of it in vain.

Other Countries

In Syria too, the CIA was involved in various military coups and dictatorships, backing a coup against a democratically elected president al-Quwatli in 1949, and funding the pro-Western Syrian Social National Party (SSNP). A member of the SSNP assassinated the popular politician Colonel Adnan al-Malki, who wanted Syria to stay out of Cold War superpower politics. The U.S. attempted another clumsy right-wing coup in Syria in 1956, and again in 1957, but was easily discovered both times by Syrian intelligence, and only resulted in fostering further anti-Americanism, authoritarianism, and sympathy towards the Soviets.

In 1957, the CIA delivered suitcases full of cash to the pro-American, Lebanese president Camille Chamoun, who used it to defeat his rivals at the polls. A year later 14,000 marines were dispatched to the country to protect Chamoun and promote ‘stability.’ They also funded the brutal Christian warlord Bashir Gemayel during Lebanon’s civil war. The CIA later provided Lebanon with funds to upgrade their brutal counter-terrorism and security apparatus, which went on to accidentally kill 80 civilians in a failed car-bomb attack.

The CIA also attempted to destabilize South Yemen in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but were discovered by the regime after a team of thirteen U.S.-trained saboteurs who had been captured and tortured revealed the CIA’s involvement.

The U.S. by no means had a monopoly on interference in the Middle East; they were simply played the primary role. For example, Britain backed the absolutist King Hussein of Jordan when he dismissed the democratically-elected Nabulsi government in 1957. The Russians and the British together successfully subverted the constitutional regime of the elected Majlis after the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-06, resulting in the suspension of the constitution and joint Russian and British military occupation of Iran.

Post-Cold War Western Meddling

The Middle East is the most militarized region in the world, supplied mostly by the U.S. The U.S. has major military bases in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain, and American arms sales to the Middle East account for more than half of all arms to the region. In 2003, 72% of U.S. foreign aid allotted to the Middle East was military aid, as opposed to just 28% for economic development. The U.S. has recently concluded deals to sell $123 billion to Gulf states, including a $68 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, which is the largest of its kind in history, and carries on a tradition of funding and arming the House of Saud started at least as far back as 1957.  

Until his resignation, the U.S. gave Egypt $1.3 billion per year in military aid, which was often spent purely on Mubarek himself. Only Israel receives more U.S. aid than Egypt. This is in contrast to only $250 million in economic aid, despite the fact that almost half of Egyptians live on two dollars or less a day.

The U.S. claims to support democracy in the region, but only when it results in a pro-American regime. In 1991, the U.S. did not condemn Algeria when the government overthrew the results of the free multiparty parliamentary elections because they did not like the results – the Islamic Salvation Front won in a landslide victory.

Support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East continues to this day. The U.S. has always supported absolutist rule in Saudi Arabia, and has helped the regime resist pressures to liberalize their country. Jordan, which has strict penalties for any kind of critical opinions of the government, and where torture has recently been getting even worse, was provided with $300 million in 2010.

During the recent revolts in Egypt, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Mubarek “Immensely courageous and a force for good,” and pronounced that there should not be a rush to elections in Egypt. American vice president Joe Biden said that he “would not refer to [Mubarek] as a dictator.”

The British also armed and trained Bahrain’s security forces, which recently killed seven peaceful protestors, including a two-year-old girl, and injured hundreds, and have even attacked sleeping protestors. Despite this, the king of Bahrain is still invited to Prince William’s forthcoming wedding. BP boss Tony Hayward signed a two billion dollar oil and gas deal with Muammar Gaddafi in 2007, despite the fact that only a year prior Gaddafi had pledged to kill any enemies of his corrupt regime. The British government has armed the Libyan security forces with tear gas, small arms ammunition, and sniper rifles.

The Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was supported by both the U.S. and France before it was toppled. In 2008, the Italian government pledged five billion dollars to the Gaddafi regime in compensation for Italy’s former military occupation of Libya. The repressive and non-democratic regime in Algeria has been supported by France, Spain, Italy, and Japan.

Obama American Middle East Exception-alism

Copyright Adam Zyglis, Buffalo News


British Prime Minister David Cameron has recently said that:

for decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability. Rather, the reverse.

Hopefully, Cameron’s words do not prove hollow. Many would argue that a Machiavellian ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ policy is sometimes necessary in international relations in order to promote one’s national interest, and that stability is the ultimate goal. Placing morality gently aside for a moment, the logic of that argument in regards to U.S. policy towards the Middle East does not seem to endure empirical scrutiny, especially not in Iran or Iraq. U.S. actions have often worked well in securing their national interest in the short term, but have been hugely detrimental in the long-term. Twenty-six years of ‘stability’ during the Shah’s reign in Iran seems to have hugely contributed to the rise of the fiercely anti-American Islamic Republic of Iran. Other actions, well-known to denizens of the Middle East, have radicalized the local populations and political entities.

The uprisings against authoritarianism currently sweeping throughout the region have come no thanks to western support, and in fact have usually occured despite western support of the offending regimes. Therefore it is quite silly when western armchair commentators look down their noses at the Arabs, wonder why they are so ‘backwards,’ and exasperatedly explain “finally!” as they watch the Arabs fight for their freedom from the regimes which we empowered.

Uncle Sam American support Arab dictators Middle East Tattoos

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