VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > F. The Middle East and North Africa, 1914–1945
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Overview)
F. The Middle East and North Africa, 1914–1945
1. Overview
Between the two world wars, several forces—both internal and external—combined to produce unprecedented change in the societies, cultures, economies, and political systems of the Middle East and North Africa. The most disruptive of these forces was European imperialism, which reached its zenith during these decades. Britain and France (together with Italy in Libya and Spain in part of Morocco) possessed extensive colonial dominions and wielded considerable influence even in countries that they did not rule directly. Only central Arabia escaped formal European administration and/or occupation for the entire length of the interwar period. But European domination did not go entirely unchallenged. In several countries, nationalist movements emerged for the first time and forced the Europeans to cede a degree of power to native elites or even to grant nominal independence.  1
The most far-reaching consequence of European intervention was the destruction of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. In lands that had formerly been unified, the Europeans laid the foundation for an entirely novel system of states that, in spite of its artificiality, persisted into the late 20th century with few modifications. The ruling elites of these states were generally drawn from great landowning families. They modeled their regimes on the Western democracies and created Western political institutions such as constitutions, parliaments, and political parties. In reality, power was concentrated in the hands of the elites. Democratic institutions were subject to constant manipulation, whether from the elites or from the European powers. The abuses of the political system bred disillusionment, which expressed itself in the rise of Fascist organizations, Muslim political movements, and pan-Arab ideologies during the 1930s. At the same time, a new generation composed of young professionals, bureaucrats, and junior army officers began to appear on the political scene. These men grew increasingly disenchanted with the political establishment but were not yet prepared to challenge the ruling elites.  2
In economic affairs, the interwar period was marked by economic stagnation. The Great Depression was a devastating blow to the region, but many areas partly recovered during the boom generated by World War II. Within the world economy, the Middle East and North Africa essentially maintained their roles as suppliers of raw materials to and importers of finished goods from industrialized countries. As in the 19th century, Europeans occupied critical positions in the economy through their banks, commercial houses, and insurance firms. Overall, the region's economy continued to be dominated by agriculture. Though several countries founded modern industries, development in this sector proceeded slowly (except in Turkey). Outside Turkey and Iran, no regimes engaged in economic planning. The oil industry, operated by foreign firms, was still moving through the developmental phase. The few oil fields in production supplied a negligible proportion of total world output.  3
The modes of transportation and communication underwent a revolution during the interwar period. Automobiles made their first appearance but remained the exclusive possession of the well-to-do. More important was the spread of trucking, which gradually replaced camels for the hauling of goods. Rail networks were still growing and received heavy investment, but generally remained inadequate except in Turkey and Egypt. Air service, provided mostly by foreign firms, became available for the first time for both passenger and commercial traffic. In communications, radio and film quickly established themselves as popular sources of news and entertainment.  4
The population of the region was expanding rapidly, over 1.5 percent per year. The increases resulted from a high fertility rate coupled with improvements in hygiene, diet, and medical care. In 1914 the total number of inhabitants stood at about 66 million (54 million for the Middle East and 12 million for North Africa). These figures reached approximately 101 million by the end of World War II (81 and 20 million, respectively). Most of the population still lived in the countryside (over three-quarters in most places), but the proportion of urban dwellers was rising fast. Pastoralists were rapidly disappearing, usually settling down as farmers.  5
The educational system steadily expanded under government supervision. Yet illiteracy remained rampant, for education was largely restricted to a privileged minority. Through the educational system, as well as the various media, the elites gained exposure to Western ideas, attitudes, and tastes, which they eagerly adopted. They actively sought (most radically in Turkey) to secularize their societies, particularly in law and education. Another sign of Western influence was the emergence of a fledgling feminist movement, which demanded modest reforms in the legal and educational systems.  6
All the new ideas and social reforms were bitterly opposed by members of the religious establishment. In this respect, the men of religion expressed the views of the great majority, who professed an unshakable devotion to religion and custom. Traditional attitudes held out even as the forces of modernity inexorably reshaped the societies of the region. (See Overview)  7
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.