VII. The Contemporary Period, 1945–2000 > E. The Middle East and North Africa, 1945–2000
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Overview)
E. The Middle East and North Africa, 1945–2000
1. Overview
The postwar period saw the end of foreign rule and the achievement of independence by all countries in the region. The old colonial masters, Britain and France, lost their position of dominance, to be replaced by the U.S. and the USSR, whose competition for allies and resources embroiled the area in the cold war. From the 1970s, and especially after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. emerged as the supreme foreign power.  1
Much domestic turbulence accompanied independence. Military coups in the Arab world during the 1950s and 1960s brought down the old ruling elites based on great landowners and installed new regimes in which military officers and senior bureaucrats predominated. The new political order embraced radical ideologies, notably pan-Arabism and socialism, and implemented populist programs such as land reform. By the 1970s these ideologies had lost their appeal, giving way to a certain economic liberalization as well as pragmatism in foreign policy. There was, however, no democratization of the region's regimes, most of which developed into highly authoritarian structures intolerant of opposition.  2
A number of major wars, both within and between states, shook the region, causing immense loss of life and treasure. The Arab-Israeli conflict emerged as a seemingly permanent condition after 1948, when the Arab states and the Palestinians vowed to destroy the newly created state of Israel and put an Arab Palestinian state in its place. After four bloody wars failed to dislodge the Israelis (who actually gained territory), fatigue and realism prompted three historic breakthroughs: the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty (1979), the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (1993), and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty (1994).  3
Several other major conflicts convulsed the region during this period: the Algerian War for independence (1954–62), the civil war in North Yemen (1962–70), the Turkish invasion of Cyprus (1974), the civil war in Lebanon (beginning in 1975), Morocco's long war in the Western Sahara (beginning in 1976), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), the long Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990). Other conflicts involved separatists, the most notable of whom were Kurdish nationalists, who staged revolts throughout the postwar period against regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.  4
Alongside this turmoil, the Middle East experienced rapid demographic and economic growth. The region's population grew at an astonishing rate, accelerating from about 2 percent per year (1945–60) to almost 3 percent per year (1960–93). The total population rose from about 101 million in 1945 (61 million in the Middle East and 20 million in North Africa) to about 314 million (255 million and 59 million, respectively). The proportion of urban people climbed from one-quarter to about one-half, the product of massive rural-urban migration, primarily to the capital cities. This population explosion undermined development plans and prompted the first family-planning programs.  5
From the 1950s onward, the region was swept up in an economic boom. The standard of living improved everywhere. The economy was becoming more diversified and less dependent on agriculture. Though agricultural production expanded, it represented a diminishing share of total output. Industry made considerable advances despite only a modest level of development by world standards. Most states took an active (sometimes exclusive) role in directing their national economies. Their bureaucracies and public sectors swelled to unprecedented dimensions, especially as a high proportion of their budgets went into the military and internal security forces, which expanded tremendously.  6
The region's oil industry gained world importance, and especially when oil prices soared in the 1970s, an immense amount of wealth flowed into the oil states from the West. The oil boom set in motion several regional trends: large-scale investment in development schemes; a massive migration of workers to the oil states; a growing gap between rich and poor countries; increasing dependence of the oil states on the West for goods, expertise, and investment opportunities; and economic liberalization in the poorer states as a way of sharing in the boom.  7
The position of women changed with the great socioeconomic transformations of the period. Women entered the educational system and the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Several countries passed laws to reduce social inequalities and to provide women with a greater measure of security within the family. The feminist cause gained some ground, although conservative elements insisted on keeping women in more traditional social roles.  8
The cultural scene was also transformed, especially by the expansion of education and the spread of the mass media. The number of schools and students increased dramatically at all levels, and illiteracy rates declined (from about 75 percent to 40 percent). Radio and then television became commonplace and, together with the cinema, formed the prime sources of popular entertainment as well as exposure to the wider world. The output of novels and poetry increased, and two regional writers, S. Y. Agnon of Israel and Najib Mahfuz of Egypt, won Nobel Prizes for their literary accomplishments.  9
A remarkable phenomenon amid these changes was the emergence of militant Islamic opposition movements throughout the region. The programs of the various “fundamentalist” groups differed in methods and demands, but all shared a rejection of secular government and the desire to impose an Islamic identity on state and society. Although only in Iran was a government overthrown by Muslim opposition, movements everywhere won wide appeal among the disaffected. Their clashes with the authorities, often violent, intensified a long-standing, bitter debate over the nature and future of Muslim societies. The rise of fundamentalism also triggered bitter cultural disputes among intellectuals in countries such as Egypt between the fundamentalists and the defenders of more pluralist traditions and secular outlooks.  10
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.