Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in the Middle East


The contemporary Muslim states in the Middle East represent a wide variety of social, political, and religious structures. Currently, there are over fifty of these countries with different economic and political status, some of them being secular, religious, monarchies, or democracies. Examining the history of the development of the Middle Eastern countries can help understand what affected and shaped this region since the colonization of the Middle East impacted cultural and political life. This paper aims to examine colonialism and post-colonialism in the Middle East and the British Empire in particular.

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Colonization and Its Impact

The practice of colonization did not begin in the Middle East region, with the British Empire having colonies in India and Australia before establishing its rule over the Muslim countries. Colonization can be described as a direct ruling of one country over the other.1 Throughout history, there were many examples of colonization and its consequences for the colonized territories. While the reasons for colonization can vary from wanting to control more territories to acquiring natural and human resources that can help improve the economic wellbeing of the colonizers, it is inevitable that this process has a tremendous impact on the people living in colonies. According to Alzubairi, “empires first expand and solidify their control through their militaries, but later tend to replace military power with economic coercion.”2 The author argues that imperialism can be imposed either directly or indirectly, providing the example of Tunisia that was unable to repay its debt to the British Empire. This led to the latter taking control over the state’s budget until full repayment of the debt.

In essence, the example of nineteenth-century colonization illustrates that these processes aim to protect the interests of the empires, either political or economic, without regard for the wellbeing or development of the colonized territories. The following paragraphs will focus on the history of the Middle East Colonization, while the final part of the paper will discuss the post-colonial disasters. Additionally, some advantages that were a result of Middle East colonization will be considered.

The British Colonialism

Firstly, it is necessary to determine how the British Empire colonized the Middle East, the underlying causes and consequences of these actions. The beginning of the colonization in the region was facilitated by the establishment of Empires in Europe. The main reasons that led to the colonization of the Middle East were the need to establish control over these territories and the valuable resources that they could provide. According to Rogan, the economic interests that the British Empire had in regards to the Middle East territory were connected to its East Indian Company.3 The Persian Gulf, a strategic trading route, was endangered by the tribes of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaima.

The pirates that attacked the merchant ships were a threat to the vital connection between the Indian territory and the East of the Mediterranean, and the British Empire was entitled to mitigating this threat.4 This resulted in two separate campaigns that targeted and burned ships of the Sharjah and Ras al-Khaima and reached an agreement with the sheiks of these territories, allowing the latter to have access to the British ports. The mandates that the European states, in particular, the British Empire, received after World War I aimed to diminish the negative connotations of colonies, although there were no distinct differences between the two forms. Hence, after 1923, the British Empire gained control over large parts of the Middle East.

The French and the Ottoman Empire

France had political interests in the Middle East before Great Britain began its colonization. France is another significant colonial entity, which had control over a part of Ottoman Syria after the end of World War I.5 Besides, Lebanon and a part of Turkey were under the control of the French Empire. In regards to the legal aspect of establishing colonies in the Middle East, the French Mandate of 1923 was a formal document allowing the French Empire to control the territory of Syria and Lebanon.6 In fact, France had colonies in the Middle East before the nineteenth century when the British Empire established control over the large portion of the region since French forces were present in Algeria since the 1830s.7 Hence, the history of relationships between the Muslim Middle East and European countries is long and complicated. According to the Oxford Islamic Studies resource, the last stage of this relationship that led to the establishment of colonies on the territory of the Middle East was the division of the Ottoman Empire Arab lands. 8 Evidently, prior to the establishment of the European colonies through mandates of the League of Nations, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Middle Eastern territories.

The McMahon-Hussein correspondence should be mentioned in the context of colonialism in the Middle East. These letters were an attempt of the British Empire to diminish the impact of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East territory before 1923.9 The main factors that should be recognized are the claim that the Empire will recognize Arab independence in case the two parties reach an agreement. This correspondence suggests that the British Empire’s primary interest was in defeating the Ottoman Empire. However, after World War I, the British and the French Empires divided the Arab territories, establishing their colonies in the states where the Ottoman Empire ruled prior.

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The actions were taken to colonize the Middle East were primarily the treaties that allowed the European Empires to divide the territories of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. France, however, acquired some of its territory in the Middle East through invasion and occupation. The influence that the colonization had is reflected in different domains, including political, economic, and social, since the lifestyles, religion, and backgrounds of the people in the Middle East differed from that of the Europeans.

Post-Colonial Life

The fact that the notion of colonialism implies the combination of political, cultural, and military control over the territories affects all aspects of the colonized nation’s life. The primary outcome of the post-colonial era in the Middle East was the establishment of many independent Muslim states.10 The end of World War II was also the end of the colonial era in the Arab territories. The European countries had to protect their economic and political wellbeing in the new global environment, and the withdrawal of their forces from the Middle East was different for each state. In some cases, the states negotiated the withdrawal of the colonial military power, gaining full independence, for instance of India, Malaya, and Persian Gulf emirates.11 However, Algeria is an example of a state where a war for independence took place. According to Alzubairi, colonizers use “centralization, militarism, exceptionalism, and economic force” as their primary sources of power that allow them to control their colonies.12 Therefore, the colonies were dependent and had to adjust their cultures and political outlooks based to suit the views of the European Empires.

The political arrangements and views of government power were affected by colonial history. According to Alzubairi, “after independence, former colonies included exceptional powers in their constitutions,” which is the result of the exceptional power that the Empires had over these states.13 Using the example of the British Empire, the new governments of the free states adopted pseudo-democratic systems that aimed to enhance national security and neglected the importance of adhering to the laws. Another example is the mitigation of the importance that the court system has in the context of a state since the decisions in the colonies were made by committees. Hence, the colonization distorted the views of the political and legal systems that existed in the Middle East.

The Post-Colonial Advantages and Disasters

The impact that the Middle East’s colonial history is reflected in many aspects of political and social life. The imperialist past affected the ideologies and political aspirations of this region.14 Arguably, the current state of the Muslim world can be described as a collection of states that unify a particular nation or nation-states. However, historically, these countries were united under caliphates, while the colonial ruling separated them into different entities.15 However, the religious and identity distinction existed before colonization, with “Iranians from early on viewed themselves as distinct from Arabs and Turks.”16 Hence, this issue cannot be entirely attributed to the activities of the British Empire in the Middle East.

The concept of colonization and the exploitation of the human labor that existed as part of the political rule over the Middle East requires some investigation as well since it affected the post-colonial life in this territory. Memmi argues that the typical portrait of the colonized as lazy people allows colonizers to justify the low wages and work conditions.17 Hence, the exploitation of labor and resources is the primary disadvantage that arises as a result of British colonialism. Such a view of the citizens living in the colonized territories allowed the British to justify the low wages that they provided.

Despite the many disadvantages that were a result of colonialism in the Middle East, it is necessary to discuss the positive aspects of imperialism. The establishment of Empires led to an investment in the economies of the Middle Eastern states. The countries gained access to the resources brought by the colonizers, and aspects such as trade relationships improved. In essence, in the context of the colony, the Empire benefited from these advantages more since it had full control of the resources and financials.


Overall, the states in the Middle East represent a great variety of political, social organizations, with democratic countries and monarchies, secular or Muslim states present in the region. The British and the French Empires divided the territories that were formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Formally, the colonies were established in the nineteenth century with the French Mandate of 1923 and the colonization imposed by the British Empire. The advantages of colonization are access to resources and investments provided by the empires. The disadvantages are the improper use of labor and resources of the colonized territories.

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Alzubairi, Fatemah. Colonialism, Neo-Colonialism, and Anti-Terrorism Law in the Arab World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

“European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States.” Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Web.

Fichter, James. British and French Colonialism in Africa, Asia and the Middle East: Connected Empires across the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

“French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon.” The American Journal of International Law 17, (1923): 1-6.

Friedman, Isaiah. “The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and the Question of Palestine.” Journal of Contemporary History 5, no. 2 (1970), pp. 83-122.

Kamel, Lorenzo. The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Translated by Howard Greenfeld. London: Earthscan, 2003.

Rogan, Eugene. The Arabs: A History. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

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  1. James Fichter, British and French Colonialism in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East: Connected Empires across the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 33.
  2. Fatemah Alzubairi, Colonialism, Neo-Colonialism, and Anti-Terrorism Law in the Arab World, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 19.
  3. Eugene Rogan, The Arabs: A History, (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 109.
  4. Rogan. 110.
  5. Fichter, British and French colonialism, 33.
  6. “French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon,” The American Journal of International Law 17, (1923): 1.
  7. Fichter, British and French Colonialism, 33.
  8. “European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States,” Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Web.
  9. Isaiah Friedman, “The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and the Question of Palestine,” Journal of Contemporary History 5, no. 2 (1970), p. 83.
  10. Alzubairi, 19.
  11. Fichter, 34.
  12. Alzubairi, 20.
  13. Alzubairi, 20.
  14. “European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States.”
  15. Lorenzo Kamel, The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), 123.
  16. “European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States.”
  17. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, translated by Howard Greenfeld, (London: Earthscan, 2003), 123.
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