Martin van Creveld explains why the Middle East is a disaster area

Summary: The Middle East has become a focus of the world’s conflicts. Martin van Creveld explains what’s made the Middle East the disaster area it is, and looks at it likely future. The course of world history might be determined by the decisions of its people.

Gaza strip

The Middle East disaster area

By Martin van Creveld. From his website, 13 July 2017.
Re-posted with his generous permission.

Hanging in my kitchen I have a so-called “New Zealand Tourist Map of the World.” Like other humoristic maps of its kind, it carries a brief description of each region. New Zealand, painted green, is best of all. It occupies an entirely disproportionate part of the map and is marked as having such things as “the biggest fish,” “the muddiest mud,” and “the friendliest mermaids” in the world. By contrast, Australia is a “desert island populated by a backward tribe known as strines.” Japan has “earthquakes,” the US, “hamburgers,” and Africa, “wild women.” These are just examples; most of the world has more than one epithet applied to it. Not so the Middle East, which is summed up in just two words: “disaster area.”

Fun aside, for a hundred years now the Middle East has in fact been a disaster area, much to the loss of most of its unfortunate inhabitants. Nor, the recent agreement between Presidents Trump and Putin notwithstanding, does there seem to be any immediate prospect for the turmoil to end. In this brief article I propose…

  1. To trace the conflicts themselves.
  2. Explain, very briefly, the factors that have prevented peace.
  3. Say a few words about the probable shape of the future.

A vision of the Middle East’s glorious past.
Egyptian Pyramid

(1) Origin of the problems.

Many of the problems in the Middle East go back far into the nineteenth century. For our purposes, however, a good starting point is formed by World War I (1914-18). In 1916-18 the British, coming from the Sinai as well as the Persia Gulf, defeated the Ottomans and overran the entire Middle East. Next they divided the spoils with their French allies. France got Syria and Lebanon, whereas Britain took the rest.

The aftermath of the war saw the establishment of the colonies — which later developed into independent states — of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf, and Trans-Jordan (as it then was). Saudi Arabia, which was never occupied by either Britain or France, became independent by default. Last not least the Balfour Declaration, which was issued in November 1917, promised that His Majesty’s Government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” As one Arab resident wrote to Winston Churchill, who as colonial secretary had been entrusted with fixing the various borders and toured the country in 1922, as long as the Declaration was not repealed peace would “never” return to that country.

Since then the peace to end all peace, as it has been called, has remained the source of endless trouble. First the British had to cope with Arab uprisings in Palestine and, on a much larger scale, in Iraq. No sooner were those revolts suppressed than trouble broke out on the border between Trans Jordan and Saudi Arabia, an entirely artificial line on the map that the local tribes refused to respect. In 1927-29 it was the turn of the French to cope with what is still remembered as the Great Syrian Revolt. Additional Arab revolts broke out in Palestine in 1929 and 1936-39 and in Iraq in 1940.

No sooner had World War II ended than Palestine witnessed another anti-British revolt, albeit that this time it was the Jews who revolted. The establishment of Israel in 1948 was immediately followed by an entire series of Arab-Israeli Wars that lasted until 1973. But trouble was not limited to Israel and its neighbors. The British having gone, during much of the 1950s and 1960 the Kurds in Iraq waged more or less open warfare against the central authorities in Baghdad, a problem that has still not been resolved. The Kurds also tried to break loose from Turkey, another problem that has still not been solved.

In the 1960s Yemen was devastated by a civil war (as, at present, it is once again). In 1970 the Syrians briefly invaded Jordan which was just then engaged in civil war against the Palestinians in its territory. Six year later civil war broke out in Lebanon, and six years after that Israel launched a massive invasion of the latter country. It took until 2006 ere another massive Israeli blow finally brought hostilities in southern Lebanon to an end — and even so there is no guarantee that they will not break out again at any time.

The 1980s saw a massive war between Iraq and Iran. No sooner had it ended than Iraq made a grab for Kuwait and had to be expelled by the United States and its allies (1991). In 2003 hostilities in the Persian Gulf resumed. This time not only Iraq’s armed forces but its government was smashed, leading to chaos that, fourteen years later, shows hardly a sign of abating. Worst of all is the situation in Syria where civil war broke out in 2011. As of this writing it has succeeded in turning much of the country into a wasteland from which t will take decades to recover, if indeed it ever does.

Dead doves.

Pile of Morning Dove after a dove hunt

(2)  The factors that have prevented peace.

How to account for all this trouble? Perhaps the most important answer is the extraordinary complexity of the region. A complexity which the new states, lacking firm roots in the population as they did, never succeeded in controlling. There are, of course, Egyptians and Syrians and Iraqis and Saudis and so forth. But there are also Israelis and Palestinians. And Arabs and Kurds. And Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Copts. There are Sunnis and there are Shi’ites (and there are Allawi’s, whom some do not recognize as Muslims at all) and there are Druze.

There are also many kinds of Christians. True, the Christians’ overall role in the region is declining into insignificance. But how strong the hatreds among them are can be seen on major feast days when monks belonging to different denominations at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher regularly take up cudgels and bicycle chains and go after each other.

Had the men — there were no women among them — who made the modern Middle East back in 1915-22 been as saintly as Christ and as wise as mandarins, they would have been hard-put to take all these complications into account. Let alone bring them to an end. If anything, the contrary. Operating on the old, old principle of divide et impera, as when the French separated Lebanon from Syria and the British in Egypt favored the Copts, often they did what they could to accentuate them.

Next, poverty. Early in the twentieth century the countries of the Middle East were, without exception, poor and undeveloped. So much so that, by one estimate, per capita income in what later became Israel, which even then was starting to emerge as one of the more developed regions, stood as just four percent of the US figure (currently it stands at 56 percent). Israel apart, no country in the Middle East has managed to cross the threshold into a mature industrial, let alone post-industrial, society. An antiquated social structure, based on extensive ties between extended families and clans, acts as both cause and effect of this fact.

True, over the last century agriculture has declined and urbanization spread. Yet most of the urban population remains very poor indeed. Nor do most of these people have the kind of education needed to create and maintain a modern economy. As a result, what wealth there is owes its existence mainly to the primary sector. Chiefly oil and related products such as natural gas.

But not all Middle Eastern states possess significant reserves of the precious black liquid. Both in those that do and those that do not, income is so unevenly distributed as to act as the source, not of progress but of conflict, some of it armed. These conflicts in turn are tied to the fact that, again with the exception of Israel, no Middle Eastern country has ever succeeded into converting itself into a true democracy. Meaning one characterized by popular elections, a freely elected parliament able to supervise the executive, human rights anchored in law, and an independent judiciary. Iraq and Syria until they were torn apart by war, and Jordan and Egypt right down to the present day, were or are run by a team of four: namely the head of state, the ruling party, the army, and the secret services. Security of life and property exist, if at all, only to a very limited extent. And liberty is a very occasional guest.

To the internal factors must be added external ones. From antiquity on, the Middle East has always been an extraordinarily important region, geopolitically speaking. The reason is because through it passed the lines of communication leading from north to south and from west to east. With the discovery of oil early in the 20th century, which led to some of the greatest concentrations of wealth in history on one hand and to the most intense competition on the other, its role became even greater. Going back at least as far as 1918 and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, not for five minutes has the Middle East been free of foreign intervention.

At first, as already explained, the leading role was played by the British and the French. After 1945 it was mainly the Americans and the Soviets who called the shots. Both superpowers sought to extend their own zone of influence and expel the other. Now by treaty, now by economic aid, now by assisting a rebel group to mount a coup and overthrow a government, and now by having their respective clients fight one another. Nor were the US and the Soviet Union, later succeeded by the Russians, the only ones with a finger in the pie. As is exemplified by the fact that, currently and at any rate on paper, no fewer than 68 countries are officially committed to fighting Daesh.

Many of the countries in question are at odds not only with their local rivals but with each other too. Take, as an example of the resulting complexity, the case of Syria whose regime has been fighting its own citizens for the last six years. In Syria alone there are said to be some fifty different militias, some fairly large, others very small. Though all or most seem to have this in common that they hate President Assad’s government, many also reflect various religious, ethnic and local interests. The Russians, the Iranians and the terrorist organization Hezbollah (which has its roots in Lebanon, and is made up of Shi’ite fighters operating in Syria, which is mostly Sunni) have all been consistently supporting Assad.

The Turks claim to be fighting terrorists, but in reality they are more interested in keeping the Kurds down and the Iranians, out. The Saudis, bent on bugging Iran wherever they can, are determined to get rid of Assad and provide the Syrian rebels with weapons by way of Jordan. Ostensibly to prevent the war from spreading to that country, the US has stationed troops there. It is also bombing both Assad and his opponents, Daesh. To not much avail, as far as anyone can see. With the US are, as so often, some of its NATO allies playing the role of the jackal. As for Israel, up to the present it has managed to keep out of the conflict. But this does not prevent it from constantly calling on others to topple Assad and so, hopefully, pulling its own chestnuts out of the fire.

Seeing the future
Ron Chapple/Getty Images.

(3)  Looking at the future.

Niels Bohr, the Nobel-Prize winning Danish nuclear physicist, is supposed to have said that prediction is difficult, especially of the future. The Talmud concurs, saying that “the gift of prophecy is handed out to fools.” One does not, though, need divine insight to understand that, the abovementioned agreement between Trump and Putin notwithstanding, the Middle East is indeed a “disaster area” and likely to remain so for a long time in the future.

To proceed in reverse order, one reason for this is foreign intervention which has often aided and abetted local conflicts. Then there is the absence of democracy, representative government, and human rights; all of which, along with the frequent presence of thuggish rulers, are rooted in societies most of which have never succeeded in overcoming their tribal character. Thuggish rulers — in truth, it is hard to see how anyone but a thug could govern the countries in question — are responsible for the fact that free economies could not develop and the distribution of wealth is as unequal as it is.

These facts and many others like them explain many things. They do not, however, explain everything. Some years ago I had the pleasure of coming across a book by the aged doyen of “oriental studies,” Bernard Lewis. Titled What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and first published in 2002, it tried to explain how and why the brilliant civilization of the Middle Ages had declined until, finally, it reached the point where the epithet “Arab” is positive only when applied to a horse.

Though I read it twice, I still do not know.


Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW — preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war in the fascinating Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (see the chapters about modern gaming, wargames for the people).

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He has written three books about Israel: Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace, The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force, and a biography of Moshe Dayan.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than ours!). Even more so are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.

And perhaps most important for us, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State— describes the political order unfolding before our eyes. Also see this remarkable book: More on War (2016).

His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir by one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.

For More Information

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these posts about the Middle East, and especially these…

  1. We’re conducting a grand experiment in the Middle East – using money to reshape their societies.
  2. About the war’s almost inevitable end: Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big. Western culture is our invincible weapon.
  3. The revolution comes to the Middle East: about the past & future of ISIS.
  4. Peter van Buren asks what the Middle East would look like if we hadn’t helped.
  5. Martin van Creveld: A history of the turmoil in the Holy Land (you can’t understand the action without it).

One of the classic books about the Middle East.

What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
Available at Amazon.

For centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement — the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization. Christian Europe was seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. And then everything changed. The West won victory after victory, first on the battlefield and then in the marketplace.

In this elegantly written volume, Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority an Islamic affairs, examines the anguished reaction of the Islamic world as it tried to make sense of how it had been overtaken, overshadowed, and dominated by the West. In a fascinating portrait of a culture in turmoil, Lewis shows how the Middle East turned its attention to understanding European weaponry, industry, government, education, and culture. He also describes how some Middle Easterners fastened blame on a series of scapegoats, while others asked not “Who did this to us?” but rather “Where did we go wrong?”

With a new Afterword that addresses September 11 and its aftermath, What Went Wrong? is an urgent, accessible book that no one who is concerned with contemporary affairs will want to miss.

9 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld explains why the Middle East is a disaster area”

  1. “Had the men — there were no women among them — who made the modern Middle East back in 1915-22 been as saintly as Christ and as wise as mandarins,”

    But there was a woman, Gertrude Bell, who played an important role in Iraq. There is even a movie about her coming out this year starring Nicole Kidman…you would think van Creveld would know that.

    The so-called “middle east” (the problems starts with this name given by outsiders) has a written history going back 6000 years and an archaeological history going even further back. A a period of 100 years of troubles is nothing in that scale and how bad has these past 100 years been?

    In reality the population has multiplied several times, the level of education leapt from the level it was in 1500 AD to basically the level of the late 50’s, early 60’s (in science, even further in medicine and almost modern level in the humanities, finance, etc). Urbanization increased, industry, infrastructure, etc all improved greatly. They jumped from backward isolated agrarian and nomadic societies to modern (a bit dysfunctional) ones.

    Compared to the coma the Arabs were in from 1256 AD when the Mongols invaded until 1797 AD when Napoleon came the last century has a been an era of great development and reawakening (incidentally the name of the national arab party in both Syria and formerly in Iraq!).

    Arabs survived the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Parthians, the Mongols, the Turks and the Europeans; I am not really worried about them surviving the crude ephemeral Americans whose history is so much like the sparklers they like to light on the 4th of July. Planting flags on the Moon might turn out to be an easier task than planting it in Arabia.

    NB: This years marks the 50th year of Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem, still 38 years to go until they match the record of the Franks, I doubt the US would be still bankrolling their project to the tune of several billions per year in 2050!

    1. anonemiss,

      While it is good that the role of women is history is being recognized, I suspect MvC is referring to the decision-makers. Bell was valuable as a political officer, analyst, and such — all mid-level positions that are generally unremarked in popular histories unless they are unusually colorful. She and “Lawrence of Arabia” are examples of this. Imagine if they were erased from history. How different would our world look?

      “A a period of 100 years of troubles is nothing in that scale”

      To God or future historians, a hundred years is insignificant. To the people of here and now, it is of great importance.

      “how bad has these past 100 years been?”

      You can’t ask the dead in the countless civil wars (but then, to your God-like perspective, they were all going to die anyway). But you can ask those who have lost everything — homes, wealth, lives of their family, even their nations. I’ll bet they would have much to tell you.

      Yours is one of the most callous comments I’ve seen in a long time. I hope you don’t suffer like so many millions in the Middle East have in the past decade. If you do, I’ll bet you would not look at it so philosophically.

    2. Fabius,

      > I suspect MvC is referring to the decision-makers.

      Didn’t sound like it, in those times of slow communication/transportation people on the ground had a huge role to play. Anyway it’s not a big deal, I just have the feeling that van Creveld is more knowledgeable about European than “middle eastern” history.

      > To God or future historians, a hundred years is insignificant. To the people of here and now, it is of great importance.

      When I discuss stars I use light years, when I discuss atoms I use femtometers. You publish an article discussing a region that contains a dozen countries, about 200 million people over a period of 100 year and want me to confine myself to the here and now? The decline and fall of Rome took 300 years, should Gibbons have left it to God?

      As to future historians, that’s just a silly statement specially since we are really discussing a situation that was set up a 100 years ago.

      Plus the people of the “middle east” will continue as they still have a high fertility unlike the Europeans they have a future, my comment is basically that in their long and continued history this will be seen as just another episode with a definite start (1917) and a definite end (in the next 40 years most probably) this is in contrast to what is stated above by van Creveld: “turning much of the country into a wasteland from which t will take decades to recover, if indeed it ever does.”!!

      van Creveld thinks that Israel will last forever but Syria will never recover!! 6000 years of history says crusader states collapse and Syria always recovers.

      > to your God-like perspective, they were all going to die anyway

      Where did you get that idea?! Where did I say they were going to die anyway?! Fabius you are losing it! Where did I claim to have god-like perspective?! Should we cease discussing nature and history because only God can knows the truth? that’s a rather close-minded idea, not the Fabius I know or do you just apply this harsh criteria on your readers?

      > I’ll bet they would have much to tell you.

      Not really, see below.

      > Yours is one of the most callous comments I’ve seen in a long time. I hope you don’t suffer like so many millions in the Middle East have in the past decade.

      Well it seems you have put my comment in a context of your own imagining, I am from Arabia and still residing there dear Fabius and believe you me I did my share of suffering in the past decades and I am still doing!

      I mainly read your blog (been a reader since way back in the days of the news website were you used to post) for the cheerful news about the decline and coming fall of the US republic.

      > I’ll bet you would not look at it so philosophically.

      you would lose that bet, lucky for you I am not a betting man ;)

      PS: I am not surprised about your negative response, you always had a soft-spot in your heart for Israel and you’ll even use the suffering of the people of the “middle east” to deflate any criticism from it, but whether you like it or not the clock is ticking and History will present its bill soon ;)

  2. Not sure what to make of this piece, especially given the high expectations I have for this site and for Professor Creveld in particular. To me, the author is basically saying “Middle East crazy because tribalism something something imperialism”. Is that really worth two thousand words? I mean, it’s OK sometimes to just say “You know what? I don’t know. I don’t really have anything new to add.” That takes 15 words.

    1. Matt,

      I doubt if 10% of the people reading MvC’s essay knew half of the material presented in it.

      “Middle East crazy because tribalism something something imperialism”

      I suggest that you re-read it more carefully. That summary would fail in an SAT reading comprehension exercise.

  3. “Thuggish rulers — in truth, it is hard to see how anyone but a thug could govern the countries in question — are responsible for the fact that free economies could not develop and the distribution of wealth is as unequal as it is.”

    As far as distribution of wealth, at least compared to where I live, the USA, I don’t see how we can judge the mid-east. A quick Google finds this, US JINI coefficient is 0.801.Higher is worse. Yemen is 0.613, Syria 0.704, Iran 0.707.Saudi Arabia is 0.737.

    1. Cathryn,

      I suggest much skepticism about inequality scores from less developed nations and tyrannies. In the first the income and wealth data is unreliable. In the second it is fictional.

      If you believe that Saudi Arabia has less inequality than the US — as on the Wikipedia list — then I would like to sell you a great bridge at a bargain price. The princes in effect own the national wealth.

      Also: wealth surveys are usually far less reliable than income surveys based on tax records. See

    2. Creveld brought up wealth inequality, so it’s relevant to the article. The Saudis have extreme wealth inequality, and, the USA also has extreme wealth inequality. This is widely reported.. Someone tried to measure, and the USA came out worse, which is an astonishing result, but it’s the number I’ve found. I’m open to the possibility that maybe it’s possible that our wealth inequality in the USA exceeds that of third world countries.

      1. Cathryn,

        Yes, of course it’s relevant. It’s bizarre to believe that Saudi Arabia — whose Princes in effect own one of the largest bodies of physical wealth on the planet — have wealth inequality equivalent to the US. If you want to believe it, OK.

        Once you get outside the developed nations, the quality of economic statistics declines. Once you get to the emerging nations, the data becomes of limited reliability. Especially about private data, like wealth.

        This just in: don’t believe everything you read.

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