Arab World



North Africa





Algeria Kuwait Palestine Syria
Bahrain Libya Qatar Tunisia
Egypt Mauretania Saudi Arabia UAE
Iraq Morocco Somalia Western Sahara
Jordan Oman Sudan Yemen

 The Arab world consists of those countries which use Arabic as the language of government and domestic usage. However, spoken Arabic is not now a unified language. The Arabs spread out from the Arabian peninsula in the time of the Prophet Mohammed, 1300 years ago. The spoken language has diverged into dialects, just as Latin grew into Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.

Thus at one extreme the spoken Arabic of Morocco is not easily understood by Arabs of the original homeland in the Arabian peninsula where the most conservative Arabic is spoken, close to the language of the Quran.

Nevertheless, a standard written Arabic is taught in the schools, based on the language of the Quran, so that books and newspapers can circulate throughout the Arab world. Moreover, in the electronic media Egypt has a preponderance in the production of television soap operas and other programs. The result is that just as American English is familiar to British people, Egyptian Arabic is familiar to most Arab people.

This has implications for the ideal of Arab unity. What is a nation? Must it consist of people who understand each other? It seems unlikely that all these states will unite into a single Arab state, but there are calls for such unity from many political parties.

The Arabs originated in the area of modern Saudi Arabia. One strand is regarded as descending from Ismail, Ibrahim's son by Hagar. By Roman times there were settled Arabs living in the area of modern Jordan and the Sinai. Two kingdoms of Arabic speakers were maintained by the Persians and Romans as buffer states: in the west the Romans supported the Ghassan who occupied the land once belonging to the Nabataeans; to the east the Persians similarly supported the kingdom of Lakhm along the south coast of the Gulf. These kingdoms were the area where the main group of nomadic Arabs met the settled states. The kings were paid a subsidy by the governments of the empires. Byzantium for much of its history had a policy of subsidizing buffer states on its borders to keep them quiet. Before Islam there was an Arab Roman Emperor (Philip), which indicates that Arabs served in the Roman armies of the later Empire.

What brought the Arabs out of this area was the spread of Islam. The Arabs were converted by the Prophet Mohammed and took their religion to the area now shown on this map. After a period of some centuries their language prevailed over the previous languages used in the area of the conquest. The difference in modern dialects probably reflects the influence of the original languages: thus in the Levant Arabic replaced Aramaic, a similar language, and Greek; in Egypt it replaced Coptic - the language of the Ancient Egyptians - and in North Africa it still coexists with Berber. To the east of the Euphrates Arabic became a language of education but Old Persian and Arabic formed a new synthesis of modern Persian (Farsi) which became the language of the people and government and Arabic is now taught only as a second or foreign language.

Arab unity has been a political aspiration since the late 19th century, perhaps inspired by the work of Jamaludin Al Afghani, an Afghan statesman of the period. Some Arab thinkers wished to restore the Arab empire of the time of the Omayyad and early Abbasid Caliphs - before the world of Islam came under the control of Persians and Turks. Most Arabs believe that unity has been frustrated by the western powers who replaced the Turks as overlords.

During the first world war there was a revolt by the Arabs (assisted by T.E.Lawrence) in what are now Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria against the Turks, who were defeated. They believed Lawrence had promised them western support in setting up their own Arab nation state in succession to the Ottoman Empire. But the Peace Conference ignored their wishes and divided them between the British and French as quasi-colonies - League of Nations Mandated territories. This was the result of the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement (after the foreign ministers of Britain and France). Both imperial powers behaved much as they did in the rest of their colonial empires. The British Intelligence officer, T.E.Lawrence, apparently represented a faction in the British government that intended to create a British Arab Dominion similar to British India with the Hashemite Prince (Sharif) of Makkah as its nominal head. This was frustrated by the French who desired their own share in Syria and Lebanon. Lawrence felt that his promises had been betrayed. Did he actually have the authority to make those promises?

The Sharif Feisal was actually crowned as king of Arabia in Damascus, but had to leave when the French exercised their Mandate and took control of Syria.

After the war the British controlled directly: Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq and occupied the Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Trucial Oman (now United Arab Emirates). Over Saudi Arabia they exercised only influence which was lost to the Americans after oil was discovered. British influence in Oman was also strong.

A useful article by Jonathan Raban on the real problem of the Middle East - artificial state borders.

Other Web sites

Article on how Arab states were made

Following the second world war the Arab world found itself divided into a number of separate weak and unstable states which share with much of the post-colonial world the condition of lacking historic legitimacy. The north African Arab countries, in addition, were still colonies and several them of them fought against their European overlords - in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco. The coming of oil brought great wealth to several Arab states but until the 1970s the wealth was controlled by Western oil companies, and after 1973 was in the hands of the traditional ruling families. In few states was the wealth used to benefit the whole people, and in none of them was there democracy. By 2011 only in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait and Tunisia was there even the possibility of more than one party in parliament (Lebanon, as so often, is a special case). In practice all, except Lebanon, were autocracies or dictatorships.

At the end of the second world war the Arab states formed an Arab League as a forum in which they could co-operate and perhaps as a vehicle for future unity. Like many such regional organizations it has had little political effect.

The frustrations many Arabs feel about their powerlessness in the face of Israel, and western control of the world economy, has led to popular support (usually outside their home countries) for dictators, such as Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad. Publicly these were seen by westerners as reminiscent of the European totalitarian dictators of the 1930s. Privately, western governments may have preferred them to democracy as they were more predictable.

Most Arabs blame the western powers for their support of Israel which is universally seen as a western settler state on Arab land. Can the instability of this area and the hatred of many of its politicians for western powers come to an end? Probably only if the Palestine problem can find a solution.

There is a question about whether Arab culture prevents the evolution of democratic politics in a western sense. Almost all regimes are composed of tribal, clan or family groups. Like the alleged structure of the Mafia, every president or king surrounds himself with people from his own kin group. Saddam Hussein's government was composed almost entirely of people either from his own family or from his home town of Takrit. Hafiz Assad (succeeded by his son, Bashar) of Syria represented only a small religious sect: the Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ism. The Gulf monarchies are all family ruled. Only Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan have any measure of electoral politics and there too, it seemed unlikely (until 2011) that the voters could or would change the party in power. It may be that the events of early 2011 reveal the above as western condescension. So far, after 12 months of revolt, the signs are that in north Africa at least, ordinary people want democracy just as much any other people, given the opportunity.

Not all Arabs are Muslim.
There are significant Christian minorities in Egypt (20%), Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. There are also Druze in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. The Druze religion appears to be a sectarian development out of Islam. So does Yezidism in Iraq and Syria.

Somalia, although not Arabic speaking, has been a member of the Arab League (when it had a government).

In March 2005 it was being said that change is on the way. In Lebanon a popular uprising, similar to that in Ukraine (and consciously modelled on that) called for the removal of the Syrian occupation forces, and democracy to follow. They did leave. In turn this is leading to possible questioning of the dictatorship in Syria itself. In Egypt Mubarak announced that opposition candidates could stand for election for the presidency in August 2005. Did this happen? Not really. It was only a token gesture.

In 2006 the progress was halted when Israel attacked Lebanon with aerial bombing and a land invasion, ostensibly against Hezbullah. The main result of the attack was to strengthen Hezbullah's popularity, and to destroy much of the Lebanon's infrastructure.

Does western policy in the Arab world do anything to make it more peaceful? Probably not.

Interesting Reading

Robert Fisk - Conquest of the Middle East

Hugh Kennedy - The Great Arab Conquests

John Glubb - A Short History of the Arab Peoples

J.B.Kelly - Arabia, the Gulf and the West

Middle East for Dummies

Eugene Rogan - The Arabs

T.E.Lawrence - The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Die sieben Säulen der Weisheit
Many Arab nationalists, and Osama bin Laden, refer to what they see as the betrayal of what Lawrence promised them - a single Arab kingdom - when the Sykes-Picot agreement split them into colonial states.
Wilfred Thesiger - Arabian Sands
How the Arabs were before the west wanted Oil

(see Saudi Arabia)

It's much too soon to say much about the disturbances in 2011 but...

January 2011 showed a popular revolt in Tunisia that caused its dictator to flee the country to exile in Saudi Arabia. At this moment (June 2012) what may follow is unknown, but the first elections showed a moderate Islamist party to be the largest but not with a majority in the assembly.

Similar disturbances occurred in Egypt resulting in the resignation of the dictator Mubarak after 30 years and even in the Yemen, both countries with long serving dictators. Will people succeed in getting democracy? Demonstrations have also occurred in Jordan, Algeria and Morocco. Will 2011 be like 1848 in Europe (when revolutions occurred in many European countries, though without much immediate success)?

A popular rising in Cyrenaica (the eastern province of Libya) was met by violence using African troops hired in Chad - people who did not care about the ordinary people. Would this see the long standing dictator Muammar Gaddafi deposed? By mid-March Gaddafi seemed to be regaining control. A UN resolution authorising a "no-fly zone" then allowed allies (France, UK and the US, with some verbal support from the Arab League) to bomb Gaddafi's air defence facilities. The rebels then regained control of coastal cities. NATO was bombing Gaddafi's forces and installations.

He was killed in October 2011 and the war came to an end. Will Libya have a democratic regime? So far at the end of 2011 it is still unclear what will develop. The government still doesn't have much authority over the militia groups and no elections have been held.

A revolt in Bahrain provoked an invasion from Saudi Arabia.

In Yemen demonstrations against its long-serving ruler seemed to be persuading him to leave.

Then followed demonstrations in Syria the most entrenched dictatorship under Bashar Assad the son of Hafiz Assad who had ruled for decades. His forces have killed many of the protesters.

Even in Saudi Arabia there were signs that people may want change to a democratic regime.

What would popularly elected governments do? The dictators generally did what western governments wanted. Would genuine democracies do the same? Perhaps economic development might occur, benefitting not just the military elite.

Israel's politicians fear that democratic Arab governments might be more hostile to Israel and more sympathetic to Palestinians. Perhaps too Palestinians in Palestine may demand more accountability from their own politicians. But Israel too is experiencing demonstrations by Israeli citizens protesting about the availability and cost of housing.

is an exception. The American occupation forces left at the end of December 2011. Simultaneously the government structure they had imposed on the country started to unravel. The carefully constructed coalition between Sunni and Shi'ite forces split. Will the country split into its components parts: Kurdiastan, Sunni and Shi'ite provinces?

What are the underlying causes of the 2011 revolutions? Thomas Friedman (link) says they are:

  • unemployed youth
  • rising food prices (worldwide shortage)
  • economic failure - too much spent on weapons (mainly to keep the people in order), hardly anything on useful investment
  • educational failure (the author has observed this at first hand)
  • Exclusion of women

This may well be part of a worldwide change to adjust to rising energy prices, food shortage, economic inequality even within such countries as the US. Western countries may be part of these changes as people object to the failure of corporations to pay taxes. The main cause of change in the Arab world seems to have been a sudden refusal to be afraid of the security forces and a lack of willingness to believe the lies fed to them by official media. Easy avoidance of official censorship via the use of New Media is an important factor. The revelation by Wikileaks of what western diplomats really thought of the dictators thay had to deal with may also have been a factor. Why should ordinary people respect those whom the outside world felt contempt for?

The same might be true of western countries, where the official economic story seems less and less believable, as the owners and controllers of businesses enrich themselves while the ordinary people suffer.

June 2012

    Tunisia - has elected government

  • Libya - old regime gone, no new elections
  • Egypt - Old president gone but military still in power
  • Syria - civil war continuing to worsen by the day
  • Bahrain - revolution suppressed by Saudi Arabia (Sunni solidarity against Shi'ites)
  • Yemen - Old president out of power but no clear replacement; government now very weak
  • Saudi Arabia - few signs of change

Arab torture regimes

  Arabic Language
The language of the Quran became the language of the rulers of the new empire. Gradually the people ruled learned to use Arabic as the "official" language. Words from Arabic came into many other languages. Thus a knowledge of Arabic is useful for learning Swahili in East Africa, Hausa in west Africa, Farsi in Iran and Afghanistan, Urdu in Pakistan, Indonesian. There is also a large vocabulary derived from Arabic in Spanish (Castilian). Many of the terms of early science are from Arabic as the Translators of the Arabic texts at Toledo in Spain could not find Latin words for the concepts being described. Thus we have Algebra, Chemistry, Azote and many others.

 Gene Sharp
This writer is being said to be influential in the protest revolutions underway during early 2011
Gene Sharp - Politics of Non-violent action
Power and Struggle

Power and Struggle (Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part 1)

Gene Sharp - From dictatorship to democracy (how to do it) Classic with forward by Albert Einstein

From dictatorship to democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation

Read it online

Jerrold M Post - Leaders and their followers in a dangerous world

Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World: The Psychology of Political Behavior (Psychoanalysis and Social Theory)

Johnny West - Karama
(not available yet on US Amazon)

Karama! Journeys through the Arab Spring

The author has worked in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and travelled in Morocco.

Last revised 28/06/12




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