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The three most significant foreign interventions in the Middle East

By Jeremy Bowen

In this extract from his Radio 4 series, Our Man in the Middle East, Jeremy Bowen reflects on the first Gulf War and two other foreign interventions in the region which still resonate today.

Big powers have intervened in the Middle East to reshape it to their requirements since ancient times.

It’s strategically placed, connecting Europe with Asia and Africa. It’s the home of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. And for the last 100 years or so, great powers have needed its oil reserves – the biggest in the world.

Jeremy Bowen has reported on the Middle East for over 25 years. His first assignment was to cover the US military build-up in the Gulf in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

1. The Sykes-Picot agreement

Two imperial grandees created – and some say cursed – the modern Middle East when they carved up the Ottoman Empire at the height of the First World War. One was a French diplomat, Charles Francois Georges-Picot; the other, Sir Mark Sykes, was British.

The Sykes-Picot agreement was designed to win the peace for Britain and France. It defined zones of influence in the Middle East for the two imperial powers. Borders of new states came later.

But to win the war, the British had already made promises to the Arabs.

The Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. In return, he believed the British had promised him an independent Arab kingdom across much of present day Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Hussein kept his word. The duplicitous British did not.

The requirements of Empire came first. The promise of Arab self-determination was part of the collateral damage.

Within 20 years, a Palestinian scholar called Sykes-Picot a shocking document – the product of greed, stupidity and double-dealing.

2. The Balfour Declaration

Another vision of the future cut across Hussein Ibn Ali’s hopes: Zionists lobbied Britain, successfully, to support the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine.

In November 1917, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour declared that Britain would “view with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people”. Britain also promised “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Making promises to both sides built a deadly contradiction into the Balfour Declaration. By the early 1920s, Arabs and Jews in Palestine were killing each other. They are responsible for what they’ve done. But Britain started the fire.

For Palestinians the Balfour Declaration was a milestone on the road to catastrophe. For Israelis it led to statehood.

A century on it’s still politically resonant – triumphant or toxic, depending on your view of history.

The deals made in World War One were designed to strengthen the British and French empires. The Ottoman Empire was breaking up after nearly 500 years and the European imperial powers were creating a new order in the Middle East.

3. The first Gulf War

My Middle East reporting debut in the Saudi desert in 1990 – just days after Iraq had invaded Kuwait – came at another turning point. The Cold War was ending. The Soviet Empire was breaking up. US President George Bush said it would be a new world order; more peaceful, and more secure.

In the spirit of the times, an American political scientist argued that liberal democracy had proved it was the final form of government – the end of history had arrived. The flow of events wouldn’t stop, but when it came to ideology, nothing was left to discuss. Liberty and equality were irresistible.

I’d say there is plenty left to discuss. Religion has a power in the Middle East that the mainly secular West found it easy to ignore when, 27 years ago, its troops were pouring into Saudi Arabia.

President Bush had put together a broad coalition. It showed how many Arab leaders hated, or feared Saddam Hussein. Not just the Saudis and Kuwaitis. Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates joined the fight against Saddam. The Egyptians were there too, and even the Syrians – with tents equipped with TV, air conditioning, carpets and fridges.

On 16 January 1991, the Americans and troops from 24 other countries went to war against Iraq. It was a turning point for me and although I didn’t realise it at the time, it was the beginning of a new era in the Middle East. That’s what my Radio 4 series, Our Man in the Middle East, is all about.