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10 Moments that Define Arab History

posted on: Nov 16, 2020

By: Ivey Noojin/ Arab America Contributing Writer 

It is important to study the moments that have defined Arab history because they impact our everyday lives. Without these agreements, declarations, or conflicts, we wouldn’t have our culture as we know it today, our border disputes, and our allies. Arab Americans especially have a stake in this knowledge because several of these moments caused mass emigration from the Arab world. These are the events that have made our identity what it is today.

The Middle East as we know it today began during World War I and has steadily grown more influential within the globe throughout the decades passed. It is actually surprising how quickly a lot of these countries have built themselves from mandates under European powers to have their own government with a stake in international politics. Here are ten of the moments in Arab history that have led to this progression and have threatened this progression.

1916: Sykes-Picot Agreement

In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered the conflict on the side of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria against France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States. When the war in Eastern Europe was beginning to reach a stalemate, the Allied partners attacked the Ottoman Empire, specifically Turkey. World War I officially ended in 1918, but it ended for the Ottoman Empire in 1916 with the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

This agreement between the French and British was made without consulting any of the authorities in the region. The two countries wanted to break up the Ottoman Empire during World War I to prevent any more of a threat from the area. They created spheres of influence, where Britain and France would directly or indirectly control the localities. Syria and much of Lebanon went to France, and Britain garnered control of the area around Baghdad and Basra. The agreement considered Palestine under international influence since Russia was particularly interested in the region.

1917: Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration was a letter by Arthur James Balfour that publicized the British desire for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which a year before had been declared under international authority. The idea of Zionism, in that the Jews could have a separate homeland, had been brewing since 1894 with the Dreyfus Affair.

In 1922, the League of Nations accepted this proclamation and gave Great Britain temporary control of Palestine to make the Balfour Declaration a reality.

1945: Establishment of Arab League

After the Sykes-Picot agreement, which created spheres of influence, Great Britain and France began to establish mandates in the region in 1920. Several countries attained independence in the 1930s. By 1945, the distrust of outside influence and the desire to maintain the Arab culture was growing. This was the beginning of Pan-Arabism in the region.

The Arab League is a coalition of 22 Arab nations, including Palestine, that still exists today. Its countries mainly include those have included Arabic as an official language.

1948: Declaration of Israeli Independence

The UN partitioned the area into two states in 1947, which led to the first Palestinian refugees seeking asylum from the violence. This legislation is known as the Partition Resolution, or Resolution 181. It only took a year after this decision for Israel to declare its independence.

This led to the Arab-Israeli war that would last until 1973. The fighting was mainly between Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. However, the tension between Israel and the rest of the Arab countries is not over. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to this day, with most Arab countries supporting Palestine.

1960: Establishment of OPEC

Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela created the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960. Ten other countries joined the organization, including Qatar, Indonesia (which ultimately suspended its membership), Libya, United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Congo.

This organization was made in response to outsiders trying to get the region’s oil. One of its principles is the nations’ sovereign right to their natural resources. OPEC’s role in the region has been controversial, especially with the growing concern about oil spills and its ability to manipulate the global economy.

1964: Establishment of PLO

The Palestine Liberation Organization is dedicated to freeing the Palestinian people from the Israeli occupation. In 1974 the Arab Summit recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the people. This has led to numerous global engagements, such as the UN, recognizing this organization as the leader of Palestine. The PLO is still a major force in the region and beyond, fighting for Palestinian’s rights to the land.

1990: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

Iraq invades Kuwait in August of 1990 and gains access to 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves and a point of entry with the Persian Gulf for trade. A couple of months later, the U.S. administered the famous Operation Desert Storm. The media broadcasted all of the attacks live.

This invasion led to the Gulf War from 1990-1991. Afterward, the U.S. became especially involved in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

2003: End of Saddam Hussein’s Reign

Saddam Hussein, under the Baath party, killed thousands of his own people, especially those in the southern marshlands of Iraq. He also became an adversary of the United States when he annexed Kuwait. In response, the United States attacked Iraq in 2003. This led to a war that would last until 2011, years after Hussein had died.

In 2003, the United States helped remove Saddam Hussein from power and took him to trial. This trial led to a guilty sentence with execution in 2006. There is still a lot of anger in the region over the U.S.’s decision to interfere in Iraq’s sovereignty.

2011: Arab Spring

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2010 when one man set himself on fire as an act of protest against the police seizing land. This led to several protests in the capital, which caused the ruler to flee. Tunisia held its first democratic elections in 2011.

After seeing this outcome, other countries began to follow Tunisia’s lead with their own protests. People in Egypt and Bahrain also started speaking out against their governments. These ideas sparked wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

However, the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria were not nearly as effective as that in Tunisia, since their authoritarian leaders are still in power. Yemen has also been experiencing civil strife since the Arab Spring.

2017: Trump Declares Jerusalem Capital of Israel

In December 2017, President Trump proclaimed that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, not Palestine. He publicly stated that he thought his decision would end the strife between the two countries. However, the opposite ensued. There were several protests at the border, which resulted in violence by the Israelis.

The effects of his decision are still happening. In September 2018, Trump ordered the PLO office in DC to close. He also removed funding from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees.

These moments are especially interesting for Arab Americans as the United States has become more involved with the region. The two countries are clashing, leaving Arab Americans in the middle to deal with its aftershocks. However, the good news is that we have the power to make a difference by raising our voices in the United States. We can make good moments in history in the Arab world.


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