I remember watching Lawrence of Arabia as a kid and always getting mad at the end when Mr. Dryden (played by the great Claude Rains) kicks Al-Awrence out of the negotiations with Faisal and into the world’s greatest historical footnote. It may be one of the least satisfying movie endings in cinema history. Mr. Dryden is a suitable amalgam of the real-life diplomats Colonel Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot who are, after all, known to history principally from their 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement planning to divide mandatory control of the Levant and Iraq between Britain and France after World War I, and which eventually became the basis of hard borders between Ottoman provinces that had not been geographically well defined.
These ca. 1923 borders were very much a product of the political interests of their era (particularly the Lebanon/Syria border), and Sykes and Picot would be surprised to learn that they have survived for 90 years nearly intact. Politicians and academics of all stripes have criticized them since for artificially dividing or collecting any number of ethnic groups. So it’s not a surprise that now that several unpopular regimes in the region have been partially dismantled that this flavor of utopian thinking is back on the menu again: Al Jazeera has an Op-Ed advocating a borderless Middle East. Unfortunately, many of the world’s worst mistakes have been committed in the name of “correcting the mistakes of the past.” Here are some reasons why Middle East nation-states have little interest in renouncing their borders:
ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL: Ironically, the first supra-state strategies in the area were born as backup policy of imperial regret. By the Second World War, when Britain realized its system of direct imperial administration in discrete units was economically and diplomatically untenable, it cultivated momentum for schemes of Arab unity they could sway more discreetly, culminating in 1945 in the Arab League (far before Pan-Arabism was a popular notion, especially in Egypt). This tool also slipped out of their fingers with the rise of populist politicians like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser who mobilized the masses with the goal of unifying a romantic/mythical Arab people to kick the British out of the Suez Canal in 1956 and even to amalgamate Egypt with Syria in 1958. This United Arab Republic failed after a 1961 coup of Syrian army officers who were unhappy with being the junior partner of the enterprise. (When I visited Syria in 2008, I had the feeling that some Syrians resented the fact I was speaking to them in Egyptian dialect; with Mubarak’s departure, relations may be on an upturn). Funnily enough, the Syrian Ba’ath party, which opposed Nasser, sought at first to unification with Iraq, but when Ba’athists in Iraq and Syria took over in 1963, internal rivalries ended in a break which made Syrian-Iraqi estrangement far worse than Syria’s relations with Egypt. “Splitters.” The Arab League remains a symbolic entity with no power to enforce its decisions and a tendency to be behind the times a bit. (Arab League Endorses No-Fly Zone Over Libya, NYT).
OIL AND OTHER ITEMS OF VALUE: Neo-cons would love to redraw the map of the Middle East to give ethnic minorities self-determination in their own states! (Translation: they would be so grateful, they’d give us all their oil). Viz. Ralph Peter’s insane map of his “New Middle East” picked up in the Atlantic Monthly in Jeffery Goldberg’s 2008 piece “After Iraq”:
This map is a strange mishmash of subdivisions and absorption of states; Iran notably gets the rawest deal. Meanwhile, the “Arab Shia State” gets northeast Saudi Arabia, which has much of the oil in the country. Besides the fact that Iraq is already now the “Arab Shia State” thanks to the ethnic cleansing the US’ ham-fisted occupation has allowed, none of these divisions are possible because of the relocation of valuable oil and gas reserves from one political area to another.
More generally, analysts speak of “globalization” as already eroding much of the control of nation-states over their own economies, and liberalization is certainly having that effect in the region. It’s the neoliberal fallacy that the free market is the default condition of human economic activity that supports the idea that small states will slowly dissolve as a result of this pressure (look instead at the tortuous dance of the EU). The very principle of the strong sovereignty of small states instead protects international trade at artificially low costs, prevents monopolies and encourages individual wealth accumulation.
STATES ARE STILL SUB-DIVIDING: The Middle East story that would have been grabbing headlines had the Tunisians decided to hold off for a few months is the pending secession of Southern Sudan from the Republic of Sudan. Just days after Egypt’s revolution got going, 99% of residents of the autonomous region voted in a referendum in favor of secession, scheduling its independent from the majority Muslim, Arabic-speaking north of the country on July 9. Unfortunately for Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, most of Sudan’s oil is in the south, so he’s going to make it difficult for this secession to occur by funding anti regime guerrillas.