The Middle East is well known for its massive oil reserves as well as numerous political and military interventions conducted by Western superpowers that have continuously exploited the region for its resources. A particularly prominent actor is the US which, for the almost-century it’s spent in the region, has conducted numerous regime overthrows. This hence begs the question as to exactly how US intervention has shaped the Middle East in terms of its political, economic, and social landscape.
From major oil contracts to rise of anti-Western sentiment: how did we get here?
After the Great War, France, Britain and Russia secretly divided the Middle East among themselves, shaping the states’ borders as they stand today. The Allies knew that the region was rich in oil – even in 1914 Britain got involved in the region’s oil-based conflict, trying to protect Iraq’s oil reserves from neighboring Persia. Back then, the US wasn’t interested in what the region had to offer, but that changed in the following decades. Gradually, the Middle East started discovering its oil resources – from the 1927 Kirkuk oil field discoveries to the Saudi and Bahraini unearthings in the 1930s.
By the late 1930s, a company named Standard Oil of California began its search for oil in Saudi Arabia and was soon mimicked by many American companies such as Aramco. This successful campaign created the so-called “American colonies” that hosted households dependent on Saudi oil reserves. These mini-cities, in which local cultural norms did not apply, fostered anti-Western sentiment – locals despised Americans for violating their social standards (e.g. disrespecting the strict dress code or allowing women to drive). But the then-nascent Saudi government ignored it since the US’ contracts with construction companies, technological knowledge, and financial power brought them great profits. Knowing this, the US government pounced on its first opportunity; in 1945 it offered to build a military base under the excuse of protecting oil reserves, attaining the permission to do so under only one condition – no flag of the United States was allowed to be present on the grounds.
From a single base to a conquest
This base marked the beginning of American military involvement in the Middle East as the US then expanded its facilities throughout the region. Crucially, this gave the US a new taste of power – with such a strong foothold the Western giant began meddling with the region’s politics.
The first such instance was the 1953 CIA-assisted overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government after the state had started to align itself with the USSR. This event sparked further anti-Western sentiment – Iranians saw the US as a hypocrite hiding behind the camouflage of “protecting democracy”. The Iranian conflict was not unique as, throughout the following decades, the US also assisted regime overthrows in Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, and the specifically infamous case of Iraq and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. All these events showed America’s willingness to do anything to protect its allies and enforce hegemony.
Ever since the state of Israel was declared in 1948, the Palestine-supporting and majority-Muslim neighbors despised its existence. The US saw this as an opportunity to make a potential ally and chose to approve Israel’s $135 million bank loan as well as implement economic grants until 1959. With constant flows of financial aid and the start of arms purchase in 1962, Israel partook in the 1956 Suez Canal invasion and was attacked during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. As a result, the US continuously strengthened Israel, yet simultaneously fueled tensions and provoked otherwise unnecessary wars in the region.
Furthermore, the US presence in the Middle East can be directly linked to the rise of terrorism in the region. The US had always been villainized as its people stationed in the region did not abide by local cultural standards and seemed to be exploiting the region. America’s political influence, i.e., regime overthrows, alliance establishments and tension-fueling, was despised by locals, making them feel as if the US was too heavy-handed and dishonest in their intervention, using the region as a puppet to fulfill its needs. Recall the company that first entered the region in search of oil. This firm signed a contract with a construction company called the Saudi Binladin Group, controlled by the father of Osama Bin Laden. Having seen the impact of US presence from up close, Bin Laden was outraged as to how an imperialistic superpower had changed the region. However, he saw an opportunity when in 1979 USSR invaded Afghanistan attempting to establish a communist regime. Bin Laden joined the mujahideen forces, thinking that a victory over the USSR would persuade Saudi Arabia into allowing him to lead other wars, such as a war against Saddam Hussein that had just invaded Kuwait and was threatening the Saudis’ security. But Saudi Arabia entrusted the US to fight conflicts such as the Gulf War in 1990, resulting in even greater Western presence in the region and motivating Osama to start employing terrorist strategies. With all the money he had gathered from the company and his knowledge of construction and engineering, Bin Laden established Al-Qaeda – a terrorist organization that had a global presence, often functioning via smaller terrorist organizations under its umbrella.
After bombings in Jordan, Philippines and countless of other countries, Al-Qaeda began to seek its ultimate goal, sending a message to the US. This goal was achieved on September 11, 2001, during the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – a memory burned into the minds of our generation. The attack sent a clear message – those involved were so fed up with the US presence in the region and constant stranglehold over its internal affairs, that it was time for America to pay the price.
The 2000s and the future
After September 11, America’s endeavors in the region were no longer based on search for oil – it became a revenge-based foreign policy. In October the same year, the US launched the “War on Terror” and invaded Afghanistan (assuming that Bin Laden was hiding there with the help of the Taliban), starting a war that continued until this past summer. The 2001 US intervention crushed the Taliban regime that had held Afghanistan captive under extremist rule and a terrorist dictatorship. During the 20 years of war the US continuously sent massive amounts of American troops, eventually killing Osama Bin Laden in 2011 (who had been hiding in neighboring Pakistan).
Throughout those years Afghanistan changed radically. After escaping the Taliban’s rule in 2001, the country underwent state-rebuilding and democratization. Under the supervision of the US and international community, Afghanistan experienced economic growth and started to move towards gender equality, seeing an increase in education levels. However, the management of the war slipped out of control, and allowed the return of the Taliban following the US’s pull-out in August 2021. A regime that now continues its suppression of women, ethnic minorities, and massacring of those that challenge its rule.
Afghanistan is the perfect case study for showcasing the massive impact that US’s meddling has on the Middle East’s politics. For now, the US has brushed off any blame it faces for destabilizing the region and insists on the purity of its initial intervention. With each year, America seems to slowly withdraw more and more from the region, while keeping tight, albeit distant, relationships with some of the allies. The US is staying close economically to its primary partner, Saudi Arabia, but the countries have distanced politically. The US also remains allied with states like the UAE and Israel, but even there is slowly weakening its support. In the future the US might choose to completely withdraw from the region, leaving the Middle East’s future questionable, as its giant watchdog slowly withdraws. Regardless of what happens, one thing is for certain – throughout almost 100 years of its presence in the region, the US has completely altered the Middle East’s political and economic world. From unasked for interventions, military support, and regime overthrows, US will do anything to have it its own way. Enriching some and leaving others in bloodshed, America’s positive impact is highly questionable. Once again, the political giant has proved to be a hypocrite when it comes to the protection of democracy, leaving thousands of people in conflict-struck states forced to watch the US slowly withdraw from the region whose destabilization and political turmoil it contributed to.
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Jewish Virtual Library. “History & Overview of U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel.” Jewishvirtuallibrary.org, 2009, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-u-s-foreign-aid-to-israel.
Little, Douglas. American Orientalism : The United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill, University Of North Carolina Press, 2004.
NBC News. “Al-Qaida Timeline: Plots and Attacks.” NBC News, 23 Apr. 2004, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna4677978.
Tristam, Pierre. “U.S. Policy in the Middle East: 1945 to 2008.” ThoughtCo, 2019, http://www.thoughtco.com/us-and-middle-east-since-1945-2353681.