Middle East - Region facts
The Middle East is a political and cultural subregion of Asia, or of Africa-Eurasia. The core of the region comprises the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf along with the Anatolian, Arabian and Sinai peninsulas. Sometimes, it is used in a broader sense which can include areas stretching from North Africa in the west to Pakistan in the east and the Caucasus and/or Central Asia in the north. The media and various international organizations (such as the United Nations) usually considers the Middle East to be Southwest Asia (including Cyprus and Iran) plus all of Egypt.
The area encompasses several cultural and ethnic groups, including the Iranians, Arabs, Greeks, Jews, Berbers, Assyrians, Kurds and Turks. The main language groups include: the Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Kurdish and Turkish. The corresponding adjective is Middle-Eastern and the derived noun is Middle-Easterner.
Most Western definitions of the "Middle East" -- in both established reference books and common usage -- define the region as 'nations in Southwest Asia, from Iran (Persia) to Egypt'. Consequently, Egypt, with its Sinai Peninsula in Asia, is usually considered part of the 'Middle East', although most of the country lies geographically in North Africa. North African nations without Asian links, such as Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, are increasingly being called North African -- as opposed to Middle Eastern (Iran to Egypt - Asia) -- by international media outlets.
The term Middle East defines a cultural area, so it does not have precise borders. The most common and highly arbitrary definition includes: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Turkey, Iran (Persia), Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Iran is often the eastern border, but Afghanistan and western Pakistan are often included due to their close relationship (ethnically and religiously) to the larger group of Iranian peoples as well as historical connections to the Middle East including being part of the various empires that have spanned the region such as those of the Persians and Arabs among others. Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and western Pakistan (Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province) share close cultural, linguistic, and historical ties with Iran and are also part of the Iranian plateau, whereas Iran's relationship with Arab states is based more upon religion and geographic proximity. Also the Kurds, another group of Iranic linguistic extraction, are the largest ethnic group in the Middle East without their own state.
North Africa or the Maghrib, although often placed outside the Middle East proper, does have strong cultural and linguistic links to the region, and historically has shared many of the events that have shaped the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions including those prompted by Phoenician-colonized Carthage and Greco-Roman civilization as well as Muslim Arab-Berber and Ottoman empires. The Maghrib is sometimes included, sometimes excluded from the Middle East by the media and in informal usage, while most academics continue to identify North Africa as geographically a part of Africa, but being closely related to southwestern Asia in terms of politics, culture, religion, language, history, and genetics. This can be compared with other similar instances in which, for example, Tasmania and Newfoundland, geographically non-European, share many such traits with northwestern western Europe while Madagascar is in some of these respects more like southeast Asia than southeast Africa.
The Caucasus region, Cyprus, and Turkey, although often grouped into Southwest Asia based upon geographic proximity and continuity, are generally considered culturally and politically European due to their various historic and recent political ties to that region. For example, Armenia and Cyprus, although both exist in close geographic proximity to the Middle East, possess two important criteria that links them more to Europe than to the Middle East: their national identity that combines an Indo-European linguistic background and majority populations that adhere to Christianity, which are both factors that do not correspond with most typically Middle Eastern countries some of whom possess one trait (Indo-European languages dominate Iran and Afghanistan for example) or the other (Lebanon is the only country that may have a Christian majority but this remains speculative as well). Turkey possesses neither of these European traits, but has deep historic (and according to genetic research DNA) connections with Europe since it was the site of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire that overlapped into Europe. As a prospective candidate of the European Union and a long-time member of NATO, Turkey has adopted the secular traits that dominate Europe and has severed many of its ties to the Middle East with the notable exception of the religion of Islam. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan were radically altered by the dominion of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and are seen as more 'European' than Middle Eastern and generally viewed as a regional bloc in the Caucasus region.
Central Asian countries from the former Soviet Bloc also show varying degrees of affinity and historical ties to the Middle East, but not in any uniform fashion. While the southern states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan display many cultural, historical, and socio-political similarities to the Middle East, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are examples of more remote and mixed cultures. As a result, these states are often viewed as Eurasian (in ways similar to the Caucasus) and their Russian/Soviet past has set them apart in various ways from the Middle East, while there has been a movement to re-establish ties to the region in Tajikistan, for example, based upon their ethno-linguistic affinities with Iran and Afghanistan. Like the Caucasus and Turkey, Central Asia has strong secular and 'western' affinities that are both Soviet legacies, although this may change with some recent shifts towards a historical-cultural renaissance and resurgence of Islamic identity that were suppressed for decades by Soviet authorities.
Lastly, the state of Israel also represents a unique fusion of European and Middle Eastern traits, but due to geographic continuity with the Levant and a majority population that is predominantly Middle Eastern (including Sephardic Jews, Sabras, Israeli Arabs, etc.), it perhaps shares more similarities with its neighbors then is readily apparent from media coverage. However, due to political and religious conflict, Israel is something of an anomaly in a region of exceptions and diversity.
The Ancient Middle East
The earliest civilizations in the region now known as the Middle East were founded in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians and others built important states. From about 500 BC onward, several empires dominated the region, beginning with the Persian Empire of Achaemenids, followed by the Macedonian empire founded by Alexander the Great, and successor kingdoms such as Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid state in Syria.
In the 1st century BC, the expanding Roman Republic absorbed the whole Eastern Mediterranean area, and under the Roman Empire the region was united with most of Europe and North Africa in a single political and economic unit. This unity facilitated the spread of Christianity, and by the 5th century the whole region was Christian. The rule of Rome was succeeded in the 4th century AD by that of Constantinople, which led to the creation of a Greek-speaking, Christian Empire, known to historians as the Byzantine Empire, which ruled from the Balkans to the Euphrates. Further east, the Persian Empire was revived by the Parthians and later the Sassanids.
The Arab Middle East
As a result of the unifying effects of Roman and Byzantine rule, there was no real distinction between what is now Europe and what is now the Middle East until the 7th century AD. Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt were all Christian and Greek speaking, united culturally and politically with the Greco-Roman world under the rule of Constantinople, while Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) formed a buffer zone between the Byzantine and Persian Empires.
The decisive event in the creation of the Middle East as a distinct cultural region was the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. In 634 the followers of Muhammad set out from Medina. They occupied Palestine in 636, Mesopotamia in 637, Syria and Egypt in 640 and Persia in 642. The Byzantines succeeded in preventing the Arabs from seizing Anatolia, which remained Christian until the arrival of the Turks 400 years later. The majority of the population in the areas conquered by the Arabs converted to Islam within two generations, creating a permanent cultural frontier between Europe and the Muslim world.
Although the united caliphate created by the first wave of Arab conquests broke up into a series of smaller caliphates and emirates by the late 9th century, the Arabs remained unchallenged in the zone between the Nile and the Tigris (as well as in North Africa and most of Spain) for more than 400 years. To the east, however, Persia soon reasserted its independence, under dynasties such as the Tahirids, Saffarids, and Samanids, and later adopted a form of Islam, Shi'ism, which the Sunni Muslim Arabs saw as heretical. This created a permanent eastern border to the Arab-Islamic world, although Islam continued to spread to the east, into India and Indonesia.
During this period the Arab world, under the Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, was the centre of cultural and economic activity in the western half of Eurasia. While Europe endured repeated invasions and saw its population and economic life fall back sharply from the days of the Roman Empire, the great Arab cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Basra, Damascus and, above all, the metropolis of Baghdad, supported a large population, a prosperous trading economy and a rich cultural life. Arab literature, architecture, medicine and science were far in advance of anything surviving in western Europe. In all of Christendom, only the fading power of Constantinople was able to compete with the Arab world.
Turks, Crusaders and Mongols
The dominance of the Arabs came to a sudden end in the mid 11th century with the arrival of the Seljuk Turks, migrating south from the Turkic homelands in Central Asia, who conquered Persia, Iraq (capturing Baghdad in 1055), Syria, Palestine and the Hejaz, as well as defeating the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert and conquering Anatolia. Egypt held out under the Fatimid caliphs until 1169, when it too fell to the Turks. The Seljuks ruled most of the region for the next 200 years, but their empire soon broke up into a number of smaller sultanates.
This fragmentation of the region allowed the Christian west, which since the nadir of its fortunes in the 7th century had staged a remarkable economic and demographic recovery, to re-enter the region. In 1095 Pope Urban II summoned the European aristocracy to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity, and in 1099 the knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem. They founded the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived until 1187, when Saladin retook the city. Smaller crusader fiefdoms survived until 1291. The Crusaders were unable to establish a permanent presence in the area, mainly because they were unable to attract migrants from Europe once the initial Crusading impulse was spent.
In the early 13th century the Arab Ayyubid sultans regained control of Egypt and Syria from the Turks, but the Arab revival was shortlived. A new wave of invaders, the Mongols of the Golden Horde, swept through the region, sacking Baghdad in 1258 and advancing as far south as the border of Egypt. The Mongols, however, were not empire builders, and by the mid 14th century they had departed from the region. In their wake the Turkish Mameluk sultans of Egypt gained control of Palestine and Syria, while other Turkish sultans controlled Iraq and Anatolia. Only in the Arabian peninsula did the Arabs rule their own affairs.
The Ottoman era
By the early 15th century a new power had arisen in western Anatolia, the Ottoman emirs, who in 1453 captured Constantinople and made themselves sultans. The Mameluks held the Ottomans out of the Middle East for a century, but in 1514 Selim the Grim began the systematic Ottoman conquest of the region. Iraq was occupied in 1515, Syria in 1516 and Egypt in 1517, extinguishing the Mameluk line. The Ottomans united the whole region under one ruler for the first time since the reign of the Abbasid caliphs of the 10th century, and they kept control of it for 400 years.
The Ottomans also conquered Greece, the Balkans and most of Hungary, setting the new frontier between east and west far to the north of the Danube. But in the west Europe was rapidly expanding, demographically, economically and culturally, with the new wealth of the Americas fuelling a boom that laid the foundations for the growth of capitalism and the industrial revolution. By the 17th century Europe had overtaken the Muslim world in wealth, population and—most importantly—technology. Although Christianity and Islam were equally hostile to the acquisitive instincts of capitalism, the Protestant reformation broke the power of the Catholic Church and allowed individualism to flourish unchecked in northern Europe.
By 1700 the Ottomans had been driven out of Hungary and the balance of power along the frontier had shifted decisively in favour of the west. Although some areas of Ottoman Europe, such as Albania and Bosnia, saw many conversions to Islam, the area was never culturally absorbed into the Muslim world. From 1700 to 1918 the Ottomans steadily retreated, and the Middle East fell further and further behind Europe, becoming increasingly inward-looking and defensive. During the 19th century Greece, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria asserted their independence, and in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 the Ottomans were driven out of Europe altogether, except for the city of Constantinople and its hinterland.
By the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was the "sick man of Europe", increasingly under the financial control of the European powers. Domination soon turned to outright conquest. The French annexed Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1878. The British occupied Egypt in 1882, though it remained under nominal Ottoman sovereignty. The British also established effective control of the Persian Gulf, and the French extended their influence into Lebanon and Syria. In 1912 the Italians seized Libya and the Dodecanese islands, just off the coast of the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia. The Ottomans turned to Germany to protect them from the western powers, but the result was increasing financial and military dependence on Germany.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Middle Eastern rulers tried to modernise their states to compete more effectively with the European powers. Reforming rulers such as Muhammad Ali in Egypt, the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the authors of the 1906 revolution in Persia all sought to import versions of the western model of constitutional government, civil law, secular education and industrial development into their countries. Across the region railways and telegraphs lines were built, schools and universities were opened, and a new class of army officers, lawyers, teachers and administrators emerged, challenging the traditional leadership of Islamic scholars.
Unfortunately, in all these cases the money to pay for the reforms was borrowed from the west, and the crippling debt this entailed led to bankruptcy and even greater western domination, which tended to discredit the reformers. Egypt, for example, fell under British control because the ambitious projects of Muhammad Ali and his successors bankrupted the state. Additionally, the westernisation of the Islamic world created professional armies, led by officers who were both willing and able to seize power for themselves—a problem which has plagued the Middle East ever since. There was also the problem that affects all reforming absolute rulers: they are prepared to consider all reforms except giving up their own power. Abdul Hamid, for example, grew ever more autocratic as he tried to impose reforms on his reluctant empire. Reforming ministers in Persia also tried to impose modernisation on their subjects, provoking sharp resistance.
The most ambitious reformers were the Young Turks (officially called the Committee for Union and Progress), who seized power in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. Led by an ambitious pair of army officers, Ismail Enver (Enver Pasha) and Ahmed Cemal (Cemal Pasha), and a radical lawyer, Mehmed Talat (Talat Pasha), the Young Turks initially established a constitutional monarchy, but soon became a ruling junta, with Talat as Grand Vizier and Enver as War Minister, which tried to force a radical modernisation program onto the Ottoman Empire.
The plan had several flaws. First it entailed imposing the Turkish language and centralised government on what had hitherto been a multi-lingual and loosely-governed empire, which alienated the Arabic-speaking regions of the empire and caused an upsurge in Arab nationalism. Secondly it drove the empire ever deeper into debt. And thirdly, when Enver Bey formed an alliance with Germany, which he saw as the most advanced military power in Europe, it cost the empire the support of Britain, which had protected the Ottomans against Russian encroachment all through the 19th century.
In 1914 Enver Bey's alliance with Germany led the Young Turks into the fatal step of joining Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, against Britain and France. The British saw the Ottomans as the weak link in the enemy alliance, and concentrated on knocking them out of the war. When a direct assault failed at Gallipoli in 1915, they turned to fomenting revolution in the Ottoman domains, exploiting the awakening force of Arab nationalism. The Arabs had lived more or less happily under Ottoman rule for 400 years, until the Young Turks had tried to "Turkicise" them and change their traditional system of government. The British found an ally in Sherif Hussein ibn Ali, the hereditary ruler of Mecca and believed by Muslims to be a descendant of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, who led an Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule, having received a promise of Arab independence in exchange.
But when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, the Arabs found they had been betrayed, indeed doubly betrayed. For not only had the British and the French concluded a secret treaty (the Sykes-Picot Agreement), to partition the Middle East between them, but the British had also promised via the Balfour Declaration the international Zionist movement their support in creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was the site of the ancient Kingdom of Israel but had had a largely Arab population for over a thousand years. When the Ottomans departed, the Arabs proclaimed an independent state in Damascus, but were too weak, militarily and economically, to resist the European powers for long, and Britain and France soon established control and re-arranged the Middle East to suit themselves.
Syria became a French protectorate (thinly disguised as a League of Nations Mandate), with the Christian coastal areas split off to become Lebanon. Iraq and Palestine became British mandated territories, with one of Sherif Hussein's sons, Faisal, installed as King of Iraq. Palestine was split in half, with the eastern half becoming Transjordan to provide a throne for another of Hussein's sons, Abdullah. The western half of Palestine was placed under direct British administration, and the already substantial Jewish population was allowed to increase, initially under British protection. Most of the Arabian peninsula fell to another British ally, Ibn Saud, who created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1922.
Meanwhile, the fall of the Ottomans had allowed Kemal Atatürk to seize power in Turkey and embark on a program of modernisation and secularisation. He abolished the caliphate, emancipated women, enforced western dress and the use of Turkish in place of Arabic, and abolished the jurisdiction of the Islamic courts. In effect, Turkey, having given up rule over the Arab World, now determined to secede from the Middle East and become culturally part of Europe. Ever since, Turkey has insisted that it is a European country and not part of the Middle East.
Another turning point in the history of the Middle East came when oil was discovered, first in Persia in 1908 and later in Saudi Arabia (in 1938) and the other Persian Gulf states, and also in Libya and Algeria. The Middle East, it turned out, possessed the world's largest easily accessible reserves of crude oil, the most important commodity in the 20th century industrial world. Although western oil companies pumped and exported nearly all of the oil to fuel the rapidly expanding automobile industry and other western industrial developments, the kings and emirs of the oil states became immensely rich, enabling them to consolidate their hold on power and giving them a stake in preserving western hegemony over the region. Oil wealth also had the effect of stultifying whatever movement towards economic, political or social reform might have emerged in the Arab world under the influence of the Kemalist revolution in Turkey.
During the 1920s and '30s Iraq, Syria and Egypt moved towards independence, although the British and French did not formally depart the region until they were forced to do so after World War II. But in Palestine the conflicting forces of Arab nationalism and Zionist colonisation created a situation which the British could neither resolve nor extricate themselves from. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany created a new urgency in the Zionist quest to create a Jewish state in Palestine, and the evident intentions of the Zionists provoked increasingly fierce Arab resistance. (For a detailed account of this, see Israel-Palestinian conflict and History of Palestine.)
This struggle culminated in the 1947 United Nations plan to partition Palestine to create a Jewish state and a Palestinian state in the narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The Palestinians rejected this plan, the Zionist settlers declared the State of Israel in 1948, the Arab states intervened, and the Arabs were defeated in the resulting war. About 800,000 Palestinians fled from areas annexed by Israel and became refugees in neighbouring countries, thus creating the "Palestinian problem" which has bedevilled the region ever since.
A zone of conflict
The establishment of Israel, the departure of the European powers from direct control of the region, and the increasing importance of the oil industry, marked the creation of the modern Middle East. These developments led to a growing presence of the United States in Middle East affairs. The U.S. was Israel's principal ally and protector, the ultimate guarantor of the stability of the region, and from the 1950s the dominant force in the oil industry. When republican revolutions brought radical anti-western regimes to power in Egypt in 1954, in Syria in 1963, in Iraq in 1968 and in Libya in 1969, the Soviet Union, seeking to open a new arena of the Cold War in the Middle East, allied itself with Arab rulers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. These regimes gained popular support through their promises to destroy Israel, defeat the U.S. and other "western imperialists," and to bring prosperity to the Arab masses, usually by means of some form of socialism. When they failed to do any of these things, they became increasingly despotic.
In response to this challenge to its interests in the region, the U.S. felt obliged to defend its remaining allies, the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran and the Persian Gulf emirates, whose methods of rule were almost as unattractive to western eyes as those of the anti-western regimes. Iran in particular became a key U.S. ally, until a revolution led by the Shi'a clergy overthrew the monarchy in 1979 and established a theocratic regime which was even more anti-western than the secular regimes in Iraq or Syria. This forced the U.S. into a close alliance with Saudi Arabia, a reactionary, corrupt and oppressive monarchy, and a regime, moreover, dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Thus, the U.S. soon found itself just as embroiled in the contradictions of Middle East politics as the British and French had been.
The successive defeats of the Arab armies at the hands of the Israelis in 1948, 1967 and 1973 persuaded the exiled Palestinians, and many other Arabs, that the Arab regimes could not defeat this new western intrusion into the region. The Israeli occupation of the remaining Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza) in 1967 turned out to be permanent, creating an even more intractable Palestinian problem, made worse by systematic Israeli settlement in the territories. Although Arabs often recalled their successful eviction of the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries, Israel's much greater population, and its continuing support from the United States, meant that no modern-day Saladin could hope to destroy it by conventional military means.
In 1979, moreover, Egypt under Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, concluded a peace treaty with Israel, ending the prospects of a united Arab military front. From the 1970s the Palestinians, led by Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, resorted to a prolonged campaign of terrorism, against Israel and against American, Jewish and western targets generally, as a means of weakening Israeli resolve and undermining western support for Israel. The Palestinians were supported in this, to varying degrees, by the regimes in Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq. The high point of this campaign came in the 1975 United Resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism and the reception given to Arafat by the United Nations General Assembly.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in the early 1990s had several consequences for the Middle East. It allowed large numbers of Jews to emigrate from Russia and Ukraine to Israel, further strengthening the Jewish state. It cut off the easiest source of credit, armaments and diplomatic support to the anti-western Arab regimes, weakening their position. It opened up the prospect of cheap oil from Russia, driving down the price of oil and reducing the west's dependence on oil from the Arab states. And it discredited the model of development through authoritarian state socialism which Egypt (under Nasser), Algeria, Syria and Iraq had been following since the 1960s, leaving these regimes politically and economically stranded. Rulers such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq increasingly turned to Arab nationalism as a substitute for socialism.
It was this which led Iraq into its prolonged war with Iran in the 1980s, and then into its fateful invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Kuwait had been part of the Ottoman province of Basra before 1918, and thus in a sense part of Iraq, but Iraq had recognised its independence in the 1960s. The U.S. responded to the invasion by forming a coalition of allies which included the Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, gaining approval from the United Nations and then evicting Iraq from Kuwait by force in the Persian Gulf War. President George Bush did not, however, attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime, something the U.S. later came to regret. The Persian Gulf War and its aftermath brought about a permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region, particularly in Saudi Arabia, something which caused great offence to many Muslims.
The contemporary Middle East
By the 1990s, many western commentators (and some Middle Eastern ones) saw the Middle East as not just a zone of conflict, but also a zone of backwardness. The rapid spread of political democracy and the development of market economies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, East Asia and parts of Africa passed the Middle East by. In the whole region, only Israel, Turkey and to some extent Lebanon were democracies. Other countries had legislative bodies, but these had little power, and in the Gulf states the majority of the population could not vote anyway, as they were guest workers and not citizens.
The European Union is seeking to bring about change in the Middle East through what is sometimes called soft power, using neither military nor financial force. The prospect of joining the EU has already sped up reforms in Turkey. Other Middle Eastern countries cannot join the EU (Copenhagen criteria), but there are also other forms of cooperation. Jordan (2002) and Lebanon (2003) have already signed Association Agreements and talks are underway with Syria. Such trade agreements will, however, only take place if certain reforms take place, most notably in the realms of democracy and human rights.
In most Middle Eastern countries, the growth of market economies was inhibited by political restrictions, corruption and cronyism, overspending on arms and prestige projects, and overdependence on oil revenues. The successful economies in the region were those which combined oil wealth with low populations, such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In these states, the ruling emirs allowed a certain degree of political and social liberalization, yet without giving up any of their own power. The emirs were considered liberal in comparison to their neighbors, but conservative compared to the west. Lebanon, after a prolonged civil war in the 1980s, also rebuilt a fairly successful economy.
By the end of the 1990s, the Middle East as a whole was falling behind not only Europe, but also behind India, China and other rapidly developing market economies, in terms of production, trade, education, communications and virtually every other criterion of economic and social progress. The assertion that, if oil was subtracted, the total exports of the whole Arab world were less than those of Finland was frequently quoted in the West. The theories of authors such as David Pryce-Jones, that the Arabs were trapped in a "cycle of backwardness" from which their culture would not allow them to escape, were widely accepted in the west.
In the opening years of the 21st century all these factors combined to raise the Middle East conflict to a new height, and to spread its consequences across the globe. The failure of the attempt by Bill Clinton to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 (2000 Camp David Summit) led directly to the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister of Israel and to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, characterised by suicide bombing of Israeli civilian targets. This was the first major outbreak of violence since the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993.
At the same time, the failures of most of the Arab regimes and the bankruptcy of secular Arab radicalism led a section of educated Arabs (and other Muslims) to embrace Islamism, promoted both by the Shi'a clerics of Iran and by the powerful Wahhabist sect of Saudi Arabia. Many of the militant Islamists gained military training while fighting against the forces of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
One of these was a wealthy Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden. After fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan, he formed the al-Qaida organization, which was responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, the USS Cole bombing and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States that killed thousands of civilians. The September 11 attacks led the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to launch an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime, which was harbouring Bin Laden and his organisation. The U.S. and its allies described this operation as part of a global "War on Terrorism."
The U.S. and Britain also became convinced that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, in violation of the agreements it had given at the end of the Persian Gulf War. During 2002 the administration, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, developed a plan to invade Iraq, remove Saddam from power, and turn Iraq into a democratic state with a free-market economy, which, they hoped, would serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East. When the U.S. and its principal allies, Britain and Australia, could not secure United Nations approval for the execution of the numerous United Nations resolutions, they launched an invasion of Iraq, overthrowing and capturing Saddam with no great difficulty in April 2003.
The advent of a new western army of occupation in a Middle Eastern capital marked a turning point in the history of the region. If the U.S. succeeded in transforming Iraq into a prosperous and stable democratic state, the consequences for the region might be great. The consequences of failure would also be very far-reaching. Political progress in Iraq was slower than expected, and was complicated by an ongoing Iraq insurgency, but successful elections were held in January 2005 and power transferred to a Shia-dominated elected government.
By 2005, also, George W. Bush's Road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been stalled due to the lack of leadership on the Palestinian side, although this situation began to change with Yasser Arafat's death in 2004. In response, Israel moved towards a unilateral solution, pushing ahead with the Israeli West Bank barrier to protect Israel from Palestinian suicide bombers and proposed unliteral withdrawal from Gaza. The barrier if completed may amount to a de facto annexation of areas of the West Bank by Israel.