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Jeremy Wong

Middle East Since 1500

Dr. Janet Rozick

12 April 2013

The Economics of Change: A Legacy of Reform in the Middle East  

The Middle East & North Africa region (MENA) is not dissimilar from

any other in the world. The region, like every other, is saddled with its past.

Both its glories and its follies continue to weigh on its modern structure, with

some factors weighing more heavily on others. The modern MENA’s turning

point, it could be argued, was the first World War; this climactic and

cataclysmic event stood on the legacy of more than a century of reform (and

reform attempts) across the region. In the Middle East, economics have

played a large role, but one might argue that social changes and shifts have

had far greater-reaching events. While economics can be a catalyst for such

large-scale changes like the Arab Spring or the galvanizing Arab-Israeli

wars, economics are subservient to social factors both in the past and into

the modern era. Other distinct events and large-scale shifts lend credence to
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this, such as the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. In particular, the 20th

century saw the end of the reform eras as the very nations that were

attempting reforms collapsed or radically reoriented. These collapses had

economic contributions, to be certain, but the summation is that the MENA

region in the 20th century was driven by the populace and not by payment.

The economic growth and change of the Middle East & North Africa

transitioned quickly and visibly from what was in large portions a non-

industrialized society. In fact, to properly ascertain the shifts in social

demographic and attitude, a look at the economics that they faced is in

order. (Owen & Pamuk 16)

The Great War was a defining event in MENA history – in world history

– but it spawned just one of many massive social revolutions. The

Sultanate's ultimate failure to initiate any lasting reform that could actually

bring the empire on bargaining terms with Europe was made manifest just

before the war. No longer concerned with conquest or even keeping its

regions loyal, the Empire's main concerns revolved around keeping European

powers satiated. Russia's land grabs and the events of the Armenian War

created a dangerous balancing act for the Sultan. In the 1870s, the Ottoman

Empire had suffered bankruptcy, and was forced to subordinate large

portions of its economy to foreign control. (Owen & Pamuk 5) However, this

was not caused by social unrest, but instead further drove the populace into
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movements in opposition to the established order. The Young Ottomans and

Young Turks were, admittedly, formed part thanks to these economic issues,

but they stayed due to pressing social concerns. The destructive decade that

led up to World War I was characterized for the Turks as a time of warfare,

but not wars caused by money or conquest, but nationalism. The Balkan

Wars of 1912-1913, to start, were driven by the rise of nationalism and

cultural awareness. (Choueiri) This was the first of many wars that would

slowly grind the Ottoman consciousness and nation-state. A long decade of

war was soon to follow.

The planet was a changed place after the First World War, but the

Middle East may have suffered the greatest change in terms of nations and

borders. Economics were at the forefront, second only to the latest war in

the Middle East- the revolution Where once there was the grand Ottoman

Empire, there was now the independent nation of Turkey, as well as Egypt

and Saudi Arabia. Elsewhere, the MENA was comprised of a series of

mandates and colonies. This first great economic shift of the 20 th century

eliminated the once massive trading empire that the Ottoman Empire had

utilized. Instead, trade was now regulated by the European powers and had

been highly privatized to Westerners. This further illustrates the solidarity

and durability of the Middle East's economy. Industries that had been key in

the former states of Turkey and Syria included exports such as wheat and

tobacco. During the Great Depression, the Turkish government was able to
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rectify major trade shortfalls by purchasing wheat and tobacco as well as

providing subsidies (Owen & Pamuk 122) with little difficulty. In fact, by the

year 1934, “the terms of trade improved, regaining their pre-1929 levels by

the end of the decade.” In Owen & Pamuk's “A History of Middle East

Economies in the Twentieth Century,” the authors illustrate a world where

former Ottoman states are able to 'bounce back'. Economic growth and

unemployment became a small worry for the newly-independent people.

(Owen & Pamuk 23)

Rather than the economy stimulating political or social change as it

might in the West, social change in the form of the Turkish War of

Independence had spurred on even more modernization of the production

sector. For example, the abolition of the centuries-old grain tithe brought

more wealth to the farmers that remained while allowing increasing

industrialization and educational opportunities. In Egypt, spurred on by both

ministers and Brtish overseers, huge tracts of railroads. Railroads made

travel more accessible and facilitated greater movement of people as well as

goods in the Nile delta. This only encouraged more production, which in turn

led to lower food prices and higher exports, which in turn allowed a further

shift away from the subsistence farming culture of old. (Owen & Pamuk 24)

Economic reforms during the interwar period came to many of the newly-

independent MENA nations, with so many of them spurred on by just that-

independence. The interwar period saw the birth of organized labor, a

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complex issue which expresses both a major shift in business and in the way

people were treated.

The cities of Syria saw this interwar change as well. Damascus moved past

its Ottoman-era organization. Gone were the days when young, headstrong

men and tribal leaders functioned as intermediaries and politicians. Politics

were now national politics. The French now dominated life as the Ottomans

once did. Here, political change was the greatest possible force; French

politics demanded public schooling, and through these public schools men

and women of all classes and of all districts mingled. The modern leaders

were no longer nobility – the sons of the mercantilist national traders and

caravaneers, but were youth parties that drew in people of all walks of life,

especially the young and the lower-class. The French had changed

everything. Even the new nobles' rhetoric was that of nationalism rather

than stability and relations with Istanbul. (Wilson 342) “The march of new

groups – workers and state school students – and old ones to the tune of

nationalism played by urban nobles eventually destroyed the old nature of

politics.” (Wilson 344) The British Mandate of Palestine found new social

strata as well, similar to the other mandate states. Economic control was all

but ceded to the over to the European powers. Increasing urban dominance

characterized the new Middle East. (Wilson 345)

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Causes of these large-scale upheavals have been discussed in the MENA

regions but it bears comparing to European casus beli. Claims have been the

'new imperialism' of the 1900s and late 1800s help spur on land acquisition

almost purely to help national capital interests. The waves of revolution in

the first half of the century in the Middle East are almost the opposite,

instead focusing on a centralized conflict over moral and ideal issues.

For example, the Arab-Israeli conflict was started as a political and

nationalist conflict after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the

political mandates of the era. The ongoing and regional conflict only rarely

involves the economies of the region, and is instead motivated by political

factors. “The 1947-1949 war only helped to prove to the Arab states that

they could not ignore Israel.” Albert Hourani illustrates that the social

change the appeared in the interwar and postwar years was a major catalyst

for the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. While the tides of nationalism continued

to grow, the region did not have any body that could effectively govern it,

with the British actively leaving the area , essentially, to fend for itself

despite the possible benefits (for example, to the economy) that holding on

to the area as a protectorate or mandate might have brought. Instead,

nationalism, that most effluvient and pervasive of sentiments, created a

scenario in which all of the affiliated parties were no longer able to expect a

division of land to come, nor could they expect cultural and/or social

assimilation as they once did. (Hourani 41)

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One of David Sorenson's key assumptions about the MENA region was that

continued economic success would lead to a slow social change and an

increase in living standards, if not freedom or social revolution. (Sorenson

144) Instead, the deep gashes and wounds inflicted on the economies of the

region during the late 2000s global economic downturn left scars that hurt

the region deeply and were not fast to heal. A comparison could be made, in

that case, to the energy crisis. While the causes were entirely dissimilar (an

embargo versus a general downturn globally) but the effects were

comparable, with high unemployment and the opportunities for social

mobility greatly reduced. It was in this environment that the all-pervasive

and still ongoing Arab Spring occurred. While there is no doubt that

economic factors were key in the lead-up to the wave of revolutions, it is

more important to examine the dissatisfaction with the ruling governments,

instead. Just as with the Young Turk revolution a century before, the

economic downturn was blamed in part on local and official governments,

which were perceived as being outddated, out-of-touch, or downright hostile

to the people that it had a mandate to govern.

The Middle East & North African regions have seen their share of

calamity in the 20th century, but it is important to look at them with an

objective eye. Like anywhere else, there is a constant system of upheavals

combined with responses and new social paradigms. What sets the MENA

region apart from some others is the motivations and causes for these
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shifts; it is a place where some of the deadliest and some of the most

notable conflicts all stem from men, their actions, but not necessarily

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Works Cited

Choueiri, Youssef M. Arab Nationalism: Nation and State in the Arab World.

Oxford, UK: Blackwell Pub., 2000. Print.

Hourani, Albert Habib, Philip Shukry Khoury, and Mary Christina Wilson. The

Modern Middle East: A Reader. Berkeley: University of California, 1993.


Owen, Roger, and Şevket Pamuk. A History of Middle East Economies in the

Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.

Owen, Roger. The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914. London: I.B.

Tauris, 1993. Print.

Philip, Charles I. The Middle East Economy: Decline and Recovery : Selected

Essays. N.p.: Markus Wiener, 1995. Print.

Sorenson, David S. Interpreting the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010.