How does colonialism and the mandate system set the stage for future conflict in the Middle East?

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Subject: World History

Assignment Question

Discuss how colonialism and the mandate system set the stage for future conflict in the Middle East.


The Middle East has long been a region of geopolitical significance, characterized by a complex web of ethnic, religious, and political rivalries. Many of the contemporary conflicts in the Middle East can be traced back to the legacy of colonialism and the mandate system established after World War I. This essay will delve into how colonialism and the mandate system set the stage for future conflict in the Middle East, examining the consequences of imperial intervention, arbitrary borders, and the suppression of indigenous identities .

Colonialism and the Middle East

The roots of Middle Eastern conflicts can be found in the era of European colonialism, which spanned from the 19th to the early 20th century. The European powers, particularly Britain and France, sought to expand their empires and exert control over Middle Eastern territories (Owen, 2004). The scramble for colonies led to a period of intense imperialist competition, where boundaries were drawn on maps with little regard for the region’s historical, cultural, or ethnic realities.

Arbitrary Borders

One of the most significant consequences of colonialism was the arbitrary drawing of borders. Colonial powers carved up the Middle East without consideration for the diverse ethnic and religious groups inhabiting the region. For example, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces into spheres of influence, leading to the creation of modern-day Syria and Iraq with borders that ignored the region’s tribal, ethnic, and sectarian divisions (Anderson, 2016).

These artificial borders sowed the seeds of future conflict by forcing disparate groups into the same political entities. The result was a volatile mix of ethnic and religious tensions that continue to fuel violence and instability in the region today (Fisk, 2005).

Suppression of Indigenous Identities

Colonial powers also imposed their own political and cultural systems on the Middle East, often at the expense of indigenous identities and traditions. The Ottoman Empire, for all its flaws, had provided a relatively stable and inclusive system that accommodated the various religious and ethnic groups within its borders. However, European colonialism disrupted this delicate balance (Lewis, 2002).

For instance, the British and French authorities in Iraq favored Sunni Arabs over other groups, leading to sectarian tensions that persist to this day (Gelvin, 2015). Additionally, the imposition of Western-style governance systems often ignored the cultural nuances of the region, further alienating local populations and contributing to a sense of dislocation and resentment (Hourani, 2005).

The Mandate System

The mandate system, established by the League of Nations after World War I, further exacerbated tensions in the Middle East. Instead of granting full independence to colonized territories, the mandate system placed them under the temporary administration of European powers, ostensibly to prepare them for self-governance (Smith, 2003). However, this system perpetuated foreign control and delayed the emergence of independent nation-states.

Political Instability

Under the mandate system, the Middle East was subjected to a series of transitions and power struggles, as local populations chafed under foreign rule. This period of political instability laid the groundwork for future conflicts as different groups jockeyed for power and influence (Khoury, 2002).

Legacy of Resentment

The mandate system also left a legacy of resentment in the Middle East. Many in the region saw the mandates as a continuation of colonialism by another name, which fostered a deep mistrust of Western powers (Lesch, 2008). This mistrust still shapes the region’s politics and contributes to anti-Western sentiment (Karsh, 2007).

Ongoing Conflict

The legacy of colonialism and the mandate system continues to reverberate in the Middle East today. The arbitrary borders drawn by colonial powers have led to enduring disputes over territory, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where competing claims over land persist (Maoz, 2013). The suppression of indigenous identities and cultures also contributes to the persistence of ethnic and sectarian tensions in countries like Iraq and Syria (Tejel, 2012).

Moreover, the political instability created by the mandate system has left a lasting imprint on the region. Many Middle Eastern countries have struggled with governance issues, corruption, and weak institutions, which are remnants of the turbulent transition from colonial rule to independence (Heydemann, 2013). These challenges have hindered economic development and social progress, contributing to ongoing instability.

Geopolitical Dynamics

The Middle East remains a battleground for global powers, in part due to the strategic interests established during the colonial era (Lynch, 2016). The presence of oil reserves, vital shipping routes, and geopolitical significance continue to attract international attention and intervention. This further complicates the region’s conflicts, as external actors often exacerbate existing tensions for their own interests.

To address these deep-seated issues, it is imperative to acknowledge the historical injustices and grievances stemming from colonialism and the mandate system. Recognizing the impact of past actions and policies on the present can pave the way for more informed and nuanced solutions to the region’s challenges.

Diplomatic Initiatives

Efforts towards conflict resolution and reconciliation in the Middle East must be grounded in an understanding of historical grievances. Diplomatic initiatives should consider the historical context and work towards addressing the root causes of conflicts. This includes recognizing the rights and aspirations of different ethnic and religious groups and respecting their identities.

Nation-Building and Governance

Efforts to strengthen governance and nation-building in the Middle East should take into account the historical legacy of colonialism and the mandate system. Policies should aim to create inclusive political systems that respect diversity and protect minority rights. Additionally, efforts to build effective institutions and combat corruption should be guided by an awareness of historical challenges.

Education and Awareness

Promoting education and awareness about the history of colonialism and the mandate system in the Middle East can help foster understanding and empathy among different groups. This can be achieved through educational programs, cultural exchanges, and initiatives that encourage dialogue and reconciliation.

Regional Cooperation

Regional cooperation and diplomacy are vital components of any strategy aimed at mitigating conflict in the Middle East. The history of colonialism and the mandate system has left many deep-seated regional rivalries, but collaborative efforts can help bridge divides. Regional organizations, such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, can play crucial roles in promoting dialogue and conflict resolution.

Conflict Resolution Mechanisms

Efforts should be made to strengthen conflict resolution mechanisms in the Middle East. International organizations, like the United Nations, should work with regional actors to facilitate negotiations, peacekeeping missions, and mediation. Learning from successful examples of conflict resolution in other parts of the world can provide valuable insights for addressing the region’s complex issues.

Economic Development and Social Reconciliation

Economic development and social reconciliation initiatives should be implemented in tandem with political and diplomatic efforts. Addressing economic disparities and promoting job opportunities can help alleviate some of the social tensions rooted in historical grievances. Moreover, programs that encourage inter-group interactions and cultural exchange can foster a sense of unity and shared identity.

Respect for Sovereignty

The principle of respecting the sovereignty of Middle Eastern nations is fundamental. While international engagement can be helpful, it should be conducted with full respect for the autonomy and self-determination of individual countries. Foreign interventions should be guided by the principles of international law and diplomacy, rather than self-interest.

Long-term Perspective

Solving the complex issues stemming from colonialism and the mandate system in the Middle East will require a long-term perspective. Quick fixes are unlikely to address the deeply entrenched problems. Patience, perseverance, and a sustained commitment to peace and stability are necessary for achieving lasting positive change.


In conclusion, the history of colonialism and the mandate system in the Middle East set the stage for the conflicts that continue to plague the region today. Arbitrary borders, the suppression of indigenous identities, political instability, and a legacy of resentment have all contributed to the enduring instability and violence in the Middle East. Understanding this historical context is crucial for addressing the complex challenges facing the region and working toward a more stable and peaceful future.


Anderson, B. (2016). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso.

Fisk, R. (2005). The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Vintage.

Gelvin, J. L. (2015). The Modern Middle East: A History. Oxford University Press.

Hourani, A. H. (2005). A History of the Arab Peoples. Belknap Press.

Karsh, E. (2007). Islamic Imperialism: A History. Yale University Press.

Khoury, P. S. (2002). Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945. Princeton University Press.

Lesch, D. W. (2008). The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History. Oxford University Press.

Lewis, B. (2002). What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Oxford University Press.

Owen, R. (2004). State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East. Routledge.

Smith, C. D. (2003). Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

FAQs on Colonialism and the Middle East:

  1. FAQ: What is colonialism, and how did it impact the Middle East? Answer: Colonialism refers to the practice of European powers establishing and maintaining control over foreign territories. In the Middle East, colonialism led to the imposition of Western political and cultural systems, arbitrary border drawing, and the suppression of indigenous identities, all of which contributed to ongoing conflicts in the region.
  2. FAQ: How did the Sykes-Picot Agreement affect the Middle East? Answer: The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces into spheres of influence for Britain and France, creating modern-day borders in the Middle East that did not consider local ethnic, religious, or tribal divisions. This arbitrary division laid the foundation for many conflicts in the region.
  3. FAQ: What role did the mandate system play in the Middle East? Answer: The mandate system, established after World War I, placed Middle Eastern territories under the temporary administration of European powers. This system prolonged foreign control, delayed independence, and contributed to political instability in the region.
  4. FAQ: How did colonial powers impact indigenous identities in the Middle East? Answer: Colonial powers often favored certain ethnic or religious groups over others, leading to resentment and sectarian tensions. For instance, in Iraq, the British favored Sunni Arabs, contributing to ongoing Sunni-Shia tensions.
  5. FAQ: What is the legacy of colonialism in the Middle East? Answer: The legacy of colonialism in the Middle East includes ongoing conflicts, mistrust of Western powers, and the enduring impact of arbitrary borders and imposed governance systems. These factors continue to shape the region’s politics and security landscape.


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