Background: Imperialism yesterday and today 5

Submitted by martin on 16 June, 2003 - 11:49

From Workers' Liberty 63

Imperialism yesterday and today 5

The spoils of the Sultanates

For centuries, indeed for thousands of years, before the capitalist era, the east Mediterranean was more developed, more civilised and richer than western Europe. Egypt, Babylon (Iraq) and Greece were the greatest centres of ancient civilisation. Although the Roman Empire had its political centre in the West, its eastern regions were richer, with far bigger cities.
In the 7th century, nomad warriors from desert Arabia conquered most of the east and south Mediterranean under the banner of a new religion, Islam. Big Islamic empires dominated the area until the 20th century. From the 14th to the 20th century, the imperial power was Turkey (the Ottoman empire).
In 1453 the Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of what remained of the Roman Empire. In 1529 their armies were at the gates of Vienna. But soon their power began to decline relative to that of a Western Europe where capitalism was already sprouting. Ironically, the more ordered centralisation of the Islamic empire, compared to the ramshackle feudal polities of the West, stunted its development. All land was owned, and all economic activity was controlled, by the Sultan. The peasants paid taxes to support the Sultan and a central state bureaucracy made up of conscripted slaves. Areas of land were allotted to the Sultan's military commanders, but while the empire was still vigorous (at least until the later stages of the decay of the empire) they acquired none of the autonomous economic, political and legal power, or the hereditary rights, which Western feudal lords had. The cities, too, had no independence, but were closely regulated by the Sultan's despotism. "Craft guilds were carefully supervised by the State... and from the 17th century onwards commercial functions devolved increasingly onto infidel minority communities, Greek, Jewish or Armenian" (Perry Anderson).
The system became stagnant. Western powers started chopping bits off the Ottoman realm. France took Algiers in 1830, then extended its rule to the whole of Algeria by a war lasting until 1847. Britain seized Aden, an important port at the south-west tip of the Arabian peninsula, in 1839, and over the course of the 19th century extended its control right round the coast of Arabia to Kuwait. France took Tunisia in 1881; Italy took Libya in 1911. The Turks' European territories, in the Balkans, broke away and came under Austrian or Russian domination.
Turkey itself became a sort of semi-colony. "Semi-colony", here and in the writings of Marxists like Leon Trotsky, was not a loose term for "economically subordinate state". It meant what it said: a state politically dominated in much the same way as a colony, but not as neatly or completely. Since the Middle Ages, foreigners and people under their protection had been exempt from Ottoman taxes and law. Commercial treaties starting with the Anglo-Turkish Commercial Convention of 1838 had restricted the Ottoman authorities' ability to levy tariffs on Western imports. The Sultan, and his Egyptian viceroy, the Khedive, fell heavily into debt to British and French financiers. When they became unable to meet their repayments, Britain seized Egypt (in 1882). Turkey was probably saved from a similar fate only because no Western power was willing to see another gain sole possession of so rich a prize. Instead, in 1881, a consortium of Western governments took effective control of the Sultan's finances, collecting the taxes, taking their money, and paying over to the Sultan only what was left.
At this stage Germany was the most powerful European power in Turkey, sufficiently so to ensure that Turkey was pulled into World War One on Germany's side. After the war, Britain and France carved up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Britain took Iraq, Jordan and Palestine; France took Syria and Lebanon. British forces occupied the capital of the rump Turkish state, Constantinople, for five years after World War One, and France and Italy laid claim to chunks of its territory. Only by defeating Greek armies promoted and sponsored by the Allies, and ousting the Sultan's government in Constantinople, was a Turkish-nationalist government based in Ankara able to win some national independence (in October 1923) and begin a pioneer state-capitalist drive for industrialisation.
A European population of about a million settled in Algeria after 1830, took much of the best land, and developed capitalist farming for export (wine, fruit, etc.). In Egypt, cotton growing had been developed by 19th-century Egyptian rulers attempting a pioneer version of late 20th century "development economics"; it was converted to the profit of the British. Besides oil, however, Western intervention planted no other major new industries in the Middle East. Instead, the Ottomans' formidable pre-capitalist machine for squeezing the peasants was diverted to the profit of Western capitalists.
Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East, were also important to the imperialist powers for strategic reasons. After the building of the Suez Canal in 1865-9, the Middle East was the fulcrum of trade between the West and the East.
The other great prize was oil. Oil exploitation began before World War One in Iran (under the control of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later BP) and Iraq (under the control of a consortium of British, French and later American companies). It spread to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the 1930s, and to Algeria, Libya, Oman and other Gulf statelets in the 1960s and '70s.
Iraq had come under British control after World War One. Iran was also heavily dominated by Britain. Until the 1960s and '70s, oil in Iraq and Iran, and in other Middle East countries, was run as a money machine for Shell, BP and the American companies which increasingly elbowed their way in. The oil industry was a little corner of capitalism in countries which otherwise remained poor peasant economies. Virtually none of the oil profits went back into the local economy.
Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, "Europeans held all the commanding heights of the economy except for land ownership..." - not only oil, but commerce, and what little industry there was. The importance of oil, and the strategic position of the region, made the imperialist powers especially reluctant to end their colonial or semi-colonial grip. Not until after Algeria's bloody war for independence (1954-62), and the nationalist revolutions in Egypt (1952-6) and Iraq (1958), did control shift decisively.
"By 1960, the bulk of economic activity in the region, with the important exception of oil, had passed into the hands of the governments or the native bourgeoisies. The next two decades saw a powerful wave of socialisation. Outside agriculture and housing the national private sector was reduced to insignificance in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, Libya, South Yemen, and, most recently, Iran, and severely curtailed in other countries. The takeover of the oil industry since 1973 has completed this process," wrote the economic historian Charles Issawi in the early 1980s.