A Middle East without borders?

Monday, March 7, 2011
By Paul Martin

The nation state is ripe for change and people power offers new opportunities for mapping the future of the region.

Mohammed Khan

The modern geography of the Middle East was carved out by British and French colonialists whose sole interest was in sharing the spoils of war between themselves and in maintaining their supremacy over the region in the early part of the 20th century.
The contours of the region, with its immaculately straight lines (see maps of Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Sudan) are much the same today as when they were first drawn up, despite decades of cross-border encroachment and conflict.
Never has an imported concept been so jealously guarded by ruling families and political elites in the Middle East as that of the nation state, together with the holy grail of international relations theory, state sovereignty.

The artificialness of the borders in question is not in doubt. Take a look at any map of the Middle East prior to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France (when the division of the region was finalised with no consideration for the thoughts of the people that lived in it) and you will be hard pressed to find many physical boundaries between, say, Syria to the north-east and Morocco to the west.

What you may find, however, are free-flowing train routes spanning the region. A relic of the old Hejaz Railway, which connected Damascus to Medina, still stands (dilapidated) in the centre of the Syrian capital. It once transported pilgrims to the Muslim holy city in modern-day Saudi Arabia without the need for cumbersome visas and frustrating bureaucrats. But that was obviously some time ago.

Trial and error

Over the course of recent history, Arab leaders have attempted to foster closer unity in the Arab world whether in the form of the 22-member Arab League – “to safeguard the independence and sovereignty [of Arab states]” – or the six-state Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – as a political, economic and security union in response to the Islamic revolution in Iran.

However, the sanctity of the state itself, and its borders, has been absolute within these blocs.

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