Boundaries in the Arab world and their remarkable durability

Summary: the boundaries of Arab states, mainly drawn by colonial powers, have shown remarkable durability. In some instances, these boundaries have been challenged but such challenges have generally failed to change the map of the region.

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for this posting. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

Many of the present land boundaries of the Arab states were delineated by the UK and France after the First World War, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Contrary to popular belief, these boundaries did not, for the most part, reflect the work of Mark Sykes and François George-Picot. However, what the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 did establish was concept of boundary-drawing by the UK and France in their own interests, without regard to the wishes of the local population.

Rather than following the lines drawn by Sykes and Picot, many of today’s boundaries in the Arab East emerged from a complicated and protracted process of negotiation between the colonial powers and between those powers and Turkey, starting with the San Remo Conference of 1920 and ending with the treaty of 1926 between the UK, Iraq and Turkey which definitively allocated the province of Mosul to Iraq.

The biggest losers from this process were the Kurds, who found themselves divided between four states, namely, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. (The Palestinians were big losers too, but this was the result of the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into the terms of the British Mandate for Palestine rather than the delineation of boundaries.) Many nomadic tribes were disadvantaged too, finding that the new state boundaries divided their traditional grazing lands.

In a later process, France colluded with Turkey to secure the transfer of the province of Alexandretta from Syria to Turkey. (At the time, Syria was under a French Mandate and so this was also a colonial manipulation of boundaries.) Official Syrian maps still show the province (known in Turkey as Hatay) as part of Syria.

In a few cases, such as Lebanon/Syria, Iraq/Transjordan and Transjordan/Palestine, only one of the colonial powers was involved. This naturally made the process less complicated although it did not necessarily make the outcome more satisfactory.

While the UK and France were the colonial powers doing the boundary-drawing in the Arab East, in the Maghreb it was predominantly France and to a lesser extent Italy (in Libya) and Spain (in parts of Morocco and in the Western Sahara).

In several instances, the boundaries delineated after the First World War have been challenged.  From the 1930s, Iraq contested the separate existence of Kuwait (Iraq’s “19th Province”); Saddam Hussein occupied it in 1990. Morocco occupied (or “re-integrated”, as the Moroccans would put it) the Western Sahara in 1976. The first of these occupations was reversed within seven months. The second has not been reversed and there is no reason to think that it will be, whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter. The same might turn out to be true of the Golan Heights, a part of Syria captured by Israel in 1967 and unilaterally annexed by it in 1981 – although it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a peace treaty between Israel and Syria if that annexation is not reversed.

In other cases, boundaries have been eliminated by mutual consent of the regimes involved. This happened with the unification of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961 (although, since the two uniting countries were not geographically adjacent, there was never a physical border between them). More durably (and more naturally), it occurred when the Yemen Arab Republic merged with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (“South Yemen”) in 1990. Although this merger between the two states and the elimination of the boundary between them has lasted to date, there is no guarantee that it will do so indefinitely: there is an active southern separatist movement.

More recently, Da’esh (Islamic State or IS) sought to establish a state (or caliphate, in its terms) that disregarded the boundaries drawn by the UK and France. Indeed, in 2014, it showed its contempt for those boundaries by bulldozing a breach in the earth wall separating Iraq and Syria. However, Da’esh failed in its attempt permanently to eliminate the Iraq/Syria boundary, which was re-established in late 2017.

In 2017, the Iraqi Kurds sought not to remove the internal boundary that divided their region from the rest of Iraq but rather to turn it (or rather a line incorporating additional territory) into an international boundary, a separate state having been a long-held Kurdish aspiration. (We reported on the Kurdish independence referendum in our post of 20 September 2017, “Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum: a Pyrrhic victory for Barzani?”.) While the referendum of September 2017 produced a resounding vote in favour of independence, the reaction of the Baghdad government and of neighbouring states (and of the wider international community) prevented the Iraqi Kurds from realising their ambition.

That the boundaries delineated by the UK, France and other colonial powers have proved so durable may seem puzzling, given that they represent an imposition by outsiders. However, once the ruling elites in each of the new states had established themselves, it became in their interest to accept and indeed promote national identities that coincided with state boundaries. While Arab populations generally supported the notions of pan-Arab identity and Arab unity, their rulers tended instead to do no more than pay lip-service to these ideas: to have done more would have put their own positions and vested interests at risk. Moreover, faith in pan-Arabism went into sharp decline when Israel defeated the Arab armies in the war of June 1967. The removal of the boundaries that divided the Arab states from one another was no longer the most important issue for most Arabs: it did not feature in the demands of those taking part in the Arab uprisings in 2011 (the so-called “Arab Spring”).

While the overall pattern of the boundaries drawn by colonial powers – and of the states they enclose – has changed surprisingly little over the last 100 years, there have been numerous disputes over the exact delineation of particular stretches of border. For example, Egypt and Sudan have, since they gained independence, disputed part of the boundary drawn between them by the UK at the turn of the 20th century. Another example: in October 1963, Algeria and Morocco fought a brief war (“la guerre des sables”) over a portion of the boundary bequeathed to them by France. And of course Israel’s borders with the Palestinians (as well as with Syria and Lebanon) remain to be agreed.

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