Maslow Misapplied to Nations

I was excited 35 years ago to see the rewards for structuring data into quadrant charts.  That was for me!  And management consulting with those charts was fun, but I saw how misleading they can be and at last returned to product and business development.

The chart tool began as a guide for business and product strategy, the idea being that you’re in trouble in the bottom left where your competitive advantages are few and small.  You must develop more and stronger advantages to soar to the profitable heavens on the top right.

BCG Advantage Matrix

Learning how to use and not abuse that tool has continued to be useful.  What provoked this post is research from 1981 to 2014 that is well illustrated by this animation but misleadingly presented in chart in the Findings & Insights summary linked to on this page.

The religion-based labeling is accurate but, in the two-dimensional chart context where the goal is to move from bottom left to top right, it is misleading.

And in this article by a different researcher the data is naively misinterpreted to suggest that capitalism transforms national values toward the political left.

So this is an example of tool abuse.  The data points are real, the research is valuable and the animation of changes over time is meaningful.  But the complex underlying reality is distorted by a static chart labeled in this way.

Nations' Survival vs Self-espression

The World Values Survey (WVS) researchers describe the two dimensions as follows:

  • Traditional values emphasize religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority, traditional family values and national pride
  • Secular-rational values place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority
  • Survival values emphasize economic and physical security, are relatively ethnocentric and feature low levels of trust and tolerance
  • Self-expression values emphasize environmental protection, tolerance, and participation in economic and political decisions

The researchers say the data show that as a country moves from poor to rich, it also tends to move from traditional to secular-rational.  The move is a tendency not inevitable because values are also highly correlated with long-established cultures.

And there is movement in both directions over time.  The USA, for example, is in 1989 a little toward the traditional end and quite far toward self-expression, then it grows more traditional over the next decade, less so in the next, then steadily less traditional and less concerned with self-expression.

The writer claiming that capitalism transforms national values so nations labeled Islamic will, if they embrace capitalism, naturally move toward Protestant heaven, confuses correlation with causation.

His explicit blunder is conceptualizing nations as people to which Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” apply.


Maslow illustrates how, if we have no food, all we care about is getting our next meal, but once we have that, we start caring about how to get the next meal and the one after that, and if we secure a reasonably dependable supply of basic needs we put effort into friendships, then start working for the respect of others, and finally devote effort to self-actualization.

Here’s a simpler way to see what Maslow was driving at (hat tip to Lexy):


What Maslow’s hierarchy does not show is how circumstances impact the motivation of nations.  It can’t because nations are not people.  They are made up of people whose situations can be very diverse.

This comment on the naive article (click on the link and wait for it to scroll down) summarizes what the research actually illuminates:  “Economic and political systems, and culture/psychology interact with each other in both directions … autonomous individuals create capitalism, safety creates capitalism, peace creates capitalism.”

The top left is not unalloyed heaven because “increasing empathy and mutual respect [and] the breakdown in social capital go hand in hand with secularization and the domination of the market.”

And good governance is a prerequisite: “the state monopoly of coercion helped create the safety required for the large social networks of trust, and individual autonomy.”

According to the US Census Bureau, 15%, i.e., 47 million Americans are living in poverty meaning “a lack of those goods and services commonly taken for granted by members of mainstream society.”  That includes more than one in five of all chil­dren under age 18.

The WVS research, excellent as it is, can tell us nothing about the value those 47 million Americans place on traditional vs secular-rational values.

And we would be utterly mistaken to imagine they over-value self-expression relative to survival.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Nations

I wrote in Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations that a pathetic fallacy — personifying what is not a person — masks reality with an idea and triggers false emotion from false perception.

Thinking of a nation as an entity with a will is as misleading as thinking that a corporation decides what to do.  Nations and corporations are not beings with a mind of their own.  They are artificial entities that enable real people, their leaders, to command resources and project power.

To see that a nation is a concept just like a corporation, consider nations to be a form of business.  For example:

  • The business known as England, where I grew up, was owned and operated as the Tudor family business from 1485 until 1603 when it was taken over by the business operated by the Stuart family since 1371 that was known as Scotland
  • The USA business, where I have lived all my adult (hah!) life, resulted from the hostile takeover of what we term the “Indian nations.”

Indian Nations Map

But what actually is a nation?  There are many forms of nation, just as corporations are only one form of business, so there are many definitions :

  1. “A large group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history
  2. “A large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own
  3. “A large area of land that is controlled by its own government

The USA is not a nation of the first kind since we do not have a common language — there are 45 million Spanish-speaking Americans — or a common culture, ethnicity or descent.  It is also not a nation of the second kind, not unified in a deep way, as this election season makes so clear.

As Colin Woodard’s excellent historical analysis shows, the USA is better understood as eleven nations, each with a different culture.

Eleven American Nations Map

So the USA is a nation of the third kind, one with the same system of government for more than two centuries whose territory kept expanding until it spanned its ocean borders.

What about other nations, those in the Middle East, for example?

A map of their territories suggests that:

  • Large ones on the periphery — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are likely to fight over those in the center — Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon
  • Iraq is likely to want to control Kuwait to get ocean access
  • Saudi Arabia is likely to want to control Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAR, Oman and Yemen

Middle East Map

But we are misled by our delusion that nations are natural entities, especially Saudi Arabia, whose eastern and western coastal borders make it seem to be a nation of the third kind like the USA.

In fact, the territory now known as Saudi Arabia only came into existence in 1932.  It is, to continue the business analogy, an Ibn Saud family-owned oil production business.  Their administration happens to require the people in that territory to conform to an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.

The territory now known as Iran, however, part of whose borders are also coastal, is a nation of the first kind.  It has a distinct ethno-linguistic population and a common culture formed by operating from 530 BC to 1979 as the Persian Empire.  Its secular dynastic rule was then overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini who established a fundamentalist Shia Islam theocracy.

The territory now known as Iraq, with no natural borders, has an even longer history as Mesopotamia.  It is where the world’s first cities formed around 5300 BC.  Unlike Iran, the majority of Iraq’s people are Arabs although there are also Kurds where it borders Turkey and Iran.  Mesopotamia was conquered by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century, later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, briefly stable under Saddam Hussein after 1979 but its territory is now battled over by an elected government and unrecognized new nations, Kurdistan and Islamic State.

The territory now known as Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1922 when it was re-established by Kemal Ataturk as a secular democracy whose natural borders are coastal.

And the territory known as Egypt, with desert and coastal borders, was managed as a kingdom for three thousand years, then by the Arab Muslim Empire for six centuries and as part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 until that empire fell.  Its monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by Gamal Nasser.

So Iran, Egypt and Turkey each has a long history during which an ethno-linguistic majority established a culture in a territory defined largely by coastal borders.  Iraq also has a long history but lacks natural borders and has a divided population.  Saudi Arabia lacks agricultural potential and has only been a nation since oil was discovered.  The government of all five nations is in fact quite new.

The future of territories is determined to a great extent by geography.  The behavior of people is influenced by cultures that diverge over time.  But the behavior of what we imagine to be nations is decided not be those conceptual entities but by individuals such as Ibn Saud, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Nasser.

That’s a critical distinction because a territory and its people can, when characterized as a nation, inspire fear, hatred and violence, replacing what is real — people like us — with fantasy, an alien mass against which appalling violence seems necessary and right.

Terrible things happen when we condemn entire populations whose existence in the form of a nation is the product of our imagination.

We teach children who crush their thumb with a hammer not to fly into a rage at the hammer.  We must see for ourselves that it is not corporations and nations that take action but their leaders.


Beyond the Media Hype: Palestine

Why is it harder to “understand” Palestine than Lebanon or other Middle East states?  Because Palestine lacks the conceptual framework of statehood.  It does not even exist on this map of Middle Eastern states that aims to illustrate the incoherence of our current alliances.

The map’s precise borders suggest stability, too.  Although Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen are sunk in civil war, they seem to be unified like currently stable Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Middle East Alliances

Previous posts in this series have begun to illuminate the deep conflict between long-powerful Iran and recently-wealthy Saudi Arabia, why Yemen has become a proxy in their rivalry, and how Jordan, Lebanon and Syria became independent states.  Now we can explore why Palestine did not become one and start to think holistically about what is driving Middle Eastern conflicts.

The region between Egypt, Syria and Arabia known for thousands of years as Palestine was among the world’s first settled agricultural communities.  It is a crossroads for commerce, cultures and religions, the place where Judaism and Christianity were born.  Controlled over the centuries from Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, Britain and more, its boundaries changed constantly.

Today’s Palestine is part of what was Greater Syria under Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.  That Syria was the entire region from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates and the Arabian Desert to southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains.  When the Ottomans got control by conquering Egypt in 1517, they subdivided it into administrative districts, some of which correspond to today’s states.

When the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of WW1, the League of Nations granted Britain and France Mandates over the region.  Those Mandates placed former German and Turkish colonies under the “tutelage” of Britain and France “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

Note:  If that sounds patronizing, it is worth noting that it is what we are currently trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having secretly agreed during WW1 how they would divide it between them, Britain and France established states in their mandated territories.  That was when Lebanon and Syria became separate nations.  Britain divided its territory into Palestine and Transjordan, which later became Jordan.

Palestine and Transjordan Map

Europe’s concept of nation states had come to the Arab world late in the 19th century.  It gave rise everywhere to a growing rejection of colonialism and in Greater Syria to the theory of a pluralistic Syrian nationality that supported multiple religions: Sunni and Shia, Christian and Jewish.

The idea of an independent Palestine within Greater Syria arose when Britain established Mandatory Palestine with a modern nation-state boundary.  The desire for that independence greatly increased as a result of fast growing Zionist immigration into what is now Israel.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) founded in 1964 to liberate Palestine by armed struggle was secularist then like Greater Syria even though about 90% of Palestinians are Sunni.

Islam only became significant in Palestinian politics with the 1980s rise of the Hamas offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in 1928 as a religious, political, and social movement.

But let’s take a step back.  How did Ottoman Greater Syria become home to diverse people and religions, and what is the specific history of today’s Palestinian State?

The Roman Empire began converting to Christianity when it was reunified by emperor Constantine.  His mother brought Christianity to Jerusalem in 326 and Palestine grew to become a center of Christianity.  Although Greater Syria was conquered by Muslims in 636, the majority of its population remained Christian until the late 12th century.

Persecution of Christians began growing in the late 10th century during a long series of wars between Egyptian, Central Asian and Persian Empires and Europe’s Crusaders.  Then the decline of the eastern remainder of the Roman Empire in the early 13th century dramatically cut Christian influence throughout the region.

In the early 20th century, Zionist settlers began buying land in what is now Israel and evicting Palestinian peasants.  At the same time, support began growing in Britain for the establishment there of a Jewish homeland.

Jewish Owned Land in Palestine 1945

Muslim-Christian Associations formed throughout the area in opposition and became a national group that agitated for an independent Palestine.  Protests grew as mass Jewish immigration continued.  The protests developed into a 1936-1939 mass uprising.

After WW2 in 1947, the UN proposed the partition of Britain’s Mandatory Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.

Palestinian leaders along with those of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, Cuba and India rejected any such plan of partition saying it violated the UN charter’s principle that people have the right to decide their own destiny.

Although Palestinian and Arab leaders now accept the partition in broad terms as a fait accompli, they continue to consider it unfair.

Jews owned 7% of Mandatory Palestine but were given 56% of it.  The area under Jewish control contained 45% of the Palestinian population.  Much of the Arab land was unfit for agriculture.

The Negev desert given to the Jewish state was also sparsely populated and unsuitable for agriculture but that area was a “vital land bridge protecting British interests from the Suez Canal to Iraq.”

Note:  To understand Palestinians’ reaction, imagine the UN establishing Native American homelands corresponding to where they lived before Columbus and returning 56% of the USA to them.

American Indians Map Census BureauPre-Columbian USA Culture MapCivil war broke out.  It became an inter-state war when Israel declared independence in May 1948.  Forces from Egypt, Jordan Syria and Iraq joined the Palestinians but Israel ended up with both its UN-recommended territory and almost 60% of the proposed Arab state.

Jordan took the rest of the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip.  No Palestinian state was created.

During ten months of battles, around 700,000 Palestinians, 60% of all those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947, fled or were driven out.  In the following three years, about the same number of Jews immigrated to Israel, 110% of those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947.

Note:  Again to put numbers in perspective, imagine 193 million Americans (60% of of 321M) being driven out in less than a year and replaced in the next three years by the same number of Muslim immigrants (who we imagine already make up 15% of our population).


What happened next?  In 1967 Israel captured the rest of the former British Mandate of Palestine, taking the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

In 1973 Syria tried but failed to regain the Golan heights and Egyptian military forces invaded with some success.

Following the case fire, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980.

In 1987, a new Palestinian uprising began.  The following year Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat declared Palestine’s independence.

In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to the creation of a Palestinian National Authority (PNA) as the interim self-government body to administer 39% of the West Bank under the PNA’s Fatah faction and the Gaza Strip under its Hamas wing.  Further negotiations were to take place but did not.

Israel continued to occupy 61% of the West Bank.

Palestine and Israel Map Now

In 2000, another uprising began.  That came to an end following the death of Yasser Arafat and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip.  Israel retained control of the Gaza Strip air space and coast.

In 2011, the President of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the PLO submitted Palestine’s application for membership in the UN.

In 2012, the UN granted de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine.  Canada, Israel and the USA voted against the upgrade.  President Obama said “genuine peace can only be realised between Israelis and Palestinians themselves … it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach an agreement on the issues that divide them.”

The State of Palestine can now join treaties and specialized UN agencies, pursue legal rights over its territorial waters and air space, and bring “crimes against humanity” and war-crimes charges to the International Criminal Court.

Palestine UN Votes

What may be the future for Palestinians, and what is indicated for our foreign policy?

A state with the territory of Mandatory Palestine could have become self-supporting.  One made up of the land-locked West Bank and the separate Gaza Strip can not.

Jordan’s first king may have been right–a state whose territory included the West Bank as well as today’s Jordan could have been good for Palestinians.

A non-viable but internationally recognized State of Palestine may be a necessary stepping stone for Palestinians and Israelis to make peace but a different arrangement of territories in that region is inevitable.

History shows the absurdity of our belief that the borders of existing nation states just need to be accepted and democratic elections established, then all will be well.  Borders make administration possible.  Believing people on the other side of the border are intrinsically different breeds fear and makes peace impossible.

Beyond the Media Hype: Lebanon

Lebanon’s location bordering Syria made it a trading hub between the Mediterranean and Arab worlds and resulted in it becoming the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.  Its mountains isolated religious and ethnic groups from each other.

Lebanon Simple Map

Lebanon is north-south alternating strips of lowland and highland–a coastal plain, a mountain range, a central plateau, then more mountains.  Its shoreline is regular, rocky and has no deep harbor.   The Beqaa Valley between the mountain ranges is the main agricultural area but fruit and vegetables grow well on the very narrow maritime plain.

Lebanon Topography

The CIA estimates the population to be 40% Christian, 27% Shia, 27% Sunni, and 5% quasi-Shia Druze.  The Lebanese Information Center estimates 34% Christians while Statistics Lebanon estimates 46% Christian.  The 34% to 46% range for Christians is matched by a 27% to 40% range for Shia.

There are several Christian groups.  Maronite Catholics make up 21% of the overall population, Greek Orthodox 8%, Greek Catholic 5%, Protestant 1% and 6% other denominations.  When the last census was taken in 1932, Christians were 53% of the total.  It was about the same in 1956 but more Christians than Muslims have emigrated since then and the Muslim population has a higher birth rate.

Lebanon has over thousands of years been part of many empires.  It became an orthodox Christian center under the Romans.  They persecuted an ascetic Christian tradition established near Mount Lebanon in the late 4th century by a hermit named Maron.  Most of Lebanon was ruled as a Christian Crusader State from 1109 to 1289.

Most eastern Mediterranean Christian communities swore allegiance to the head of Eastern Christianity in Constantinople, but the Maronites aligned with the Pope in Rome, which led to centuries of support from France and Italy even after Lebanon became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516.

In 1842, fighting between Maronites and the Druze led to the Mount Lebanon area being separated into a Christian district in the north and a Druze one in the south, both of which reported to the governor of the Sidon district in Beirut.  France got the northern district separated entirely from Muslim Syria in 1861 to protect Mount Lebanon’s 80% Christian population

Lebanon Religion Map

In 1920, after the Ottoman Empire fell, the League of Nations gave Syria and Lebanon to France, and Palestine and Iraq to Britain.  France was welcomed by Christians around Mount Lebanon and vehemently rejected by Muslims in Syria.  It took until 1923 for France to gain full control.

France added Tripoli, north of which is primarily Sunni, to the former Ottoman district of Mount Lebanon, along with Sidon, south of which is chiefly Shia, and the Bekaa Valley, which has a mix of Muslims, Christians and Druze, and established it in 1926 as the democratic republic of Lebanon.

A political system was established that shares power based on religious communities.  There is an unwritten agreement that the president will be Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament Shia, the prime minister Sunni and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox.  The Shia have considered themselves marginalized ever since.  They as well as the Maronites were persecuted by the Ottomans.

Lebanon Detail Map

When France’s puppet government during WW2 allowed Germans through Syria to attack British forces in Iraq, Britain invaded Syria and Lebanon.  France then said Lebanon would become independent with France’s ongoing support.  But when the newly elected Lebanese government abolished France’s mandate in 1943, France imprisoned them.  France was then forced by international pressure to recognize Lebanon as fully independent.  France withdrew its troops in 1946.

In 1958, Muslim demands for reunification with Syria led to the brink of civil war and US military intervention when Muslims wanted Lebanon to join the newly formed Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic.  Tension with Egypt had been growing since 1956 when Lebanon’s Christian president did not break with Israel and the Western powers that attacked Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Internal tensions continued to grow.  In 1975, civil war broke out between a Christian coalition and an alliance of Druze and Muslims with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  Syria sent troops, allegedly for peace-keeping, that remained in Lebanon until 2005, long after the end of the war.

The PLO leaders had set up new headquarters in Beirut after they lost the 1970-71 civil war with the Sunni monarchy for control of Jordan.  The PLO was founded in 1964 in Jordan where Palestinian refugees from Israel had become the majority population.

Thousands of Palestinian fighters fled to Lebanon after the Syrian civil war, preceded by refugees from Israel and followed by more from Jordan.  There are 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon now, primarily in the south.

In 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon to push PLO forces away from the border.

In 1982, PLO attacks led to a second Israeli invasion through Shia southern Lebanon and a siege of Shia Beirut.  The militant Shia political party Hezbollah came into being in the next few years to expel Israel forever and end Shia marginalization.


The civil war ended in 1990 with an agreement to disband all non-governmental Lebanese militias and deploy the Lebanese army on the border with Israel.  But Syria’s Shia government, which controlled Lebanon then, with fundamentalist Shia Iran’s support, allowed Hezbollah to continue fighting a guerrilla war against Israel and the South Lebanon Army in Shia areas occupied by Israel until 2000.    Many see Hezbollah as a proxy of Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah has continued fighting with reduced intensity since then to liberate Shebaa Farms in the Golan Heights, territory occupied by Israel since 1967.  The UN considers Shebaa Farms Syrian territory.  Both Syria and Lebanon consider it part of Lebanon.  UN resolutions in any case require Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories.

In 2005, a former Prime Minister who worked to end Syrian dominance of Lebanon was assassinated, for which some accused Syria, others Israel.  Demonstrators supported by the West demanded the end of what some consider military occupation by Syria and its undue influence on Lebanon’s government.  A 1991 treaty made Syria responsible for Lebanon’s protection.

In 2006, Hezbollah launched rocket attacks and raids into Israel.  They responded by invading southern Lebanon, and with airstrikes throughout the country that destroyed bridges, ports, power stations, water and sewage treatment plants, schools, hospitals and homes.

Lebanon locations bombed 2006

The latest threat to Lebanon’s stability is the Syrian civil war.  Of Lebanon’s total 5,883,600 population, 450,000 are Palestinian refugees and 1,200,000 are recent Syrian refugees.  Refugees make up almost 30% of the population and 20% are very recent arrivals.

Diverse populations are not easily governed even in a democracy.

Most nations in the Middle East are autocracies–Sunni in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Shia in Iran and Syria, first Sunni now Shia in Iraq.  Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic a quarter or more of whose population is either Christian, Shia or Sunni citizens, or refugees from Palestine, Jordan and Syria, most them Sunni.  That’s a formidable challenge.

And Lebanon’s government was dominated by Syria from 1975 to 2005, while southern Lebanon still is dominated by PLO and Hezbollah forces, which makes it a battle ground with Israel in the quest for a Palestinian nation state.

Lebanon’s future is inextricably tied with Syria, which is in turmoil, Palestine which does not exist as a nation state, and Israel.  It seems to have been a mistake to have established Lebanon as an independent nation state and/or not to establish Palestine as one at the same time.

Beyond the Media Hype: Kuwait

Kuwait is just smaller than New Jersey.  Its key geographic feature is Kuwait Bay, a sheltered harbor with almost half the country’s 120 miles of coast on the Persian Gulf.  It has a well accepted 155 mile border with Saudi Arabia and a 150 mile contested one with Iraq.

Less than 1% of Kuwait is arable land and 90% of the population lives around the Kuwait Bay.    Kuwaitis make up only around 30% of the 4.1M population, which also includes 1.1M Arab expatriates and 1.4M Asian expatriates.  Most of Kuwait’s citizens are Muslim, an estimated 60%–70% Sunnis and 30%–40% Shias.

Kuwait Physical Map

Kuwait’s strategically located deep water port has since ancient times been important for trade.  It was colonized by Greece, fell to the Persian Sassanid Empire, then to a Muslim Caliphate in 636 AD, to a kingdom in Iraq and in 1521 to the Portuguese.  Then Arabs moved in from Saudi Arabia and took control.

The king who established Kuwait’s dynasty declared allegiance in 1752 to the Ottoman governor of Iraq.   Kuwait was then nominally governed from Basra in southern Iraq.  In practice, it was largely autonomous.  It took over much of the trade that passed through Basra when that city was attacked by Iran from 1775-79 and quickly became the primary center for shipping between Arabia, Iraq, Syria, East Africa and India.  Ships made in Kuwait carried most of the area’s trade from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century.

Kuwait’s borders were defined in 1913 when Britain made an agreement that it was part of the Ottoman Empire.  It encompassed all land within about 110 miles from the capital.  Britain confirmed that definition in 1922 when it controlled Iraq.  Limiting Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf to about 35 miles of swampy coastline made it almost impossible for Iraq to become a naval power.

Iraq gained independence from Britain in 1932.  In 1938 it asserted a claim to rule Kuwait, and although it formally recognized the existing border in 1963, it continued to press for control over Bubiyan and Warbah islands through the 1960s and ’70s.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded and claimed all of Kuwait.  The UN restored its independence the following year and a UN commission reconfirmed the border, but Iraq did not accept the result.

Kuwait’s economy was devastated in the first half of the 20th century by a British trade blockade when Kuwait supported the Ottoman Empire in WW1, then by a Saudi Arabian trade blockade from 1923-37 whose aim was to annex Kuwait, and also by the Great Depression which drastically cut European demand for goods shipped via Kuwait from India and Africa.

Kuwait’s king in 1896 was assassinated and replaced by his half-brother.  When his brother’s former allies got Ottoman backing he asked Britain for naval support.  They agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to counter German influence in the region.  In 1899 Kuwait pledged never to cede territory without Britain’s consent, which gave Britain control of Kuwait’s foreign policy and security.

Kuwait  was saved by British forces when it was invaded by Saudi Arabia in 1919-20.  Britain redefined its border with Saudi Arabia after that at a conference where Kuwait had no representative.  Although Saudi Arabia got more than half Kuwait’s former territory, they continued their economic blockade and intermittent raiding.

Kuwait’s large oil reserves were discovered in 1937 but exploration was delayed by WW2.  When oil exports began in 1951, most Kuwaitis were still impoverished.  A major program of public works was begun almost immediately and by 1952, Kuwait was the largest exporter of oil in the Persian Gulf region.  That attracted many foreign workers, especially from Palestine, Egypt and India.

The royal family’s rule had been relatively limited up until WW2 but oil revenues eliminated their financial dependency on merchants who had always been Kuwait’s primary source of income.  Oil now accounts for nearly half of GDP and 94% of export revenues and government income.

Kuwait Oilfields Map

Kuwait gained independence from Britain in 1961 and became the first Gulf country to establish a constitution and parliament.  It embraced Western liberal attitudes and most Kuwaiti women did not wear the hijab in the 1960s and ’70s.  It consistently ranks as having the freest media in the Arab world, outranking Israel since 2009, and is the only Gulf state ranked even “partly free.”  Its legal system is mostly secular with separate family law for Sunni, Shia and non-Muslim residents.

Kuwait supported Iraq in its 1980-88 war with Iran but refused to write off the $65B of loans it had made.  Then came economic rivalry after Kuwait increased oil production by 40%, and in 1990, Iraq claimed Kuwait was stealing oil by slant drilling into its Rumaila field near the border.  Iraq attempted to annex Kuwait later that year.

Before the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait was the Gulf’s only pro-Soviet state.  Its relationship with the US had been strained ever since independence in 1961 and it refused to allow USA military bases in 1987.  But now, since Iraq’s 1990 invasion, the US has 10,000 soldiers based in Kuwait.

I knew nothing about Iraq or Kuwait at the time of that invasion.  I supported the US-led response to what I accepted as a war of aggression.  Now I’m not sure what I think.

Kuwait does not have the geography of a state.  It is tiny and lacks natural borders.  Its borders were defined arbitrarily by Britain.   Until Britain gained control, it was governed from Iraq.  Iraq’s desire for it as a deep water port on the Persian Gulf makes sense.  But Kuwait’s government has been pretty good for its citizens, enormously better than Iraq’s, or Saudi Arabia’s.

Beyond the Media Hype: Saudi Arabia

Where next to combat my ignorance about the Middle East?  Here.  We Americans fear and loathe Arabs in general but we imagine Saudis to be our friends.

Saudi Arabia is mostly inhospitable desert that covers 80% of the Arabian Peninsula.  The prophet Muhammed united nomadic tribes here in the early 7th century and established an Islamic state that his followers rapidly expanded.   The center of the Muslim world soon moved to better lands and most of what is now Saudi Arabia reverted to tribal rule.

In the 16th century, Ottoman rulers of Turkey north of Iraq added the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula to their empire.  Their control of the area varied over the next four centuries.  In 1916, tribal leaders encouraged by Britain mounted a failed revolt then the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of WW I.  Ibn Saud, who founded today’s Saudi Arabia and avoided the revolt, continued his three decades long campaign against his regional rivals.

He established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 as an absolute monarchy governed under a puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabi that is practiced by 85–90% of Saudis.  The other 10-15%, who face systematic discrimination, are Shi’a.   No faith other than Islam is permitted, conversion by Muslims to other religions is outlawed and so is proselytizing by non-Muslims.

The royal family controls all the kingdom’s important posts.  Around 200 of more than 7,000 princes occupy the  key ministries and regional governorships.  The country in effect belongs to the Ibn Saud family.

Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north with Egypt, Israel and Palestine to Jordan’s west.  Syria is in the northwest and Iran is a few miles east over the Persian Gulf.  These borders were drawn up by the British and French at the end of WW I with little regard for tribal, religious or ethnic realities.

Saudi_Arabia_map(Map created by Norman Einstein, February 10, 2006)

Saudi Arabia is interesting to two communities.  Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammed and the site of his first revelation of the Quran, is Islam’s holiest city.  Non-Muslims are prohibited from it and a pilgrimage to it is mandatory for Muslims.  That Saudi Arabia is the world’s dominant oil producer and exporter and has the world’s second largest proved petroleum reserves motivates our interest.

Oil was struck in Pennsylvania in 1859, Russia found it in the Caucasus in 1873, then the British found it in Iraq in 1903.  They promptly declared they would “regard the establishment of a naval base or a fortified port in the Persian Gulf by any other power as a very grave menace to British interests, and we should certainly resist it with all the means at our disposal.”  Five years later, they struck oil in Iran.

Three years after that, the British began converting their navy from coal, of which they had ample supplies, to oil, of which they had none.  They landed forces in Iraq in 1914, captured Baghdad and began projecting power from there.  More oil was found in the Persian Gulf, starting in Bahrain in 1931 and followed by Kuwait and Qatar.  Then in 1933, Americans found oil in Saudi Arabia.

American businessmen were cautiously welcomed by the Saudi king as less threatening than Britain or other colonial powers.  He negotiated well with Aramco executives, the business established to export the oil, and later with the US government, trading oil for infrastructure development that transformed Saudi Arabia in a very short time from a medieval fiefdom to a 20th century one that became leader of the petroleum exporters, OPEC.


Saudi Arabia gained control of 20% of Aramco in 1972, full control in 1980 and was by 1976 the largest oil producer in the world.  In 1973, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott against Western countries that supported Israel in its war against Egypt and Syria.

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 led Saudi Arabia’s king to fear rebellion by the Shi’a minority in the east where the oil is located, and in the same year protesters against laxity and corruption in his government seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  These events led to enforcement of much stricter religious observance and a greater role in government for Muslim legal scholars.

The royal family’s relations had been primarily with Aramco leaders until the reign of King Khalid starting in 1975.  After 1975 was when Saudi and US foreign policy grew closely aligned.

Saudi Arabia provided $25B to Iraq in its 1980-88 war against Iran, which we supported.  It condemned Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and allowed US and coalition troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.  But it did not support or participate in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The US by then no longer seemed a dependable ally.

There is significant opposition in Saudi Arabia both to US influence, and to the absolute monarchy.  The strongest opposition comes from Sunni religious leaders who want a stricter form of Islamic rule.  Others want the opposite.  The Saudi government was rated the 5th most authoritarian government out of 167 in 2012.  Women have almost no rights, it’s the only country in the world that bans them from driving.  There is also opposition from the Shi’a minority as well as tribal and regional opponents.

The Saudi royal family’s greatest fear, however, until the recent rise of the Islamic State whose stated goal is leadership of an Islamic world, has been Iran’s growing influence.  They are more alarmed now the US and Iran seem to be inching closer to a rapprochement.

So the Saudi royal family needs US military support but is at odds with us among other reasons because, like every other nation in the Middle East, they opposed the creation of Israel and are supportive of the Palestinians.  They have condemned the Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but the Saudi royal family is Sunni and Hezbollah are Shi’a.

The royal family must also deal with anti-American feeling among the Saudi people.   Osama Bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and it is widely believed, in former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s words, that: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Very recently, the king criminalized “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” fearing that Saudis taking part in Syria’s civil war will return knowing how to overthrow a monarchy.  Syria now defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”  One of the groups they have named as a terrorist organization is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fear of its neighbors motivates Saudi Arabia to spend more than 10% of its GDP on its military, among the highest percentage of military expenditure in the world.  The kingdom has a long standing military relationship with Pakistan.  Some believe it funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and could purchase such weapons from them for itself.

A good representative of what the Saudi government fears is Safar al-Hawali, a scholar who was a leader of the 1991 movement opposing the presence of US troops on the Arabian peninsula and a leader of a 1993 group that was the first to openly challenge the monarchy.

No surprise that al-Hawali is also a critic of the US government.

In 2005, al-Hawali wrote in An Open Letter to President Bush “the Roman Empire claimed to be the symbol of freedom and civilized values, just as you referred to America in your first statement after the incidents of September 11.  It was the greatest world power of its day, the heir of Greek civilization.  It had a Senate and a façade of democracy.  The Roman citizen had freedom of religion and personal behavior.  All this made it superior to other Empires throughout the world, and yet history does not speak well of this Empire because of the repulsive crime with which it stained its reputation: the persecution of the Christians.”

Elsewhere, al-Halawi wrote: “Since World War II, America has not been a democratic republic: it has become a military empire after the Roman model … the American way can be discerned and defined in one word: war.  America unhesitatingly enters into war anywhere in the world … Thus we notice that America is always seeking an enemy, and if it does not find one it creates one and inflates it using its terrible media to persuade its people’s conscience that the war it has declared is necessary and for a just cause.”  (“Inside the Mirage” Thomas A. Lippman, p. 328)

We imagine Saudi Arabia is our friend, but our thirst for oil provokes their memories of colonial powers.  Saudis and others in the Middle East don’t understand our unquestioning support for Israel.  Their Muslim leaders are as suspicious of American Christians as we are of them.  Inside Saudi Arabia the Shi’a minority is oppressed by their Sunni rulers, Wahhabi fundamentalists battle progressives, and nobody except the royal family can have a role in government.

Preconceptions like the ones we and Saudis hold about each other are not a dependable basis for friendship.  Instead, they fuel hatred.