The Middle East’s Three Timelines

BERLIN – Three distinct timelines are shaping developments in the Middle East: the short-term timeline of daily struggles and politics; the medium-term timeline of geopolitical shifts, which is measured in decades; and the long-term timeline of sociocultural transformation, or what the historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée. Understanding each is essential to craft an effective strategy in the region.

The first timeline certainly receives the most attention. The media report relentlessly on the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas; recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program; ongoing opposition activity and political repression in Egypt and Bahrain; and the slaughter and humanitarian tragedies unfolding in Syria and Iraq.

But political thinking in the Middle East is often linked to the second timeline. Indeed, it is impossible to grasp the region’s contemporary history and politics without understanding the emergence of the regional state system after World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

For example, there are the constant reminders that external powers – most notably, the United Kingdom and France – established the existing borders. Resistance against the so-called Sykes-Picot order nurtured the founding myths of many states and political movements in the region.