Why is the Middle East so unstable?

The land cursed with too much

Photo by Mariam Soliman for Unsplash


The Middle East is one of the most unstable regions in the world. Plagued with civil wars, terrorist organisations, and brutal authoritarian leaders — much of the region (barring a select few countries) has failed to mordernise, make peace, and prosper like many would have expected it to. After all, the region is blessed with an immense amount of oil reserves, and its geographically central location should make it an ideal trading hub. Surely, it should be one of the most developed parts of the world. Yet, the reality is starkly different.

There are a plethora of reasons for the instability and lack of progress of the Middle East, but there are three reasons, in particular, why the region continues to be so tumultuous: the region’s colonial past, the conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis, and its vast oil reserves — which stand out as perhaps the most important factors responsible for bringing such destruction upon the region.

1. Colonialism

During the 20th century, many Middle Eastern countries were colonised, either completely or partially. When these countries gained their independence, however, many of their colonisers installed puppet regimes in place to ensure favourable relations with the government, presumably to secure a supply of oil.

This meant that while the former colonisers were satisfied with the governments, many of the people were not, for their leaders did not represent them, nor work in their interests. In turn, resentment began to foster against many of these puppet governments, which led to widespread protests, strikes and rebellions — even giving rise to radical groups in some cases, which sought to overthrow the government; which thus fuelled instability.

2. The Shi’a and Sunni divide

Islam is divided into two main sects: Shi’as and Sunnis. Both sects believe that Allah is the true God and that the Prophet Muhammmad is his messenger, however, they disagree about who Muhammad’s successor should’ve been. Sunnis, one one hand, believe that Abu Bakr (a companion of Muhammad) should have succeeded Muhammad, Shiites belive it should have been Ali (Muhammad’s cousin).

Shias and Sunnis have similar practices for the most part, with the most notable difference being the teachings they follow: while Sunnis follow the Sunnah, which constitutes the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, Shiites follow religious leaders known as ayatollahs.

The vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis, while Shiites make up only about 10 to 15% of the Muslim population.

The Middle East consists of a majority Muslim population, divided into these two sects. This division has fuelled much of the conflict that has arisen in the region. For example, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution saw the overthrow of the Shah (ruler of Iran) and the ascension to power of Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shiite, who launched “a radical Shia Islamist agenda” in Iran and elsewhere the world, by supporting other Shia groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Baharain and Pakistan.

There are yet more examples of conflict between the two sects:

  • In Syria, the Shia-government, backed by Iranian soldiers and Hezbollah fighters are involved in a conflict against the Sunni-majority opposition party.
  • In Yemen (a Sunni-dominated country), Shia militants known as the Houthis are involved in a power struggle against the government of Yemen.

Thus, the Shia-Sunni divide has led to an internal struggle between different states and organisations in the region, which has in turn hindered cooperation and subsequently economic development.

3. Oil

Since the Middle East has vast oil reserves, it may be tempting to believe that the region should have been significantly more prosperous than it currently is. However, in many regards, the Middle East’s vast oil reserves have come to cause much of the instability that is sometimes attributed to other factors.

The reason oil has fuelled instability in the region is because countries which have large oil reserves are much more likely to have an autocratic government and experience civil wars. This is because countries that are rich in oil can afford significant amounts of armaments, which allows their autocratic governments to crush opposition, remain in power, and continue to resist reform.

Rich oil reserves also mean that a country becomes extremely dependent on its oil industry, and does not focus much on developing other areas of the economy. This is especially problematic because oil has a volatile price, and so a rapid fall in oil prices has a significant impact on the economies of oil-producing regions.


What remains to be seen is how the international community and indeed the Middle East, tackles these problems. Certainly, nothing can be done to change the region’s colonial past, but free and fair, democratic elections can go a long way towards establishing a government that is more representative of the people. Certainly, the Shiites and Sunnis will continue to differ in their beliefs. The question is whether they can acknowledge their differences and yet coexist in harmony. Of course, leaders will not stop using oil as a tool to stay in power, but the question is for how long this can continue. For how long can they extract oil as a solution to all their economic problems, before it eventually runs out. And what then?

Only time will tell.




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Amish Gupta

Amish Gupta

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