Amidst the commentary on the incredible protests breaking across the capitals of the Middle East, one of the most common reactions is that of suprise; European commentators seem genuinely startled to discover, that on their southern frontier there are peoples, equal in number to themselves, ready to stand, and be counted.
In many ways, however, our surprise is not surprising. For most of Europe’s modern history, the Arab world did not ‘exist’ – at least, not in the same way as India or China. By 1700, the ratio of Europeans to Arabs in the world stood at 6 to 1. By 1920, at the time when the British and French Empires had divided much of the region among themselves, the ratio had reached 13 to 1: that is to say, for every Arab in the world, there were 13 Europeans. The Middle East ‘existed’, therefore; but much in the same way as Canada, or Australasia: a large and empty land, beautiful, bountiful, and ripe for conquest. It is in this light that one can comprehend why the French thought it feasible in 1830 to annexe and colonise Algeria, or why, a century later, European Jews could attempt much the same in British Palestine.
The scale of the change since that time has been staggering. In 1920, the population of the Arab world was some 42 million, the same as the France of that era; today, it counts some 350 millions, equal to the entirety of western Europe. By 2030, the Arab world will be equal in size to the total of both western and eastern Europe combined (see figure above). While from one perspective, the Arab world may be considered an ancient civilisation, from another, therefore, it is brand new; as new, perhaps, as the United States or Australia.
The west has never come to terms with this new reality, this teeming mass on its southern flank. Despite much that has been written, by Edward Said and others, about the ‘Orientalism’ of the nineteenth century European imagination, the truth is that the Arab world has never been much of a feature in our intellectual landscape. We have never really had to think about the Middle East as anything more than a vast land rich with natural resources for the taking, and for much of the twentieth century we could manage it as such, first under colonial officials, and then under the makeshift monarchs and generals we have installed or supported in their place.
Today, the old structures are broken; and an Arabian society is being born. It is there: a mirror image of ourselves, a mass of 350 millions taking shape like our reflection in the Mediterranean ocean. How will Europe deal with this new creature, the multitude of once invisible peoples who have filled out the unfinished concrete slums of Cairo, huddle in the packed streets of Gaza, and mass at the mosques of Mecca and Medina?
While there are some worthy initiatives, such as the Alliance of Civilizations, I suspect events will outpace our attempts to manage them. The fate of the one genuinely European project, the now stalled Union for the Mediterranean, already offers a bad portent for future attempts to deal with migration, integration, and the stability of the Levant.