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Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981

The Middle East, 1971-1981: A Historical Overview

The 1970s were tumultuous in the political, economic, social and cultural history of the Middle East and North Africa region. The decade opened with Black September in Jordan, the death of Egypt’s President Gamal Abd al-Nasser, and the ending of British Protectorates in the Persian Gulf. The decade closed with Egypt and Israel signing a peace treaty, the Iranian Revolution, and beginning of the Iran-Iraq War.

This decade also saw the drastic rise in oil prices and the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 that helped make the region into one of the primary venues for Cold War confrontations. In those years, the most tangential of local conflicts were inevitably filtered through the zero-sum lens of the Cold War. This perpetually exacerbated tensions between the allies of two opposing superpowers, and it almost led to a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

The history of that decade is one marked by transition. In the Arab world the optimism and confidence of the early days of Arab nationalism gave way to hesitancy and even disillusionment. By the mid-1970s, Islamist politics were becoming a perceptible force in the region; in no small part due to its suddenly ultra-wealthy patrons in the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf. These ten years were also a transitional period for the Palestine question. For the first time since the 1930s, Palestinians became the masters of their own fate as they pursued international recognition and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) sought diplomatic legitimacy.