You Gotta Know These 20th-Century Middle Eastern Leaders
- Yasser Arafat (1929–2004) was the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1969 until shortly before his death in 2004. In the late 1950s, Arafat and other Palestinian refugees founded the political party Fatah, which in the late 1960s became the dominant faction within the PLO. Under Arafat’s leadership, the PLO was based in Jordan until it was expelled in 1970 in Black September. With Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accords establishing the Palestinian National Authority.
- Hafez al-Assad (1930–2000) was the president of Syria from 1971 to 2000. Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect within Islam, was the commander of the Syrian Air Force when he came to power as a member of the Ba’ath Party. Along with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Assad launched the Yom Kippur War against Israel in 1973. In 1982, Assad brutally crushed an Islamist uprising led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama. Hafez was succeeded as president of Syria by his son, Bashar al-Assad.
- Mustafa Kamal Atatürk (1881–1938) was the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey and the country’s first president. He rose to prominence as a commander of Ottoman forces at the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I. After the war, he dissolved the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic caliphate and created a secular nationalist state based in Ankara. Among the reforms Atatürk initiated were a Hat Law replacing the fez with Western-style hats, the adoption of family surnames, and use of the Latin alphabet for the written Turkish language.
- Muammar Gaddafi (1942–2011) was the leader of Libya from 1969 to 2011, during which time he was variously styled as “Colonel,” “Revolutionary Chairman,” and “Brotherly Leader.” Gaddafi espoused what he called “Islamic socialism” in his Green Book. He coined the word jamahiriya, which can be roughly translated as “state of the masses.” Gaddafi funded various Islamist militant operations around the world, most notably the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Gaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011 during the Arab Spring.
- David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) was a Zionist leader and principal figure in the founding of the state of Israel. He served as the first prime minister of Israel from 1948 to 1954, as a member of the political party Mapai; his second term as prime minister lasted from 1955 to 1963. Ben-Gurion was born in what is now Poland and immigrated to the Ottoman district of Jerusalem in 1906. He became chairman of the Jewish Agency in 1935, and was the main political leader of the Jewish forces in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
- Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) was the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and served as Iran’s supreme leader from the country’s 1979 establishment until his 1989 death. Khomeini was known by the title ayatollah, given to those who are experts in Shi’ite religious theology and jurisprudence. Khomeini emerged as Iran’s leader in the wake of the revolution that overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, and which led to the Iranian hostage crisis. He commonly referred to the U.S. as the “Great Satan.”
- Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) was the president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970. As a young military commander, he helped form the Free Officers, who led a 1952 coup that overthrew Egypt’s king, Farouk I. Nasser precipitated the Suez Crisis by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956. He championed a pan-Arabist sentiment that eventually led to Egypt’s brief union with Syria as the United Arab Republic in 1958. Nasser oversaw Egypt’s disastrous defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War (1967).
- Anwar Sadat (1918–1981) was president of Egypt from 1970 to 1981. He succeeded Nasser, a fellow member of the Free Officers, upon the latter’s sudden death. Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War against Israel in 1973. Five years later, due in large part to the efforts of U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, for which Sadat and Begin were jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by an Islamist military officer associated with the radical group Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
- Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) was the president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. He came to power as a member of the pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party. During the 1980s, Hussein led Iraq in the decade-long Iran-Iraq War. In the midst of that conflict, he launched the genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign against Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq. In 1990, Saddam ordered the invasion of neighboring Kuwait, which led to the First Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. Hussein was deposed following 2003 the American invasion of Iraq; he was tried and executed by the new Iraqi government in 2006.
- Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud, usually known in the West as Ibn Saud (1875–1953), was the first king of Saudi Arabia. He reconquered Riyadh, his family’s ancestral homeland, in 1902, and began expanding Saudi power from there; in 1925, he conquered the Hejaz, the region where Mecca is located. Ibn Saud declared the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932; during his reign, American engineers discovered oil at Dammam in 1938. Every subsequent king of Saudi Arabia has been a son of Ibn Saud, including the current (as of October 2019) king, Salman.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Kyle Haddad-Fonda.