The single greatest threat to the independence of the Middle East and North Africa was not Europe’s armies but its banks.
Europe’s pervasive economic expansion into the Middle East was soon followed by the enthusiastic promotion of regional investment by British, French and later German credit and finance companies. Specialising in “spectacular promotions that promised rapid returns”, these innovative financial institutions from the second half of the 19th century onwards increasingly lent to individual companies, European-controlled local banks and – either directly or through collaboration with the latter – governments all over the region. The powerful banks of Istanbul, Cairo, Tunis, Algiers and elsewhere were meant to finance military, administrative and economic reform, but in reality they soon focused on profiteering from debt management. As the need for governmental loans became more desperate, terms became ever more exploitative, and eventually insurmountable indebtedness or even bankruptcy forced many governments to endure direct European financial management or indeed occupation.