People who pay attention to flags have almost certainly noticed that the flags of many Middle Eastern countries bear similar colors and designs. Most people, even if they have never specifically thought about or remarked upon that fact, have nevertheless noted it on some level. Upon seeing a black, white, green, and red flag, most of us will recognize it as a flag from 'somewhere in the Middle East'" or perhaps 'one of those Arab countries'. Because all of these flags are so similar, it is understandable that people who don't live in these Middle Eastern countries themselves might have some trouble distinguishing one flag from another.
The Pan-African Colors
The colors black, white, green, and red, when used on national flags, are referred to as the Pan-Arab colors. Much in the same way that the Pan-African colors (red, gold, and green) appear on a number of flags of African nations, Arab nations commonly use the Pan-Arab colors in designing their national flags. The Pan-Arab colors have their origin in the Flag of the Arab Revolt, which was designed in 1916 to provide a symbol for a political movement within the Ottoman Empire. In order to understand the significance of these colors and the flags that use them, a little background is needed.
Background: The Ottoman Empire
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire participated alongside the Central Powers in conflict with the Allied Powers. The Allied Powers included the United States and England. At the time of the war, the Ottoman Empire was considerably smaller than it had been in previous centuries, but still encompassed much of what is now the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe and North Africa. This made the Empire an important world power, and one of the world's great powers at the time WWI began. However, not all the citizens of the Ottoman Empire were happy with the situation, and, in the Middle East, Arab nationalism had been growing since at least the mid-1800s.
The Arab Revolt of 1916
Beginning in 1916, after World War I had been going on for two years, nationalists in the Middle East region began the Arab Revolt, intending to undermine Ottoman rule, and create a single Arab nation independent from the Ottoman Empire. Because they were fighting against the Ottoman Turks, the Allied Powers were interested in encouraging the Arab Revolt in order to cause problems for the Ottoman Empire, and weaken its ability to attend to the World War. It was with this goal in mind that Sir Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, designed the Flag of the Arab Revolt, to encourage nationalist sentiments and keep the revolt going through symbolic patriotism.
Partitioning the Ottoman Empire
Although a single Arab nation was never created, a number of individual countries were created in the area after the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I. Some argue that the way in which the area was divided into nations was not fair to the Arab people, and was intended to keep the region from becoming powerful once again. Whether or not this is true, the region has retained a sense of Arab identity, as evidenced by the use of the Pan-Arab colors in a number of national flags in the region.
Symbols of Arab Unity
Countries whose flags show the Pan-Arab colors are Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, the Palestinian National Authority, Somaliland, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Although each of these countries has its own specific national history, and therefore, its own individual symbolism behind its flag, the Pan-Arab colors serve as a visual unification and have a level of symbolism all their own. When the Flag of the Arab Revolt was designed, the colors black, green, and white were intended to symbolize the three Caliphates active in the area, and the red symbolized the Hashemite dynasty. These were important systems of Arab and Islamic governments within and often at odds with the Ottoman Empire. Although these governments have since been dissolved, the use of the Pan-Arab colors recalls the shared history and values of the Arab region.