You might have heard of the United Arab Republic but not really understood what it was. While it took a very many incarnations over a 2-decade period, this was the first incarnation and a little bit of why it came about.
What was happening just after World War II? Decolonialisation. France and Britain namely but also Spain, Portugal and a few of the other minions of imperialist domination were losing their grip on their colonies, protectorates and mandates. The Middle East was no different.
France had long held sway over Syria with its mandate over Syria and Lebanon. In 1946 when the mandate ended, the first Syrian Republic was founded, but still was under the influence of France. It wasn’t until 1958 that they finally threw off the yolk of French rule.
Another thing that was raging, other than decolonialisation, was Arab unity. The new generation of regional leaders and thinkers were overwhelmingly moving towards a united Arab world. The first attempt at this was the United Arab Republic. Pan-Arabism was especially popular in Syria and they especially held a special spot in their hearts for the President of Egypt, General Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was riding high after his victory in the Suez conflict against France and the UK, a rare victory for Arabs at the time.
The United Arab Republic thus joined these 2 nations, Egypt and Syria, together. Another little known fact though, is that the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria) also then joined together with North Yemen to form the United Arab States (UAR + North Yemen). Of course neither of these should be confused with the Federation of Arab Republics which lasted from 1972 until 1977 and consisted of Syria, Egypt and Libya.
The problem of course was that Egypt was considerably bigger than Syria and when the union was created Syrians were given little to no influence in the new government. Egypt also already had a very centralised nationalised economy, however trouble ensued when Nasser attempted to enforce the same economic policies on Syria, which was made up of smaller land owners and business people. Increasing numbers of Egyptian officials were parachuted into Syrian government departments and found they had little knowledge of local conditions, nor could command the same respect as their Syrian counterparts. Finally, funding was provided by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan (both monarchies, scared of a secular socialist Arab republic) to local groups who opposed Nasser and the UAR.
It was unfortunately short lived as Syria experienced a coup d’etat in 1961, only 3 years after the experiment began. The coup was lead by Syrian army officers who were scared of losing their own standing and position in society. Nasser was scared of the influence firstly of leading politicians, especially communist leaders and had removed them from any positions of power. The Egyptian President lead an increasingly autocratic Cairo centric government and most Syrian officers worried they were next on the chopping block. Thus they moved quickly to overthrow the Cairo pro-UAR authorities in Damascus and then upon taking over, re-established a completely independent Syrian republic, no longer part of the United Arab Republic.
Egypt continued to use the United Arab Republic name until 1971, albeit by themselves, without Syria or North Yemen.