Blowback: British Imperialism in the Middle East
Though the influence of Great Britain on Middle Eastern politics may be said to begin from the gaining of Cyprus from the Ottomans in 1878, the 1882 occupation of Egypt was the decisive moment in the geopolitical history of British imperialism in the Middle East. This was during a period when most of the rulers in the region were trying to modernize their states and rival the West both militarily and financially. Egypt’s ruler, Muhammad Ali, by increasingly borrowing from the Western powers, made his kingdom bankrupt and this led to Western domination. The centuries old tussle between the Ottomans and the West was coming to an exciting climax, with the West gaining advantage over every sphere. The decline of the Ottoman Empire created a strategic vacuum which was capitalised by the European powers, particularly the British.
The decision of the ‘Young Turks’ to join the Central Powers in the First World War was the final nail in the coffin. Their efforts to ‘Turkicize’ the Empire were cited by some as the reason for the growth of Arab Nationalism. The Armenian genocide and Turkish nationalism had alienated a significant number of ethnic groups within the Empire and it is no surprise why they all fought alongside Sherif Husein of Mecca in the 1918 Arab Revolt. However, British interests in the region were not just for strategic reasons like ‘the lifeline to India.’ By the early twentieth century, it was fairly certain that the region had the largest oil reserves in the world. With the support of local emirs, the British (and the West in general) tapped into this resource to boost their industrial economies and in return offered the emirs, protection from internal rebellion and financial aid.
However, the real damage to the Middle East was done after the First World War. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, there are multiple claimants to power in different regions. Sherif Husein, the leader of the Arab Revolt was promised a separate state after the war but was betrayed.
British interest in doing away with the Ottomans led to the mobilization of large groups in the Arabian peninsula against the Empire. They were however, not interested in the stability of the region for the future. It was nothing but a political expediency.
The following excerpt from T.E Lawrence’s intelligence memo in January 1916 proves it: “The Revolt is beneficial to us, because it marches with our immediate aims, the breakup of the Islamic ‘bloc’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states [Sharif Hussein] would set up to succeed the Turks would be…harmless to ourselves…The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.”
The obvious contradiction between the clauses in the Husein-McMahon correspondence and the Balfour Declaration and more clearly in the messages of Commander Hogarth to Sherif Husein show that the British were least concerned with the political stability within the region and more for geopolitical advantage. The ‘lifeline to India’ had to be protected from the Russians; before 1917, from the Tsar and post-1917, from the Soviet Communists. Though some historians say that British interest in a ‘Jewish national home’ was because of sympathisers in Westminster, there is a strong argument that the British wanted control of the Holy Land only to protect its interests in the Egypt and the Suez Canal, vital to the imperialist project.
The Middle-Eastern pie, being shared by Britain and France, was a far cry from the pre-revolt promises. Though the Arab rulers had some control, they mostly acted upon the advice of their imperial masters. The Mandate Period saw the division of territories by the League of Nations (acting under the behest of the imperial powers) without any consideration given to the ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions between the people.
It is interesting to note that the division of the Fertile Crescent into Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq and Palestine were more based on strategic interests or oil. This arbitrary division fomented tensions in the region, as now, different sects and ethnic groups, who lived peacefully under the Ottomans for four centuries, mainly because of its decentralized rule, now had an Arab ruler acting as the puppet for the European imperialists. This was something that they could not accept and the formulation of the concept of pan-Arabian unity took place at this point in history. The British suppression of the revolt in Iraq by force worsened the situation. We can see how the concept of unity was so shaky by looking at the events that took place after the Second World War.
The supposed unity was nothing but a response to an imperialist enemy. Once the colonial powers had left, Arab nationalism was the prerogative of ambitious ‘tyrants’ and foreign-educated intellectuals who believed that fractures in the unity would be another excuse for Western intervention in the region. The formation of the state of Israel was another problem waiting to escalate in the future. From the 1950s to late 1980s, Zionist ‘imperialism’ kept Arabs under consensus on a lot of strategic issues, though the hatred for Israel often dependent upon the individual state.
The concept of the nation-state that the pan-Arabists sought was different from the French notion of a voluntary contract and more similar to the German Volk, “a natural nation above all volition, bound by the mystery of language and lore.” There were a significant number of groups that did not want to come under the fold of pan-Arabism and their voices were suppressed brutally, as in the massacre of Assyrians in the Iraq of 1930s.
Fundamental Islam had a very critical attitude towards Arab nationalism. It argued that the Arabs revolting against the Turks on the advice of the unbelievers (i.e. the British) was infidelity and warranted the betrayal at the end. The recourse to foreign ideologies like fascism, socialism and secularism was seen as un-Islamic and totally condemned by radical sects. Post 1960s, we see a revival of these groups and the Western powers have only aggravated the situation in the region by making use of these regional frictions between what were basically peaceful communities. The failure of Islamic societies to make a distinction between the religion and the state basically renders the entire Arab nationalist project a failure. Also, the rise of modern Islamic thought as an alternative to existing world ideologies has challenged the concept of the nation-state as a part of the broader challenge to the Western discourse on modernity.
The emergence of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams) and its proclamation of a Caliphate show that memories of an Arab heritage are still alive but so are the divisions. The only supporters for a strong nation-state in the region are brutal dictators or monarchs whose legitimacy is frequently challenged from within by those who see Muslims as part of a universal political community and not in a narrower sense.
Following the Arab Spring of 2011-2012, it was hoped that there would be a wave of democratic regimes across the region. However, the fall of brutal regimes that consolidated opposing groups has only led to further radicalization and chaos. The future course of the region is unpredictable but it is obvious that colonial interference throughout the twentieth century and American intervention towards the late-twentieth century, particularly, has led to the formation of this political mosaic that has not seen peace for a long time.
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