British Colonialism, Middle East

views updated

British Colonialism, Middle East

Historians date the beginning of British imperialism in the Middle East to 1798, the year Napoléon invaded Egypt. Concerned that France would block British access to the eastern Mediterranean and thereby threaten critical trade routes to India, the British navy collaborated with Ottoman authorities to evict French troops from Egypt. From this episode until decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, British policies in the region reflected the interplay of Great Power rivalries and the balancing of strategic and economic interests.

This essay surveys the history of British imperialism in the Middle East by examining four major periods of interaction: (1) the period of political and economic consolidation that occurred in the decades after the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt; (2) the period of formal entrenchment that began in 1882 with the British Occupation of Egypt and that included the World War I years of open warfare and behind-the-scenes scheming; (3) the post-World War I period when Britain dismantled the Ottoman Empire, redrew the region's political map, and claimed new territories under the guise of mandates; and (4) the post-World War II period of global decolonization. For Britain's empire in the Middle East, this last period began with a jolt in 1948 when Israel emerged from the Palestine mandate, giving rise to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian refugee problem.

For the purposes of this essay, the Middle East is defined as the region ranging from Egypt to Iran and from Turkey to Yemen. With the notable exception of Iran, which remained a center of independent Islamic government for centuries, this region in the nineteenth century fell largely within the orbit of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic sultanate that was based after 1453 in Istanbul. At its peak in the seventeenth century, and before the onset of the economic and territorial contraction that accompanied the rise of Western imperialism in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire ruled over a vast multicultural domain in southeastern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa as far west as Algeria.


Before tracing the rise of British prominence in the Middle East after 1798, it is important to note the historical antecedents of Britain's involvement in the region as well as the political and economic condition of the Ottoman Empire and Iran on the eve of Britain's ascendance.

As early as 1580, English merchants (like their Venetian, French, and other European counterparts) secured formal commercial privileges for trading in the Ottoman Empire (and later gained comparable rights in Iran). Called capitulations in English, from the Latin term capitulas referring to the chapters or clauses of the agreements, these privileges were renegotiated several times over the next two centuries. They proved significant as the basis for a series of extrajudicial and fiscal rights that Britons continued to enjoy in the Middle East until the early twentieth century.

From the late sixteenth century, commercial contacts with the Ottoman Empire provided not only economic, but also cultural foundations for Britain's imperialism in the region, insofar as they inspired a popular English literature about Turks and Muslims that flourished in the form of travel accounts, plays, and histories. These representations constituted the early matter of what the literary critic Edward Said called Orientalism—that is, the body of stereotyped portrayals of the Islamic "Orient" that Western powers later used to justify their expansion in the Middle East. Accumulated literary and artistic representations of the exotic, despotic East, retrograde and debauched, also provided the foil against which late nineteenth-century British writers constructed an image of the British national and imperial character as rational, modern, moral, and strong.

By the end of the eighteenth century, when Britain stood poised to expand its influence in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire had already begun to suffer military losses to Austria, Russia, and France and to lose territories along its fringes, for example, in Hungary and the Crimea. At the same time, Iran, newly consolidated under the Qajar dynasty (r. 1796–1925), was proving vulnerable to Russian expansion. In short, the same forces in the global economy that had been working to Europe's advantage since the sixteenth century now began to work to the detriment of both the Ottoman Empire and Qajar Iran, which lacked the wherewithal and internal coherence to stave off military, territorial, and economic challenges to their sovereignty. Along with Russia and France especially, Britain was one of the new "Great Powers" that began to assert itself in the Middle East as the nineteenth century began. In the long run, Britain was arguably the most important of these powers in shaping the region's political destiny.


In the period from 1798 to 1882, Britain pursued three major objectives in the Middle East: protecting access to trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean, maintaining stability in Iran and the Persian Gulf, and guaranteeing the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. The ultimate goal behind the first two objectives was to secure and protect sea and land routes to India, which was becoming increasingly vital both to Britain's economy and to its imperial psyche. The third objective was related to what nineteenth-century observers called the Eastern Question—that is, the challenge of preserving the Ottoman Empire in order to avoid inflaming both competition between the Great Powers and the generally contentious atmosphere created by Western imperial expansion.

At the end of the eighteenth century, British trade in the eastern Mediterranean lands of the Ottoman Empire (the Levant region) accounted for a mere 1 percent of total British foreign trade. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt, Britain significantly improved its economic status in the region by using its good favor with Ottoman authorities to secure advantageous trading agreements. As a result, Britain became the Middle East's biggest trading partner in the early nineteenth century, outstripping France, Austria, and Russia. It retained this role as late as World War I, notwithstanding the growing prominence of Germany and Italy in the region's economy during the late nineteenth century. Britain was a major supplier of cheap colored cotton textiles (which constituted more than half of its exports to the Middle East until the 1870s) and also supplied what some economic historians call colonial goods—commodities such as Caribbean sugar and Indian tea that came from the larger British empire. In return Britain secured long-staple cotton from Egypt and other food and animal products such as dates, barley, and leather. Economic historians note that Britain's provision of industrial manufactured goods contributed to the long-term decline of local handicrafts industries.

By the 1830s British transport from the eastern Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean occurred along two main routes: the first stretched from the Syrian Desert, down the Euphrates River, and into the Persian Gulf; the second, which became increasingly important as the nineteenth century progressed, crossed the isthmus of Suez into the Red Sea. A desire to protect the Suez route influenced Britain's decision to annex Aden (now part of Yemen), at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, in 1839. The vital importance of the Suez route was confirmed after 1869, when a French engineering firm cut a waterway through the 116-kilometer-wide (72-mile-wide) isthmus, creating the Suez Canal. Together with new technologies—above all, the steamship, the railway, and the telegraph—the Suez Canal transformed Britain's contacts with India by dramatically reducing travel time.

After 1798 the protection of India's northwest frontier became a dominant factor in Britain's policy in Iran. Britain was initially concerned about the prospect of a French invasion of India through Iran and Afghanistan, but this threat had dissipated by the time the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815. Britain's attention in Iran shifted increasingly to Russia, which had been expanding its empire by encroaching on Iran's northern domains in the Caucasus (in what is now Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) and by asserting its hold over the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Neither Britain nor Russia wanted the other power to seize control over Iran because the region was strategically valuable to both. This Anglo-Russian competition over Iran, which endured into the twentieth century, preserved the weak central government of the Qajar shahs from formal colonial takeover. Instead, Britain and Russia vied to exert their influence in Iran politically, by supplying military and foreign policy advisors, and economically, by securing trade privileges and concessions pertaining to commodities and services. Britain negotiated an advantageous commercial treaty with Iran in 1857, while in the late nineteenth century British concerns won concessions to develop a telegraph system and a modern central bank in Tehran. British businesses accounted for at least half of Iran's foreign trade by the mid-nineteenth century, exchanging manufactured goods and textiles for Iranian carpets, silk, and other raw agricultural materials.

Competition with the other growing European imperial powers also prompted Britain's closer involvement in the Ottoman Empire, which British sources of the time portrayed as a "Sick Man of Europe" that needed to be propped up. As mentioned above, British strategists worried about maintaining Ottoman territorial integrity in order to avert wars and contests for influence among the Great Powers themselves. Of particular concern for British policy-setters were Ottoman territories in the Balkans, where fledgling local nationalist movements together with Russian and Austrian imperial ambitions threatened the region's stability. On two major occasions, during the Crimean War (1854–1856) and the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), Britain formed alliances with the Ottomans to counteract Russian expansion. Britain used both occasions to extract advantages for itself. In 1856, for example, Britain helped to persuade the Ottoman sultan to issue the famous Humayun decree (one of the landmark measures of the mid-nineteenth-century Ottoman Tanzimat, or reformist, period), which proclaimed religious equality among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. In theory if not in practice, this decree reversed the traditional Islamic imperial assumption of Muslim hegemony over non-Muslim subjects (dhimmis). In 1878, meanwhile, Britain persuaded the Ottoman authorities to grant it the island of Cyprus as a naval base, leading to a form of British control over Cyprus that persisted until 1960 and that outlasted the Ottoman Empire itself by forty years.

Britain's vested interests in the Ottoman Empire also influenced its policies toward Egypt in the early twentieth century. Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman army officer who established, consolidated, and expanded his hold over Egypt after the Anglo-Ottoman expulsion of the French army in 1801, had already conquered parts of the Sudan when he sent his son, Ibrahim Pasha, to take Ottoman Syria in 1831. (In other words, Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman underling, was trying to take over the empire from within, for the sake of building his own empire centered in Egypt.) Concerned that Muhammad Ali, as an emerging local power, was complicating the Eastern Question by upsetting the regional status quo, Britain helped to arrange a deal between the Sublime Porte (i.e., the Ottoman sultan and central authorities in Istanbul) and Muhammad Ali in 1841: In return for evacuating his forces from Syria, Muhammad Ali gained the right to pass his governorship in Egypt to his heirs. This policy led to the creation of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty, which endured in Egypt until 1952.

It is worth noting that Britain's protection of Ottoman territorial integrity did not apply to Greece, where an anti-Ottoman nationalist revolt broke out in 1821. Along with Russia and France, Britain supported the Greek Revolt and helped to broker the agreement that led in 1832 to Greek independence from the Ottomans—that is, to liberty from what Greek nationalist historians have often called Turkocracy. Influencing Britain's policy was philhellenism, a romantic fascination with ancient Greece that inspired the English poet Lord Byron, among other intellectuals, to join the Greek Revolt.

In the 1870s Ottoman policymakers in Istanbul, and their counterparts under the leadership of Khedive Ismail (the grandson of Muhammad Ali) in Egypt, began to take out loans from French and British businesses for the sake of pursuing westernizing, modernizing reforms. When the loans came due in 1875, the Ottoman and Egyptian governments found themselves unable to pay. Hoping to raise the needed funds, the Egyptian government sold its 44 percent stake in the Suez Canal Company to the British government, to no avail. When both the Ottoman and Egyptian treasuries declared bankruptcy, Britain and France installed joint public debt commissions to supervise and guarantee repayments from Istanbul and Cairo; in effect, these measures meant a loss of Ottoman and Egyptian economic sovereignty.

In Egypt in 1881, a nationalist uprising broke out against a backdrop of widespread economic distress and growing anti-European sentiment. Known as the qUrabi Rebillion—after the military officer, Ahmed qUrabi, who emerged to lead it—this uprising prompted deep concern among Britons, who feared that instability in Egypt could threaten the Suez Canal—the British imperial life-line to India—as well as local British investments. Much to the dismay of France, which had only recently occupied Tunisia, Britain took action in 1882 by bombarding the coast of Alexandria and occupying Egypt. British authorities maintained that the occupation would be a short-term affair, pending the restoration of political stability. But in fact Britain kept a hold over Egypt for the next seventy years and only withdrew its last troops from the Suez Canal in 1956.


In 1961 the historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher famously argued that the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 was the trigger for the "Scramble for Africa." That is, fears over a possible Ottoman collapse and over the Egyptian nationalist threat to the Suez Canal (as manifest in the 'Urabi Revolt) prompted the British occupation. This event, in turn, had a domino effect, and set off the headlong rush for territory that brought nine-tenths of the African continent under European control by 1898 (the year when Britain, working jointly with Egyptian forces, conquered the Sudan). Robinson and Gallagher's narrative emphasized the interconnectedness of Britain's imperial holdings in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia, as well as the importance of river and ocean access routes in determining Britain's strategic priorities.

In this maritime scheme of British imperialism, the Persian Gulf was also vitally important. Hence the British government forged treaties with local Arab Gulf leaders in Bahrain (1880), Muscat (1891), and Kuwait (1899). Britain agreed to recognize and if necessary protect the signatories and their heirs, in return for gaining exclusive control over their foreign policy.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 prompted Britain to reconfigure its Middle East presence. Bristling against a long record of British, French, and Russian interference in its affairs, Ottoman authorities in Istanbul joined forces with Germany and the Central Powers, lining up against Britain and the Allies. Britain responded by unilaterally severing Egypt from the Ottoman Empire and by declaring Egypt to be a British protectorate; Egypt then became an important base for military planning and coordination on the Middle East front. British troops (including many soldiers recruited from the far corners of the empire) went on to fight important engagements in the Dardanelles (the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign), Mesopotamia (in the region corresponding to what is now southern and central Iraq), and the Suez Canal zone and Greater Syria (culminating in the British entry into Jerusalem in December 1917).

During World War I, oil made its debut as a major political factor in the region. In Iran in 1901, a British businessman named William Knox D'Arcy had secured a concession over local oil extraction; in 1909 D'Arcy founded the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The British navy switched from coal to oil fuel in 1912; in 1914, as the war began, the British government bought most of the AIOC shares. This situation meant that Iran's strategic value now lay not only in its proximity to India and its position along the Persian Gulf, but also in its importance as an oil supplier and naval refueling site. Although Iran's government declared official neutrality during World War I, British and Russian fears over German propagandizing in the country prompted a de facto joint occupation in which Britain occupied central and southern Iran (including the oil zones), while Russia consolidated its hold over the north. Iran suffered under the burdens of wartime requisitioning and in 1918–1919 faced a massive famine that killed as much as one quarter of the population.

During World War I, British authorities engaged in a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations that ultimately transformed the political destinies of Middle Eastern people. Three deals or sets of promises, enshrined in the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration, proved to be most practically and symbolically important in both the short term and the long run. Understanding what each of these deals entailed and how they were later applied is critical to understanding the impact of British imperialism on the twentieth-century Middle East.

The Husayn-McMahon Correspondence

Deeply concerned by the Ottoman discourses that portrayed the war as a jihad, and fearful lest Muslims throughout the wider British Empire rise up to support the Ottoman cause (and thereby the Central Powers), British leaders made extra efforts to cultivate wartime alliances with Muslim dignitaries who could offset the Ottoman bid for Muslim support. They identified a possible ally in Husayn ibn Ali, also known as Sharif Husayn of Mecca. A person of influence in the Hijaz (the western region of the Arabian Peninsula that includes the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina), and a man of political ambitions, Sharif Husayn traced descent from the Prophet Muhammad and was therefore known as a Hashimite (from the name of Muhammad's clan of Hashim). The Husayn-McMahon Correspondence consisted of a series of ten letters exchanged between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sharif Husayn in 1915 and 1916. In these letters, Sharif Husayn promised to stage an anti-Ottoman revolt if Britain promised, in return, to recognize an Arab state that would be led by Sharif Husayn and his family after the war. This Arab state would include the Fertile Crescent (including the general region that today includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Iraq) and the Arabian Peninsula. While McMahon expressed some reservations about parts of coastal Syria and while the two men never confirmed the final details on this point, McMahon nevertheless assured Sharif Husayn that "Great Britain is prepared to recognize and uphold the independence of the Arabs in all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sherif [Sharif] of Mecca." Acting on this agreement, and bolstered by British funds, weapons, and military advising, Sharif Husayn built up an army to attack the Ottomans. His efforts led to the Arab Revolt, headed by his son, Faisal, which began in 1916 and culminated with the capture of Damascus from the Ottomans in 1918.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret wartime treaty signed in 1916 between Britain and France; it was named after its chief negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France. (It was signed one year after a comparable treaty between Britain and Russia, the Constantinople Agreement of 1915, which Russia's postrevolutionary Bolshevik government later waived.) Based on the premise that the Allied Powers would win the war, the Sykes-Picot Agreement reflected France and Britain's effort to divide the Arab Middle East amicably, into spheres of influence that would come into effect after the war. The treaty recognized the region now corresponding to Syria and Lebanon, where France had long-standing economic and cultural interests, as part of a future French sphere, and the region of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) as part of a future British sphere. Plans for Palestine were left somewhat vague with the treaty suggesting some kind of international administration. In fact, Britain had its eye on Palestine and was toying with the idea of building a railway from Haifa to Basra—a plan that would have yielded a direct route from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, and at the same time secure yet another route to India.

The Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 was a letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, a prominent British member of the Zionist movement (a Jewish response to modern European anti-Semitism). On behalf of the British government, Balfour declared that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." While the Balfour Declaration reflected a degree of British official sympathy with Zionist aspirations, it also may have served British strategic interests: first, by building wartime support among the Jews in Europe and North America, and second, by bolstering postwar British claims to influence over the territory to the northeast of the Suez Canal.

When the war ended in 1918, Britain faced the impossible task of implementing and reconciling the three, mutually contradictory agendas of the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration.


According to the historian Elizabeth Monroe, the post-World War I period was "Britain's moment in the Middle East." She argued that from the British capture of Jerusalem and Baghdad in 1917 until the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain was the paramount power in most of the Middle East and the shaper of political destinies.

Along with France, Britain played the leading role in dismantling the Ottoman Empire after World War I and in creating new government entities in the Fertile Crescent, that is, future nation-states. At the San Remo Conference in 1920, Britain and France ensured the essential implementation of the wartime Sykes-Picot Agreement. The San Remo Conference separated the Arab provinces from the Ottoman Empire and allocated spheres of influence to France and Britain, drawing the outlines for the country borders that we see today on the Middle East map. The San Remo Conference formalized these spheres of influence by defining them as mandates, a term that served as a euphemism for colonial control. The League of Nations, which was the post-World War I antecedent of the United Nations, clarified this term by stating that mandates were territories "inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world." In what amounted to a last burst of imperial expansion, France gained mandates over Syria and Lebanon; Britain gained Palestine and Iraq and ensured that the boundaries of the new Iraq included the oil-rich region around Mosul. France and Britain agreed up front that in running these so-called mandates they should try to prepare these regions for eventual self-rule—that is, independence on some distant horizon.

Another highly significant post-World War I settlement was the Treaty of Sèvres, signed by the Ottoman government in August 1920. The Treaty of Sèvres delivered the final blow to the Ottoman Empire. It awarded the Ottoman region of Thrace to Greece and provided for French and Italian interests in railways and coal mining; it also reasserted British and French control over the region's finances (because the empire's late nineteenth-century debts were still on the books). However, Turkish-speaking nationalists led by an Ottoman war veteran named Mustafa Kemal (later called Atatürk, or "Father of the Turks") rallied to prevent the implementation of this treaty and to set up a counter-government in the central Anatolian village of Ankara. These resisters, who went on to declare the birth of a Turkish republic in 1920 and the end of the Ottoman order, succeeded in winning international recognition for the new country of Turkey and in preventing the full implementation of the Treaty of Sèvres.

Britain never fulfilled its wartime promises to Sharif Husayn of Mecca in their entirety but made three gestures toward the Hashimites. First, Britain invited Faisal (Sharif Husayn's son, who had been ousted from the leadership of a nascent Arab Kingdom in Damascus by the French) to become king of British-mandated Iraq in 1921—thus creating the Hashimite Kingdom of Iraq, which lasted until a violent leftist coup in 1958. (In 1932 Britain granted Iraq a form of official, yet nominal independence: it was nominal because Britain reserved control over Iraq's military and communications and retained a major share in Iraq's burgeoning oil industry.) Second, and also in 1921, Britain invited Abdallah, another son of Sharif Husayn, to become emir of Transjordan, an arid and thinly populated region that Britain had gained with the Palestine mandate—but an area that was excluded from the sphere of Zionist settlement. Operating under close British watch and dependent on annual British subventions, Transjordan enjoyed quasi-autonomy until 1946 when it gained independence as the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan. Third, Britain recognized Sharif Husayn himself as ruler of a Hashimite kingdom of the Hijaz (western Arabia). Husayn did not retain power for long, however, as in 1924 the Wahhabist forces of 'Abd al'Aziz Ibn Saqud overran the region and seized control, forcing him to flee into exile. By the Treaty of Jidda in 1927, Britain agreed to recognize the family of Ibn Saqud as rulers over most of the Arabian peninsula (i.e., Britain recognized the kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in return for extracting a promise from the Saudis to respect the integrity of Transjordan and of Hashimite rule in that vicinity.

Meanwhile, with Russia internally distracted after its 1917 communist revolution, Britain moved to confirm its postwar position in Iran, which remained subject to quasi-colonial control. In 1919 Britain extracted a new Anglo-Persian treaty that made Britain the sole provider of advice to Iran's military and central government and the sole source of transportation and communications development. Britain's heavy-handed intervention in Iranian affairs and its control over Iranian oil resources increasingly rankled educated elites, and contributed, by the late 1930s, to a degree of pro-German sentiment in the country. Though Iran's Pahlavi monarch, Reza Shah, declared Iran to be neutral when World War II broke out, British suspicions regarding his wartime sympathies prompted the shah in 1941 to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza, as a way of safeguarding the monarchy. Years later, the Islamic Revolution of 1978–1979 unseated Mohammed Reza Shah and brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose anti-Western message was a response to Iran's modern history of Western imperialism.

In Egypt, British colonialism after 1882 had not only provoked but had indirectly aided the development of local nationalism. It helped in the long run that Lord Cromer, architect of British policy in the 1883 to 1907 period, had believed in the value of the press as a safety valve for local grievances, because under British colonialism, Egypt's Arabic periodical press flourished and brought Egyptian nationalism into greater focus. By the end of World War I, nationalism was arguably a stronger and more coherent force in Egypt than in any other Arabic-speaking country. In 1919 Egyptian nationalists demanded the right to Egyptian self-determination (reflecting an ideal that U.S. president Woodrow Wilson had so famously articulated during the war) and called for an end to the British protectorate. When Britain tried to prevent Egyptian nationalist leaders from airing their views at the Paris Peace Conference, a popular nationalist revolt broke out. Yielding partly to these pressures, Britain went on to declare unilateral independence for Egypt three years later in 1922. This independence was "unilateral" because it was one-sided in Britain's favor, and enabled Britain to retain significant influence in and power over the country—for example, it allowed Britain to control Egypt's foreign policy and to keep British troops on Egyptian soil. After 1922 Egypt gained a parliament, while its dynastic ruler, a descendant of the Ottoman governor Muhammad Ali, was declared king. In 1936 the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty gave Egypt a greater degree of autonomy—for example, by providing for a phased abolition of the capitulatory privileges that foreigners had enjoyed in Egypt. Arguably, the informality of the British influence in Egypt made British colonialism especially tenacious there, with the result that Egypt gained independence only incrementally.

The most controversial history of post-World War I British imperialism in the region pertains to Palestine. Unlike the other Middle East mandates, the League of Nations-approved agreement for Palestine did not cite self-determination as a long-term goal for the territory's indigenous inhabitants, who were overwhelmingly Muslim and Christian Arabs. On the contrary, the mandate for Palestine laid out a framework for Zionist administration and settlement, according to which Britain would facilitate Jewish immigration. Opposition to the Zionist agenda grew slowly among members of Palestine's non-Jewish majority (i.e., those who later became known as the Palestinians) and escalated into a series of clashes in the years after 1929, when the non-Jewish population was still estimated at 85 percent and when the landless Arab peasant population was growing, particularly as wealthy Arab landowners sold their property to Zionist settlers who extolled ideals of Jewish labor. In the next decade, Britain responded to the increasingly tense situation on the ground by issuing white papers, or policy statements, that affirmed the need to address the concerns of both Palestine's Arab and Jewish inhabitants and that suggested possible limits on Zionist immigration. By 1939 two trends were evident: first, that Arab resistance to Zionist immigration had reached the boiling point, and second, that Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism was proving the desperate need for a Jewish haven. The Holocaust-in-progress steeled the resolve of Zionists in Palestine, who had long supported a program to create not only a Jewish homeland (as the Balfour Declaration had intimated in 1918), but also a full-fledged Jewish state. Yet even by the outbreak of World War II, Arabs still formed a clear majority of Palestine's population.

The situation in Palestine was reaching an impasse just as World War II broke out. With Mussolini's Italy in control of Libya, on Egypt's western flank, Britain faced up to the possibility of a German and Italian invasion within North Africa. British troops managed to stave off an Axis invasion of Egypt in 1942, and Britain and the other Allied powers went on to win the war. As historians later acknowledged, however, Britain's victory in war also entailed a defeat, in a sense, for its empire.


To explain the rapid contraction of the British Empire in the middle of the twentieth century in the aftermath of World War II, historians often note that postwar Britain lacked the economic strength and willpower to maintain its far-flung colonies, particularly in the face of mounting anticolonial nationalism. While several key events stand out in the global history of decolonization, India's independence in 1947 represented the critical watershed. The Middle East followed quickly behind South Asia, with Palestine's decolonization occurring in 1948.

Having come under increased attacks from armed Zionist groups whose members regarded Britain's presence as an obstacle to Jewish statehood, and realizing the intractability of the situation that the mandate had created for local Arabs, British authorities hoisted down the Union Jack on May 14, 1948, and beat a hasty retreat. A few hours later the Jewish community proclaimed the independence of the new state of Israel. Army units from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq invaded the next day, but fared poorly. By the time the fighting stopped and the dust settled, an estimated 700,000 Arabs, or 60 percent of Palestine's Arab population, had fled from their homes and were barred by Israelis from returning. British decolonization in Palestine thereby gave rise to both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian refugee problem.

The most symbolically important event in Britain's Middle East decolonization was the Suez Crisis, which occurred in Egypt in 1956, four years after a leftist revolution that had overturned Egypt's parliamentary monarchy and only a few months after the negotiated withdrawal of Britain's last troops from the Suez Canal Zone. Determined to secure revenues to fund the extension of the Aswan Dam, Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, declared the nationalization—that is, the Egyptian government seizure—of the Suez Canal, which a British-French consortium had long owned and operated for the sake of the tolls that ships paid to go through it. In nationalizing the canal, Nasser drew some inspiration from the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, who had tried to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1953 (until a CIA-backed coup in Iran had thwarted his efforts). Responding to Nasser's maneuver, Britain and France, in alliance with Israel, declared war on Egypt. However, the United States and the Soviet Union interceded to call off the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion out of a concern that the conflict could escalate in the Cold War milieu. More than any other event, the Suez Crisis showed that the United States and the Soviet Union were displacing Britain and France as the Great Powers in the region.

The last enclaves of British colonial influence in the Middle East were in the Gulf region. As oil revenues began to transform this poor region into the Middle East's wealthiest corner, Britain began to withdraw. Kuwait, for example, gained independence in 1961, while Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States (later called the United Arab Emirates) gained independence in 1971.

This survey of British imperialism in the Middle East has emphasized political and diplomatic history and the decisions of government policymakers. Yet it is important to note that Britons in the Middle East not only included government officials but also missionaries, travelers, soldiers, merchants, archaeologists, and many others—that is, a diverse group of historical actors who exerted cultural, political, and economic influences in their own right. Furthermore, as historians increasingly acknowledge, cultural and social influence was reciprocal. British government representatives in the age of empire may have had the power to dictate or otherwise transform Middle Eastern political destinies, but colonial encounters with the Middle East and other parts of the empire had a substantial impact on British society, culture, and national identity as well. Colonialism, in other words, was a two-way street.

see also Baring, Evelyn; British India and the Middle East; Mandate Rule.


Bidwell, Robin, ed. British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print, Part 2: From the First to the Second World War. Series B, Turkey, Iran, and the Middle East, 1918–1939. 35 vols. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1985–1997.

Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004.

Codell, Julie F., and Dianne Sachko Macleod. Orientalism Transposed: The Impact of the Colonies on British Culture. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998.

Crinson, Mark. Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Daly, M. W., gen. ed. The Cambridge History of Egypt, Vol. 2: Modern Egypt. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Darling, Linda T. "Capitulations." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Vol. 1, edited by John L. Esposito, 257-260. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gershoni, Israel, and James Jankowski. Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900–1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Gillard, David, ed. British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print, Part I: From the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the First World War, Series B: The Near and Middle East, 1856–1914. 20 vols. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984–1985.

Issawi, Charles. An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Kennedy, Dane. Britain and Empire, 1880–1945. London: Longman, 2002.

Kent, Marian. Moguls and Mandarins: Oil, Imperialism, and the Middle East in British Foreign Policy, 1900–1940. London: Frank Cass, 1993.

Kolinsky, Martin. Britain's War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–1942. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Louis, Wm. Roger, and Roger Owen, eds. A Revolutionary Year: The Middle East in 1958. London: Tauris, 2002.

Massad, Joseph A. Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Matar, N. I. Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Méouchy, Nadine, and Peter Sluglett, eds. The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspectives. Leiden, Netherlands; Boston: Brill, 2004.

Monroe, Elizabeth. Britain's Moment in the Middle East, 1914–1971. 2nd rev. ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Owen, Roger. The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800–1914. London: Methuen, 1981.

Paris, Timothy J. Britain, the Hashemites, and Arab Rule, 1920–1925. London: Frank Cass, 2003.

Porter, Andrew. Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Robinson, Ronald, and John Gallagher. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism in the Dark Continent. New York: St. Martin's, 1961.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Sluglett, Peter. Britain in Iraq, 1914–1932. London: Ithaca, 1976.

Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.

Smith, Simon C. Britain's Revival and Fall in the Gulf: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States, 1950–71. London: Routledge/Curzon, 2004.

Teitelbaum, Joshua. The Rise and Fall of the Hashemite Kingdom of Arabia. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Tignor, Robert L. Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882–1914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Tignor, Robert L. Egyptian Textiles and British Capital, 1930–1956. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1989.

Turhan, Filiz. The Other Empire: British Romantic Writings about the Ottoman Empire. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Wilson, Mary C. King Abdullah, Britain, and the Making of Jordan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Yapp, Malcolm. The Making of the Modern Near East, 1792–1923. London: Longman, 1987.

Yapp, Malcolm. The Near East since the First World War: A History to 1995. 2nd ed. London: Longman, 1996.

Yapp, Malcolm, ed. British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print, Part 3: From 1940 through 1945, Series B: Near and Middle East. 10 vols. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1997.

About this article

British Colonialism, Middle East

Updated About content Print Article