Britain and the Middle East from 1914 to the Present
BRITAIN AND THE MIDDLE EAST FROM 1914 TO THE PRESENT
British involvement in the region long antedated World War I, but Britain's "moment" in the Middle East, as it has been called—the period in which it was the dominant power in much of the area—lasted from 1914 to 1956. The axis of Britain's Middle Eastern empire stretched from the Suez Canal to the Persian Gulf. At its height between the two world wars, Britain's supremacy was almost unchallenged either by other powers or by indigenous forces. Yet after 1945, British dominance quickly crumbled, leaving few relics of any kind.
The initial impetus toward deeper British involvement in the Middle East arose from the entry of the Ottoman Empire into World War I on the side of the Central Powers at the end of October 1914. The British did not seek conflict with the Turks, seeing it as a diversion from the primary task of defeating Germany; they nevertheless moved quickly both to confront Turkey in the battlefield and to plan postwar dispensation in the Middle East. The "Eastern question" in its traditional form terminated abruptly, and a new phase began in which the Allied powers struggled over the postwar partition of the Ottoman Empire among themselves.
WWI and British Entry in the Region
The British cabinet decided on 2 November that "after what had happened we ought to take a vigorous offensive." In a public speech at Guildhall in London on 9 November, the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, declared: "It is the Ottoman government, and not we who have rung the death knell of Ottoman dominion not only in Europe but in Asia." The next month Britain severed the formal constitutional link between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, declared a protectorate over the country, deposed the anti-British Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, and installed a successor, Husayn Kamil, as sultan.
Despite misgivings in the High Command, which favored concentration of Britain's limited military resources on the western front against Germany, an onslaught against the Ottoman Empire was launched on three fronts: at the Dardanelles, in Mesopotamia, and on the border between Egypt and Palestine; Russian forces, meanwhile, engaged Turkey from the north.
The attack on the Straits resulted in one of the great catastrophes of British military history. An initial naval attempt to force the Dardanelles was easily repulsed. Subsequent landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula by British and empire troops gained no significant military objective and led to a bloodbath. Turkish forces led by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) repelled the invaders, causing many casualties. The reputation of Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, who had been the chief political patron of the operation, was damaged.
In Mesopotamia, too, the British were humiliated. An army was dispatched from India to invade the country, from the Persian Gulf. But in April 1916 General Charles Townshend's Sixth Division was forced to surrender at Kut al-Amara. The British nevertheless brought in new forces, which advanced to conquer Baghdad by March 1917.
On the Egypt–Palestine front, Turkish raids on the Suez Canal led to British occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. Thereafter, a stalemate developed, partly because of lackluster leadership but mainly because of British inability to commit large forces to a front that was regarded as peripheral to the outcome of the war. In 1917, however, the advance resumed under General Edmund Henry Allenby who entered Jerusalem in triumph in December 1917. He moved on the following autumn to win the battle of Megiddo and to conquer Syria. This was the last great cavalry victory in the history of warfare. By the time of the Turkish armistice on 30 October 1918, British forces were thus in control of most of the Fertile Crescent.
Meanwhile, the British had sponsored and financed a revolt of tribesmen in the Arabian Peninsula against their Ottoman Turkish overlords. Organized by a Cairo-based group of British Middle East experts known as the Arab Bureau, the revolt began in June 1916. It engaged, in particular, the followers of the Hashimite ruler of the Hijaz, Sharif of Mecca (Husayn ibn Ali), and his sons. Among the British officers who advised the rebels was T. E. Lawrence, who fought with bands of Arab guerrillas against targets in Arabia. They blew up Turkish installations along the Hijaz Railroad, captured Aqaba in 1917, and harassed the enemy on the eastern flank of Allenby's army as it advanced north toward Damascus. In recognition of their efforts, and as a sop to Arab nationalist feeling, Allenby stage-managed the capture of Damascus on 1 October 1918, allowing the Arab army to enter the city in triumph, though the victory had been chiefly the work of Australian cavalry commanded by General Sir Harry Chauvel.
The parade fitted into larger British schemes. During the war, the British had given benevolent but unspecific encouragement to Hashimite aspirations toward the creation of a unified Arab state under their leadership. Later Arab claims made much of alleged promises made in correspondence in 1915–1916 between the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and Sharif Husayn, though the exchanges were vague and inconclusive on both sides and never resulted in a formal treaty.
Carving Up the Ottoman Empire
Britain entered into more specific obligations to other allies. In April 1915, it signed a secret treaty promising Constantinople to Russia, thus explicitly jettisoning Britain's long-standing reservations about Russian control of the Straits. (In fact, British governments since the time of Lord Salisbury at the turn of the century had resigned themselves to eventual Russian control of Constantinople.) At the same time, as part of the price of persuading Italy to enter the war on the Allied side, Britain agreed in the Treaty of London that, in a postwar carve-up of the Ottoman dominions, Italy would receive southwest Anatolia. Under an agreement negotiated in 1916 between Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, Britain promised France most of Syria, Cilicia, and the oil-bearing region around Mosul in northern Mesopotamia. Most fraught with evil consequence for the British was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 in which Britain undertook to facilitate the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine—with provisos protecting the "civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities" and the rights of Jews in other countries. All of these engagements were designed to serve urgent wartime objectives rather than long-term interests.
These overlapping (many said conflicting) claims came home to roost at the Paris Peace Settlements in 1919, at which all parties presented their claims. Both the Zionists and the Arabs were represented by pro-British leaders: the Zionists by Chaim Weizmann, the Arabs by a Hijazi delegation headed by Amir Faisal (Faisal I ibn Hussein). T. E. Lawrence acted at the conference as adviser to Amir Faisal, who conformed to British desires in all matters—even to the extent of making friendly gestures toward Zionism. The French, however, proved less amenable. They spoke darkly of "a new Fashoda" and vigorously asserted their territorial demands in the Levant and Anatolia.
In large measure, Britain, as the power in possession, was able to impose its own design on the region. Its forces, commanded by Allenby, were in occupation of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Although Allenby's army included French, Italian, and other national units, these were too weak to form a counterweight to British military might. The Bolshevists had in the meantime published the text of the Constantinople convention and renounced their predecessors' claim to the city. The implosion of Russian power and the outbreak of the Russian civil war eliminated Britain's great historic fear of Russian movement south toward the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and India.
Postwar Consolidation of British Influence
Overwhelming military power also enabled the British to dispose of indigenous challenges to their authority. Rebellion in Egypt in 1919 was repressed by Allenby with a dexterous mixture of force and diplomacy. Revolt in Iraq in 1920 was put down by General Arnold T. Wilson with an iron fist. Riots in Palestine in April 1920 and May 1921 were suppressed, in the latter case by bombarding villages from the air, and succeeded by political concessions.
The Paris Peace Conference did not, in fact, achieve a resolution of territorial issues in the Middle East. In August 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres, by which Turkey gave up all its non-Arab provinces as well as parts of Anatolia, was signed by the Allied powers and representatives of the Ottoman government, which by this time was little more than a diplomatic ghost. Simultaneous secret agreements among the Allies provided for an additional carve-up of much of what remained of Turkish Anatolia. The treaty never came into effect. As a result of the Kemalist revolt, it was disavowed by the Turks and fell into abeyance.
Following the peace conference, France continued to squabble with Britain over a division of the Middle East spoils. The British conceded control of Syria and Lebanon to their erstwhile ally. They were dismayed, however, when the French, in July 1920, unceremoniously ejected Faisal from Damascus, where his enthusiastic supporters had proclaimed him king of Syria. Faisal arrived in British-controlled Palestine as a refugee with a large entourage. A harried British governor of Haifa complained that they were "in and out like a swarm of bees" and warned that "they cannot stay here indefinitely." There was no disposition, however, on the part of his British patrons to seek to reinstall Faisal in Damascus. As a kind of consolation prize, the British arranged for his "election" by cooperative Mesopotamian notables as king of Iraq.
The British successfully resisted broader French territorial aspirations. The northern oil-bearing region of Mesopotamia, inhabited mainly by Kurds, was assigned to British-controlled Iraq. This departure from the wartime agreement had been informally agreed to at a meeting of the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, and the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, in November 1918, but the French continued for some time to grumble about the arrangement. French aspirations to a role in Palestine, where they saw themselves as historic protectors of Christian interests, were thrust aside by the British.
Meanwhile, in Transjordan, Faisal's brother, Abdullah I ibn Hussein, had suddenly appeared in October 1920 at the head of a motley army, threatening to attack the French in Syria and to reclaim his brother's "kingdom" there. The British government saw little advantage in taking over the unfer-tile hollow of the Fertile Crescent. On the other hand, they could not permit Abdullah to drag them into a war with the French. The foreign secretary, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, reluctantly sanctioned the dispatch of some British officers to the territory, ostensibly to prevent its "relapse into anarchy"—in reality to restrain Abdullah from adventures against the French.
In March 1921, Churchill, then colonial secretary, convened a conference in Cairo of British officials in the region. This meeting set out broad lines of British administration in the Middle East that were to endure for the next decade. Under this arrangement, Abdullah was established as amir of Transjordan; the territory was to form part of the British mandate over Palestine without, however, being open to Jewish settlement. While Abdullah formally ruled the country, the British resident and a small number of other officials discreetly steered policy in directions compatible with British interests.
Reduction of Military Presence
Having established their paramountcy, the British rapidly reduced their military establishment in the Middle East. In the early 1920s, the conservative press in Britain, particularly newspapers owned by Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook, agitated against large military expenditures in the region and called for a British exit from recent acquisitions there. In a general climate of demobilization and budget cutting, the government felt obliged to withdraw the bulk of its troops. Henceforth, except in times of crisis, the British did not maintain a large standing army in any part of the Middle East except at the strategically vital Suez.
For the rest of the period between the wars, the British maintained security in the Middle East mainly with locally recruited forces financed by locally collected revenues. Riots, disturbances, and other challenges to British authority were suppressed by the new tactic of aerial bombardment, demonstrative shows of strength, and limited political concessions.
In the age of Gordon and Kitchener, Middle East empire building had a jingoistic tinge, but after 1914 this tendency disappeared. Unlike other parts of the empire—notably, regions of white settlement—Middle East imperialism had no significant popular constituency in Britain. (France, where there was a strong pressure group on behalf of Roman Catholic interests in Syria, was very different.)
At the same time, the legend of Lawrence of Arabia, stimulated first by public lantern shows in Britain and America and later by T. E. Lawrence's writings on the Arab revolt, encouraged the growth of public interest in Arabia. Although the Arab revolt had only minor military significance, it formed the basis of myth and countermyth. The myth was of a natural affinity between the British Empire and Arab desert warriors. The countermyth was of the betrayal of Arab nationalism by duplicitous British diplomacy. Both myths exercised a powerful subliminal influence on Anglo–Arab attitudes over the next generation. The Arab vogue was further encouraged by the writings of Middle Eastern explorers, travelers, and administrators, such as Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, and Ronald Storrs. The great Victorian classics of Arabian exploration by writers such as Charles Doughty and Richard Francis Burton were revived and achieved a certain réclame.
The official mind of British imperialism, however, was shaped less by sentimental considerations than by hardheaded, realistic calculation of national interest. More than anything, official thinking was predicated on concern about India—specifically, about the security of routes to the subcontinent and the Far East and the possible effects of Middle East developments on internal security in India. With the growth of aviation as well as sea traffic, the need for a string of secure air bases was seen as vital. Indian priorities also lay behind British officials' anxiety about the inflammatory threat, as they saw it, of growing pan-Islamic feeling on the large Muslim minority in India. As it turned out, such fears proved exaggerated: Indian Muslims were not greatly preoccupied by Middle Eastern concerns.
The resurgence of Turkey under Atatürk caused some anxiety in Britain and led to a momentary crisis at Chanak (near Constantinople) in the autumn of 1922. As the revived Turkish army advanced on Constantinople, British and French forces, in occupation of the city, prepared to resist. Lloyd George, who had given encouragement to the disastrous Greek invasion of Anatolia, was at first inclined to order British forces to stand and fight. But there was no enthusiasm in Britain for such a war. The episode led to the withdrawal of Conservative support for Lloyd George and his fall from power. With the evacuation of British and French forces from Constantinople, the crisis passed. The new Turkish regime signed the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, giving up any claim to the Ottoman Empire's former Arab provinces—but holding on to the Turkish, Kurdish, and former Armenian regions of Anatolia.
With the settlement in 1923 of differences over the border between Palestine and Syria, British diplomatic conflict with the French diminished. Disputes with the United States over oil concessions were settled in 1925 with a division of interests in the northern Iraqi petroleum industry. For the next decade, Britain could control the region without worrying about any significant great-power competitor.
British policymaking in the Middle East was not centralized in any one government department. The foreign, colonial, India, and war offices all held responsibility at certain periods for different parts of the region. Broadly speaking, the foreign office was responsible for Egypt, the India office for the Persian Gulf, and the colonial office (from 1921) for the mandates in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. Each of these departments refracted its specific angle of vision and concerns in its formulation of policy. Aden, for example, whose importance to Britain was primarily as a coaling station for ships en route to India, was ruled until 1932 directly from Bombay; after that, responsibility was taken over by the central government in Delhi, and, beginning in 1937, Aden became a crown colony. In some cases, diffusion of responsibility led to conflict between departments: Palestine, over which the colonial and foreign offices clashed repeatedly, was a case in point.
Indirect Rule and "Benevolent Paternalism"
Britain's favored method of rule in the Middle East was indirect and inexpensive: this was a limited liability empire. The model was not India but Egypt, where British advisers had guided government policy since the start of the British occupation. Hardly anywhere did direct rule by a British administration survive intact until after World War II. Typical of British attitudes throughout the region during the period was the comment of the colonial secretary, Lord Cranborne, in 1942: "We not only disclaim any intention of establishing direct rule, but also quite sincerely and genuinely do not wish to do so." Warning against direct British administration of the tribal hinterland of Aden colony, Cranborne added: "We must keep steadily in front of us the aim of establishing in Aden protectorate a group of efficient Arab authorities who will conduct their own administration under the general guidance and protection of His Majesty's government." The characteristic tone of British governance was set by Sir Percy Cox in Iraq and by Allenby in Egypt: benevolent paternalism in time of peace; readiness to resort to brute force in reaction to civil unrest.
The British did not believe in large public investment in this new empire. They nevertheless greatly improved the primitive economic infrastructure bequeathed them by their Ottoman predecessors, established sound public finances, built solid judicial and (though slowly) educational systems, rooted out corruption, and protected minorities. Efficient government was not the primary purpose of imperial rule, but the British installed it almost by reflex.
The mandatory system in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq was a constitutional innovation. Formally, the British ruled these territories not as a colonial power but under the ultimate authority of the League of Nations. Mandatory government was to last for a limited period with the specific goal of preparing the countries for self-rule. All this, in the eyes of most observers, was merely a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of imperial acquisition. Although Britain was ultimately responsible to the league for its conduct of affairs in the mandated territories and was obliged to render account annually of its administration, the league exercised little influence over policy. In effect, Britain ruled the mandated territories as if they were colonies, though here too they sought to establish limited local self-government.
As in other parts of the empire, British power ultimately rested on a collaborative equation with local elements. Its exact form varied depending on local contingencies. In some places, the British practiced a variant of the politics of notables inherited from the Ottomans. In others, they established mutually beneficial alliances with minorities—as with the Jews in Palestine for a time. Elsewhere, they combined these policies with patronage of dynastic rulers, particularly with the family of Sharif Husayn.
Britain's patronage of the Hashimites was dealt a blow in 1925 when Sharif Husayn was driven out of the Hijaz by the resurgent Wahhabi army of Ibn Saʿud, ruler of Najd. Husayn escaped in a British ship bound for Cyprus. Although Ibn Saʿud had been granted a British subsidy in 1916, he had not joined in the Arab revolt and had remained jealous of his Hashimite neighbor. Compelled to accept realities, the British quickly came to terms with Ibn Saʿud. In 1927, they signed a treaty with him that recognized his sovereignty over the Hijaz and, as a result, his leading position among native rulers in the Arabian Peninsula.
Although Ibn Saʿud employed a freelance British adviser, Harry St. John Bridger Philby, a convert to Islam, the Saudi regime's relations with Britain were never intimate. In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which Ibn Saʿud proclaimed in 1932, U.S. rather than British companies were favored in the scramble for oil concessions. At the time, this seemed of minor importance; later, when vast oil reserves were discovered, the British regretted the failure. Oil production on a large scale, however, did not begin in the country until after World War II.
Until the late 1930s, the limited liability system survived more or less intact. The independence granted to Egypt in 1922 and Iraq in 1932 did not fundamentally affect Britain's paramountcy. In each case, Britain retained effective control over vital strategic and economic interests. The continuation of this "veiled protectorate," as it became known in the Egyptian case, exacerbated nationalist frustrations and resentments, but these posed no imminent threat to Britain. Independence in Iraq was followed by the mass killing of members of the Nestorian Christian community, known as Assyrians. Thousands fled overseas. Like other minorities, they had looked to the British for protection; the failure to assure their security left a dark stain on Britain's imperial record in the country.
Increasing Threats to British Control
From 1936 onward, Britain's dominance in the Middle East was increasingly threatened from within and without. Mussolini's determination to create an Italian empire around the Mediterranean and the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935 posed a sudden danger to Britain. The powerful Italian broadcasting station on the island of Bari began broadcasting anti-British propaganda to the Middle East. The Italian dictator wooed Ibn Saʿud and other Middle Eastern rulers and gave covert support to anti-British elements in the region, including the anti-British leader of the Palestine Arab nationalist movement, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. The Palestine Arab Revolt between 1936 and 1939 tied down large numbers of British troops at a time when, with the Nazi threat looming in Europe, the British could ill afford such a diversion.
Conscious of their limited resources, particularly of military manpower, the British faced unpalatable policymaking dilemmas in the final months of the peace and felt compelled to subordinate all other considerations to the imperatives of imperial security: hence, the White Papers on Palestine of May 1939, which reversed the Balfour Declaration policy of support for a national home for the Jewish people and restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time of mounting danger to Jews in Europe.
During World War II, the Middle East played a vital part in British strategic calculations. As prime minister from May 1940, Churchill placed a high priority on bolstering British power in the region. At a critical phase in the war, he insisted on dispatching large numbers of tanks and men to reinforce British forces confronting the Italians, and later the Germans, on the border between Egypt and Libya.
The British could no longer afford the luxury of a piecemeal bureaucratic approach to the Middle East. Economic planning and supply questions for the entire region were coordinated by the Middle East Supply Center in Cairo. A British minister resident was sent to Cairo to take charge of overall policy making. (One incumbent, Lord Moyne, a close friend of Churchill, was murdered in November 1944 by Zionist terrorists as a protest against British policy in Palestine.)
After Italian entry into the war in June 1940, the danger of attack in the Mediterranean precluded use of the Suez Canal by British ships carrying supplies to and from India and the Far East. Ships carrying reinforcements to British forces in Egypt had to take the Cape of Good Hope route before passing through the canal from south to north. Except in Egypt, where they built up their forces to confront the Italians and later the Germans, the British could not afford to maintain more than a thin crust of military control in most of the region during the war. Yet by a mixture of diplomacy, guile, and occasional demonstrative concentrations of force, they succeeded in averting serious challenge from nationalist opponents. The two most dangerous threats came in Iraq and Egypt. A pro-Axis coup erupted in Iraq in April 1941, headed by Rashid Ali al-Kaylani, aided by Italian and Nazi agents and by the ex-mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin alHusayni. With pro-Vichy forces in control of Syria and Lebanon, British power throughout the Fertile Crescent seemed for a moment on the verge of toppling. But in May, a small British force from the Habbaniya air base moved into Baghdad. AlKaylani and the ex-mufti fled to Germany where they devoted themselves to anti-British propaganda. The following month, British and Free French forces, operating from Palestine, advanced into Syria and Lebanon and installed new French administrations sympathetic to the Allied cause.
The other threat appeared in Egypt, where nationalist elements, particularly in the Egyptian army, were impressed by Axis military successes and sought to take advantage of Britain's moment of weakness. The British reacted firmly. In February 1942, British tanks surrounded the royal palace as a weeping King Farouk was forced by ultimatum to appoint a prime minister acceptable to the British, Mustafa al-Nahhas, head of the Wafd party. From the British point of view, the Abdin palace coup, as the episode became known, gave a salutary demonstration of British resolve at a time of acute military pressure from the Germans in the western desert.
The battle in the western desert swung to and fro. In the initial phase, between June 1940 and February 1941, a British army under General Archibald Wavell beat back an offensive by Italian forces under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani and advanced into Cyrenaica. In the spring of 1941, however, Axis forces were bolstered by the arrival of the German Afrika Korps commanded by General Erwin Rommel, a brilliant strategist. The tide was reversed: the British were routed from Libya, and the British garrison at Tobruk was besieged and captured. By mid-1942, the Germans had advanced deep into Egypt. Government departments in Cairo began burning secret documents, and emergency evacuation plans were prepared.
In November 1942, the critical battle of the campaign was fought against Rommel at al-Alamayn by the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery. Months of careful planning coupled with imaginative mobile tactics, intelligent exploitation of ultra signals intelligence, as well as British superiority in numbers of men and machines, brought a decisive victory. This was, in Churchill's phrase, "the end of the beginning." Thereafter, the British strategic position in the region eased. Almost simultaneously in Morocco and Algeria, Operation Torch, the landing of U.S. and British forces commanded by General Eisenhower, had opened a new front against the Axis. By May 1943, the Germans and Italians had been cleared out of northern Africa.
Churchill's preoccupation with the Mediterranean led him up some blind alleys. He tried repeatedly to draw Turkey into the war on the Allied side but without success. Turkey remained neutral until early 1945, when it declared war on Germany at the last moment in order to qualify for membership in the United Nations (UN). The United States opposed Churchill's Mediterranean strategy both on military grounds and because the United States did not wish to give the appearance of propping up British imperial interests. Ibn Saʿud, too, remained neutral until the last moment, though he received handsome subsidies from the British and the United States and made some gestures of support for the Allied cause.
Britain did not seek territorial acquisition in the Middle East in World War II. It nevertheless found itself drawn into new responsibilities. Following the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Britain joined the USSR in occupying Iran. Arms and other supplies to the Soviet Union were sent by rail through Iran. With the expulsion of the last Axis forces from Libya in 1943, that country was placed under military administration—French in the Fezzan and British in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. British forces also occupied the former Italian possessions of Eritrea, Abyssinia, and Italian Somaliland. Abyssinia was restored to its indigenous imperial ruler. Eritrea remained under British rule until 1952 when it was annexed by Abyssinia. Italian Somaliland was returned to Italy as a UN trusteeship in 1950. Libya became independent in December 1951, though Britain was granted the right under the Anglo–Libyan Alliance Treaty of 1953 to maintain military installations there.
During the war, large reserves of oil in the Arabian Peninsula had come onstream. Because of the closure of the Mediterranean to British commercial shipping, British use of Middle East oil during the war was mainly restricted to the area east of the Suez. Elsewhere, Britain mainly relied on imports from the Americas. After the war, the balance changed. Over the next three decades, Britain became steadily more dependent on oil imports from the Middle East, especially Kuwait.
Postwar Loss of Empire and the Cold War
In the later stages of the war, the British government, seeing the nationalist mood in many Arab countries, tried to move toward a new relationship with the Arabs. Following a speech by the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, in which he indicated British sympathy for the idea of Arab unity, a conference of Arab states at Alexandria in October 1944 approved the foundation of the League of Arab States. The effort to ride the tiger, however, had only limited success; the British soon found that Arab nationalism turned strongly against them.
During the war, the Soviet Union had cautiously raised its diplomatic profile in the Middle East. After 1945, the region became a secondary arena of great-power conflict in the Cold War. In 1945 and 1946, the USSR signaled its newly aggressive posture by attempting to establish pro-Soviet administrations in northern Iran. Eventually British and American, as well as Russian, forces withdrew from Iran and a pro-Western regime was consolidated under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Elsewhere, Soviet influence was exercised by propaganda and subversion rather than direct military intervention. Although Communist parties remained weak in the region, Soviet sponsorship of Arab nationalist movements posed a growing threat to Western interests in general and the British in particular.
The end of British rule in India in 1947 lessened the strategic argument for a major British military commitment in the Middle East. But oil—both investments and supply—and the security of the Suez Canal remained central British concerns. British policy now faced acute difficulties in the Middle East: on the one hand, Britain retained vital interests there; on the other, its postwar economic debilitation left it unable to muster the military forces required to meet any serious challenge to control those interests.
As a result, Britain was increasingly overshadowed by the United States in the Middle East. Under the Truman Doctrine, enunciated in 1947, the United States replaced Britain as the main provider of military and economic assistance to Greece and Turkey. The United States had already begun edging the British out of monopolistic control of oil concessions. Now, the United States became the dominant external diplomatic power, particularly in Saudi Arabia. It established a large air base in Saudi Arabia, built the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, and became the major external source of arms and other aid. Saudi relations with Britain were meanwhile clouded by the Buraymi Oasis Dispute (claimed by Abu Dhabi and Oman, which were both under British protection). The dispute flared into military conflict in 1952 and again in 1955; it led to a breach in Anglo–Saudi diplomatic relations between 1956 and 1963.
palestine. British military and political weakness was damagingly demonstrated to the world by the collapse of the British mandate in Palestine. In spite of the presence of substantial British forces and the experience gained in crushing Arab insurgency between 1936 and 1939, the mandatory government proved unable to assert its authority in the face of a revolt by the half million Jews in the country.
The international ramifications of the Palestine conflict created serious difficulties for the British between 1945 and 1948. In the British-occupied zones of Germany and Austria, the military authorities were faced with growing numbers of Jewish displaced persons, the majority of whom demanded to be allowed to proceed to Palestine. In the United States, on which Britain depended for economic aid, the assertive and electorally significant Jewish community pressed Congress and President Harry Truman to secure a pro-Zionist outcome in Palestine. Meanwhile, British diplomats throughout the Arab Middle East reported that the Palestine question had become a central mobilizing issue for Arab nationalists and anti-British agitators.
Although the colonial office remained formally responsible for Palestine, these international complications led the foreign office to take effective control of British policymaking on the issue after 1945. The Labour Government's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, adopted an anti-Zionist position, which at times tipped over the edge into antisemitism; his undiplomatic outspokenness secured applause from frustrated officials but was bitterly resented by many Jews. In the final stages of the crisis (1947–1948), the British publicly washed their hands of the matter, professing to leave it to the decision of the United Nations. Yet, following the decision of the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the British barely cooperated in implementing the decision. Privately, Bevin encouraged the government of Transjordan to reach a modus vivendi with the Zionists on the basis of a different kind of partition, one in which the Transjordanians would take over the Arab-inhabited hill regions of the country and coexist with a Jewish state in the rest of Palestine. In the end this was, broadly speaking, the outcome.
The Arab–Israeli War, which lasted from 1947 to 1949, tightened the British connection with Transjordan. Although the country had been granted independence in 1946, it remained under British tutelage. In March 1948, an alliance treaty was concluded in which the two countries promised each other military assistance and Transjordan agreed to the stationing of British forces in the country "until such a time . . . that the state of the world renders such measures unnecessary." Britain was the only country in the world to recognize the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank.
The Zionists' feat in driving the British out of Palestine in 1948 depressed British prestige throughout the region. The British government after 1945 made strenuous efforts to dissociate itself from Zionism; Arab nationalists for the next generation nevertheless attributed the creation of Israel in large measure to Britain's earlier support of a national home for the Jewish people.
British Influence in Decline
After Palestine, the second significant test of British political will in the Middle East came in Iran. In 1951, the Anglo–Iranian Oil Company, in which the British government owned 51 percent of the shares, was nationalized by legislation in the Iranian parliament. A nationalist government, headed by Mohammad Mossadegh, defied British attempts to secure a reversal of the nationalization. With the support of major international oil companies, the British government organized a boycott of Iranian oil. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken. The departure of foreign oil exports led to closure of the Abadan oil refinery. As the oil companies refused to process, ship, or purchase Iranian oil, the entire petroleum industry in the country ground to a halt. At the height of the crisis in 1953, the Shah, who strongly opposed Mossadegh, fled the country.
Meanwhile, in November 1952, the British had approached the United States about the possibility of organizing a joint covert operation to protect western interests in Iran. Shortly afterward, an Iranian army coup, engineered by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency with British help, overthrew Mossadegh and brought about the return of the Shah. The Iranian oil industry was reorganized: The British granted formal recognition of Iranian ownership of the oil industry in exchange for the lease of its operations to a multinational consortium. The British share in this consortium was reduced to under a half, with the remainder held mainly by U.S. companies.
Of even greater concern to British governments was the deterioration of the British position in Egypt. Egyptian nationalists, chafing under what was seen as continued behind-the-scenes British influence, demanded the renegotiation of the Anglo–Egyptian treaty of 1936 and the closing of British bases. There was also conflict with Britain over the Sudan, which was ruled by Britain though it was formally an Anglo–Egyptian condominium; the Egyptian government now sought to annex the country to Egypt. In January 1952, anti-British riots broke out in Egypt and paved the way for the revolution of July 1952 in which a group of military officers, headed by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power, deposed the king, and declared a republic.
The British now began to consider moving the center of gravity of their Middle East operations to a more secure point. A first step was the decision in December 1952 to move the Middle East headquarters of the British armed forces from Egypt to Cyprus.
In the hope of constructing a bulwark against Soviet subversion and of limiting the growth of anti-Western influences in the region, Britain and the United States had proposed in October 1951 the creation of the Middle East Defense Organization. Turkey, which was concerned about Soviet pressure for a new regime at the Straits, expressed willingness to join such an alliance; but Egypt rejected it, and no other Middle Eastern state expressed interest, whereupon the scheme was abandoned.
Other such proposals met similar fates. The Baghdad Pact of 1955 represented a final attempt by the western powers, with the United States by this time playing the leading role, to create a regional framework under their auspices. The core of the scheme was a multilateral military aid treaty signed by Britain, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, with the United States acting as an interested outside party. No Arab state apart from Iraq could be induced to join the pact, and Egypt, in particular, opposed it vigorously. The failure to attract Arab members was seen as a further sign of the decline of British authority in the region.
In Jordan, the young King Hussein ibn Talal, educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, became the most pro-British of postwar Middle East rulers. His cultural formation was as much British as Arab; he maintained a home in Britain and was the one Arab ruler who was a popular public figure in Britain (his second wife was British). Such personal predilections, however, could not overcome the larger forces shaping events. Hussein, whose long career was marked by frequent shifts of policy consummated with supreme maneuvering skill, found himself compelled to bend to the anti-British wind. In March 1956, responding to external and internal political pressures, he dismissed the British commander of his army, Sir John Bagot Glubb. Since the formation of the Transjordanian emirate in 1921, the state's army, the Arab Legion, had always been commanded by a British officer. In his ability to reconcile loyalties to the British and to his Arab employer, Glubb had been characteristic of a fading type of British officer in the Middle East. While commanding the Arab Legion he had routinely supplied the British government with secret copies of Jordan's war plans. The dismissal of "Glubb Pasha" was generally regarded as the end of an era and a telling sign of the decline of British influence.
The Suez Canal
The supreme crisis of British power in the Middle East came later that year, appropriately at the focal point of Britain's interests in the region and the reason d'être of its presence there—the Suez Canal. In spite of its gradually diminishing economic position relative to other powers, Britain remained the world's foremost shipping nation, and the British merchant fleet was by far the largest user of the canal. With the growth of motor transport and the switch from coal to oil as the main industrial fuel, Britain had become overwhelmingly reliant on the importation of Middle East oil carried through the canal in tankers. Pressure from the Egyptian government for a British evacuation of the Suez Canal zone, therefore, encountered stiff resistance.
In October 1954, Britain had promised to withdraw all its force from the canal zone by mid-1956. The agreement, however, was hedged with several provisos reminiscent of the veiled protectorate, among them a stipulation that Egypt continue to offer Britain "such facilities as may be necessary to place the Base [in the canal zone] on a war footing and to operate it effectively" if any outside power attacked a member of the Arab League or Turkey. In November 1955, British troops withdrew from the Sudan as the country moved toward full independence in January 1956. The following July, in accordance with the 1954 agreement, Britain withdrew the last of its troops from the canal zone.
nationalism and the brink of war. Hardly had the last British soldiers packed their bags, however, than the Egyptian president afforded the British a pretext to return. On 26 July, Nasser, infuriated by the withdrawal of an offer by the United States, Britain, and the World Bank to finance the construction of a new dam at Aswan, announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, which operated the canal. The British locus standi in the matter was doubtful. The British government owned a minority stake in the company, but nationalization in itself was no offense against international law, provided compensation was paid, and the Egyptians insisted that they would continue to operate the canal as before.
The nationalization was, nevertheless, regarded by the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, as an intolerable affront. When diplomacy failed to secure an Egyptian retreat, the British prepared for war. They were joined by France, which had its own reasons for opposing the Nasser regime on account of Egypt's support of Algerian rebels. Israel, which had suffered a series of border incursions from Egypt, was also drawn into military and diplomatic planning. Conspiratorial discussions among representatives of the three countries at a villa in the Paris suburb of Sèvres from 22 to 24 October culminated in a secret treaty. The agreement mapped out a scenario for war with Egypt. Israel would attack first across the Sinai peninsula. The British and French would then enter the conflict, ostensibly to secure the Suez Canal, in fact to destroy Nasser's regime.
The Israelis attacked on 29 October, and the British and French duly issued an ultimatum the next day calling on Israel and Egypt to withdraw to positions 10 miles east and west of the Suez Canal (the Israelis had not yet, in fact, reached the canal). In the absence of Egyptian acquiescence, British and French planes began bombing Egyptian military targets on 31 October. On 5 November, the two powers landed paratroops. The next day, however, British policy went into reverse as a result of U.S. opposition to the invasion and of growing market pressure on sterling. Britain and France were humiliatingly obliged to agree to a cease-fire, and by Christmas they had withdrawn their forces from Egypt.
Britain's collusion with France and Israel in the events leading to the Suez war became the subject of bitter controversy in Britain. The issue is said to have divided the nation more than any foreign-policy question since Munich. The Labour Party, a small part of the Conservative party, some foreign office officials, and most enlightened opinion were hostile to Eden's policy. For the British government, Suez was an unmitigated catastrophe—not least in the severe strains it placed on relations with the United States. Eden resigned a few weeks later, complaining of ill health.
Although Suez is generally regarded as a water-shed in British history, heralding a wider imperial withdrawal, Britain continued for another decade to maintain a substantial military presence in the Middle East and to be ready on occasion to use it forcefully in defense of its interests.
Last Vestiges of Empire
The next flashpoint was Jordan. In March 1957, a nationalist government in Jordan abrogated the Anglo–Jordanian Treaty. In July 1958, the Jordanian regime was severely shaken by the revolution in Iraq, in which the Hashimite regime was ousted and the young King Faisal II ibn Ghazi and the pro-British Prime Minister Nuri al-Saʿid were both murdered. British paratroops were sent, at the request of King Hussein, to prevent a similar revolution in Jordan. Two aspects of this intervention, code-named Operation Fortitude, illustrated the changed political environment within which the British, perforce, now operated. First, the cabinet refused to commit British forces until the approval of the U.S. government had been secured. Second, the British requested and received permission from Israel to overfly Israeli territory in order to transport troops from bases on Cyprus. The British force succeeded in bolstering the Hashimite monarchy without firing a shot. The pro-British Jordanian monarchy survived, but Britain lost its bases in Iraq as well as its oil interests there.
In 1961, when Kuwait, hitherto a British protectorate, secured independence, the military regime in Iraq threatened a takeover of the oil-rich principality. As at the time of the intervention in Jordan in 1958, the British made sure that they had U.S. approval before taking military action. Eight thousand British troops were sent to Kuwait and remained there as a deterrent against Iraqi invasion until 1963.
In Aden in the mid-1960s, British forces conducted a miserable campaign against nationalist insurgents supported by Egypt. The British military headquarters at Aden were evacuated in November 1967 when the Federation of South Arabia achieved independence as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. Although the writing was on the wall for what remained of British power in the Middle East, there was no complete pullout yet. With the liquidation of the base at Aden, Britain expanded its military presence in Bahrain and other Gulf principalities.
In the crisis prior to the outbreak of the Arab–Israel War of 1967, the British government of Harold Wilson briefly considered participating in the dispatch of an international naval flotilla to assert the right of passage to Israel through the Strait of Tiran, which the Egyptian government had declared closed against Israeli and Israeli-bound ships. But no other country was prepared to join in the effort, and the idea was dropped. Although both Wilson and his foreign secretary, George Brown, were sympathetic to Israel, their attitude was not governed by any pro-Zionist altruism. The British remained vitally interested in free passage through the Suez Canal. Upon the outbreak of war with Israel in June 1967, Nasser closed the canal to all shipping; it did not open again until 1975. The closure severely affected the British balance of payments. The British economy was blown off course, and the government was compelled, against its wish, to devalue sterling in November of that year.
Only in 1968 did the Wilson government abandon pretensions to world-power status by dropping the east-of-Suez defense policy. In March 1970, the revolutionary government in Libya, headed by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi who had attended an officers' training school in Britain, ejected the British from their bases in the country. British forces withdrew from Bahrain in 1971, but retained naval facilities there. Also in 1971, British forces left Abu Dhabi, whereupon the seven Trucial Coast shaykhdoms formed the federation of the United Arab Emirates. The British retained troops in Oman, where they helped suppress a leftist rebellion in the Dhufar region. Although British forces were formally withdrawn in 1976, many senior British officers remained on individual contracts as commanders of the Omani army. Only in 1984 was the British commander in chief of the country's armed forces replaced by an Omani. After that, the sole remaining permanent British military presence in the Middle East was in the sovereign bases on Cyprus.
With the elimination of its military power in the region, Britain found itself relegated to a secondary role in Middle Eastern politics. More and more, Britain was buffeted and unable to deflect ill political and economic winds blowing from the Middle East.
Oil, Terrorism, and the British Economy
During the 1970s, the exploits of Palestinian Arab terrorists and the anti-Western rhetoric of Middle East leaders like Qaddafi evoked some admiration on the radical left of the political spectrum in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. Episodes such as the hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of two planes to a desert aerodrome in Jordan—the episode that occasioned the Black September conflict between the Jordanian government and the Palestine Liberation organization in 1970—riveted television audiences in Britain. In that instance, the government of Prime Minister Edward Heath decided to give way to terrorist demands and released an imprisoned Palestinian, Leila Khaled, who became a folk hero of the revolutionary left.
The Arab–Israel War of 1973 and the ensuing international energy crisis had dramatic and damaging effects on the British economy. The sudden huge increase in the price of oil and the restriction of supply by the oil producers' cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), were the major causes of the stagflation that afflicted Britain in the mid-1970s. The coal miners' union attempted to seize the opportunity offered by the general rise in energy prices to secure a large increase in wages paid by the nationalized coal industry. The miners' strike ushered in a bitter confrontation with the Conservative government of Heath, which called a general election on the issue in February 1974 and narrowly lost to the Labour Party.
As a member of the European Economic Community (EEC) from 1973 onward, Britain generally sought to adjust her diplomacy in the Middle East to conform to a consensus of EEC members. In the aftermath of the 1973 and 1979 oil crises, this resulted in a suddenly humble attitude by former imperial powers to sometime protégés such as Iran and the Gulf emirates. A case in point was the Venice Declaration, issued by the EEC in June 1980, which marked a significant shift in diplomatic posture toward the Arab position in the conflict with Israel.
The power of OPEC enabled the producing states at last to seize effective control over their oil industries. During the 1970s and 1980s, they moved toward vertical integration of the industry, nationalizing the extraction installations, establishing refineries and petrochemical industries, investing in their own transportation of products by tanker or pipeline, and creating their own marketing mechanisms. The power of the international oil companies in the region consequently dwindled. The British government's direct interest in Middle East oil evaporated in the 1980s when the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sold off government share holdings in British Petroleum and Anglo–Dutch Shell.
Unlike most western industrial countries, however, Britain enjoyed fortuitous good fortune in the discovery and successful development of indigenous oil resources. Its dependence on Middle East oil imports ended after 1980 with the arrival onstream of large oil reserves from the North Sea. As Britain's oil production grew, it was able to play a major role in weakening and ultimately destroying the effectiveness of OPEC. Although oil production costs were much higher in the North Sea than in the Middle East, the British, in concert with other non-OPEC producers, proved able to undercut the floor prices set by OPEC. Several OPEC members, desperate for revenues to sustain their commitments to large expenditures on armaments or social programs, broke cartel discipline and secretly sold at lower prices. With demand flagging, this led in 1986 to a sudden collapse in oil prices.
In the 1980s, Middle Eastern politics spilled over onto the streets of London with a spate of terrorist incidents, including assassinations, bombings, and embassy seizures. In 1984, a British policewoman was murdered in the street during a demonstration in front of the Libyan People's Bureau in Saint James's Square in London. The gunshots were fired by a Libyan diplomat from within the embassy. There were also attacks on several Israeli and Zionist targets in Britain, as well as on Jewish institutions that had nothing to do with Israel. The most shocking terrorist incident was the midair explosion in 1988 aboard a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which all the passengers and crewmembers were killed. Scottish and U.S. prosecutors sought to secure the extradition of two Libyan citizens suspected of responsibility for planting the bomb. But the Libyan government long refused to yield up the men, in spite of the imposition of economic sanctions by the United Nations in 1992.
Perhaps the most bizarre of all these episodes was the fatwa (legal opinion) issued in 1989 by the leading Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pronouncing a death sentence against the British novelist Salman Rushdie, who is of Indian Muslim background. Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was held by some, but not all, devout Muslims to contain blasphemous libels against Islam. Rushdie was forced to live in hiding for several years, protected by the British security services. In spite of pressure, at first private and discreet, later public and emphatic, from the British and other western governments, the Iranian theocracy proclaimed itself unable to rescind the decree even after Khomeini's death in 1989.
By the 1990s, the Middle East occupied a relatively lower place in British diplomatic preoccupations than in any other decade since World War I. British economic interest in the region became focused primarily on trade rather than investment. But with their reduced purchasing power following the collapse of the oil cartel, the Middle East oil producers no longer offered such abundant markets. British arms and engineering exports to the Middle East assumed greater importance as the balance of oil imports decreased. During the long-drawn-out Iran–Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, Britain, like other western countries, sold arms to both sides.
This policy rebounded against the British government in 1990 when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. The British joined the United States and twenty-six other countries in sending forces to the Gulf to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1991. Although Britain played only a secondary role in the war, the crisis lit a slow-burning fuse in British internal politics in the shape of a scandal concerning the authorization of earlier British arms sales to Iraq. The Conservative government was gravely discredited by the affair and several senior politicians and civil servants were strongly criticized by a committee of inquiry in 1995.
Britain's Legacy in the Middle East
The cultural and social residue of Britain's Middle East empire was slight. Unlike France, Britain left behind no significant network of religious or educational institutions. Anglican Christianity had found few adherents in the region. Its mainly British clergy in the Middle East was gradually replaced at all levels by indigenous priests. The British Schools of Archaeology in Jerusalem, Ankara, and Baghdad continued to make a central contribution to excavations; but the one in Baghdad was defunct by the 1990s, and the Jerusalem school was largely inactive after the 1967 War (it later opened an Amman branch). In the Sudan, the Christian population in the south retained some links with the Church of England, but the University of Khartoum (formerly Gordon College) no longer looked to the English university system as a model. In Jordan, the royal court and the army maintained intimate links with Britain and copied British styles. Elsewhere, few relics of British cultural influence remained. Unlike most other parts of the former British Empire, the imperial language did not survive into the post-colonial era in the Middle East as the primary means of communication. Insofar as English continued to be spoken, this was a reflection of new American, not old British, influence. Probably the most significant British cultural export was the World Service of the BBC: Its broadcasts in English, Arabic, and other languages commanded a wide audience in the region.
At no time in the twentieth century did the Middle East take priority over the rest of the world in British diplomatic or strategic preoccupations. Yet the most striking land victories of British arms in both world wars were won respectively at Megiddo in 1918 and at al-Alamayn in 1942; the resignations of three British prime ministers (Lloyd George, Eden, and Heath) were occasioned by Middle East conflicts; and Britain's most severe economic recession after the 1930s came about as a direct result of the interlinked political and energy crises in the Middle East in 1973. For all these reasons, the Middle East occupied a central position in the history of British external relations in the twentieth century.
see also abbas hilmi ii; abdullah i ibn hussein; alamayn, al-; allenby, edmund henry; anglo–iranian oil company; arab–israel war (1948); arab legion; arab revolt (1916); assyrians; atatÜrk, mustafa kemal; baghdad pact (1955); balfour declaration (1917); bevin, ernest; churchill, winston s.; eisenhower, dwight david; faisal i ibn hussein; fertile crescent; hijaz; husayni, muhammad amin al-; hussein ibn talal; khomeini, ruhollah; lausanne, treaty of (1923); lawrence, t. e.; league of arab states; mcmahon, henry; middle east defense organization (medo); middle east supply center (mesc); mossadegh, mohammad; nasser, gamal abdel; organization of petroleum exporting countries (opec); ottoman empire; pahlavi, mohammad reza; palestine arab revolt (1936–1939); paris peace settlements (1918–1923); philby, harry st. john; qaddafi, muammar al-; sÈvres, treaty of (1920); suez canal; tiran, strait of; united arab emirates; weizmann, chaim; white papers on palestine; world war i; world war ii.
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"Britain and the Middle East from 1914 to the Present." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Jun. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
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