The way the old British colonial empire divided up the Middle East is crucial to understanding today’s conflicts, writes John Lubbock
The First World War is 100 years old this year. You probably studied the causes of it at GCSE level history. Do you remember what it was about? Why we had to fight it? What we were fighting for? Nope, neither do I. Michael Gove does though. He reckons the soldiers who fought were “conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order”. I’m sure that the Labour movement, the Suffragette and Irish Nationalist movements, all of which won concessions in the face of government opposition, would be pleased to know that.
To be fair to Gove though, I’m pretty sure he never studied British colonialism or any of the liberation movements I just mentioned. He can’t help thinking it was a war to defend the ‘liberal order’, because wars where you win are ones where the state gets to make up comforting narratives which seek to justify the mass slaughter you’ve just taken part in. He probably doesn’t really understand how many promises the British government made to various groups during the war in order to defeat Germany and its allies.
It promised Palestine to the Zionist Federation. It promised all of Arabia to the Hashemite dynasty. It promised Syria and Lebanon to the French government and large parts of the Ottoman Empire to Russia. Maybe they were all so in awe of the zenith of the Pax Brittanica that they accepted these promises at face value. Perhaps they were all too engrossed in their respective conflicts to worry about the future.
It’s a historical fact, however, that the group which realised their respective promises the least were the Arabs, or specifically their Hashemite rulers. True, they didn’t represent all Arabs, and were the least well organised of the national bodies with which the British were attempting to do diplomatic business, but they nevertheless got left the highest and the driest when the dice stopped rolling.
Britain needed the support of the Hashemite leader, Hussein, Sharif of Mecca. As the protector of the holy sites and descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein was the only person who could counter the Ottoman Caliph’s proclamation of jihad for all Muslims against the British and their allies. The British government was afraid this could carry weight among their Muslim subjects in India, and was desperate to blunt it with an opposite proclamation of jihad by the guardian of the holiest site in Islam.
There is a historical debt which Britain owes to the Arabs. Not to the self appointed rulers of Saudi Arabia, who represent but a small ideological and political grouping within the Arab world, punching far above its weight economically. But this compromised political entity, in its alliance with Wahabism, one of the most extreme, fundamentalist emanations of Islam, can never and will never represent the Arab people at large. It can only divide them with its unforgiving extremism, aiming its brutal pogroms at any group which does not ascribe to their ideology.
We are in danger here of repeating the mistakes of the past. Britain felt that the Jewish people were owed a historical debt, and lobbying at the highest levels of the UK government by Chaim Weizmann, head of the Zionist Congress, helped ensure that Jewish nationalist ambitions were promoted and used for their propaganda purposes and for British imperial ends (even though the British government knew from 1923 that it would not be possible to create a Jewish homeland while ensuring the rights of the native Palestinian population).
The lies and double-dealing of the British government as it tried to prevent the collapse of its empire left Arab countries divided and are felt up to the present in the masochistic religious conflicts which are currently rupturing the Arab world.
British rule with blood on its hands
Like anyone else, Arab people are not homogenous. They are divided by class, political affiliation, religion and tribe. Take Bahrain, the Gulf state which I have researched and written on for the past 3 years. Within Bahrain you have Arab Shia, who call themselves Bahrana, and feel themselves to be the original people of that land. Then you have the Arab Sunnis, who emigrated and conquered the island after the Persians lost it. Then you have the Persian Shia, who married into the Arab Shia, and then the Sunni Persians, who married into the Sunni Arabs. Even this is a simplification of the ethno-cultural diversity of the island.
I once went to a book launch for James Barr’s A Line in the Sand, about the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which carved up the Ottoman lands between the colonial nations. I asked him whether the British government had ever considered the consequences of creating majority Shia states ruled by Sunni dynasties, like Iraq and Bahrain. He replied that Churchill had once asked a Foreign Office functionary to draft him a memo on this very subject, but asked that it be kept to less than 3 pages for the sake of expediency.
Britain shamefully let down the cause of Arab nationalism. Amir Faysal, who had led the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, was promised most of Syria, Iraq and central Arabia by Britain, and only accepted a Jewish homeland in Palestine under such conditions. In 1920, Britain reneged on its promise and left Damascus for the French to occupy. Faysal was defeated by French forces, many North African and Senegalese, at the Battle of Maysalun. Faysal went on to rule Iraq until his death in 1933, but the British and French partition of Ottoman lands ensured there would never be a unified Arab state. When Gamal Abdel Nasser revived the cause of Arab nationalism in the 50s, he was again thwarted by Western imperial economic ambitions. Arabs began to retreat from nationalism towards religion as a way of expressing their political will. Religion has been a very effective divide and rule strategy for the West, as it ensures constant infighting over petty religious differences.
Recently there has been interest by Western media in commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, along with surprise that the national memory of the tragedy has been purposefully obfuscated by the Chinese Communist Party. Yet in the UK, we do this not only with one shameful incident but with the entire 300 years of our colonial history.
There is much to atone for. Calls have been raised for HMG to apologise for particular colonial atrocities, such as the Amritsar massacre of 1919. Sadly this is not the only or the most recent massacre at Amritsar for which the UK bears some responsibility. Then you have the use of concentration camps in Kenya in the 1950s during the Mau Mau rebellion, less than a decade after the Holocaust. The surviving victims had to take their case to the High Court, where they won compensation and an apology of sorts. There will be no outright ‘sorry’ for these people, because the Foreign Office is worried that once they use the word, everybody will come asking for their own ‘sorry’. This in itself is the worst admission of colonial-era guilt.
These crimes stretch beyond the imperial era, continuing to affect people in the present day. Take the Chagos Islanders, who were forcibly evicted from their home on Diego Garcia so the US could build an air base there. Yes, that’s the air base they have been using for extraordinary renditions and extra-territorial interrogation practices. The US Navy even blew up part of the surrounding coral reef to get their construction vessels to the shore. In the 70s, the British informed the US that there were only ‘a few Man Fridays’ on the islands, and so evicting them would not be a problem. In 2009, a leaked US diplomatic cable showed this incredibly racist language was still in use at the upper echelons of US-UK diplomatic correspondence. This is to say nothing of the legally suspect invasion of Iraq and our vile arms trade, which has been used to support British foreign interests since the end of the empire.
When the UK is still committing vile, racist, exploitative acts against subaltern groups around the world, you can see why successive British governments want to kick the can of responsibility down the road. Eventually, someone needs to grow a backbone.
A large share of the problem rests on the fact that colonial history is not taught in school. You’d be forgiven for thinking that British history encompassed only 1066 to the Glorious Revolution of 1680, and then EVERYBODY WAS PLAYING CRICKET AND DRINKING TEA FOR 200 YEARS UNTIL THE CAUSES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR!!!!
Unless we confront our history honestly, as Germany has done (or was forced to do by their loss of the Second World War), we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes, as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan. See Jeremy Scahill’s fantastic and shocking Dirty Wars for an update on the latest imperial atrocities committed by our allies.
But have any of these actions had such devastating consequences as the selling out of Arab nationalist ambitions during the First World War? What did we get from this duplicity? Temporary control of Iraq and Palestine and access to oil. Plus ca change, rien ca change. The UK could have been just as prosperous by having good relations with an Arab state which it would have been the main actor in creating.
To play alternate history for a moment, while it’s likely that Israel still would have been created, the impact of this on Middle-East tensions would have been hugely reduced by the creation of an autonomous Arab state under a moderate Hashemite dynasty (who still rule Jordan). I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to theorise that a more stable and unified Arab state would have been likely to become more liberal and politically progressive than today’s Arab states have ended up.
What the populations of Arab countries have been searching for since the end of the Ottoman era is to be part of a nation which is an equal partner, and not a client state of the West. An autonomous Arab nation would have prevented the rise of Saudi Arabia, and its export of extremist Wahabi Islam, which has fuelled sectarian conflict all over the Islamic world. Israel would not have been able to expand into Palestinian lands, the pre-67 borders would have been enforced, there would have been no Gulf wars, no 9/11, no interminable civil wars in Syria and Iraq. There may well have been other conflicts, but a more stable Arab state could have encouraged greater progressivist reform, which would have made the demands of minorities like Kurds, Bidoon, Druze, Coptic Christians and others easier to meet. It was the upheaval of the crusades which brought to an end the era of Islamic scientific progress. Relieved of such conflicts, what scientific heights could a modern Arab civilisation have achieved by now?
So what should the British government do about this, ideally? It would take a fundamental ideological shift at the heart of the state to end the pursuit of British neoimperialist ambitions through sales of military equipment as well as covert military action, as chronicled in Adam Curtis seminal 90s documentary series The Mayfair Set, as well as in Andrew Feinstein’s recent depressing account of the history of arms trade, This is a long term shift that requires a radical rethinking of British history to properly look at the hubris, racism, paternalism and genocide which accompanied colonial projects.
The conservative establishment has never given up its belief in the entitlement to power of the British state, but they must be made to do so. HMG spends £700m a year on R&D subsidies to the arms industry, which could be reallocated to the renewable energy sector to employ the engineers which the arms industry would no longer need. This would allow us to break our damaging military and economic ties to the Saudi state, who are funding extremists like ISIS and creating the conditions for the persecution of minorities like the Ahmadis and Hazara in Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the outcome for the Arab world is no longer in Western hands. After ISIS’ capture of most of the North of Iraq, their statements indicated that their mission was to reverse the clumsy national engineering of the late colonial period:
“Statements released by [ISIS] claimed that the assault on Mosul was the beginning of the end of the Sykes Picot agreement… Isis commanders say they are fighting to destroy the post-Ottoman nation state borders and restore a caliphate that submits to fundamentalist Islamic law.”
As well as the attempted establishment of this extremist new caliphate between Syria and Iraq, the chaos in the region is finally allowing the Kurds to establish their control over the oil rich region around Kirkuk. While the US and UK are busy propping up the old boundaries created 100 years ago, others are already redrawing them.
As in Iran, Western meddling in Arabia has produced a more radical, extremist kind of political expression which is less likely to want to adopt Western liberal democratic values. In the wider region, strongmen leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan are looking away from the Western model towards China and Russia for forms of stable state control which are able to produce development quickly. Even parts of Europe, such as the increasingly reactionary Hungarian government are following this model.
When I was at university studying International Politics and Human Rights, I studied with a couple of older Somali guys who had left their country before the last government collapsed in 1991. They bemoaned the fact that the West could not stop meddling in their internal affairs, like it was some kind of intricate wooden model that just broke a little bit more every time someone tried to apply a little superglue. If everyone just left us alone, they said, we would sort it out ourselves.
Of course, the game theory riposte is that ‘we can’t leave it alone, because our enemies won’t do that’. But this is a zero-sum argument, and ignores that sometimes you must rise above the fray, for your own benefit as well as for others’. Perhaps the only long term solution to this is when economically advanced states start realising that their stability and survival depends on positive-sum resource solutions. Only when they realise that renewable resource production is a goal which they can work together to achieve, rather than working against each other to exploit the last, dwindling scraps of fossil fuel, will they decide to give up their meddling in resource-rich, developing nations.
But this only begs the question: when will humanity’s consciousness leave behind its ‘State of Nature’, Hobbesian past? How much longer must we go on falling into the psychological traps of the past, condemned to repeat the mistakes of colonialism which we neither remember, nor know how to stop repeating?
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