The British Empire Library

A History of the Middle East

by Peter Mansfield

Peter Mansfield wrote this magisterial overview of Middle Eastern history and politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s as something of a culmination of his own life in the midst of the Middle East and its tumultuous political and cultural events. Interestingly, his own career in the Middle East was born out of his own imperial connections as someone who worked in the Foreign Office but who resigned in disgust at Anthony Eden's Suez debacle in 1956. He remained in the Middle East for most of the rest of his life meaning that he had a front row seat of many of the complexities and issues of the region which he conveys with such conviction and authority in this book. It was such a popular book that it went through four editions including this posthumous edition which was added to by Nicolas Pelham in order to bring into the Middle East's story some of the important events which occurred after Peter Mansfield's death in 1996.

What makes this book so compelling is the extent of the overview he provides and particularly the way that he highlights the impact of colonialism on the region. He does of course go back way beyond the colonial era, but the importance of colonial contact, formal and informal domination, resistance to it and its consequences are all highlighted in this history, rightfully in my opinion, much more than in many other books with similar ambition. For colonial purposes, the author picks out the relative successes of the Ottoman Turks and Persians at maintaining some independence for much of their history although by no means remaining immune from Western interest and influence. He also examines the Arab responses to colonialism in the Persian Gulf, the Levant the Arabian peninsular itself and of course Egypt which straddled the Ottoman/Arab world somewhat. In general, much of the Middle East avoided direct imperial takeover and control. Instead, a complicated series of protectorates, alliances, treaties and understandings gradually saw the British rise to ascendency in the region in the Nineteenth Century - notwithstanding and possibly thanks partly to Napoleon's interest in Egypt. The Laissez Faire British were ostensibly reluctant colonialists for much of the Nineteenth Century as they sought to avoid direct expenses for governing societies which already had functioning (if often inefficient and corrupt) regimes. The overwhelming initial interest of Britain in the region was as a transit point to what it regarded as its far more important Indian colonies. But still the Middle East's geographical relationship to the wider world meant that Europe went from seeing the Middle East as a barrier to expansion to the Middle East eventually becoming a facilitator to expansion.

Peter Mansfield does a particularly fine job at explaining the appeal and importance of Muhammad Ali in Egypt in transforming the fortunes of this country and helping to push it out of Ottoman domination and towards its own nationhood. Muhammad Ali is a fascinating character and one who is under appreciated in impact and import outside of Egypt itself. Unfortunately for Egypt, his successors tended not to possess his level of political acumen nor his levels of charisma and yet kept his ambitions for modernisation. The ultimate consequences of his successors' weaknesses was to replace Ottoman domination with British domination especially after the construction of the Suez Canal and other costly domestic infrastructure and organisational reforms. A country tottering towards bankruptcy and undergoing domestic turmoil led to the British foregoing their reluctance to involve themselves in the domestic affairs of a country that had magnified its own importance massively thanks to these same infrastructure and transport investments. The Suez Canal, far from securing Egypt's independence and financial opportunities actually led to the complete opposite result of that intended. The British moved in ostensibly to restore law and order in the midst of a coup, but more realistically to secure their own lines of communication and military-economic priorities. Although even here in Egypt a complicated fiction was created so that British pre-eminence could be disguised and understated. However, increasing Egyptian nationalism was not fooled and the author does a very clear job at explaining just how the British were challenged domestically over the next half century.

I have to say that I found it particularly useful for the author to track the relative successes and failures of the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire and the various Arab regions. The author breaks these down again somewhat so that the story of the Persian Gulf is quite distinct from that of the Levant regions which in turn was quite different from that of the Arabian peninsular and desert which again was different from that of Egypt as already intimated. Of course, they overlapped and inter-related with one another. They sometimes competed fiercely whilst at other times collaborated closely. The Arabs themselves went through phases of joining closer together and of pulling apart - all of which is tracked nicely by the author. The interaction of the various faith groups is also explained clearly and once again the role of the colonial powers is instrumental in many of their stories as the author makes clear. One criticism that you might level at the book is that there is repetition at times. I would say that this is an almost inevitable consequence of explaining the various journeys of the various regions and peoples in the book and can hardly be avoided. Some events are going to be crucial to different actors in different ways and so it is only fair to repeat those events when discussing them a second or a third time from the point of view of another region or grouping. Besides, it provides good reinforcing of important concepts so it in no way diminished the narrative for me.

The other transformative event of the region is also covered in depth and that is the development of the oil industry in the Twentieth Century. Once again, it was imperial and especially British imperial concerns which helped to transform this nascent industry into a key world commodity. It was the Royal Navy's decision to switch from coal to oil which provided a vital infusion into demand for oil and renewed colonial interest in the region. The fallout of the First World War and the implosion of Ottoman influence through much of the region allowed Britain to extend its interest into areas that would prove highly profitable. Although Britain's missed opportunity with the rising power of the Saud family is also explained and how this allowed the Americans to manoeuvre themselves into this growing economically important region. Perhaps it was Britain's reticence to take formal colonies and attempt to use the cheaper and less onerous option of protectorates and informal influence that allowed this door to be opened to such rivals. Is is no coincidence that it was in the nominally independent Persian Empire that Britain's first oil contracts were signed and sealed. Once again though, similar to the building of the Suez Canal, this development would only increase colonial interest in the region and not remove it.

The Second World War would see the Middle East transformed into Britain's main military operations against the Axis for much of the war and highlighted Britain's regional pre-eminence at the time. However, much political and diplomatic capital was used up in order to fight the war in that part of the world without hindrance or domestic difficulties. As the author makes clear, the post-war world was going to be increasingly hostile to the pre-eminent colonial power as the developing Cold War saw her challenged by stronger influences than she had had to contend with before. Britain's failure to appreciate the changed realities were of course exposed by the Suez debacle which, as I mentioned above, were personally experienced by the author. In a strange way, the rising Nationalism and humiliation in Egypt taught Britain that a better way of leaving its colonies might be with handshakes and smiles rather than with conflict and rancour. Harold Macmillan demonstrated this in most of the rest of Africa within a decade of Suez. Likewise, Britain was able to leave much of the Middle East on reasonable terms with the obvious exception of Aden. With the loss of Aden and the Labour Party's East of Suez abandonment, her military and diplomatic power evaporated overnight. The economically stronger Americans had been keen to displace the British from the region ever since World War Two and did little to prop her technical ally. One last foothold of a military base in the Middle East region remains to this day in Cyprus where the gift of a thankful Ottoman Turkish Sultan resulted in the present of Cyprus as a colony in 1878 and which although granted independence still hosts Britain's eyes and ears over the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in general. One tiny reminder of Britain's former imperial pre-eminence in the region.

Basically, this is a book about the History of the Middle East where the colonial experience is an integral and key part in understanding the history of the region. It is not merely an adjunct or an inconvenient phase that had to be endured. Rather, it is portrayed as a fundamental part of the story of the region and one which has many consequences (positive and negative) which lead on to the present day. If you really do want to understand the Middle East, you have to understand the role that imperialism and colonialism had in shaping and directing the various polities and areas within the region itself. Its effect was far from uniform even less was it predictable. But its influence was important!

British Empire Book
Peter Mansfield
4th Ed. 2013


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