British Empire Books

Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East

AuthorJohn Keay
PublisherJohn Murray
First Published2003

I really do like the way that John Keay approaches his history. He writes books that have a good, wide perspective and yet they are full of fascinating vignettes and add all the detail that a casual reader could possibly want to indulge themselves with. He wrote Last Post detailing the end of empires in the Far East. This book is very much in the same vein but concentrating on the British and French Empires in the Middle East together with the dawning Cold War polarities. It helps put the present world into a wider context, even if it only goes back to the colonial days.

The book starts at the dawn of the Twentieth Century by examining and explaining the British influence and presence in Egypt. In fact, I had never come across the 'Dinshawai incident' which is pretty much the first scene that it presents in the book, but you can see why the author used this a jumping off point to explain the balance of hostility and power that repelled and kept these nations and peoples in one another's orbit. It is a fitting, if tragic morality tale that sets the scene and the pace for the entire book.

Another nice feature of John Keay's books is the way that it takes a regional view point. Therefore the imperial rivalries of the British and French are playing out in agonising slow motion. Despite having much in common, the competition between these empires certainly helped to undermine one another's authority. I found it fascinating to read of the French influence in Lebanon and Syria which helps explain much of the complexity and competition in those countries to this modern. Of course, this is indeed the point of these books. To show that today's problems have long and tangled roots.

The colony that would bequeath the world the most in terms of problems and difficulties was that of Palestine. This book does a good job and trying to piece together the contradictory and often conflicting motivations for the British once they had relieved the Ottomans of administering this stretch of land. Again, it is nice to see this complicated story in the wider perspective of the region as a whole. The British were indeed trying to keep their influence on a region wide basis. Therefore, the Palestinian Mandate was only a small part of a much larger picture. John Keay is good at reminding us of the British concerns over the Suez Canal, of keeping the Hashemite kingdoms in place and of the rising importance of oil. Palestine had its role to play, but it was a surprisingly small priority for the British, although they could little know what impact it would have in the intervening decades since the British withdrew from the Mandate in 1948.

In many ways, Palestine would be a metaphor to show the declining influence of the British as they began to lose their hegemony to the Americans during the Post-War period. No event illustrates this more than the Suez Canal debacle. The British were convinced they were still a regional if not a world power, but when they acted without American support or permission and in the days before a US presidential election, the British would discover that they were no longer the world power that they had once been. The resulting humiliation would bring British influence crashing down in the region. Cold War priorities replaced Imperial dreams.

The only caveat that I would add to John Keay's otherwise excellent book is that the perspective and context to explain today's problems may not be long and deep enough. It is a natural assumption for the author to lump many of today's problems on the colonial empire building that went before it. However, I would remind the readers of this book that there was plenty of involved and complicated history in the region before the European Empires even turned up. Animosities and tribal loyalties can be traced back to the Crusades, the Roman Empire and even earlier in some cases. The Imperialists and Cold Warriors can take much of the blame, but there is a lot more to go around.

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by Stephen Luscombe