British policy in the Middle East prior to the outbreak of WWI was certainly complicated; but it has also been misunderstood in historiography. True, reputation was against the British government – the Empire was perhaps at its most powerful, governing around a fifth of the world’s population. However, it can be discerned that in the case of the Arab Middle East, British policy has been generally misinterpreted, i.e. it was not as imperially-minded as is commonly thought. Scholars, such as the late Roger Garaudy, conclude that British presence in the Middle East was based entirely on their own political and economic desires; others discern that the British agenda was aligned with the Zionist movement. Others still argue that the contradictory nature of British diplomacy in the period suggests that there was no dismissal of the possibility of an Arab state. It is simply rather obvious that West categorically misunderstood, and underestimated the importance of, the Arab/Zionist political conflict that was unfolding as Jewish immigration to the Ottoman provinces increased. A sense of ignorance, and perhaps naivety, is apparent in British rhetoric.
An Imperial Misunderstanding
Garaudy and co. generally cite two factors in favour of their argument, both of which are, admittedly, difficult to beat down. The first, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, made between Britain and France (and involved Russia until the October Revolution of 1917), organised the ‘splitting up’ of the Ottoman-Arab provinces into European-governed zones, which were to be formalised in mandates later that decade. Some say the discourse suggests such an agreement was a firm imperialist move on behalf of Britain and France, however there is evidence that contradicts this. The mandates explicitly ordered the Europeans to develop and stabilise the region, not colonise or exploit it. There was, in fact, little in terms of resources to be claimed at the time anyway – oil for instance did not emerge as a profitable industry until the late 1920s. Therefore, it is difficult to formulate an image of British imperialism based purely on the League of Nations mandates, as they were not hugely favourable to the Europeans.
The second factor, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, proclaimed Britain’s support for a Zionist state in the Middle East. On first glance, the declaration seems rather detrimental to the Arab cause. After all, the British, by declaring, had openly advocated the transfer of Arab land into Jewish hands. However, the incident revealed something about British motivation. The fact that the land in the Middle East was being retained for non-colonial purposes – i.e. for the state of Israel, gave premise for Arab hope that they as a people might be granted their own state before long. Hence, it can be discerned that Britain were not involved simply for imperialist gain.
An Ignorant Contradiction
The Hussein-McMahon Letters, a conversation held in 1915 between the Sharif of Mecca and the British High Commissioner to Egypt, pledged British support to the Arab fight for self-determination vis-à-vis the Ottomans. Such letters are explicit evidence of British intent to aid the Arabs in forming an autonomous state. However much British policy post-WWI seems to be detrimental to this pledge, it does not change that in 1915, the British were in fact in favour of granting the Arabs a nation of their own. In fact, one could argue that, in relation to Zionism, the British – in their own eyes – were never even contradictory. They had always intended to follow through with the orders that the League of Nations mandate would bring, as well as support the Zionist movement. This idea is possible because of the obvious and distinct British misunderstanding and ignorance of the conflict between Arab Nationalism and Zionism. From the British perspective, an autonomous Arab state and a Zionist nation could exist either as one entity, or in the same region. This explains why the British did not consider the aims of the Hussein-McMahon Letters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement nor the Balfour Declaration to be mutually exclusive.
Of course, in reality, to both the Arabs and the Jews, the simultaneous achievement of all three proclamations was fundamentally impossible. The Arabs, as is evidential from more recent history, did not accept the loss of land for the benefit of a Jewish nation. Similarly, the Zionists have always fought for increased influence in the Greater Syria and Sinai regions of the Arab provinces. Hence, whilst some consider that the British did not support an Arab state because of contradictory behaviour, this view is ignorant of the lack of British understanding of the political and religious climate in the region.
Therefore, it cannot be discussed that Britain had no intention of granting the Arabs an autonomous state of their own. The Hussein-McMahon Letters set the basis for pro-Arab policy, whilst to the British, the subsequent agreements did not harm the Arab cause. Of course, this misjudgement was a large factor in the problems that emerged after WWI. Some attribute the lack of emergence of Arab autonomy to the failure of the Arabs to harness their own potential; others, to Zionist agency. Neither should stain the British, who had simply rushed and misunderstood the dynamics of the situation.
Dawisha, Adeed, 2003. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press
Yapp, M.E., 1987. The Making of the Modern Near East. New York: Longman
Article originally published at http://jpewinfield.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/the-middle-east-during-wwi-a-reassessment/