[an Arabic version of this article was published in Al-Hayat on 12 January 2017
How Western imperialism in the Middle East left a “poisonous well”
The growing furore over the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 2017 is a striking example of how Britain’s imperial past in the Middle East continues to have consequences. For Israel the centenary of the Declaration will be a time of huge celebration, for which it is already making preparations. But among Palestinians it is provoking anger and bitterness, and a petition has been launched demanding that Britain formally apologise for the Declaration. Meanwhile Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to sue Britain over the Declaration.
As the British broadcaster, journalist and writer Roger Hardy writes in his new book The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East, even after the European powers left the area “the memory and folk-memory of their rule remains. In the Middle East, events of a century ago such as the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration are remembered as if they happened yesterday, and in the blackest terms.”
The 2 November 1917 letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the British Jewish Zionist leader Lord Rothschild said the British government “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this.” However, it added: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. This is an obvious reference to the Palestinian Arab majority.
In her recent speech to Conservative Friends of Israel, British Prime Minister Theresa May described the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history” and pledged her government to celebrate its centenary “with pride”.
She was full of praise for Israel, “a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance, an engine of enterprise and an example to the rest of the world”. In contrast she scarcely mentioned the Palestinians, although she admitted that “people are correct when they say that securing the rights of Palestinians and Palestinian statehood have not yet been achieved. But we know they can be achieved. We in Britain stand very firmly for a two-state solution.”
Hardy writes: “Of all the problems bequeathed from the colonial era, the Palestine issue has proved the most enduring and the most toxic. By sponsoring Zionist settlement in Palestine and then failing to resolve the conflict between Arab and Jew which this provoked, Britain bears a direct and inescapable responsibility for creating the Palestine problem – which, despite claims to the contrary, remains one of the principal root causes of the region’s malaise.”
Hardy’s book is published in London by C. Hurst and Co, which also published his 2010 book “The Muslim Revolt: A Journey Through Political Islam”. The grim photograph on the book’s cover shows British soldiers in Jerusalem during the 1920-48 mandate period searching Palestinian Arabs for weapons.
"Western imperialism is not responsible for the ills of the modern Middle East,” Hardy writes. “But the Western world has played a significant role in shaping the region and its destiny.” His book” tells the story of how it did so, and how the Middle East emerged from the shadow of empire.”
The First World War of 1914-18 and the Peace Settlement that followed gave birth to the modern Middle East. During the First World War Britain made no fewer than four sets of promises on the future of the region. In the McMahon-Hussein letters of 1915 it promised Hussein bin Ali, the Sherif of Mecca, that if he joined the war and helped defeat the Turks he would become leader of an independent Arab state.
But in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 Britain and France decided to divide the Middle East between them. In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, and then in the Anglo-French declaration of November 1918 Britain and France promised “the complete and final liberation of those peoples who have been so long oppressed by the Turks”.
Hardy asks, “How, if at all, could these contradictory and ill-defined promises be honoured?” In fact, victorious Britain and France divided the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire between them in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement.
In the Peace Settlement, the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to govern Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, and the French the mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The mandatory power was supposed to groom the people it ruled for eventual independence. But Arab nationalists saw the mandates as a cover for colonial rule, and felt betrayed. “The ghost of the Peace Settlement has haunted Arab politics ever since,” wrote the British historian of Lebanese descent, Albert Hourani.
Hardy was a Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service for more than 20 years and is currently a Research Associate at Oxford University’s Centre for International Studies. The origins of his latest book go back to the ten-part radio series “The Making of the Middle East” that he made for the BBC World Service in the early 1990s.
Hardy interviewed a variety of people for the series: “In Ankara I was lucky enough to meet people who had known Ataturk; and in Cairo, two of the surviving Free Officers who had overthrown the British-backed monarchy in 1952.” Many of those he interviewed are no longer alive, “but their voices live on in the unedited tapes of their interviews.”
In writing his book Hardy has drawn on eyewitness accounts wherever possible: “Oral history tells us not just what happened but what it felt like to be there.” As well as his using stories from his interviews he has drawn on photographs, letters, memoirs and diaries, and on novels and poetry. Hardy succeeds admirably in bringing history vividly to life. His book is full of fascinating details and extraordinary characters, from the famous to the little-known.
In addition to the main index, the author provides a biographical index with short biographies of more than 100 of the personalities in the book. They include “nationalists and colonial administrators, soldiers and spies, consuls and courtesans, oilmen and missionaries, journalists and schoolteachers. Some played a role in the struggle for independence, others simply observed it.”
Hardy was keen to include the perspectives of women. The first eyewitness in the book is the Turkish writer, nationalist and feminist Halidé Edib, the only woman in Ataturk’s inner circle. She wrote two volumes of memoirs depicting the Turkish struggle for independence and its transition from empire to republic.
Among the other women depicted are the Palestinian poet and feminist Fadwa Tuqan; Lebanese-born Anbara Salam Khalidi (wife of Palestinian scholar and educationalist Ahmed Samih al-Khalid)i; British writer, traveller, and colonial official Gertrude Bell (who helped install Faisal as king of Iraq in 1921); the Syrian Druze princess and singer Amal al-Atrash, known as Asmahan; the British traveller and writer Dorothy Ingrams, wife of the colonial administrator Harold Ingram and author of “A Time in Arabia” and the British journalist Monica Dehn who worked in Palestine in 1944-48.
The book has ten main chapters, each telling of the struggle for independence in a particular country, starting with the emergence of modern Turkey in the 1920s and moving on to Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, Syria, Israel and Jordan in the 1940s, Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s and Algeria and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the 1960s.
Muhammad Mossadeq (Wikimedia Commons)
There is also a chapter on Iran chronicling the rise and fall of Muhammad Mossadeq, the elected prime minister who nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. The British and US intelligence agencies MI6 and the CIA conspired to get him overthrown in a 1953 coup. Hardy comments that neither Britain nor the US understood “that by removing a popular nationalist and restoring an unpopular monarch they were sowing the seeds of hostility to the West which, two and half decades later, exploded in the Islamic revolution of 1979.”
The Suez crisis three years later was an unsuccessful attempt at another regime change, engineered secretly by Britain, France and Israeli to try and get rid of the troublesome President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Hardy notes that the five great disasters of British foreign policy in the last 70 years were all in the Middle East. They were Palestine (in 1948), Iran (1953), Egypt (1956), Aden (1967) and Iraq (2003).
In two of these disasters – Palestine and Aden – Britain withdrew from situations it was unable to manage and they are “painful imperial humiliations”. Three were fateful interventions – the overthrow of Mossadeq, the attempted overthrow of Nasser, and the overthrow through invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Hardy endeavours to give eyewitness accounts from the sides both of the imperial rulers, and of those they ruled. The distinguished Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani told Hardy how on 14 July 1958 she had returned from Cambridge University to Baghdad for the summer vacation and was sleeping with her family on the roof. Suddenly she heard shots ring out and she remarked to her brother it must be some quarrel between two tribes. “This is Cambridge education,” he retorted angrily. “The idea that there are tribes on the streets of Baghdad!” In reality, she had heard the first shots of the revolution that toppled the British-backed monarchy.
When she realised what was happening, Al-Gailani rushed down to the street in her nightdress. “For many Iraqis, it was a moment of exultation and unity: a coming-of-age,” Hardy writes. “For Britain, it was something more sombre.”
Hardy stresses there is no single uniform legacy of empire in the Middle East. At one extreme are Palestine and Algeria, where “colonialism is a raw wound”. In a number of other countries the imperial period left problems which persist until today, through for example favouring certain sects or ethnicities.
After independence the new Middle Eastern states failed to live up to hopes and expectations, and there is a general “crisis of the state”, at the heart of which is an absence of legitimacy. During the regional turmoil of the past six years, some commentators and political actors – including Daesh – have claimed that the Sykes Picot agreement under which the imperial powers drew up Middle Eastern borders “has been torn up, leaving a scarred landscape of failed and failing states.”
But Hardy disagrees. He does not see these “lines in the sand” as at the heart of the problems of the Middle East but, rather, what goes on within these lines. In fact, the most striking thing about these lines is how durable they have proved to be. “It is not self-evident that the new jihadists – or insurgent minorities such as the Kurds – will succeed in permanently redrawing the map.”
While criticising Middle Eastern governments, Hardy is also highly critical of Western actions since the direct imperial era ended. The West has failed to understand the depth of anti-Western feeling: “Hostility to Western power and influence is not baseless, but rooted in a shared historical experience.”
The West is deeply implicated in the region’s failures, Hardy concludes. Western policy has locked the region “into a web of interests which the West feels a constant need to protect, either through proxies or through direct intervention.” Western intervention in various forms thus seems destined to continue. It is to be hoped that while doing so, Western governments will learn some of the lessons from their history in the Middle East.