Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January 4th, 2018

Britain and the Arab Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th January, 2018

AD409BBC-8DAA-47D4-92AA-A809A7CA3A16Britain’s war against the Ottoman Empire, following the Turks’ decision to side with Germany in the First World War, was considered a side-show by many generals and politicians in London, who believed that the Western Front was the real battlefield. Yet British intervention in the Middle East, partly in harmony with Arab forces keen to liberate themselves from the Ottoman yoke, was to have resounding consequences that are still being felt today. Rober H Lieshout’s weighty study of the subject, essentially covering the years 1914-1919, Britain and the Arab Middle East (I B Tauris, £29.95), examines the voluminous public records covering the period, notably of the War Cabinet and Foreign Office, supplemented by diaries, presenting material in such detail that one almost believes one is present. There were wrangles aplenty about just how much encouragement the British Government should give Sherif Hussein of Mecca regarding the putative independent Arab Kingdom that was meant to come into being after peace was agreed, but there is little doubt that he and his sons were largely duped. Despite the Entente, France comes over very badly most of the time, and whereas by 1918 the Lloyd George government believed that the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up spheres of influence in the non-Turkish parts of the Ottoman Empire could not stand in its original form, because of the Wilsonian doctrine of self determination, Paris dug its heels in, determined that France should have its Syrian and Lebanese cake and eat it. Another issue that gave rise to huge disagreements within the British government was the Balfour Declaration, whose centenary was commemorated last year. The only Jewish member of the Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, was strongly opposed to the Zionists’ pleas as he believed the Arab population of Palestine would not agree to Jewish domination there and moreover that Jews elsewhere might suffer further persecution in their home countries if a Jewish state were proclaimed. Some of the most valuable parts of Lieshout’s book cover these sometimes heated discussions and the personalities involved. Largely, he lets the documents speak for themselves, keeping critical commentary and theorising to a minimum, which allows the reader to make up their own mind. Presumably for marketing purposes, the book uses a fetching photograph of T E Lawrence in Arab garb on the cover, though he was in reality quite a marginal figure, despite the publicity that his romantic derring-do later generated. The index will be of use to serious scholars of the period, as well as to amateur historians of the Middle East, as this well-documented narrative is a valuable resource.

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