The Creation of the Modern Middle East

Gil Regev, an Israeli lawyer and tour guide, gave a very informative, educational and articulate lecture at the AACI in Netanya on “The Creation of the Modern Middle East,” from a historical and political perspective, with the subtitle of ” A British Boarding School Mindset,“.   To summarize. his main thesis is that the oil that was discovered before WWI in the Middle East was the main prize for which the then Great Powers, Britain, France, Russia and Germany fought WWI, and that the European theater of the War was of secondary importance.

Up to WWI the map of the Middle East (that is thus designated from a British perspective) had a uniform color, it consisted entirely of the Ottoman Empire.  From the 17th century onwards it was clear that the Ottoman Empire was already in decline (see Bernard Lewis “What Went Wrong?“).  Britain’s primary objective in the Middle East was to cause the Ottoman Empire to be broken down into pieces that it could then add to its own Empire (hence the British “mindset”).  This allowed Britain to capture Egypt in 1882 and then Sudan in 1899.   But, with the discovery of oil in Persia in 1908 and the realization that this source would be needed to feed their growing mechanized military and naval forces, the focus of the Great Powers shifted to a competition for these resources.  Gil described this competition, but did not mention “the Great Game,” as the British, German and Russian competition for Middle Eastern oil was called, nor the story of the British spy Sidney Reilly (“Ace of Spies“) originally a Russian Jew, nor the colorful Basil Zaharoff, the arms dealer who advised King George V.

The Great Plan of German Kaiser Wilhelm II,  in order to outflank British naval power at sea, was to advance overland and to achieve this he made an alliance with the Ottoman Empire.   He not only offered them much money, but he agreed to train the Ottoman Army in Western military techniques and to build the trans-Arabian railway.  This was intended to bring German power thru the Middle East and into the oil fields of Kirkuk and eventually to threaten British control of India.  The first line of the German-built railway reached Haifa in 1905, that would have been the Mediterranean outlet for the German oil.  The second line the Hejaz Railway was due to reach Medina and Mecca, so important to the Sunni Muslims.  But, that branch only reached Medina in 1908, that was not sufficient to compete with the sea approach to Mecca for Muslim pilgrims via Jeddah and this route was of course controlled by the British navy in the Red Sea.  The branch to Kirkuk was never built.  These railway lines were the target of Lawrence of Arabia and his pro-British Beduin forces that sabotaged them to prevent Turkish reinforcements from reaching the front lines in WWI (see “Lawrence of Arabia“).

Every British schoolboy was taught that the cause of WWI was not the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz-Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary by Gavrilo Princip, but it had much deeper causes, including economic and political power struggles that were going on well before that proximal event.  Further, there were many restive ethnic groups that were struggling to break free from the yoke of repressive and ossified Empires.  Britain was adept at using these factors for its own interests, while the Kaiser was attempting against the tide to hold his own Empire and that of the Ottomans together.

Gil Regev’s analysis was that WWI broke out mainly as a result of the competition of these Great Powers in the Middle East, both for oil and the spoils of the Turkish Empire.  It was for this reason that the French and British concocted the Sykes-Picot Treaty in 1916, during the War, that divided the whole region into their own spheres of influence.  It is not coincidental that after WWI the subdivision of the former Ottoman Empire resulted in a French Mandate for Syria from which they carved out Lebanon to protect the Christians, and British Mandates for Palestine and Iraq (Mesopotamia).  These divisions were agreed at the San Remo Conference in 1920 and were sanctioned by the League of Nations in 1922.  Thus, Britain gained both the port of Haifa and the oil fields of Kirkuk.   They intended to keep Haifa and its surroundings as part of their own Empire and they gave the artificial States of Transjordan (later Jordan) and Iraq, cobbled together from Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions by the then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, for the two sons of the Hashemite Emir Feisal of Mecca to be Kings.   In this way the British intended to control the flow of oil from Kirkuk along the pipeline thru Jordan to Haifa.

My main disagreement with Gil’s analysis was that he specifically considers the Middle East theater of WWI as the main focus or prize of all the Great Powers.  But, on the contrary it was certainly a lesser theater of WWI than Europe.   As testified to by Winston Churchill himself, it was a central goal of British foreign policy for hundreds of years to prevent the rise of any great power that could control Continental Europe and hence threaten British hegemony.   Hence the British fought the French (remember Napoleon), the Spanish and the Germans.  It is clear from any analysis of amount of men and weapons poured into the battles in Europe that it was by far the main prize for both sides.

The tragic British defeat at Gallipoli was a poorly conceived and very secondary naval action to try to quickly take the Turks out of the war on the German side, after which Churchill was forced to resign from the Admiralty.  And the limited British Army in Egypt under Gen. Murray prevented the Turks recapturing Egypt, but failed to dislodge the Turks under German command from Gaza.  It was only when Gen. Allenby was sent there with greater reinforcements that the Turks were outflanked and forced to withdraw after the battle of Beersheva in 1917.

Gil made the point that in 1916 in the Sykes-Picot treaty there was no mention of a Jewish entity in Palestine (Israel).  But by 1917, according to Jonathan Schuur in his excellent book “The Balfour Declaration,” the British situation in Europe was so dire that they desperately needed the Americans to come in on their side, and they were prepared to promise anything.   It is no great news that the British promised the same things to two or three suitors, the British Empire was built on expediency.  Further, at the time of WWI, the real importance of oil and its future impact on the whole world was hardly envisaged. His contention that the British supported Zionism (at first) as an antidote to Jewish Bolshevism is questionable, when there were strong power centers in the Foreign Office in London and the State Department in Washington and elsewhere that opposed a Jewish State in Palestine, believing that it would inevitably be taken over by Russian Jewish Communists.  And who could blame them.


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