The initial importance of the Middle East in the British foreign policies is anchored on two important variables: First is that Britain has been concerned with the security of land and sea routes that led to the south of Asia during the nineteenth century; and, second, the opening of the Suez Canal added to the strategic importance of the Gulf. According to Bilgin (2005), the practices that the British policymakers adopted during early part of its foray in the Gulf included the signing of a General Peace Treaty with Arab tribes of the Gulf in order to suppress piracy and slave traffic, the capture of Aden and the assumption of the responsibility for Bahrain’s external affairs in return for the Sheikh of Bahrain’s pledge not to prosecute war, piracy and slavery by sea. (p. 90) With the rivalries between the British, German and Ottoman empires, the British policy shifted from “security by influence to security by occupation.” (p. 90)
The British imperialism in the Middle East was the culmination of the unprecedented territorial expansion that happened after the defeat of the German and Turkish empires in the nineteenth century. By 1918, Britain acquired her African territories and much of the Middle East, wherein after the war the country was awarded her protectorates.
Middle East’s Importance
The growing power of Britain over the region increased as it constructed railways and road networks, which further reinforced the link between the Mediterranean and the Gulf coasts. Then, in 1914, oil was discovered in Iran as well as the Arabian peninsula. This multiplied the Gulf’s strategic importance particularly since the Royal Navy had switched from coal to oil in 1912. Even though no estimates were yet available in regard to the magnitude of the Middle East’s oil reserves, British policy makers were already bent on securing its stake in the region. (Adelson1995, p. 95-100) Britain became a stakeholder in several companies exploiting oil in the Middle East.
After the First World War, the region was divided into British and French protectorates by virtue of Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916. During this period, new states were created, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, regardless of the multitudinous ethnic makeup of territories. (Milton-Edwards 2006, p. 26) With the partition of the Middle East into smaller state-protectorates, Britain was able to maintain stability and foothold in the region. As in the parts of the world under Britain’s imperialism, authority came in both direct and indirect controls of specially selected elites and local agents and the increase in the dependency on the British military not only for state coercion but for stability in the modernization process.
Institutionalization of Control
With the entry of the twentieth century and the further discoveries of oil, Britain sought to strengthen its hold in the Middle East through the institutionalization of its influence through its existing historical relations with the several Arab tribes. Here, one sees that instead of administering the Middle East directly as a possession or a colony, the strategy was more indirect. Britain subverted the tribal societies by transforming them from democratic and participatory forms of government with no fixed line of succession towards royal families. Ismael, Ismael and Jaber (1991) wrote that Britain was able to accomplish this by concentrating economic and political power in the hands of one ruler who is favorable to Britain, one who readily exchanged authority based on community consensus for power based on British support. (p. 453) By assuring and supporting the royal families’ security and authority, Britain was able to enforce a dependency on the part of the Arab states in such a way that it was able to finally tie the geopolitical future of the Middle East with that of the West. The British relationship with the royal families would continue throughout the British imperialism in the region and would extend even after Britain left the entire Gulf in 1971.
The British relationship, previously mentioned, would impact the Middle East in two ways:
All of the states of the region have royal families as the central and most powerful institution in their political structures, and the region is politically fragmented into independent states. (Ismael, Ismael and Jaber, p. 453-454)
Britain’s imperialism in the Middle East can be considered as hegemonic since during much of the period, it has the capacity to impose its authority. During this time, it still commanded the world’s number one sea power and there were no serious challenge to its special position in the Gulf, except for the minor challenge posed by Iraq and Iran.
Britain and the Jewish Pioneers
An important dimension in the rise of British imperialism in the Gulf is the Jewish factor. This is seen in two fronts: first, the support for British imperialism in the region; and, second, the creation of Israel and the Palestinian conflict.
With the shift of the Royal Navy from coal to oil, oil imperialism emerged. Central to this development was the Jewish financier, Marcus Samuel, whose part in developing the oil tanker became pivotal in the large-scale transport of oil through the Suez Canal. In addition, during the First World War, Samuel ordered his Shell Company to make no profit out of the war and placed the entire Shell fleet in the service of the British admiralty. (Feuer 1989, p. 83) These factors launched the Jewish influence over Britain’s policy towards the Middle East and, finally culminating in the British support for the creation of Jewish state. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration was promulgated, wherein the British government gave its tacit support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. According to Feuer, such restless creative drive from the Jewish community has been the psychological source for imperialism in every historical age – the Romans, the British, the Czarist Russia. (p. 84)
The declared goal of the influential Jewish community in Britain included relentless pressure on Britain for Jewish statehood. With the Balfour Declaration, ratified and, hence, legitimized by 52 governments represented in the League of Nations, the creation of Israel was confirmed with the Zionist movement’s recognition. This would eventually lead to the protracted Palestinian conflict, a major factor in the weakening of British power in the Middle East later on.
As stated previously, the major part of the British imperialism in the Gulf was motivated by Britain’s intent in preserving her world power status. Britain took it upon herself to be involved in the Middle Eastern affairs because the French and the Germans were there and, again, because of its preoccupation with securing the British authority in India. This is despite the fact that the region was a stressful environment. And so, in the end, the foray in the Middle East took its toll on Britain’s imperial resources. As it turned out, the region proved to be a hotbed of rival imperialisms, with several countries vying for their respective trade routes and the agrarian wealth of the Fertile Crescent. In addition to this, the Palestinian conflict also threatened the stability of the region, further stretching and draining Britain’s capability to maintain stability. The creation of the Jewish state further fueled Arab nationalism, contributing to an increasing resentment among the Arabs of the British control.
Other variables would also contribute to the weakened British influence in the Gulf. One of this is the emergence of the United States as a world power.
During the 1960s Elizabeth Monroe wrote extensively about the British imperialism in the Gulf region. She referred to the period of 1914 to 1956 as Britain’s “moment” in the Middle East. Indeed, as with the points explored by this paper, the period, short it might be in comparison with the British imperialism elsewhere, it was momentous primarily because the policies implemented were pivotal in the geographical, political and economic development of the modern Middle East. Perhaps, most important of these is the fact that the period from the late nineteenth-century towards the 1950s saw how the basic framework for the Middle Eastern political life was firmly established. It was during this period in the wherein new states and governments emerged. The systems introduced, in fact, still exist strongly even today. By the time Britain left the Gulf, the region is already consisted of modern states with centralized administrations, ones with flags and internationally recognized boundaries.
With the British imperialism in the Middle East, the Gulf became a region shaped by Western influences. And so, although it is culturally different from the West, it became politically interlocked with it, even to a point when it becomes, in Edwards-Milton’s words, “almost an appendage of the western power system. (p. 26)
Initially, the British motivation for its imperialism in the Middle East is primarily to uphold its world power status. This is demonstrated in its rivalry with France and, more importantly, its desire to protect its imperial lifeline to India. With the discovery of oil, however, the motivations changed and the Gulf assumed a new strategic importance.
Although the British imperialism in the region did not resemble the conventional British colonization of other territories, Britain’s treaties with the Arab states, allowed it to control the Middle East’s foreign relations and exploit the region’s resources. In the Gulf’s history, hence, no power could rival that of Her Majesty’s government in terms of political and economic influence, at least within the period of its imperialism from 1914-1956. The British experience in the Gulf displayed the might of the British Empire on its death throes. Nonetheless, it was able to leave a lasting mark to the point of radically changing the political and geographical face of the region.
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Bilgin, P., Regional security in the Middle East: a critical perspective. London: Routledge, 2005.
Feuer, L., Imperialism and the anti-imperialist mind. Transaction Publishers, 1989.
Ismael, Tareq, Ismael, Jacquiline and Jaber, Kamel., Politics and government in the Middle East and North Africa. University of Florida, 1991.
Milton-Edwards, B., Contemporary politics in the Middle East. Polity, 2006.
Monroe, E., Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956. London: Chatto and Windus, 1963.