Book Review: Britain & the Middle East: From the Earliest Times to 1950 by Sir Reader Bullard

When I started reading Britain and the Middle East: From the Earliest Times to 1950 (published in 1951) by Sir Reader Bullard, I had a strong feeling that I was venturing into the unknown. At first, I felt very uncomfortable with this feeling, especially that I have always considered myself to be knowledgeable reader. I felt discomfort the author seemed to know too much and at the same time, he did not bother to quote authorities on the issue. Yet, after researching the background of the author, I realized he was His Majesty’s Minister and later ambassador at Tehran between 1939 and 1946, and hence, was speaking as an insider authority on the issue. In Addition to this, the author had a long career related to British foreign policy in the Middle East. The author points out that “the purpose of this book is to set forth briefly the relations which the people and the government of these Islands have had with the Middle East from the earliest records of such relations until the present day.”

Indeed, the author allocates the entire introduction and two chapters to the discussion of the ancient relationships between the Phoenician merchants and the British islands, and indulges in a long descriptive account on how these relations developed or were interrupted over the years. He then discusses the involvement of the British islands in the crusades and how Britain had from the start tried to avoid getting involved in the fighting between the Christians of the East and West.  In the second part of the book, the author describes the adventures made by British merchants into the middle and far parts of the east. These adventures were aimed at achieving three major objectives: to establish trade lines, links and centers especially in India, to procure resources and raw material necessary for British markets and industries, and to create markets for British exports. For Britain, India was the ultimate strategic interest that could not be compromised under any circumstances. The Middle East became increasingly important for Great Britain, mainly because it came halfway between Britain and India. Britain’s worst fear was disorder in the ailing Ottoman Empire because such disorder could simply disrupt and damage British interests and trade in India. Hence, the Middle East maintained a very important position in the mind of British policy makers throughout 18th century.

But Britain was not the only major power in Europe, and others were also interested in getting concessions from the Ottoman Empire, concessions that Britain considered with fear and suspicion because they could eventually undermine Britain’s trade in India. Prussia, France, Russia, Italy and Austria-Hungary were the major powers whose conflicts were often the source of worries for Great Britain, especially that all these powers were in a competition to get as many gains as they could from the Ottoman Empire. One common gain that these powers received for example was the Capitulations system which gave these powers the ability to establish consular and foreign courts of law to try their own criminal or victim subjects on Ottoman territories. While Britain had to acknowledge and recognize these concessions, partly because she herself was granted many of them, it was also reluctant to support the major powers against the Ottoman Empire. It can be said that for much of the period between the 17th and early 20th century, Britain’s foreign policy towards the Ottoman Empire was based on the strategy of maintaining the status quo. The “status quo” as defined by Sir Reader Bullard depends on maintaining the existence of the Ottoman Empire and preventing its disintegration. Whenever the status quo could no longer be maintained whenever regional local powers (especially in Egypt and Persia) rose to challenge the authority of the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain tried to adopt the position that would secure its economic interests in the region. For example, with Mohammed Ali of Egypt, Britain adopted a policy of appeasement in order to prevent a skew towards the French, but at the same time, it also adopted a policy of fist-twisting to prevent Mohammed Ali from seriously threatening the Ottoman Empire or shifting his interests towards the French. Previous to this, Britain went as far as going to war with Napoleon to end his occupation of Egypt or establishing a French sphere of influence in the region that would endanger British trade interests in the region.

Following 1870, Britain’s interests were threatened by a new strong comer to the European political scene, namely Germany. Germany was the only European power that did not impose its interests on the Ottoman Empire, and accordingly, this helped the Germans to present themselves as friends and allies, unlike the other western powers, Britain included, who had always forced the Ottomans to offer concessions. The result of the German-Ottoman friendliness resulted in the birth of the “Drang Nach Osten” that is, the German railway from Berlin to the Arab Gulf. For Great Britain, this was a serious threat to its interests on two levels. First of all, it would have given Germany the ability to cut off British trade lines by land to India. Secondly, it could have given Germany a strong presence in those Middle Eastern regions where discoveries were showing the presence of fields rich in oil.

Prompted by these fears, British diplomacy immediately moved in a more aggressive dimension. First of all, the British exerted pressures on Germany and the Ottoman Empire in order to end the railway project in Basra of Iraq rather than in Arab Peninsula. Secondly, Britain concluded protection agreements with the prince of Kuwait and other chiefs in the area, offering them protection against any kind of threat, given that they would not sell or concede any of their territories to other parties.

Britain’s attempt to maintain the “status quo” however, continued to suffer from the fast changing political map in Europe and the Middle East, particularly as the Ottoman Empire continued to weaken more than ever. Sir Reader Bullard admits that the British policy was basically short-term oriented, but there was no alternative, especially as Britain’s interests were mainly focused on the protection of its trade with India. It is true that the land route to India passing through the Middle East was not as important as the sea route, the British were aware that if the middle east fell into hostile hands, the sea route would also be seriously threatened.

In the light of this policy, Britain’s policy towards the Middle East went in three directions. In the first direction, Britain tried to secure a friendly and strategic relationship with the Ottoman Empire. In the second direction, Britain tried to secure an alliance with the various Arab chiefs, especially in Iraq, the Gulf region, and Egypt such that whenever relationships with the Ottoman Empire fell apart, the British still had access to the region, supported by formal treaties and agreements. In the third direction, Britain moves its diplomacy towards Persia where British relations were more complicated because of the frequent collision with the Russian interests and also as a result of the enmity resulting from religious and political causes between Persia and the Ottoman Empire.

Hence, to describe the situation of the British diplomacy in the Middle East before the outbreak of World War I, Bullard admits that Great Britain was pursuing a policy of emergency, trying as much as possible to maintain the status quo, but at the same time, carrying out policies on the side to secure British interests in the Middle East in case the status quo was suddenly shuffled. Bullard also admits that these side policies contributed to the weakening of the Ottoman Empire and hence to threatening of the status quo in the long term, but then this was the only option for Britain to take amidst instability.

The last three parts of the book cover the twentieth century up to the five years following World War II. Following the Turkish revolution of 1908, hostility towards Britain rose in Constantinople and the friendship of Britain was strongly replaced by that of Germany which to the Ottomans was seen as the enemy of Russia, their natural enemy. This shift could not be averted by the British, especially following their embarrassment of the Ottoman Empire in Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and the Gulf, where Britain had provided supported to parties hostile to the Ottoman Empire. The traditional British diplomacy, therefore, found itself victim to its own doings, but still, there was no serious shift in this diplomacy. Great Britain continued to play for the appeasement of all sides in order to secure its economic and political interests in the Middle East and India. Yet, the British were also aware of the fast changes in the Middle East and the threat of an overwhelming war in Europe, and hence, for this purpose, moved in aggressively, promising support to the Arab leaders such as Sharif Hussain and his rival Ibn Saud. In the middle of World War I, Britain’s promises to these parties, the promises made to the French and Russians in the Sykes-Picot secret agreement, commitment to establish a National Home for the Jews in Palestine and various other commitments were obviously very conflicting. However, due to the lack of a clear strategy, and based on the immediate need to prevent German penetration in the Middle East, Britain had to go ahead with this diplomacy whose outcomes at the end of World War I proved to be fatal.

Bullard apparently admits this as he admits that “When the war came to an end. H.M. Government found themselves involved in a complex of Middle Eastern problems which became the more difficult the longer a solution was postponed. Yet delay was inevitable: the various declarations and promises called for fulfillment; many interests parties had to be consulted” (p.86). To illustrate, Britain had promised Arabs independence, and at the same time, it promised the French a free hand in large parts of Syria (including Syria, Lebanon and Palestine). Meanwhile, the 1917 Balfour Declaration also promised the Zionist Organization in return for Jewish support of the Allies during the war, a homeland in Palestine. Fulfilling all these conflicting promises after the war was impossible.

While the secret agreements with the French were clear in wording and objectives, the promises given to the Arabs through correspondences were very vague, and so were those given to the Jews. Accordingly, following 1919, Britain tried to play on the vagueness of these promises, and used the Mandate system as a pretext to maintaining order in the Middle East. This policy, however, proved to be very flawed. Disorder erupted in the Arab Peninsula between the two British allies, Ibn Saud and Sharif Hussain. At the same time, Britain’s ally in Syria, Prince Faisal was driven out of Syria by the French but was appeased by the British recognition of his reign in Iraq. In Egypt and Persia, the situation was more complicated, especially as anti-British sentiments continued to reject all kinds of British policies whereas in Persia, the British had to deal with the hostility of the Soviet Union involvement in the northern parts of the country. In Palestine, the British found themselves in a very sticky situation, suffering pressures from the Zionist Organization and rejection from the Arabs who were very suspicious of British and Jewish intentions in Palestine. At the same time, the situation in Europe was once again deteriorating after the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

Amidst all these disturbances and instabilities, Britain tried to navigate through the landmines that were created in the Middle East by its own previous policies and conflicting promises. Yet, once again, the outbreak of a major world war helped the British to bring the situation under control, and ironically, to use the same policy of offering conflicting promises to various parties at the same time. This time, promises were given to the Jewish and Arab sides, especially over what was known as the “White Pages” of 1939 which aimed at limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine and providing the Arab community assurances that the Jews would not outnumber Arabs and that neither community should be subjected to the other.

At the same time, Britain tried hard to maintain the neutrality of Turkey by offering financial and military aid, while keeping the strong anti-British and pro-German sentiments in Iraq and Persia in check. Britain eventually succeeded in achieving a strong control over the Middle East throughout the war years with the support from Arabs and Jews as well. Yet, this was only a temporary peace that was to end immediately following World War II.

Following the war, Britain moved towards the termination of the mandate system, forcing France to admit to this objective in Syria and Lebanon, and at the same time, trying to partition Palestine between the Arabs and the Palestinians. The scheme for Palestine proposed by the Peele Commission was rejected by the Arabs and the Jews and the eruption of terrorism and violence eventually forced Britain to abruptly terminate its mandate over Palestine in 1948 which was followed by the Arab-Jewish war that led to the establishment of the state of Israel.

In general, Britain and the Middle East: From the Earliest Times to 1950 by Sir Reader Bullard, is a book of great value for three reasons. First of all, it provides very detailed data and information on British foreign policy towards the Middle East over a period of several centuries, and related to several parts and countries of the Middle East, especially Turkey, Persia (now Iran), Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, the Transjordan, and the Gulf countries. Secondly, the book reflects the official and unofficial views of the British policy makers over these years and hence, offers very elaborate explanations on the causes of these policies and the dynamics and developments that led to their endorsement by Great Britain at different times of history. Thirdly, the author provides descriptions and analyses of British foreign policy both in terms of time and geography, allowing the reader to view how this policy was directed and implemented in a comparative manner.

On the other hand, the book suffers three major flaws. First of all, the author is himself a member of the His Majesty’s Government and hence, his views, opinions, accounts, descriptions and analyses are all bound by his perspective as a diplomat representing, explaining, and justifying British policies, interests and actions in the region over a period of several centuries. Secondly, the author presents very biased attitudes and perceptions without offering explanations on a number of occasions. For example, he points out that Egypt is an Arabic-speaking country although it is not Arab; on another occasion he presents Britain and its officers and consuls as saviors of the communities of other countries (eg, Egypt, Cyprus, and others) in comparison to the local tyrant rulers. In addition to this, the book seriously lacks references and there is only reference to treaties, agreements, and other official documents, but no reference to books, journals or resources of any kind, which means that the reader cannot maintain the authenticity of the information provided in the book, but rather, has to take it for granted on the basis that the book was written by an insider source, a professional who is very much sure of what he is claiming. A minor weakness that I noticed in the book was that the author used to take the knowledge of the readers for granted. Hence, if the reader did not have a substantial knowledge of the major events that had taken place during the period of history covered by the book, this reader would be ultimately lost as the author moved from one subject to another. This is perhaps because the book mainly targeted other diplomats, professionals and contemporary knowledgeable readers at that time.

All in all, I think this book is very important to read, not only because of the minute details that it offers, but also because it gives a very elaborate interpretation and explanation of British foreign policy in the Middle East over a period of several centuries. However, I think that it is necessary to warn that this book is only helpful, useful and enlightening to someone who has read other references and sources that offer other perspectives and interpretations. There is too much bias in this book, something that makes it useful if one is interested in knowing the views of one of the most important player in Middle Eastern politics at the time, but this also makes the book useless if one is going to rely on it to understand what really happened in the Middle East. Diplomats may be very objective in the way they behave and talk, but when they write, they may perhaps only represent the views and beliefs of the institutions that they worked for all their lives.