top of page

How the British and French sent the Middle East to the noose



Throughout our lives, the Middle East has been a region synonymous with warfare and instability. Regardless of our age, we’ve heard of a conflict raging here almost every year of our lives, because conflicts have been raging here for the best part of the last century. Ever since the turn of the century, wars have consumed over a million lives in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and the rest. These conflicts have attracted the involvement of regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey; moreover, from beyond, like the US and Russia. The Middle East is probably the most complex geopolitical chessboard in the world and its issues seem to be at a point of no end. But why? In order to understand the root cause of the Middle East’s many problems, we only have to roll back the clock to a little more than a hundred years ago, to when the region's borders were drawn up, and how they have guaranteed misery and forever-wars for the world ever since.


By the 19th century, to safeguard trade, the imperious British Empire had started acquiring mandates over territories of the Ottoman Empire which stood between it and its crown-jewel colony in India. This gave them control over the world’s biggest trade chokepoint: the Suez Canal. Alarmed by the situation, the Ottomans fought and lost the First World War, which brought about their end. The British and French picked up the broken pieces of the Empire and reorganised the region with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The artificial lines drawn as part of the agreement cut across the religious, ethnic and linguistic realities of the region. In addition, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.


Iraq, a deeply divided and hurriedly-formed state, gained its independence from the British in 1932. Its major constituent provinces, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, each had different ethno-religious groups with different priorities in the majority. What would later become Kuwait had earlier been part of the Basra province, and contained around half the country’s oil reserves. This shaky historical claim became the basis of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country in 1990.


The French mandate over Syria was not much better managed. The borders again included various groups like the Alawites, Sunnis, Shias, and Druze among others. With its independence in 1946, the new state emerged with territorial disputes of its own: with Turkey over the Hatay province, and with Lebanon over the whole of its territory, both having been a part of the French mandate of Syria earlier.


Finally, there was the question of oil. Oil was starting to be discovered within the territories of all these infant countries. This may seem like a golden opportunity to finally escape the shackles of imperialism and form independent economies as we see in the cases of modern UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others. But Iraq and Syria suffered from what is described as the ‘Resource Curse’. The reason behind this was the locations where oil discoveries were made within these nations. Very often, one province enjoyed the vast majority of discoveries, cases in point being Basra in Iraq, and neighbouring Khuzestan in Iran. All in all, the oil found across the Middle East’s complicated mosaic of ethnicities accounted for nearly half of the world’s supply, meaning global powers had started to play a greater role in influencing the region permanently. This just added to the number of stakeholders and competing claimants to resources in the region.


Then, in 1948, the British dropped another bombshell by granting independence to Mandatory Palestine and creating the State of Israel. In the wake of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees poured into Israel, majorly changing the demographics of the region, and complicating things further. The newly-formed United Nations partitioned Palestine into unequal Jewish and Arab zones, granting the Jews land which was beyond justification given they had numbered less than half of what the Arabs did. This was rejected by each Arab country and not one of them recognised Israel as a legitimate state at first. Thus the never-ending Arab-Israel conflict began.


Out of these foundational issues pre-1950, the Middle East consequently suffered from setback upon setback, and every single one of these can be traced back to the gluttonous interests of the imperial powers. For a century, the bitter reaction to the Sykes-Picot process has been reflected in the most politically powerful ideologies to emerge - Nasserism, in Egypt, and Baathism, in Iraq and Syria - based on a single nationalism covering the entire Arab world. Even the Islamic State sought to undo the old borders. After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”


Yet the premise of every other outside power today - in stabilising fractious Iraq, and ending Syria’s gruesome civil war - is to preserve the borders associated with Sykes-Picot. The region has now peered nervously beyond both the political chaos and the challenge from ISIS, but the well-rooted fear that both Iraq and Syria, an area stretching from the Mediterranean to the Gulf have become so frail that they will never be sustainable is ever-likely to come true.




References:

1. Yakoubi, M. (2022). "The French, the British and their Middle Eastern mandates (1918-1939): Two political strategies." Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XXVII(1). https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.8787


2. Barr, J. (2020, January 6). How Britain created the Middle East crisis. UnHerd. https://unherd.com/2020/01/how-britain-created-the-middle-east-crisis/


3. A century on: Why Arabs resent Sykes-Picot. (n.d.). https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2016/sykes-picot-100-years-middle-east-map/index.html


4. Elzas, S. (2016, May 17). Sykes-Picot: Franco-British secret deal still divides Middle East. RFI. https://www.rfi.fr/en/europe/20160516-sykes-picot-franco-british-division-middle-east-felt-100-years-later


5. Osman, T. (2013, December 14). Why border lines drawn with a ruler in WW1 still rock the Middle East. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25299553


6. Wright, R. (2016, April 30). How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-the-curse-of-sykes-picot-still-haunts-the-middle-east


Comments


bottom of page