A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East James Barr

Simon & Schuster, pp.464, 25

What does it take to shock a writer? At the beginning of his study on the shaping of the modern Middle East, the academic James Barr describes his eyes bulging at the sight of new evidence relating to the depths to which the French stooped when trying to outdo their British rivals. The document revealed how, during World War II, with British forces fighting to liberate France, the French government was funding and helping to arm Jewish terrorist attacks on British troops in Palestine. The move was both supremely cynical and, as this book shows so clearly, entirely in keeping with the behaviour of these two allies: the British and French had been undermining each other in the region for more than half a century.

We live with the idea of the entente cordiale, that the Anglo-French relationship is perhaps second in importance only to Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States. But as Barr reminds us, the entente was only agreed after the two nations had nearly gone to war over control of part of what is now Sudan, and it was only signed in 1904 as it seemed inevitable that there would be a war with Germany. The agreement was also limited in its reach, acknowledging British rule over Egypt and the Sudan, and the French right to occupy Morocco.

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At the time, it might not have seemed surprising that two of the world’s most powerful nations believed they had the right to decide such matters. Twenty years earlier, the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 — at which Britain, France, Germany, the United States and others agreed which areas of Africa each would colonise — marked the height of the age of empires. In 1916, the British and French agreed a similar carve-up, this time of the Ottoman Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement drew a line east-west from north of Acre across to the Iranian border, ‘giving’ some of modern Turkey, all of Syria and Lebanon and some of Iraq to the French, while what became Jordan, the bulk of Iraq and Israel ‘went’ to Britain. What might have been possible in the 19th century was to prove more problematic in the 20th.

When the victors came to redraw the map after the Great War, Woodrow Wilson ushered in what should have been a new era when he insisted on ‘the consent of the governed’. He must have known that the Arabs were unlikely to consent to Anglo-French rule in the region: Arab leaders had held their own congress in Paris as early as 1913 to plan for self-rule following an Ottoman collapse. In the event, neither British nor French foreign policies were shaped by the needs or desires of the governed: the British wanted to guarantee control of the Suez Canal and access to Iraqi oil, the French wanted enhanced influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Add in the impossible promises made to Muslims, Christians and Jews, to sheriffs from Mecca, Druze warlords and Muftis from Jerusalem, and tragedy was inevitable.

The consequences of these machinations make a tale of missed opportunities and wrong turns. It is one that has been often and well told before, but Barr brings a new slant, with each twist seen through the prism of Anglo-French rivalry. He has done some very thorough research and provided himself with some wonderfully rich material with which to work.

One of the unexpected responses to reading this masterful study is amazement at the efforts the British and French each put into undermining the other. The people of the region were only too happy to help fuel the rivalry: if a British administrator devised a new plan or wrote a damning description of his French counterpart, the chances are that a copy would arrive in Paris soon after London. Barr gives less attention to this aspect of the rivalry. He has also limited the story in time — no mention, for instance, of Napoleon and Nelson fighting their way through the region in the 1790s at the beginning of the struggle. Nor, more significant, the fiasco that ensued in 1956 when the two rivals worked in unison in response to Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. But there is enough here to have even the most jingoistic readers shaking their heads and, in the light of 60 years of conflict that has followed, wondering whether the region would now be more resolved and peaceful had the British and French never been allowed to take control.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, British history, History, Middle East