Körber History Forum

“The Middle East has always been an arena for rivalry”

Past, present and future challenges of the Middle East will be a key topic at this year’s Körber History Forum. Bernd Vogenbeck, Körber-Stiftung, spoke with acclaimed British historian James Barr about how internal and external designs clashed in the region and continue to generate tensions today.

Mr Barr, from a historian’s point of view, how formative has external influence been to shaping the Middle East?

The geographic region that we associate with the term “Middle East” has always been an arena for rivalry between external powers. Most notably to us, early 20th century rivalry between Britain and France laid the foundations for what would evolve into a conflict over Palestine. In rough strokes, this rivalry can be traced from the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which left the Palestinian question unresolved, the British Balfour declaration in favour of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, by which the British sought to outmanoeuvre France, to French aid, first for the Haganah and Jewish terrorist groups and then also for the fledgling state of Israel. In the mid 1950s, the United States took over the role of main supporters of Israel, at a time when Britain’s relations with the country were in a poor state.

And if we look at the larger region?

The influence of outside powers on certain Arab States would need to be mentioned. Namely, British support for the Saudi and Hashemite dynasties, for the ruling families in Jordan and Iraq, is a key dynamic. Relations that went back to the First World War would later give Britain huge influence in the region. While oil was found in Iraq in the late 1920s, Britain’s interest in the region of the Fertile Crescent predated that development and arose primarily out of concern for imperial security, notably the question of access to India. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in that reading, was essentially designed to create a British-controlled barrier across the Middle East, keeping France and Russia away.

In your latest book, you describe how Britain and the United States competed for influence in the Middle East – what struck you most when researching that rivalry?

How little understood it is. American support for Israel (for domestic political reasons), Saudi Arabia (because of US companies’ stake in Saudi oil) and then Gamal Abdel Nasser created problems for the British which led to a situation where the two powers were invariably competitors and often outright rivals in the Middle East. The Americans tended to blame the British for the situation in the region. But the fact was that, of the three allies the United States relied upon in the region, two – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – would not recognise the third – Israel.

Taking the question of competition further, what role did the Cold War play in shaping the region?

The Cold War had a rather indirect role: Britain tried, unsuccessfully, to use the threat of Communism to persuade the United States to leave Britain as the dominant western power in the Middle East. And Soviet influence in the first decade after the war was limited. However, the Soviet offer of arms to Nasser’s Egypt (after Nasser had refused to accept American arms on terms Congress could accept), Moscow’s support for Syria, and the fear of growing Soviet influence in Iran changed this. The British exploited American fears about Iran to encourage the CIA to overthrow Mossadegh, and American relations with Nasser soured when the Egyptian leader tried to play them off against the Russians. Syria fell under growing Soviet influence – though it is worth noting, given the current situation in Syria the complaint of a later Russian ambassador who complained that the Syrians never listened to Moscow’s advice. Despite this, the only communist state established in the Arab world was South Yemen, in 1967.

What substance is there to the assumption of Western Powers supporting and enabling autocratic regimes in the region to advance their own interest?

American foreign policy has switched between supporting democracies and autocratic regimes more than once and has followed own interest. Taking the Syrian example again, America tried to support democracy in Syria in the 1940s, but without long-lasting success. America resorted to backing the strongman Adib Shishakli after his coup in 1953, hoping that he would be the Syrian equivalent of Nasser. In Egypt, the United States backed Nasser because he seemed enlightened, young, forward-looking, humble, austere, unlike King Farouk I who Nasser overthrew in 1952.  It took a while to become clear that Nasser was not the progressive force that people had hoped he would be.

External influence is often cited as source of the regions woes, pitting it against the inherent interests of the region’s people. What truth is there to that view?

Against the background of what is currently happening in the region the view of outside powers intervening like predators seems proven right. The reason why the conflict in Syria has gone on for so long is precisely because so many forces from outside have become involved, with considerable resources at their disposal and a disregard for the plight of the Syrian people.  But it is not quite so simple. External influences have been powerful in the region throughout history, true. What also matters is the political fragmentation of this region and the weakness of many of its states. Those states have often competed with each other, and in trying to gain an advantage they have called on outside powers, as the Saudis do with the United States, and Assad has done with Russia in Syria.

How does that relate to Russia’s intervention in Syria?

Russia’s current involvement in Syria is opportunistic and was born out of its rivalry with the United States, with strategic goals having only really developed in the course of the campaign. Now, Putin is gambling on the Syrian question allowing Russia to re-assert itself as a great power. While the fact that Russia is exploiting a void left open by Europe does make that development different to a past where Europe played, since 1750 a key role in Middle Eastern politics, there is an interesting historical parallel: In the course of the dissolution of its Empire during the second half of the 20th century, Britain hung on to its power in the Middle East, believing that its position here would guarantee global significance. In a sense, the Russian position is similar, seeing influence in the Middle East as a way of compensating the global power it has lost.

At the end of this year, a decade will have passed since Mohamed Bouazizi died, sparking the Arab Spring and a time of great change throughout the region. Neighbouring Europe is confronted with criticism for its lack of interest and initiative in face of developments that have directly affected it. Justly so?

The Arab Spring has coincided with a period of internal crisis in Europe, following the financial downturn of 2008. Europe had its own economic problems to face, and so the strategic proposals to improve the economic situation in the Middle East that were circulating a decade ago have had no impact whatsoever.  After the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, developments in the region were seen more and more through the prism of migration. In effect, this led to a turn in Europe’s relations with the Middle East, away from the idea of projecting influence to the purported need of defending own interests.

How should Europe position itself in future?

Europe does not have a single foreign policy, and I do not detect a great appetite in Germany or the UK to commit itself to establishing greater security in the Middle East. In the British case, political reactions surely also need to be understood on the basis of the failure regarding Iraq in 2003. But even in times when domestic concerns are prioritised and influence in the Middle East seems limited, there is a need to work together and to assist in keeping the region the stable. 

Recently, a peace plan for one of the most central disputes in the region – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – was floored by the current US administration, essentially on the premise of disregarding history. As a historian of the Middle East, what impression did that make on you?

The initiators have failed to learn two lessons – one that could have been learned from Britain’s experience, and one from their own. The plan is founded on the assumption that money is the answer, with references to gains in the Gross Domestic Product that Palestinians could expect if they accepted it. The British believed that in supporting Zionist ambitions in the 1920s they would be able to encourage Jewish emigration to Palestine and thus attract capital, leading to prosperity that would be shared with a “grateful” Palestinian population. Washington believes that today Palestinians would react favourably to such economic incentive, which, incidentally, is also strangely at odds with the foundation of Trump’s own success, which plays at questions of culture and identity. The second lesson is from the 1940s, when the United States’ then president FD Roosevelt, tried hard, and failed, to get the Saudis to support the existence of the state of Israel. I don’t see Saudi Arabia openly endorsing this plan, whatever it is saying privately.  To those who think that everyone should concentrate on the future I would say that the history matters. Both Israelis and Palestinians make a historical claim to the land – and that is at the core of the conflict.

James Barr is a leading historian of the modern Middle East and author of the widely-acclaimed A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East (W. W. Norton, 2011). His latest book, Lords of the Desert: Britain's Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (W. W. Norton, 2018) retraces thecontest between Britain and America for a dominant position inthe Middle East from the 1940ies to the 1960ies. James Barr read modern history at Oxford. He has worked in politics, at the Daily Telegraph, in the City, at the British Embassy in Paris. He is a visiting fellow at King's College London.

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