Sometimes looking at relationships in the Middle East is like watching Game of Thrones (without the gratuitous nudity). One needs a guide. This isn’t it.
There are enough dubious facts and Israel obsessions in Owen Bennett-Jones’ Middle East map carved up by caliphates, enclaves and fiefdoms for this to be the ‘official’ BBC ‘history’ of this region.
Bennett-Jones frequently receives the accolade of distinguished journalist. He has won prizes (Sony Radio Gold Award in the News Journalist of the Year and Commonwealth journalist of the year), taught at prestigious universities (visiting Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University) and written books and plays (about Pakistan) has written for several British newspapers, including The Guardian, Financial Times and The Independent, as well as the London Review of Books (is there a pattern here?). Perhaps top of the list he is one of the hosts of Newshour on the BBC World Service.
Let’s be specific. The first paragraph starts off doubtfully – not a good sign.
Nearly a century? after the Middle East’s frontiers were established by British and French colonialists?, the maps delineating the region’s nation states are being overtaken by events.
- Technically the borders were created not by the British and French (although it is fair to say in accordance with their ambitions) but by most of the the victors of World War I (prime ministers of Great Britain, France, and Italy, and representatives of Japan, Greece, and Belgium) at the San Remo convention and confirmed by the nations of the the League of Nations.
- What colonialists is he referring to? Were French and British coming in droves to live in the Middle East as they did to Canada and Australia and even Algeria and creating borders? Perhaps Bennett-Jones meant that the French and British had ambitions as colonisers? Perhaps in a post-colonial intellectual environment colony has become a negative concept, so why not throw it in?
- Not for the first time. The maps have changed in important ways in the last one hundred years. Lebanon gained independence in 1943 and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud. He united the four regions into a single state through a series of conquests beginning in 1902. One could also add the Iraqi Kurdistan, autonomous and effectively independent since 1970. The Kingdom of Transjordan was created in 1923 from two-thirds of the area mandated for the Jewish State.
- BTW Why start with the aftermath of World War I? For five hundred years the Ottoman Turks ruled the Middle East under different administrative borders before the French and the Brits managed to get a leg in. Were the Turks the wrong imperialists?
The two regional superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, both sponsor proxy forces to fight their battles for them.
We’re not sure whether or not Israel should be thankful that Bennett-Jones leaves them out of this group. Nor are we sure that he is accurate in doing so. Perhaps he was blinded by the lack of proxies, although Iran and Saudi Arabia seem, especially recently, to be doing a fair amount of fighting by themselves. Bennett-Jones may not have notices Saudi air strikes in Yemen or Iranian National Guard in Syria.
What was Sykes-Picot?
What was it? The agreements between Britain and France to dismember the Ottoman Empire, should they be victorious, was one-third of the total conspiracy. The British made conflicting promises to the Jews (the Balfour Declaration), the Arabs (the McMahon-Hussein correspondence) and the French (Sykes-Picot). They delivered, in part, on all of them.
Who knows what secret promises the French made?
We only know about Sykes-Picot because the Russian Tsarist government was a minor party to it. When, following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Bolsheviks exposed the agreement, “the British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted”†. What the Jews and the French thought …
Normally the BBC tells half a story. This time one third of a story.
The biggest change came with the creation of Israel in 1948.
Really! Is that a change in the borders or in Arab and BBC perception? As the map below shows Israel is tiny compared to the rest of the Middle East. We suggest that by far the biggest change, one with immense consequences, had little to do with borders and nothing to do with Israel.
In 1938, vast reserves of oil were discovered in the Al-Ahsa region along the coast of the Persian Gulf, and full-scale development of the oil fields began in 1941 under the US-controlled Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company). The huge revenues turned Saudi Arabia from one of the poorest countries on Earth to one of the richest. It allowed them to spread the puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam around the world. This in turn led to the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, ISIS and Jihadis from the West travelling to Syria, Iraq, etc. to chop heads.