We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE


Download PDF

Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In this engaging synthesis, Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac aim to retell the history of the modern Middle East "through the medium of individuals, British at the outset and American more recently" (p. 18). Their study thus comprises a series of biographical vignettes of key figures who were, in the authors' view, "instrumental in building nations, defining borders and selecting or helping to select local rulers" (p. 18). Yet, in attempting to recount 120 years of Western involvement in the Middle East through a series of British and American personalities, Meyer and Brysac have produced an episodic and incomplete story and, inevitably, have invited challenges to their choices.

Few would argue against the inclusion of Lord Cromer, Mark Sykes, or even T. E. Lawrence (for his postwar work) as central figures in the story. But the connection drawn between Frederick Lugard, his wife Flora Shaw, and the Middle East is, at best, tenuous. Lugard, during and after his two tours in Nigeria, was a proponent of "indirect rule," and Flora Shaw, colonial editor of The Times of London, placed herself in the vanguard of the New Imperialism. But to argue that indirect rule, as envisioned by Lugard and Shaw, became the "template for future imperial adventures in the Middle East" (p. 93) is misleading. Indirect rule in that region was far more a product of the exigencies of the time. The advent of Wilsonian self-determination, which resulted in the adoption of the Mandate concept, and a crushing British war debt ruled out any notion of direct British rule in the post-World War I Middle East.

Equally questionable is the inclusion of Harry St. John Bridger Philby among the pantheon of kingmakers. The claim that Philby "emerged as the Western kingmaker who left the deepest strategic imprint on the Middle East" (p. 230) will surely strike most scholars as hyperbolic. Philby, an insufferable contrarian, was sent packing in 1921 only a few months after his appointment in Iraq because of his opposition to the plan to install Faisal as the first king of Iraq. Posted next to Amman, he soon found himself at odds with Herbert Samuel, the high commissioner in Palestine, and with his superiors at the Colonial Office. Even the equable Abdullah tired of Philby's contentious personality. Lawrence and Winston Churchill were primarily responsible for establishing and maintaining Abdullah's rule in Transjordan. After leaving government service in 1924, Philby next became an advocate of Ibn Saud, whose primacy in Arabia was solidified far more by his own efforts than by those of any Western kingmaker, Philby included.

Much the same may be said of two other British figures from early modern Iraq, A. T. Wilson and Gertrude Bell. Few historians of modern Iraq would agree with the conclusion that Arnold Wilson was the "one man who can be called the architect of the present Iraqi state" (p. 144). In proposing direct colonial rule for Iraq, Wilson espoused a retrograde policy completely out of line with the prevailing temperament and with views in Whitehall. He, too, was sent home (in 1920). One may be more generous with the selection of Gertrude Bell, who converted to a Hashemite solution for Iraq after discussions with Lawrence and Faisal in Paris in early 1919. Bell's career has been the subject of renewed interest—three biographies have been published in the last fifteen years—but the claim that the major work of her life was "the creation of the Hashemite dynasty of Iraq" (p. 192) is not sustained by the evidence. The plan to install Faisal as the first king of Iraq was conceived in London in 1920 shortly after the emir's ouster from Syria by the French, and the Hashemite program was brought to fruition more as a result of the efforts of Lawrence and Churchill than by Bell.

The period of the GreatWar and its aftermath has been the subject of many general and specialist studies alike, and Meyer and Brysac, despite devoting nearly half their book to the period, add little to the existing corpus. They candidly acknowledge that Lawrence has been the subject of some sixty biographies and no less than five bibliographies concerning...