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  • Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East
  • Roger Owen
Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East. By Priya Satiya (New York, Oxford University Press, 2008) 458 pp. $55.00

Satiya makes a series of novel arguments about Britain’s role in seizing large parts of the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire during World War I and then in controlling, covertly and often viciously, its new client states, notably from the air. In her reading of events, the process proceeded in three stages. First, in the early twentieth century, a elite community of men, and one woman (Gertrude Bell), whom she calls “intelligence agents,” began to venture into the region then known as Turkish “Arabia,” drawn by the desire to secure the land route to India and in the hopes of finding a metaphysical certainty that they could no longer find at home (3). Baffled by the “intelligibility”—in James Scott’s term—of the desert terrain, they forsook empiricism for an “intuitive intelligence epistemology modeled on their understanding of the Arab mind” (5).

Second, before, and especially during, the war itself, the “agents” constituted themselves as an omnipresent network that managed Britain’s military campaigns in the region, mixing intelligence with a huge influence over policy, in particular the promotion of Arab unity. Third, after the war, they created an informal “parallel” administration, hidden from public view and heavily reliant on the use of British airpower to identify, and then to discipline, rural trouble makers (7).

Flawed though it is in many ways, the book makes a considerable contribution to two areas of British imperial and cultural history. For one thing, it elucidates that aspect of Edwardian culture in which men and women, disillusioned with many aspects of modern life, became fascinated by the primitive, the occult, and the minimalist—all of which they believed to have found in what Satiya calls “an Arabian counterpoint,” an “Arabia of their dreams” (59/60). Satiya’s more original contribution [End Page 451] to imperial theory is her discovery of a way to link the various parts of Britain’s Middle Eastern enterprise—mandates, colonies, and protectorates—in one overarching notion of a covert empire run by agents skillful enough to shroud their activities in ways that defied both democratic inspection at home and the comprehension of client regimes in the region itself.

Provocative and stimulating as this material is, it comes at some cost. The agents on which Satiya concentrates were a much more hardheaded group than she suggests, visionary when they wished to impress, but equally concerned, even in the case of the mercurial Mark Sykes, with scanning the prewar terrain for railway routes and defensible frontiers. Thomas Edward Lawrence, too, was far from being just a guerilla-warfare expert on a camel, having turned himself by 1915 into a skilled modern military intelligence officer with a detailed knowledge of maps, aerial observation, and the business of wireless intercepts.

Just as important, Satiya allows herself to repeat many of the same hardy myths promoted by General Edmund Allenby, Lawrence, and others after the war about their superior ability to outwit and deceive their plodding Ottoman enemy. But as Sheffy’s excellent work on British military intelligence conclusively demonstrates, the Ottomans and their German allies were every wit as good at the same game, with the added advantage that the Ottomans, as long-time governors of the region, had much better skills at managing the fickle Syrian tribes.1 Only when this story of the real war in the Middle East is better known will it be possible to challenge the powerful fictions that still continue to inform public perceptions of the desert Arabs and that Satiya herself does much to embellish.

Roger Owen
Harvard University


1. Yigal Sheffy, British Military Intelligence in the Palestine Campaign 1914–1918 (London, 1998).



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pp. 451-452
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