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  • Britain in the Middle East, 1619–1971 by Robert T. Harrison
  • Michael B. Bishku (bio)
Britain in the Middle East, 1619–1971, by Robert T. Harrison. London: Blooms-bury, 2016. 283 pages. $29.95 paper.

This work covers British motives and actions in the Middle East from the East India Company’s signing of a trade agreement with Safavid Persia to the independence of the Persian Gulf protectorates of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. However, just as in all efforts to provide comprehensive accounts, coverage of geographical areas and time periods is uneven. Nevertheless, in the process, Robert Harrison does a wonderful job in explaining how and why interests coincided with or differed between the Foreign Office in London and British government of India over the Middle East, an area where the security of communications and transportation through and trade with became essential for both parties until the independence of India in 1947. Also, especially following the First World War, with the mandate system under the League of Nations, the Colonial Office’s positions regarding the Middle East entered into the mix. Harrison astutely notes that even before India’s independence, the Second World War proved to have a great impact on the fate of the British Empire:

Britain’s control of the Middle East would once more become that vital entity of deliverance and triumph as it had been in the Great War. Yet this unchallenged policy unknowingly and inevitably bore the seeds of Britain’s demise in the region and retreat in the world (p. 167).

Indeed, not only did Britain alienate many of the people in the region with its policies, it survived the war in a poor financial state and was dependent upon the support of the United States, which was unsympathetic to European imperialism.

Harrison points out that British involvement in the Middle East actually began before 1619 with the Muscovy Company trading with the region through Russia and the Levant Company doing the same in the Ottoman Empire. However, the British East India Company, whose aims sometimes conflicted with the Levant Company, conducted foreign affairs, had its own army, and ruled over much of the Indian subcontinent until 1858. By 1763, through balancing of relations with the Persians and Ottomans and by capitalizing on the weaknesses of the Portuguese, Dutch, and French, the British East India Company had become the sole European imperial power in the Persian Gulf region. During the early part of the next century, it was not as concerned as London was in stamping out the Arab slave trade. Also, the military challenge of Napoleonic France would emphasize to Great Britain the strategic importance of Egypt and the Red Sea. Indeed, Harrison devotes much attention to developments both within and concerning Egypt. That political entity, while technically part of the Ottoman Empire, exercised a great deal of political autonomy from the early 19th century under the rule of Mehmed ‘Ali until the British occupation in 1882. At the same time, Great Britain supported the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire from Russian encroachments hence its involvement in the Crimean War, to which Harrison devotes a chapter, as well as opposing challenges to the Ottoman Empire’s political position in Syria by Mehmed ‘Ali. As a result of the latter action, Egypt was forced in 1841 to reduce the size of its army, which had accounted for a large share of its industrialization, while it faced stiff competition from Great Britain in the textile market because of that country’s favorable trade position in the Ottoman Empire. Egypt was subsequently forced to borrow heavily from foreign lenders and to sell its shares to Great Britain in the French-built Suez Canal, which 88% of all British shipping used as a route (p. 89). When Egyptian nationalists resisted the policies of European bondholders who had excessive influence over Egypt’s finances, Britain occupied the country despite the anti-imperialist tendencies of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, who had one-third of his personal investments in Egyptian bonds. (p. 89). Subsequent developments, especially in Sudan, forced the British to stay on as political overlords without any formal legal basis...


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