This brilliant and somewhat sardonic account of how the Middle East has been mismanaged by the European Powers between 1900 and 1960 presents an admirable interplay between the historical forces behind the events and the vividly described personalities involved with them: it is hard, after reading this book, to maintain the structuralist view of history: that individuals are ultimately unimportant compared with historical trends.
Not only did the individual players often play against each other, but the settlement of the Middle East during and after the First World War was at the mercy of the rivalry, not only between Britain and France, but also (in Britain) between individuals and `some twenty separate government and military departments', with, for example, a tug-of-war between the British authorities in India and those in Egypt. In addition there was conscious double-dealing. Sir Henry McMahon, who drew up the deliberately imprecisely worded letter of promises to the Sharif Husayn of Mecca, knew that at the same time Sir Mark Sykes was making totally different arrangements for the area with his French opposite number, François Georges-Picot. The Balfour Declaration gave yet a third undertaking which could be said to have been at variance with how the Arabs understood the McMahon Letters. Even T.E.Lawrence, outraged though he was about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, did not envisage true independence for the Arabs, but rather `establishing our first brown dominion'. None of even the most pro-Arab British players thought that the Arabs were really capable of governing themselves.
Some had hoped that the First World War would be `the war to end all war'. Instead the settlement, especially in the Middle East, was `a peace to end all peace', as Britain and France struggled throughout the succeeding years to maintain their control against the determined nationalism that ceaseless rebelled against their ascendancy. Keay demonstrates this in country after country: how Egypt, despite her notional independence, was for long kept as a `semi-protectorate'; how the British got Kurdish Mosul, with its oil, added to Arab Mesopotamia to form Iraq; how France created a similarly multi-ethnic unit in the Lebanon, separating it from the authority of Damascus (under which it had been since 1860) and adding the Shi'ite Bekaa Valley and the Sunni district of Tripoli to Mount Lebanon, with its Christian and Druze population, whilst at the same time they split up today's Syria into several statelets (an incredibly complex story, this); how an Iraqi uprising in 1920 was crushed, partly by bombing, with about 10,000 dead; how Syrian nationalists, claiming the Lebanon and Palestine as part of Greater Syria, were thwarted by Britain and France; and how King Feisal, who had been installed by the British in Damascus but had then thrown in his lot with the Syrian nationalists, was unceremoniously removed from Syria by the French. He was then, through fantastically complex manoeuvres by competing British personalities (including Harry St John Philby, T.E.Lawrence, A.T. Wilson and the formidable Gertrude Bell), made King of Iraq. Faisal's brother Abdullah, whom some Iraqi nationalists had already chosen as their king, was then, equally unceremoniously, forced by the British to give up that throne for the throne of another artificially constructed country, Transjordan, detached from the Palestine Mandate (and, at the time, without access to the Gulf of Aqaba, only about half the size that it is now.)
It could be said that the wind had been sown in the Middle East by the settlement after the First World, which had been determined more by the interplay of individuals rather than by impersonal historical trends. The whirlwind which arose thereafter (and especially after the Second World War) was one in the face of which, by and large, individuals were relatively powerless. Keay never fails, however, to bring individuals, often wittily, alive. They include, for instance, no fewer than three Roosevelts, all distantly related to Franklin D. Roosevelt. There are also colourful and not uninfluential women like Freya Stark or the seductive Amira Asmahan. How many readers would have heard of the latter? For that matter, how many are familiar with the amazingly contorted history of Syria during the mandate, and indeed during the early years of independence? Keay describes all these events with the same verve and vividness and with the same occasional striking turns of phrase as he did in the earlier phase. Perhaps the outline of the story will stir vague memories in older readers who have lived through the period after the Second World War: the struggle for the creation of Israel; the overthrow of the Egyptian and Iraqi monarchies, hated, according to Keay, since their creation some three decades earlier, as stooges of the British; the overthrow of Mussadiq, the Iranian Prime Minister who had nationalized the Iranian oil-fields (a fascinating account); and the Suez War. Over and over again the narrative throws up details that few but specialists would know.
The events in the Middle East certainly presented Britain and France with many acute dilemmas, and the subtitle of the book - The Mismanagement of the Middle East - shows that the reactions of Britain and France were not always well-judged. There were of course always some people pointing this out at the time; even so, it is easy to be wise after the event. The British, for example, did after all hold the fort in Egypt, Iraq and Transjordan for several decades, which is not all that bad going, even if in the end it all ended in tears. The failure at Suez in 1956 and the overthrow of the pro-British Iraqi monarchy in 1958 marked the end of colonial-style management of the Middle East by the Europeans, and at this point Keay's book ends. After that it fell largely upon the Americans to manage or mismanage the Middle East, and a brilliant epilogue of 23 pages takes this excellent book up to 9/11.