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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterly, 4 Oct 2006
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a compelling read of relevant actuality, 30 July 2003
By A Customer
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This review is from: Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East (Hardcover)
Every page of this well crafted historical work informs and delights.It provides an extaordinarily rich panoramic view of the Middle East during the first sixty years of the century.The narrative charts the endless cycle of misunderstandings, betrayals and mutual recriminations between the West and the Arab Middle East.The book bursts with vitality and meticulous scholarship. It brings to life with entertaining anecdotes and pithy descriptions a gallery of unique historical actors. Idealist scholars turned soldiers mingling with haughty Imperial Consuls.Adventurers turned Administrators competing with formidable women crisscrossing the deserts,redrawing maps and creating new dynasties.Diplomats cum agents guiding radical Colonels through the preliminaries of military takeover, while the Road builders and Oil surveyors are changing for ever the physical and economical landscape.
The work contains remarkable insights into the vacillations of the Imperial Mind, torn between informal and direct control and attempting an impossible balancing act to placate rival lobbies.It looks sympathetically at the aborted efforts of a secular Arab Nationalism with its redemptive and self destructive nature.It describes the resourceful and vengeful opportunism of the Zionist movement playing on Biblical mythology and the Holocaust complex while manipulating the American Democratic game.
This book which is written with humour and great humanity tells a tragic story which we are still living. It will appeal to any reader interested in the antecedents of the 9/11 events,the Gulf Wars or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I predict it will tower above most of the post 9/11 publications and will prove to be a milestone in the historical writing about the Middle East or the nature of XX Century Imperialism.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything you ever wanted to know about why the Middle East is as it is!, 22 Sep 2011
This review is from: Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East (Hardcover)
This book is an absolute must for anyone interested in tracing the long, drawn out and often tragic tale of how a large chunk of the Turkish empire, much of it desert, got divided up between Britain, France and later, the US to suit their own ends. The sad stories of king-making and king-breaking as practiced by these Western powers to suit their own Machiavellian strategic requirements, explain in no uncertain terms why we exist in a world where many in the Middle East loathe the west and all it stands for. This book paints a clear country-by-country and era-by-era picture of how we got to the sorry state that we are in now and to a layman like myself, appears to be very well researched and written in clear and concise language. Though the book exhibits a slight anti-Jewish/anti-Israel bias (as does most literature on the subject), it certainly doesn't paint many of the Arab and Palestinian leaders and movements in rosy colours either and in no uncertain terms, makes clear their shortcomings especially with regard to inter-tribal and political rivalries, often pursued to the detriment of the peoples represented by these leaders and movements. If you want to know what brought us to the Iraq war, invasion of Afghanistan etc, this book will fill in all the gaps that they never fill in newspaper articles and TV news.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning book, wonderfully cared for., 18 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East (Hardcover)
Not only was the book loving jacketed, it contained a clipping from the London Review of Books on Laurence of Arabia. Needless to say with all the turmoil over Syria, I have been adding to the clippings 'library'
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine account of imperialist abuse of Middle East, 26 Feb 2004
William Podmore (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This book charts the malign effects of British, French and later US imperial interference in the Middle East, from 1900 to 1960. But in common with many recent historians, the author takes far too rosy a view of the Empire, an approach not unrelated to his consistent anti-Soviet bias.
Keay vividly depicts how the British, French and US states interfered in Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Lebanon for oil, military bases and power, always claiming the purest and most democratic of motives. But their autocratic and imperial rule betrayed those countries’ aspirations for democracy and sovereignty.
For example, successive British governments tried to rule Iraq after World War One through a series of constitutional fictions uncannily similar to the US state’s efforts today. In 1919, Arnold Wilson, Britain’s Acting Civil Commissioner, set up municipal councils and (purely advisory) divisional councils. The British state preferred a Sunni oligarchy to a Shia democracy, so Wilson prevented any elections, claiming that the ‘premature’ election of an Iraqi government with real power would be ‘the antithesis of democratic Government’.
The Iraqis objected to these anti-democratic and anti-national shenanigans and in 1920 rose in revolt: British forces killed 10,000 of them. In 1921, Britain’s new High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, appointed a Council of Ministers and told them to ask ex-king Faysal of Syria to become Iraq’s king. Cox then arranged a plebiscite asking the ‘better sort’ of Iraqis to endorse his choice, and removed the other candidates. Under British supervision, Faysal won 96% of the votes.
The British state brought not democracy, but death and destruction to Iraq. Why was it really there? The answer, in a word, was oil. Yet the Minister for War and the Colonies, Winston Churchill, told the House of Commons in December 1920, “The idea that HMG would have gone through all the difficulties they have gone through, faced all the expenses and burdened themselves with all the military risks and exactions in order to secure some advantage in regard to some oilfields … is … too absurd for acceptance.” It is perhaps less absurd than the notion that they would have gone to all that trouble if Iraq had no oil.
In 1924, the Admiralty informed Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, “from a strategical point of view, the essential point is that Great Britain should control the territories on which the oilfields are situated.” Five weeks later, Curzon lied to The Times, “Oil had not the remotest connexion with my attitude, or with that of His Majesty’s Government, over Mosul.”
The British state’s abuse of Iraq was typical of the way the British, French and US states mistreated the peoples of the Middle East. These states continually sought to justify their interference by blaming the peoples for the region’s troubles. However, as Albert Einstein told an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry on Palestine, “It was the British presence that perpetuated the troubles, not, as received opinion had it, the troubles that perpetuated the need for a British presence.”
This book helps us to understand why capitalist ruling classes continually resort to empire, and why some people in the Middle East resort to terrorism, but to understand both is to condone neither.
Last century’s imperialist interventions in the Middle East created lasting bitterness. Reruns of aggression and occupation today only worsen life for all the Middle East’s peoples, adding to the bitterness and increasing the dangers of terrorism.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating...if not always wholly objective, 14 Mar 2007
Lobsterman (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
This is an enthralling account, so much so that it occasionally gets carried away with itself. There are many wonderful descriptions of people and places - my personal favourite being Keay's account of the establishment of regular (if that's the right word) bus services across the desert between Damascus and Baghdad in the late 20s and early 30s, which was reminiscent of James Morris's Imperial trilogy. And his account of complex events such as the convoluted history of the British mandate in Palestine and the establishment of Israel is admirably clear.

I did have reservations though about the overall approach, which is overwhelmingly to portray the inhabitants of the Middle East as the powerless targets of outside influences (no surprise, given the book's sub-title). This was of course often the case. But like it or not, the past and present ills of the region cannot be put down solely to "mismanagement" by the Western powers. There were often strong domestic factions that favoured "collaboration" with those powers for their own, not always discreditable, ends. This approach seems to lead Keay to sometimes leave out bits of the story that do not support that thesis; for instance, you will find little here about how the House of Saud rather than the Hashemites came to be the dominant power in Arabia. Not everyone shares that view see e.g. Karsh and Karsh's "Empires of the Sand" as a useful corrective. Similarly, little is said about Iran (which of course always remained independent, abeit more so at some times than at others) until the downfall of the Shah in 1979; or about the origins and nature of the Ba'ath movement. Rather like those who say that the US invasion of Iraq was all about oil, the basic argument is sometimes stretched to or even beyond breaking point as when Keay says that the First and Second World Wars were to a large extent motivated by a desire to control oil supplies. And I confess to finding his description of the killing of five foreigners by lynch mobs during the Iraq revolution of 1958 as being "regrettable but not typical" as verging on the offensive - on the lines of "small earthquake in Chile, not many killed" albeit from the reverse perspective.

I learned a lot from this book; overall it was very enjoyable and informative, and well worth reading. But in doing so it is worth stepping back every now and again to take a more objective look around the landscape before plunging back in.
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Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East
Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East by John Keay (Hardcover - 5 Jun 2003)
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