This book covers the modern history of the Middle East and the creation of the Arab states from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire during the period 1915 to 1949. The particular thrust of this book that makes it quite different from the numerous volumes on this subject is that it specifically deals with the rivalry between Britain and France for supremacy in the area, and contains a great deal of new information on the extraordinary breadth of clandestine and thoroughly devious behaviour adopted by both Great Powers with respect to each other.
The scene is set with the well known Sykes-Picot Agreement of 3 January 1916 that established the arbitrary `line in the sand' of the title and which divided the soon to be created new states of Syria and Iraq (and later Trans-Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.)
The author, James Barr, then charts the history of the defeat of Turkey and occupation of the Middle East, the Druze Revolt of 1925 and the struggle that France and Britain had in maintaining peace in their respective territories whilst denying the indigenous population self determination in defiance of the American President Woodrow Wilson. The author advances through the endless machinations between France and Britain to the Second World War, the Mandates, the growth of the nascent Jewish state and eventual evacuation of the Colonial Powers. However, this well worn path is highly dramatised by the revelation of the activities of British and French agents and the totally underhand activities of the respective governments, which I would suggest, has not before been handled in such revealing detail. The author introduces to us many interesting buccaneering characters that seem to be attracted to the area as well as many of the local leaders. I found the role of General Charles de Gaulle quite breathtaking in the depth of his arrogance, ingratitude and rudeness towards anything English.
For the most part this book is entirely objective and very well researched, however, I would take issue with the somewhat sanitised description of how the Zionists obtained land from the local Arabs. This book is not just a re-hash of a familiar story, it does contain much new material and a new perspective and should be a good choice for all those with an interest in this area of history. It is astounding that we continue to endlessly meddle in the Middle East to no advantage.
This is the story of Britain and France eagerly burdening themselves with mandates over the carcass of the Ottoman Empire. It covers the time from the last year of the First World War to the end of the 1940s and it describes the "30 year-long gasp of empire" and "the struggle between Britain and France for the mastery of the Middle East".
These were mandates, not colonies. US President Wilson would not have approved of the word colony and anyway, surely colonies and overt imperialism were going out of fashion in those ever more enlightened days after the First World War?
It is a story of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan and Mesopotamia and of attempts to found a Greater Syria and a Jewish homeland. For France it often seems to be a story of glory and honour. For Britain it seems to be a story of Iraqi oil, the misleadingly named (Anglo-American-French) Turkish Petroleum Company and a search for a pipeline route to the Mediterranean.
The locals dreamed of independence and a new Arab nation. On the western fringe of the area a few Zionists dreamed of their freedom in their own homeland. The British dreamed of their oil terminal for the pipeline, fuel security for the Royal Navy and a buffer zone for the Suez Canal, the gateway to India - still a colony and definitely not a mandate.
The story has an intriguing cast, both on and off stage. Mr Sykes and M. Picot and their eponymous line in the sand make an appearance, as do Churchill, Allenby, Weizmann, Balfour, Lawrence, de Gaulle, Feisal, Abdullah and a list of others less well known.
I liked this book very much. Towards the end I started flagging, but no matter, this is a book to revisit and use as a reference. It is of moderate size at just under 400 pages plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and a few black and white plates which help to put faces to names of some of the people mentioned.
If you want to have some understanding of the Middle East now, and perhaps of Britain and France too, then you need to know about the Middle East then. This is the book. Under the surface, the entente was not so cordiale.
on 5 April 2012
This is another excellent offering form the author of 'Setting the Desert on Fire'. Like his previous work, this book reads like a novel, with a cast of characters that would be dismissed as implausible in fiction. As well as being a first-rate read, it is also meticulously researched and clearly presented. It throws a disturbing light on the contemporary Middle East and helps to explain some of the animosities and entrenched grievances. It also partly explains why Western intervention or mediation is so often unsuccessful, unhelpful or simply ignored. Having said this, Barr avoids the temptation to make obvious but potentially misleading analogies with the current situation; this is a work of history and he allows readers to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions (why does the US maintain military bases in the Gulf for example?).
Nobody emerges from this account with very much credit. The short-sighted cynicism of the declining imperial powers Britain and France is breathtaking, and their motivations seem difficult to understand at this distance; in what way did possession of Palestine create any kind of strategic depth for vital British interests in India and the Suez canal for example? And yet, this is one of the reasons brought clearly to life by Barr in this book, and within the world he describes, it is possible to follow the logic. Likewise the Zionists emerge in a singularly unpleasant light, with the appearance of Irgun and the Stern gang, and the bloody struggle to establish the state of Israel.
In short, this book is well worth a read, especially if you happen to be one of the leaders of the free world.
on 1 September 2011
This excellent work is extremely well researched and throws an amazing and distressing light on the creation of the modern Middle East. Barr points out that during the First World War, in between the wars, and during the second World War Britain and France were more concerned with their own rivalry than with any of the esablished peoples of the region. The cynical power stuggle between the two after the Sykes Picot agreement illustates why the area is still in such disarray.The creation of the State of Israel had little to do with Britain's support of Zionism but rather was a sop to the US and a means of Britain keeping the French out of Palestine. T.E.Lawrence comes out of it in a much better light, supporting as he does the local Arab cause throughout. Lloyd George emerges as a coniving manipulator.
on 28 June 2015
The best place to start a review of A Line in the Sand is at the end. The very last line in the book is “it is a tale from which neither country [Britain and France] emerges with much credit”. That’s true although James Barr’s comment could be expanded: his history of the Middle East mandates is a tale in which virtually no-one emerges with much credit. Not the mandatory powers, not the governed peoples, not other world powers, not administrators, politicians, generals, terrorists, businessmen nor other members of the large cast assembled through the 370 pages.
Instead, what we have is the very interesting and enlightening, if slightly depressing, story of two great powers past their peak trying to behave and strut as if they were still of the first rank; doing so in a region that was already beset with tension, divisions and violence, and in so doing, frequently making a bad situation worse. The Anglo-French intrigues and rivalry read not unlike a rather deadly version of a Twitter-spat between two film stars twenty years past their prime.
Three reasons stand out as to why Barr tells his story so well. Firstly, it’s extremely well researched. He’s clearly been through mountains of contemporary reports, letters, diaries and the like, and so brings a fresh light to an old story. Secondly, he marshals that evidence into a compelling narrative, one which is summed up but the book’s subtitle. I’m not sure I buy the whole of that narrative. Britain, France and the rivalry between them certainly left their own mark on the Middle East and over-layered an already complex political, social and religious situation with still another dimension but to say they shaped the Middle East is over-egging it, unless taken in the narrow sense of defining the boundaries of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and so on. And finally, the evidence is allowed to speak for itself, often quite literally. Many quotes, written and verbal, give the feel not so much of dusty history but of real people acting and fighting their way through the pages.
To the extent that I have any criticisms, they’re of omission: around three-quarters of the book is devoted to either the first four years after the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed (i.e. the story of the creation of the Mandates), or the last nine years (i.e. from the fall of France in WWII to Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine). The description of the two decades in between mostly covers one relatively short-lived revolt or another. Consequently, the impression is that the region was in constant turmoil and that the two powers were always at each other’s throats, which isn’t really the case. There was relative peace within and between the Mandates for most of their existence.
However, it’s natural that Barr should concentrate where the drama was, both for narrative purposes and because it was those events which did most to shape the future of the region. And the drama is where this book lives: the people and their actions are made brilliantly and vividly real and if the whole story is a tragedy – and it is – then at least it is a very human tragedy.
It would be an exaggeration to say that every problem in today’s Middle East has its roots in this period but it would not be an exaggeration to say that Britain and France’s actions during the Mandate era contributed in some way to each of those problems. The quality of his research means that his was always going to be an important contribution to the understanding of that region’s history and present. The drive of his narrative and the engaging characterisation of his telling of that tale make it all the more worthwhile reading.
on 5 August 2011
Simply put, a good read and I recommend it.
I've wandered about the Middle East a bit and done a fair amount of reading about the area particularly, WW1 through WW2. And I have a fascination with the predominately British characters who haunted the area, for self and Empire. In my simplistic script, the French were the Bad Guys, holding the Arabs back. So did the Brits, but I was inclined to forgive them. After all, they had TE Lawrence in his flowing robes.
And that certainly didn't endear them to the French!
The French are still the Bad Guys - not that the Brits were always the Good Guys. Both were out for what they could get, damn the torpedoes - or rather, the Arabs. And James Barr's latest work is about the over the thirty-four year competition between the two countries to obtain/retain supremacy in the Middle East.
It isn't just that the French resisted freeing Syria after WW2, but the way they went about revenging themselves on the British who seemed one step ahead in the Intelligence game. . But then there was the equivocations of the British government; their failure to draw "a line in the sand" as it were - and mean it! It was in Palestine where the French got theirs back, supporting in one way or another, both Irgun and Stern terrorist gangs Even the US got into that act with well meaning and, hopefully, unknowing citizens paying into those particular Jewish coffers (much as occurred later, during the Irish Troubles).
Barr documents this all in a well written history and thoroughly documented history of the time. While I knew the ending, the journey was memorizing.
I can't resist but conclude with a comment by the former Chief Secretary of Palestine, a survivor of the King David Hotel bombing, that might be a guide in today's foreign policy: ".....it's not your business or my business .....to interfere in other people's countries and tell them how to run it, or even to run it well. They must be left to their own salvation."
on 11 August 2011
A very enjoyable and well written book. Deeply researched and then convincingly argued, albeit with an unfashionable top down approach to history. May be read either as a simple thriller concerning the old rivalry between failing imperial powers (and particularly their colourful representatives)- or as the serious origin of the current Middle Eastern conflict. Succeeds on both counts.
on 3 October 2011
With so much comparatively recent history of deceit and skulduggery, can we wonder at the state of the Middle East, or be surprised that the resentment our presence causes in the area, especially the invasion of Iraq? This is work of non-fiction, but sad to say, it would make an excellent novel. A brilliantly written book, that makes the history and politics very accessible.
on 2 May 2014
"A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East" by James Barr tells the story of French-British rivalry in the Middle East to replace the Ottoman Empire as the new local powers. It starts in 1916 with the Sykes-Picot agreement and ends in 1948 with the withdrawal of British (military) rule from Palestine. It is a Europe centric account of the making of the modern Middle East in the first half of the twentieth century with diplomats, secret services, intelligence officers, terrorists and politicians taking centre stage.
It is a sad story, with no good guys or happy endings. Instead it is a prime example of how years of political manipulation, arrogance, hypocrisy, opportunism, cynicism, back-stabbing and underhand dealings added further complications to an already volatile and complex region. Its outcomes still reverberate today and are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Barr's writing style is engaging and the topic well researched. However, this is a very detailed account of 30 years rivalry between the main protagonists (France, Britain, USA, Zionists & Arabs) and its representatives. The fluid loyalties of many parties involved, the domestic politics and individual rivalries on all sides against the backdrop of a shifting international power balance require concentrated reading. Despite the likes of Churchill, de Gaulle, T.E. Lawrence, Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson and Menachim Begin playing important parts, there are numerous less famous characters making short appearances further adding to the complexity of the story. Overall "A Line in the Sand" is a good introduction to the making of the modern Middle East, but not an easy read.
James Barr blends academic research with journalistic flair to remind us of the shabby deals and ostrich-like expediency which led to the crises still bedevilling the Middle East. Using anecdotes and well-judged quotations, he brings alive the out-dated imperialistic wranglings of Britain and France, both scrambling to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The "line in the sand" refers to the infamous Sykes-Picot Line agreed secretly in 1916, which ran from Acre on the coast to Kirkuk near the then Persian frontier, with no regard for the Arab tribes inhabiting what appeared to be mostly useless desert. The British were interested in Palestine and Jordan south of the line mainly as a means of securing Suez and the route to India. To the north, the French demanded what is now the Lebanon and Syria to ensure they did not lose out to the British in a land which might yield rich oil reserves. Matters went awry from the outset with T.E. Lawrence's famous assault on Damascus in Syria - a blatant attempt to undermine the Sykes-Picot agreement by enabling the Arabs to gain territory in land coveted by the French.
Barr opens with his shock on discovering how, while British soldiers were fighting in World War 2 to save France, the French were supplying arms to the Haganah, the Jewish militia dedicated to creating a separate state of Israel. However, the British seem to have been equally perfidious at times - agreeing with a shameful vagueness over details to support Sharif Hussein of Mecca in his ambitions for an Arab Empire to include Syria which lay north of the fatal line. As someone observed "we are rather in the position of hunters who divided up the skin of the bear before they had killed it." The British desire to give Arabs independence in French-controlled Syria and Lebanon was always tempered by the reluctance to give Arabs in Palestine the same freedom - until it was too late.
Also, long before the French took the idea of a Jewish state seriously, the wily Lloyd George had come round to supporting Zionism in the hopes of encouraging American Jews to put pressure on the US to enter the First World War on the Allies' side, plus he thought the Jews might be of more assistance to the British in Palestine than the fragmented Arab tribes. Yet, by the 1940s, the situation was reversed with the British trying somewhat ineptly to protect the Arabs in Palestine and contain the violence of freedom fighters like the Irgun.
Barr does a mainly excellent job in steering us through the dramas of T.E. Lawrence, De Gaulle, the alarming Orde Wingate, plus a host of others who interfered in the Middle East, with varying degrees of understanding, cynicism, short-termism, and sadly often misplaced "vision". Concluding with the British evacuation of Jerusalem in 1948, Barr helps us to appreciate the complexity of the situation, all the different angles. Apart from the final quotation that "other people's countries...must be left to their own salvation," I do not recall that he suggests clearly the course that should have been taken, but this may be for the good reason that there was no clear solution.
Small improvements would have been the inclusion of a "timeline" of key events, a glossary of major players and groups involved, and perhaps a brief summary of the situation in Palestine in previous centuries, all designed to help anchor the "general reader".