A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr

Review by Patrick Seale, originally printed in The Financial Times, 2011.

The story of how Britain and France carved up the Arab world between them after the first world war has often been told but James Barr’s new book, A Line in the Sand, adds some spice to the usual accounts of this decisive moment in the history of the Middle East. It was a cynical act of imperial greed.

When they spoke of “independence” for the Arabs – which under the postwar Mandate system they had pledged to help the Arabs achieve – what the British and the French really meant was “liberation” from Turkish rule – but certainly not freedom to run their own affairs. They paid lip service to President Woodrow Wilson’s principles of national self-determination but their real intention was to redraw the map of the Ottoman empire’s Arab provinces to suit themselves.

Weakened by the war and confronted by the rising power of the US, Britain and France were concerned above all to protect their own vital interests. The French had over the centuries established a protectorate over Christian communities in the Ottoman empire. In addition, their commercial interests included large investments in Ottoman roads, railways, ports and shipping companies, as well as utilities and banks. On the eve of the war, some 90,000 Ottoman children from elite families were learning French and absorbing French ideas at French school. In Lebanon the Maronite patriarch was a central figure in France’s client network. For many influential Frenchmen, Syria and Lebanon constituted a Levantine extension of France itself. Bringing these territories under French rule seemed a legitimate spoil of war, whether the natives agreed or not.

British interests were essentially threefold: first, to control the output and disposal of Iranian and Mesopotamian oil (as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1912 Winston Churchill had taken the decision to switch the fleet from coal to oil); second, to control Palestine as a buffer for the defence of the Suez Canal and Egypt, and also because in 1917 Arthur Balfour, then foreign secretary, had pledged British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”; and third, to control the land and sea routes to India, through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea or down the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean.

Barr’s account of how the territorial carve-up was first agreed by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot – and how the “line in the sand” was finally drawn to satisfy rival French and British interests – is lively and entertaining.

He has scoured the diplomatic archives of the two powers as well as the private papers of most of the leading officials of the time in search of the telling phrase, and has come up with a rich haul that brings his narrative to life. He has thrown some light on hitherto unexplored corners. Sykes’s father, Sir Tatton, was obsessive about milk pudding and maintaining his body at a constant temperature. In the heat of Baghdad, as they were creating the new state of Iraq, Gertrude Bell quarrelled with her boss Arnold Wilson (“There are days when I would knife him if I could.”). David Lloyd George, the prime minister, had a perfect understanding of the ambitious young Churchill (“He would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises.”). In 1921 Churchill, then colonial secretary, summoned British Middle East experts to a conference in Cairo to decide to put the Emir Faysal, whom the French had thrown out of Syria, on the throne of Iraq. But Churchill himself seems to have spent less time at the conference than at the pyramids with his painting kit. The British agent in Somaliland, Sir Geoffrey Archer, stole the show when he arrived with two young lions bound for London Zoo. At a party at the British residency the lions broke loose and nearly caught the pet Marabou stork of the high commissioner, General Edmund Allenby. The French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, with whom Lloyd George had to bargain over who would get what of the Ottoman provinces, was “a stout, bald man whose snowy white moustache gave him a close resemblance to a walrus”.

Barr’s argument is that Britain and France, victors in the first world war, became rivals – even enemies at times – as they continued to squabble over spheres of influence after the second world war. Where, in my view, he somewhat overshoots the mark is to suggest that the Balfour Declaration itself was only issued “to ward off the inevitable French pressure for an international administration once Palestine had been conquered” from the Turks. There were many other compelling reasons for Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild, notably the British hope that American Jews would influence the US in favour of the Allied war effort.

Barr even argues, not very convincingly, that the reason Zionist terrorists such as the Stern Gang and the Irgun were able to get some weapons and financing from France, to enable them to carry out the devastating attacks which eventually forced Britain out of Palestine, was because the French wanted to get even for the way Britain had helped Syria and Lebanon secure their independence. This might be stretching the story of Anglo-French rivalry in the Levant a shade too far. But it makes for enjoyable reading.

Patrick Seale is author of ‘The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East’ (Cambridge University Press). He died in 2014.

 A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, by James Barr, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 464 pages

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