From Irish Political Review: May 2006

Geopolitics and race in Britain's strategy towards Iraq, 1916

In the decade before the First World War, British policy towards the Ottoman Empire included a concerted attempt to secure control of the provinces of Mesopotamia and the Gulf. Under the Young Turks, the Ottoman Empire for its part sought desperately to balance its relations with both Britain and Germany and avoid involvement in any greater conflict. Among modern day American "Arabists" these projects of the previous Anglo-Saxon world power are of obvious contemporary interest. The books they produce—such as those of the prolific Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago—are often of interest.

One he edited, titled The Origins Of Arab Nationalism (Columbia University Press 1991), includes an article by one of his students, Mahmoud Haddad, on Iraq Before World War 1: A Case of Anti-European Arab Ottomanism.

Haddad starts with a very convoluted statement to explain the awkward fact that the most vigorous political tendency in Mesopotamia (the socially advanced area of "Iraq") prior to 1914 was a modernising pro-Ottoman movement, coordinated initially through the local branch of the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), while anti-Ottoman Arab nationalism was a totally negligible force, explained away by Haddad as "proto-Arab nationalism", the only meaning of which can be the Arab nationalism that does not yet exist:

"The first idea that springs to mind when addressing the topic of Arab nationalism, or more precisely proto-Arab nationalism, during the period of the Young Turks (1908-1914) is the idea of Arab versus Turk, or the Arab provinces versus the Ottoman central government. While this is a proper approach, it is incomplete, because we may speak of two general patterns within "Arab nationalism" at that stage. One reflected a reaction to Turkish domination, the other reflected a reaction to European or Western economic, political, and cultural penetration. Although the first pattern was not marginal and should not be taken lightly, it was, relatively speaking, minor. It was overshadowed and dwarfed by the anti-European pattern that was more important, more broadly based, and more socially and politically significant, at least in the case of Iraq" (p 121).

So there we have it. Arab anti-Ottoman nationalism did not exist beyond a "proto" phase which was totally "dwarfed" by the main political tendency in Mesopotamian society, which was pro-Ottoman and anti-European. Except that the "European penetration" it was resisting was not "European" at all, but purely British!

Haddad describes the nature of British "penetration" of the region, and one of his main sources for this is a lengthy "Memorandum" by the British Consul-General in Baghdad, Lorimer, to Sir G. Lowther, the British representative in Istanbul in January 1910 (see PRO-FO 424/222). Haddad explains—though for "European" the reader clearly should read "British":

"The anti-European pattern developed in opposition to two particular schemes… The first was the attempt of foreign capital to monopolize the rights of navigation on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, while the second was related to other attempts by foreign capital to penetrate agriculture. It appeared in two phases—an initial phase at the end of 1909, and a later… phase during the second half of 1913…

"The 1909 phase started when the Ottoman cabinet approved a project to amalgamate the Ottoman steamer line, the Nahriyya, with the British Messrs. Lynch Brothers Company. For all practical purposes, the project meant the absorption of the former by the latter. Messrs. Lynch was to enjoy a virtual monopoly for navigating the Tigris and the Euphrates for seventy-five years, subject to termination by the Ottoman government after thirty-seven years…" (pp.121-2).

This led to strong protests to Istanbul by a group of leading merchants from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, "Christians and Jews as well as Muslims", against the decision of the Chamber of Deputies to sanction the sale of the Nahriyya to Messrs. Lynch and grant them the navigation concession. They feared British trade advantage and its use to advance British political designs to control the region. In addition, they argued that the British would use this position to manipulate the desert tribes and later use tribal disturbances as an excuse for military intervention, specifically citing India as an "excellent example" of how political designs were advanced under the guise of trade.

The entire incident helped precipitate a popular anti-British movement, and also led to the fall of Hilmi Pasha's government in Istanbul as "it could neither grant the concession for fear of British expansion in Iraq nor reject the British for reasons of foreign policy" (p143).

The concession to Lynch finally went ahead in a modified form against the protests of a majority of Arab delegates in the Istanbul Chamber, but with the strong support of the Young Turk CUP which was very keen on building good relations with Britain. When in the wake of the Young Turk revolution a related incident arose—the proposed sale of concessions in former crown lands to raise loans for the hard pressed Ottoman state —the political society in Iraq broke with the CUP and began re-organising itself along anti-Turkish lines but espousing the Ottoman Caliph and a future within the Ottoman realm. In 1913 rumours were rife of concessions to up to 20 million acres being offered for sale at short notice to former crown lands in the provinces of Baghdad, Aleppo, Beirut and Syria. Jewish and English money were regarded as the prime element behind the proposed purchases and a movement rapidly emerged to oppose the sale.

The Istanbul regime was being squeezed by Britain as the latter's geopolitical schemes for the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire took final shape in the context of preparations for launching a war against Germany. Istanbul capitulated:

"At the beginning of 1913,… the CUP, once again in power in Istanbul, started a fresh effort to improve British-Ottoman relations. In this context, Hakki Pasha, minister plenipotentiary and extraordinary of the Ottoman government arrived in London in February 1913. His instructions were "to leave no stone unturned to settle outstanding differences with Great Britain". After months of negotiations between Hakki Pasha and Sir Edward Grey, the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, an Anglo-Ottoman agreement was reached in May 1913. Britain was to support an increase of 4 percent of the customs duties of the Ottoman Empire. In return, Istanbul recognized the special position of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf, pledged a policy of noninterference in the affairs of Kuwait, agreed to make Basra (not Kuwait) the terminus of the Baghdad Railway, and permitted the election of two British citizens to the board of directors of the Baghdad Railway company. Furthermore, navigation by steamers and barges on the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Shatt al-'Arab was to form a monopoly granted to an international company of which the shares were to be divided equally between Great Britain and the Ottoman government. The international company… was to be headed by Lord Inchcape (chairman of the Penninsula and Oriental and the British Steam Navigation companies), who would also represent British interests" (Haddad, pp132-3).

The agreement also established a joint Ottoman-British commission to police the Shatt al-'Arab waterway and to levy dues and exercise the rights the government would normally possess at the Port of Basra when its construction was complete, concessions which The Times of London described as being essential for "giving British trade an independent right of access to the markets of Mesopotamia". Though the agreement was concluded by early 1914, Britain stalled in ratifying it, and, on the very outbreak of war, Istanbul desperately though in vain tried to expand it into a tripartite Anglo-German-Ottoman convention in July 1914.

Mesopotamian antagonism to Britain were driven by deep suspicions of British intentions, particularly the irrigation schemes being undertaken by Sir William Wilcocks on commission from the Ottoman government, which, according to the British consul general in Baghdad, "are regarded as a British rather than a Turkish concern". The London Times reported large meetings denouncing the "sinister intentions" of the Wilcocks project.

That these concerns were not without foundation is revealed by Haddad:

"We do not know for certain what specific "sinister intentions" the demonstrators were attributing to British enterprise at that point. We can only draw attention to the fact that Sir William Wilcocks himself mentions in his memoirs his preference for settling Indians in Iraq. For him: "The Euphrates-Tigris delta will be reclaimed and settled by millions of natives of India, who will make it again the Garden of the East." Although the British government did not seriously consider such a project until 1914-15, some British officials entertained the possibility of utilizing Iraq as an "outlet for the surplus population of India" as early as 1906. We also know that certain elite groups in Iraq were not unaware of these ideas…" (p126; Wilcocks' memoirs are entitled Sixty Years In The East, London 1935).

According to Lorimer, leading merchants in Baghdad and Basra were convinced that the British intended that "the drama of Egypt shall be re-enacted in Iraq". The irrigation scheme, they believed, would require the service of 25,000 "coolies and agriculturalists from India". Transporting produce would be an argument for a railway, requiring a further 10,000-15,000 Indian employees. As the Ottoman government was insolvent, financial requirements would be met by raising a loan in England. Frictions would lead to a raid on the Indian colony by a "foolish Arab tribe" and military intervention would become imperative: "Occupation follows and Mesopotamia becomes Egypt."

With the outbreak of war and the British expeditionary force to Basra confirming these pre-war "suspicions", new opportunities were also believed to have emerged for the most radical designs to be implemented. In 1916, Haddad quotes an unidentified "British editor" as writing of the revival of the racial plan for re-settling the Euphrates basin:

"a change of rule would be beneficial to all inhabitants of Mesopotamia with the possible exception of the Bedouins. We sympathize with them, but of course they could not be allowed to occupy indefinitely such splendid lands they neither use nor allow others to use" (p137).

The very negative development of the war for Britain from 1916—and particularly the spectacular retreat through Mesopotamia—put these plans indefinitely on ice, though as Wilcocks' memoirs show, the dream never fully faded. It was precisely this type of ruthless colonial policy of racial uprooting and resettlement which so enamoured Hitler to the great example of the British Empire.

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