The Middle East and World War One

Nowhere in the world did the First World War have such profound or long-lasting effects than the Middle East. Carrie Dunn reports on an Early Career Fellowship that’s helping to shine a light on a crucial period of world history.

An AHRC-funded research project is the first study of the ideas behind the West’s attempt to replace the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and their consequences.

Dr James Renton of Edge Hill University is looking at the British Empire’s development of the concept of the ‘Middle East’, a system based on the principle of nationality – which also resulted in a plethora of violent ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts.

He argues that the work is vital to understanding the problems across the region today.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in how the West has understood the Middle East, and the relationship between that understanding and imperialism and colonialism, and it was clear to me that there wasn’t a recognition that there was a massive change at the time of the First World War.”

The British hoped to mobilise support for the Allies and secure post-war control of strategically important areas in the region by claiming that they were fighting for a new era of national freedom. They embarked on a huge propaganda campaign to make that case. Renton’s project also examines how the idea of a new age of nationality and freedom succeeded in increasing nationalism among Arabs and Jews.

“I came to realise that this new vision was being presented for political reasons to mobilise the Middle Eastern world behind the war effort,” Renton says. He suggests that the British never expected the Middle East to be genuinely independent because of their racial stereotypes about the people living there – that they were somehow inferior and incapable of governing themselves.

Yet the promotion of national self-determination had the apparently unforeseen effect of mobilising widespread calls for immediate independence, and when that didn’t happen, there was widespread protest and violence.

'Map of the Middle East, 1918
‘Map of the Middle East, 1918’

“Political elites across the Middle Eastern world started to have new expectations of complete national freedom, and so although the British and their French allies stimulated a new vision of the future, it took on a life of its own,”

However, these roars of dissent did not succeed. Instead, the British and French Empires, with the approval of the international community in the newly-established League of Nations, imposed a new autocratic system that remained in place until the beginning of the 21st century.

Renton stresses the complexity of the interactions between the Middle East and the “outside world”. He points out that to attribute many of the current conflicts in the region solely to the impact of the 2003 Iraq invasion or the Arab Spring – as many media debates do – is far too simplistic.

“It’s a picture of complexity that goes back to the First World War,” he says, and he is keen that today’s policymakers understand that, adding: “I’m not talking about some trite effort to learn lessons from the past.

“It’s not about drawing parallels with then and now – it’s making the case that the war marked  the beginning of a system of political instability, with the interaction between this attempt at control and the unleashing of an expectation for national freedom. It’s a wider story that began in 1914 – and it hasn’t ended.”

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