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Book Review: Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, Reviewer, 4/1/2013

Published by W.W. Norton and Company, New York. 507 pages, 2008.

This accomplished couple has published 12 books together, this is the final book in a trilogy on the imperial experiences of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. The first one was published in 1999 and entitled, “Tournament of Shadows.” This latest book discusses the British and American personalities that have influenced the course of the modern Middle East. The book gets off to a sluggish start, but then picks up with details and a discussion of the major British and American policymakers. It is vital to gain an appreciation of the Middle East’s colonial experience, even the term “Middle East,” was created by the famous proponent of naval power Alfred Thayer Mahan, to distinguish it from the Far East and capture its centrality in lanes of communication.

The book is a lesson on Middle East policy made by inadequate information, ambition, and religious sentiment. The book opens with Everlyn Baring or Lord Cromer (1841-1917), the chief architect of Egypt as a protectorate and the person most responsible for setting up the way in which Britain would dominate Egyptian affairs until 1952. In 1882, Egypt’s fiscal house and stability was in a state of chaos, the mortgaging of the nation by Egypt’s ruler, led to more encroachment of French and British creditors, this in turn led to the Urabi Revolt, led by Egyptian Colonel Urabi, the violence against foreigners led to British military intervention that year. In a few months, Lord Cromer would arrive as Consul-General in Cairo and for 24 years would dominate Egyptian and Sudanese affairs. His first challenge upon arriving in 1883 was the Mahdi, Muhammad Abdullah, who declared himself “The Expected One,” and led a rebellion against Egyptian authority, declaring his own Islamist emirate.

General William Hicks and his entire military expedition to subjugate the Mahdi were decimated, and this outraged British public opinion. General “Chinese” Gordon argued that the issue is not the Mahdi, but the domino effect this would have upon Egypt, Arabia and other possessions if the Mahdi were unchallenged. Gordon was selected to reinforce Khartoum and he would be surrounded and killed by the Mahdi’s forces. It was not until 1898, that General Kitchener led a robust British colonial force with Maxim machine guns that the Mahdi’s forces were defeated in Omdurman. Cromer would engineer the Anglo-Egyptian join rule over the Sudan.

The anomaly of Egypt’s status would be a problem when Egyptian nationalists requested self-determination after World War I. Lord Cromer never lived to see the 1917 compromise that placed Egypt on the path of declaring the protectorate over in 1922. Despite the trappings of King, Parliament and Constitution, the British Ambassador continued to exert disproportional influence on Egyptian policy. A mistake in the book is a reference to the Sir Miles Lampson incident, quoted in the book as happening in 1941, when it occurred in February 1942. Lampson would dictate to Egypt’s King Farouk the composition and form of government Egypt would have during World War II from the point of armored regiments. The book does not elaborate on the why the British took this action, as 1942 was the high mark of Axis victories in the Pacific and North Africa. King Farouk’s wavering attitude towards the Axis was intolerable.

There are agreements and declarations that have taken on mythic proportions when it comes to the creation of the modern Middle East. Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919) is one half of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement divided the Ottoman dominions into spheres of British and French influence. The details of this agreement would be leaked by the Bolsheviks, as a means of embarrassing the anti-communist western democracies. Popular myth is that Sykes and Picot were amateurs; this is far from the truth. The book outlines Sykes biography as having an interest in Middle East affairs from his days in Cambridge University, his travels through Britain’s colonial possessions in India, and through the Middle East. He would be British Consul in Constantinople, and more importantly in World War I, established the Arab Bureau, and even designed the flag for the Arab Revolt.

When War Minister Kitchener encountered Sykes in Europe, he said that his place was naturally in the Middle East. British Prime Minister Asquith would send Sykes to negotiate with the French on the status of the Middle East, a necessary task to keep the Triple Entente intact. His French counterpart Francois George Picot (1870-1951), was Consul-General in Beirut with extensive diplomatic experience in the region, as well as plans for a French dominated Syrie intégrale from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon up to Mosul. The 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, portrays T. E. Lawrence as disgusted by this secret agreement, but the reality is that he knew about the agreement and informed Prince Feisal, even arguing with the Prince to keep the Arab Revolt alive remarking that the British would have no choice but recognize the contributions of the Arabs and be shamed into granting concessions.

The book continues with the creators of modern Iraq, Sir Percy Cox, and Gertrude Bell. Cox was instrumental in creating the Iraqi Protectorate and as Britain’s first Consul-General to Baghdad, that Iraqis of the time would refer to British authority as Kokus (Arabized form of Cox). You will also delve into the balance of tribal power with the British supporting Ibn Saud and Hashemites and the Ottomans supporting the Ibn Rashids.

This chapter nicely highlights the British plan to subjugate unruly Iraqi tribes using airpower and with less ground forces, this plan was met with mixed results, and seemed to only increase hatred of the British in Iraq, as air bombers were viewed as an indiscriminate weapon. British bi-planes were instrumental in pushing back Wahabi incursions from Arabia that raided Iraq in the early 1920s, and even threatened Jordan in 1928. The book does a poor job however unpacking the history of the use of tribes in the World War I British advance up to Baghdad. Other interesting chapters include Harry St. John Philby (1885-1960), who left British service and gave his loyalty entirely to Ibn Saud, his son Kim Philby would have the dubious distinction of being the most effective spy for the Soviets.

LtGen John Bagot Glubb (1897-1986) would create Jordan’s Arab Legion. Among the Americans mentioned is Kermit Roosevelt (1916-2000), the volume does a good job explaining his role in engineering the coup against the popular Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadeq in 1951. The book ends with a critical chapter on Paul Wolfowitz and the creation of a new Iraq. The book is an overall good read, and nicely highlights important western figures in the creation of the modern Middle East.

Those deploying to the region should make time to study these volumes to gain an awareness of the political-military events that shaped the Middle East.

Editor’s Note: CDR Aboul-Enein lectures on Middle East affairs and Militant Islamist groups to deploying units. He wishes to thank the John T. Hughes Library for providing the book for review as well as Mr. Gary Greco for his discussions with me about this volume that enhanced this review.