Unwinding Empires: Crisis Management and Fantasies of Power in the Late Colonial Middle East
Panel V-18, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm
From the 1930s forward, Europe’s colonial empires in the Middle East faced mounting challenges, ranging from a plethora of outright rebellions and burgeoning social movements to tax avoidance and subterranean “weapons of the weak.” While the turmoil might have seemed to portend the demise of the imperial order, the overwhelming response of colonial officials was not to chart an exit strategy but, instead, to devise new schemes and stratagems to bolster their control.
Drawing on research on Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, this panel examines the techniques of crisis management that emerged in the late colonial period. Together, its papers argue that such efforts set in motion dynamics that would bedevil the independent nation-states of the region throughout the era of decolonization and even beyond.
In Syria, French administration targeted the countryside as its revenue base and projected productivity growth would flow from technical innovation and the revision of “backwards” practices. But the modernization of agriculture found little purchase and instead produced mountains of debt. The French belatedly came to recognize that local practices were sensibly attuned to enduring environmental conditions, but by then the agricultural majority faced growing crisis. In Iraq, Britain acceded to the new country’s independence in 1932, only to surreptitiously climb back into the cockpit. When the popular nationalist Yasin al-Hashimi threatened to become the Arab Bismarck sought by pan-Arabists, British officials connived in his removal through the first coup d’état in modern Arab history. The coup, only recently attributed directly to the British, set Iraq down a dangerous path of dictatorship, militarism, and internal destabilization that has haunted it since. In Palestine, British support for Zionist colonization yielded the greatest interwar uprising in the Arab world (1936-39). British officials first opted to “solve” the crisis via partition, but then retreated when this threatened their regional strategy for World War II. Along the way, their “discovery” of the problems of settler-colonialism helped intellectually justify their awkward attempt to limit the settler project they had spent two decades building up. In Egypt, qualified independence in 1922 was accompanied by tightening monetary bonds with the sterling zone. Egypt’s decades-long struggle to delink from sterling revealed to London the power of monetary policy as weapon against nominally sovereign states. The freezing of Egypt’s sterling account in the Suez Crisis of 1956 thus presaged the centrality of using monetary policy to discipline postcolonial development across the region.
This paper sheds new light on the 1939 Palestine White Paper, which removed Britain’s historic support for Jewish colonization in place since the 1917 Balfour declaration. Known for its wartime restriction on Jewish immigration, it has commonly been depicted as another iteration of Britain’s ignominious policy of appeasement. By contrast, this research highlights British officials’ belated “discovery” of settler-colonialism in Palestine as a critical origin point for the shift in policy embodied in the White Paper.
This paper shows that an inadvertent epistemic opening was created by the Peel partition plan in 1937, which committed the British government to the creation of a Jewish state for the first time. The Peel plan galvanized the second phase of the protracted Palestinian rebellion (1936-39), which seriously threatened Britain’s control over the territory. Faced with mass resistance within Palestine and potentially across the region, the Foreign Office backtracked. Picking up Palestinian lines of criticism hitherto long ignored, it began to argue that the Palestine situation had to be understood through the prism of settler-colonialism. This turnabout culminated with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden describing Jewish settlers as the “vanguard of an invading army” and predicting that the Jewish state would be expansionist and stoke regional war. The Colonial Office strongly resisted this analysis and the attendant call to rebalance policy to account for Palestinian interests, but it too did an about-face in 1938. As the revolt rose to its peak, Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald relied on diplomatic feint as well as counterinsurgency to restore British control, and the settler-colonial paradigm informed Britain’s new policy. Under his stewardship the 1939 White Paper – designed as an impossible compromise between the settler movement and indigenous aspirations – blunted the Balfour declaration and helped deflate the Palestinian uprising while priming the pump for future Jewish rebellion.
In the aftermath of WWI, the “development” of Syria’s agriculture, which was the base of its economy, was at the heart of French officials’ justification for why the expensive military occupation necessary to impose the mandate’s colonial administration would be worth it. While, in the face of Syrian farmers’ disinterest, official visions of a countryside replete with the latest French agricultural equipment quickly faded, other strategies intended to ensure profits from agriculture proceeded apace—most notably, establishing a fixed tax on harvest yields and reorganizing the Ottoman-era agricultural bank to make its operations more amenable to inflows of French capital. As the 1920s and 1930s progressed, crisis developed. Farmers complained of the increasingly massive debts created by the application of these policies as unpaid taxes and agricultural bank loans piled up. Deserted villages dotted the arid regions along the desert’s edge where cultivation had thrived in the late Ottoman period.
In contrast to historiographical narratives that characterize French agricultural ambitions in Syria as failed because of drought or the global economic crisis of the early 1930s, this paper argues that Syria’s agricultural sector and the economy that depended on it were in trouble much earlier. Furthermore, it contends that this situation stemmed from French officials’ fundamental misunderstanding of the region’s ecological limits and the local administrative practices that had developed to address them. Only in the late 1930s did French officials finally begin to acknowledge that maybe there was a logic behind these practices. Drawing on archival documents and periodicals in Arabic and French, this paper demonstrates that it was the intersection of these mandate policies with the region’s ecological limits that was the primary driver of this critical state of affairs in the region’s agricultural sector—a “discovery” only made by French officials in the mandate’s final years.
On the morning of July 27, 1956, mere hours after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had announced from a stage in Alexandria that he was nationalizing the Suez Canal, the Bank of England, in coordination with the British Treasury, froze the Egyptian government’s sterling accounts and barred the residents of Egypt from transacting in British pounds anywhere in the world. A barrage of telegrams went out to central banks across the globe announcing the terms of this monetary blockade.
The speed with which Britain was able to coordinate this punitive monetary blockade might at first seem surprising, but this was no improvised measure. For well over two years before the stunning events of July 1956, amidst growing alarm at the perceived threat that Nasser posed to imperial interests within and beyond the Middle East, officials the Bank and the Treasury had worked carefully to devise a set of exchange restrictions “of the utmost severity” that would be “ready to impose at 24 hours’ notice or less should the situation in Egypt appear to warrant it.”
This monetary weapon that British officials devised offers a starting point from which to reconsider the political economy of decolonization in Egypt and the place of the Suez Crisis in that longer process. Most accounts this period read Nasser’s decision to nationalize the waterway as a grab for capital to fund the Aswan High Dam. Drawing on a vast corpus of central bank records, this paper argues instead that the dramatic events of 1956 are better understood as the culmination of a decade-long struggle to delink the Egyptian pound from sterling and establish a viable national currency with which Egypt would be free to conduct the global transactions necessary for the country’s new development projects.
In late 1936 a coup d’état overthrew the most formidable, popular, and successful Arab politician of the interwar Middle East. A few months later, the former President, Yasin al-Hashimi of Iraq, died in exile at the age of 53. The coup that displaced him was the first of many in modern Arab history. For almost a century the coup has been named for Bakr Sidqi, the alleged mastermind on the Iraqi general staff. This paper shows that Yasin al-Hashimi was overthrown, and probably murdered, in linked British intelligence operations, and that the alleged Iraqi army leader was a mere instrument.
Today most knowledgeable people the world over admit the injustice and damage British and French colonialism brought to the Middle East. This paper seeks to add specific evidence to the charge, but also to deepen understanding of the depths and consequences of colonial rule to the people of the region. If the first coup in the Arab World, and the murder of its most promising political leader, can be attributed to British and French diplomats, their responsibility for injustice and suffering, now and in the past, must be far greater than almost anyone recognizes.