bloodshed and the birth of the modern Middle East

D615b595-6034-4e4c-9456-a3295ab034e9Mark Mazower at the Financial Times:

Before the first world war, the term “Middle East” was virtually unknown. The Ottoman empire had ruled for centuries over the lands from the Sahara to Persia but did not refer to them as part of a single region. Coined in the mid-19th century, the phrase became popular only in the mid-20th. It reflected the growing popularity of geopolitical thinking as well as the strategic anxieties of the rivalrous great powers, and its spread was a sign of growing European meddling in the destiny of the Arab-speaking peoples.

But Europe’s war changed more than just names. In the first place, there was petroleum. The British had tightened their grip on the Persian Gulf in the early years of the new century, as the Royal Navy contemplated shifting away from coal. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company opened the enormous Abadan refinery in 1912. The British invasion of Basra — a story of imperial hubris and cataclysmic failure that Eugene Rogan weaves superbly through The Fall of the Ottomans — thus marked the beginning of the world’s first oil conflict.

Second, there was the British turn to monarchy as a means of securing political influence. The policy began in Egypt, which British troops had been occupying since 1882. Until the Ottomans entered the war, Whitehall had solemnly kept to the juridical fiction that Egypt remained a province of their empire. After November, that was no longer possible and the British swiftly changed the constitutional order: the khedive Abbas II, who happened to be in Istanbul at the time, was deposed and his uncle, Husayn Kamil, was proclaimed the country’s sultan.

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