SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 224 Dec-Jan 2018/19

The Middle East chessboard

Lords of the Desert: Britain's struggle with America to dominate the Middle East

By James Barr

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2018, £20

Reviewed by Mick Whale

Lords of the Desert is a history of the rivalry between US and British imperialism in the Middle East between the early 1940s and late 1960s. It includes the creation of Israel, the Iranian coup in 1953, the Suez crisis, and the overthrow of the Sultan of Oman. The detailed research and frequent contemporary quotes make for a fascinating read.

The various Arab and Jewish leaders together with the people of the Middle East are bit part players in this story. Rather, James Barr exposes the imperialist domination of the region. The Middle East is portrayed as a giant chessboard with Britain and the US trying to win control by manipulating countries and individuals. At times, they used negotiation and diplomacy, bribery and gifts. At others, Britain and America directly intervened with covert forces to support opposition groups, or openly used their own forces to secure their interests.

Imperialism’s present role in the Middle East is a continuation of this approach. The catastrophic state of much of the region today has its roots in this cynical exploitation. While a few local rulers have got very rich from this state of affairs, the overwhelming majority of workers and peasants live in poverty and on the brink of war.

Throughout the second world war and into the cold war Britain and the US were allies against Nazi Germany and then Stalinist Russia. However, that unity papered over major differences of self-interest. While cooperation took place over the strategic aims of defeating Germany and preventing the spread of ‘communism’, the increasingly important role of oil meant that the US and Britain often worked against each other to protect or extend influence and secure resources.

Capitalism is based on the nation state, and capitalist countries will work together when their interests coincide. However, the underlying rivalry between them prevents cooperation beyond certain limits. Barr’s book illustrates this point brilliantly.

In 1941, for example, the US administration agreed to lend $1 billion to Britain to enable it to buy US weapons and resources to aid the war against Nazi Germany. Yet a significant amount of that money was channelled through the Middle East Supply Centre to Ibn Saud, the Saudi Arabian leader, to prevent the US building its influence and oil rights in Saudi Arabia. US finance was used by the British against the Americans! (The Middle East Supply Centre had been set up by the British government to control resources in the region during the war. After 1942, the US was also involved in running it as a sort of strategic regional overseer.)

At the start of the second world war, Britain was the dominant power in the region. The British empire still appeared to be all-powerful. The US with its rapidly developing economy increasingly found itself in conflict with the favourable position that Britain had established, including enhanced trading relations and oil rights for British companies.

Barr explains how the US could not openly attack its ally. Instead, politicians like Wendell Wilkie, US special envoy to the Middle East, hypocritically championed an end to the colonial system. Wilkie argued: "In Africa, in the Middle East and throughout the Arab world, as well as in China and in the Far East, freedom means orderly but scheduled abolition of the colonial system. The rule of the people by other peoples is not freedom and not what we must fight to preserve". This was a direct attack on British colonial rule and a statement of US intent to become the dominant force.

One of the earliest manifestations of this conflict came over Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. Barr explains that, while US politicians were responsive to the Jewish electorate in the US, they had to balance this with not offending the Saudi elite who could not be seen supporting the creation of a state that would attack the Palestinian Arabs. Saudi Arabia was the US’s main source for oil after the second world war. According to Barr, in 1945 president Franklin D Roosevelt had promised Ibn Saud that the US would "never support the Zionist fight for Palestine against the Arabs".

British imperialism, on the other hand, tried to develop a scheme for the partition of Palestine while retaining an overall role in the area. Increased Jewish migration to Palestine in the wake of the holocaust led to a growing demand within Palestine for an independent Jewish state. Faced with mounting attacks, the British blamed the US for agreeing to the increase in Jewish migration – it had supported the Jewish Agency’s demand for 100,000 Jews to be allowed into Palestine.

Barr explains how Britain’s attempts to stop Jewish immigration pushed the US into a position where it had no option but to support the Zionists more openly. In particular, when two British destroyers rammed the steamer ‘The Exodus’, carrying mostly women, children and older people, there was outrage in the US. Israel later developed into a base for US imperialism, but its creation was far more complicated. It is wrong to argue, as do some on the left, that the state of Israel was simply an imperialist creation.

At the same time, the US ruling class used its economic muscle and British reliance on US military assistance in the war to gain oil rights in the region. Barr explains that in one meeting in 1944 between Roosevelt and the British ambassador, the president produced a map and pointed out: "Iran’s oil belonged to Britain. The US and Britain would share Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil. Saudi oil was America’s".

This statement from a supposedly liberal president shows what ‘freedom’ means to imperialism. During the 19th century, European powers literally drew lines on maps to mark out the boundaries of the countries they would colonise and control. After the second world war, direct colonisation was replaced by economic domination. The Arab countries would be independent and free as long as they let imperialism exploit their oil and natural resources.

Within ten years of Roosevelt’s statement, imperialism was to intervene directly in Egypt, Iran and Syria to protect its interests. Egypt was an important strategic country because of its size and geographic position. It had been a British protectorate. King Farouk was a British puppet who lived a lavish lifestyle while, as Barr points out, the life expectancy for the workers and peasants was only 36. The king became the focus of discontent and riots. The Egyptian masses also targeted British concerns.

While the British government tried to maintain the status quo in Egypt, the US had made contact with a group of middle-ranking officers in the Egyptian army. They were brought to the US for ‘training’. According to Barr, the CIA explicitly encouraged them to organise the coup in 1952 and made it clear publicly that the US would not intervene in a ‘domestic affair’. The coup forced Farouk to abdicate – and the US replaced Britain as the dominant force.

Barr quotes Harold Macmillan, who became Tory prime minister in 1957: "Perhaps the most noticeable and painful difference between our position now and when we were last in office [1945]… is our relationship to the US. Then we were on an equal footing – a respected ally… Now, we are treated by the Americans with a mixture of patronising pity and contempt". That perfectly reflected the decline of Britain and the rise of US imperialism.

By 1950, the biggest oil producer in the world was the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. While the profits from the crude oil were shared between Britain and Iran, the refining was hived off to British subsidiary companies in the south of Iran. That was where the super-profits were made. The Labour minister for fuel, Philip Noel-Baker, put it simply: "The Persians are not getting anything like as much out of this as we are".

A rich elite led by the Shah lived a luxurious life while 17 million Iranian workers and peasants lived in poverty. Mohammad Mosaddegh became the leader of the National Front, supported by the Tudeh (Communist Party). The growing discontent led many Iranian workers to look to the Tudeh party. Mosaddegh was not a communist. In fact, he was from the royal family but wanted Iran to be free from foreign domination. As oil minister and then prime minister he first argued for a greater share of the profits from Anglo-Iranian. When the British prevaricated he carried out its nationalisation.

British and US imperialism looked on this with horror. Neither the Clement Attlee Labour government, in office to October 1951, nor the Tories were prepared to give up the cash cow that was the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. British imperialism, after failing in its attempts to bribe Iranian politicians and fix elections, imposed an embargo on Iranian oil. The idea was to create a crisis which would justify military intervention.

The US feared this plan could destabilise the region – and fuel the growth of the Tudeh party and the possibility of Russian involvement. As the situation developed in 1953, however, and various attempts to persuade Mosaddegh to concede failed, the US agreed that a coup was the only way forward. Operation Ajax, the plan’s codename, is brilliantly described by Barr and reads like a chapter from a John le Carré novel. Mosaddegh was forced out and control passed to the military – and, while Iranian oil remained safe for capitalism, the US had overtaken Britain in influence in Iran.

The Egyptian officers who had forced out King Farouk in 1952 included Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser became president of Egypt and was initially friendly to his US backers. However, when the US failed to provide weaponry to modernise the army, Nasser looked increasingly towards the Soviet Union for support. Things came to a head in 1956 when he announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. This was a vital waterway through which the bulk of oil refined in the Gulf States was transported.

The imperialist powers decided it was time to remove Nasser. His apparent closeness to the Russian leaders was a particular problem for the US government. The US tried to canvass support inside Egypt for a replacement who could lead a coup.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to the US, Britain, France and Israel had met to consider a military response. On 5 November 1956, in support of an earlier Israeli attack, British and French paratroopers intervened. They were successful initially, but the greater fear of Russian intervention in the region led to the US forcing a British military withdrawal. This was a humiliating defeat and effectively marked the end of British imperialism’s claim to be a major, decisive power. Barr calls the final section of his book ‘Hanging On’, an apt description of the weakening of British influence in the region.

Lords of the Desert is an excellent book. It exposes the cynical way imperialism imposes its control. If it has a weakness it is that it pays little attention to the underlying social and economic problems in the Middle East. The role of the working class – for, example in Iran 1951-53 – is referenced rather than analysed. Nor does James Barr show any alternative to the continuation of imperialist domination. Nonetheless, his book is well worth the read for anyone seeking a clearer understanding of developments in the Middle East and the continued role of imperialism in the world today.

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