Britain in the Nineteenth Centry: A history paper by

The nineteenth century, especially towards its end, is considered to be one of the most troubled periods in the history of the Middle East, particularly that great powers such as Britain, France, Russia and Germany were trying to impose their power in this area as the Ottoman Empire was withering away. Needless to say, Great Britain was the most persistent and successful of all others, especially due to its deeply established trade and commercial interests in the area, in addition to the strategic interests that Britain had always tried to protect in the Middle East which it considered to be a strategic corridor to its vital interests in India. While during this period of history Britain was mostly isolated from other European nations, and while it tried to achieve its political, commercial and strategic goals in the Middle East by all means, a persistent treaty policy was followed towards the area, one which would enhance and protect British interests at all rates, and at the same time, prevent any rivalry or competition to British interests, presence and predomination there.

Britain’s first major challenge was in Egypt, which was moving towards bankruptcy. The British occupation of Egypt in 1881 was to an extent approved by the Ottoman Empire as well as by other European powers whose primary interest was to regain their debts and the values of their bonds which they had purchased from Egypt. British occupation contributed to crushing Egyptian nationalism which could have imposed a threat to British interests, and at the same time, it went in conformity with the Liquidation Law which would return to the occupiers their lost financial rights from the bankrupt Egypt. Occupation of Suez Canal which was the most vital trade route in Egypt and the area was the major British goal(Wells, p.55). By political pressure from both Britain and France, the Ottomans were not able to intervene, and the Liquidation of the Egyptian debt was to remain in the administrative hands of the British. However, without any formal treaties or agreements, Britain would not have been able to enhance its role in Egypt, particularly with the increasing nationalist pressures inside the country, both against the Ottomans and Europeans. Yet, what Britain feared most of all was the possibility of having other debtors claiming their rights to predomination in Egypt, a reality which Britain would not have accepted at any rate (Wells, pp.56-57).

Consequently, in March 1885, the Convention of London was held including the European powers. The results of the Convention were to release the Egyptian Treasury from most of its financial pressures and to add a Russian Commissioner to the Caisse which was responsible for collecting Egyptian revenues to liquidate the debt for the debtors (Wells, p.58). Apparently, the convention provided Egypt with a large loan of 9 million sterling pounds at 3% interest, in addition to a number of grants and credit facilities which would enable the country to repay its debts. It also organized the financial relationship between the Caisse and the Egyptian government (Wells, p.58).

The London convention history paper:

However, the London Convention also had its political goals for the British. First of all, it enhanced the administrative role of Britain in rehabilitating and reorganizing the Egyptian state, a role that was through the Convention formally recognized by the European powers (Wells, p.58). Besides, this Convention also enhanced the leading role of Britain in Egypt, and hence, any part with interests to pursue in Egypt, would have to pass through the British gate first. This privilege was not to be shared by other powers (Wells, p.59).

The Constantinople Convention was held in 1886 between the British and Ottoman representatives to draw Ottoman contribution to the British responsibilities and role in Egypt. The Convention was agreed upon by the two parts, but it was never ratified by the Sultan due to pressures from the French and Russians who feared that such a Convention would only enhance the British power in Egypt and the Middle East. Since each of the two powers had its interests there, it was not likely that they would accept growing British domination there. Despite the fact that this Convention never took the form of an agreement in the end, since it was not ratified, the mere fact that the Ottomans refused to cooperate with the British over the rehabilitation of Egypt gave Britain the excuse to be in full control of Egypt, and shun away any attempts by other powers to enjoy powerful privileges there, particularly as the earlier London Convention has organized the relations between the European powers with respect to Egypt and Britain respectively (Baer, pp.84).

In the two decades that followed, Britain followed a more open policy with the European powers, particularly with France as a result of the growing German power and interests both in Europe and the Middle East. This open policy was crowned with the 1904 Anglo-French Agreement which provided for a French recognition of the British position in Egypt in return for British recognition of France’s special position in Morocco. This agreement also had other influences that will be discussed in the course of assessing British policies towards Syria and Iraq (Lambert, pp.112-113).

British interests in the area that today constitutes Iraq and Kuwait were long established before those in Syria due to the fact that Ottoman power in Syria was still stronger. Besides, Mesopotamia was much more vital with respect to British interests in India than Syria which would later on have a more political than commercial importance to the British.

The British Interests:

Most of the British interests in Iraq prior to 1875 were represented by Stephen Lynch and Company Ltd which was a navigating trade company. It was not strange that the British government showed great interest in keeping records of the company’s activities. The British Foreign Office also extended its interest to the Euphrates Company, another British navigation company which in addition to its commercial role, was a British eye over the political developments in the area. Between 1875 and 1899, the British were formally watching these developments, with an eye over growing German interests, especially for the Berlin-Baghdad railway dream (Lambert, pp.116-117).

The British imposed their influence upon the Sheik of Kuwait to insure their control over Mesopotamian approaches to the Persian Gulf. At the same time, Britain signed agreements with Germany and Turkey to safeguard this control and to protect its interests in the area. Similarly, the Anglo-French Agreement of 1904 settled the disputes over the areas of Madagascar, Siam, Senegambia, the Newfoundland fisheries and the New Hebrids. Consequently, the French were satisfied with their African trophies and left Mesopotamia to the British (Lambert, p.125).

As to Kuwait, the British realized that Sheik Mubarak Es-Sabbah was in a very critical position as he feared Ottoman intervention in his small but commercially rich area. However, Kuwait was neither independent nor autonomous, and as an Ottoman territory, the Sheik had no right to sign any treaties or conventions with the British. To wither his fears, the British signed a secret convention with the Sheik in 1899, in which they considered Kuwait as a British protectorate while the Sheik agreed not to give away any territories to any foreign side without British consent. By foreign side, the British in particular meant the Germans. At the same time, the British continued to deny any protection to Kuwait in international occasions, even though in practice, the British sent over their Warships to intimidate the Ottomans when they intended to intervene in Kuwait between 1901 and 1902. The direct impulse for signing the treaty was the 1899 visit of Kaisar William II to the Ottoman Sultan, a visit which the British feared could lead to concessions to the Germans in Mesopotamia and the Gulf, particularly Kuwait so as to achieve the Berlin-Baghdad railway project (Heston, p.168).

The consequences of the secret treaty with Sheik Mubarak were the following. First of all, he was freed from his subordination to the governor of Basra who was assigned by the Ottomans but under the pressure of the British. Besides, through this agreement, the British were able to send an indirect message to the Germans that no German breakthrough was possible in the area without British acceptance. The British were sincere in supporting the Sheik. After all, both sides had mutual interests which they wanted to protect: The Sheik wanted to protect his property and commercial gains, and the British wanted to protect their predominance over the trade routes to India as well as their presence in Egypt (Heston, p.169).

The secret agreement with Sheik Mubarak paid off only one year later when the Herr Stemrich went on a mission in 1900 to purchase territories from the Sheik for the railway project but was rebuffed only to prove to Germany that Kuwait was totally dependent on British support (Heston, p.169).

In relation to these interests, however, it is important to mention the treaty of 1909, which the British signed with the Germans. It was negotiated by Sir Edward Grey and Von Metternich, the German ambassador in London. While the agreement was mainly about the British and German rights in the company that was to carry out the Berlin-Baghdad railway, it remained mostly vague and inconclusive, especially as to the Southern areas that which Britain insisted on keeping. Consequently, even if the project started, the Germans would never be able to precisely locate the areas which the British dominated in the Southern areas of the projects (Heston, p.171).

On July 29, 1913, the British signed the Anglo-Ottoman Agreement in which the British recognized the Ottoman power over Kuwait. This was of course against the secret agreement with the Sheik, but the British in reality wanted the agreement with the Ottomans to be a formal recognition of their presence in the area. This was secured by granting Kuwait the state of autonomy and by having the Ottomans agree to recognize all foreign agreements concluded by the Sheik with foreign states. In this way, the British secured their presence and domination in Kuwait with an Ottoman recognition, hence cutting the way for the Germans (Mansour, p.84).

Moreover, the Anglo-Ottoman Agreement resulted in grand concessions by the Ottomans to the British in the navigation interests in both Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia which were all gathered in the Ottoman River Navigation Company that was to be presided by Lord Inchape who had the right to appoint half the directors and the Ottoman government having the right to appoint the other half (Mansour, p.85).

Hence, in the three agreements concluded by the British with Sheik Mubarak, the Germans and the Ottomans, the British were able to achieve all their political goals, namely, to protect the trade and commercial routes to India, to protect the route between Egypt and Asia, especially in the Suez Canal, and to prevent any German rivalry in Mesopotamia by all means. This is  not to mention the important commercial gains that the British were able to win in the Anglo-Ottoman Agreement which gave them dubious rights of navigation in the two rivers (Mansour, p.86).

Apparently, the British were not morally bothered with the fact that the different agreements they signed contained controversial terms, as long as this helped achieve the goals and protect interests regarded to be vital by the British government. This is to be more apparent in the dubious correspondence between Sherif Hussain and Sir Henry McMahon  and later in the Sykes-Picot agreement (Mansour, p.88).

Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, the British were holding talks with Sherif Hussain of Mecca who was trying to find allies to help him achieve his idea of an independent Arab state. The deteriorating relations between the British and the Ottomans, and the fact that the British were working on breaking up the old Ottoman Empire made British interested in the talks. All what the Sherif wanted was British help to achieve independence, and the recognition of the Arab state. The Sherif’s offer included special privileges to the British including trade concessions in addition to Aden which was to remain British (Mansour, p.89).

In 1915, the talks became more formal with the arrival of Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt. McMahon believed that the Sherif’s demands were excessive, especially that he claimed to rule Syria, Iraq and Hejaz. Yet, the British agreed to assist Sherif Hussain in his revolution, but dubiously holding in mind that the Syrians would reject his claim to rule Syria, and Ibn Saud would resist his claim to rule Hejaz. Consequently, the British were betting on the fact that once the Arab State was declared independent, it would not be stable, and sooner than later it would be separated into a number of countries which would result in chaos, allowing the British to intervene. In all ways, the British were at advantage, and all what they really wanted at the time was an Arab revolution to start to undermine the Ottoman Empire during war (Mansour, p.90).

At the same time, the British were signing a secret agreement with the French, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which they played on the uncertainties that were apparent in the agreement with Sherif Hussain, particularly the “area west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.” To satisfy the Russians who were pressing hard for gains in the Ottoman Empire after its collapse, and to prevent further Russian interference, the British agreed to offer Russian concessions in Persia as well as in Turkish territories in return for Russia’s recognition of the French and British rights in Syria and Iraq. The French were offered the coastal areas including Syria and Lebanon, with Palestine remaining under British rule. This agreement, as it is apparently seen was in total controversy with the McMahon-Hussain agreement which promised the Arabs an independent state including all the above mentioned areas. Deception and opportunism of British politics could not have been any worse (Mansour, p.91).

In 1917, the Communist Revolution in Russia led to the declaring the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement to the Arabs, but the British immediately contacted Sherif Hussain assuring him that he had misunderstood McMahon’s letters. In November of the same year, however, Lord Balfor made his notorious declaration announcing Palestine as a promised homeland for the Jews, hence complicating the matters, and adding a further breech to the British commitments to the Arab cause. Eventually, it can be seen that the policies of Britain towards the Arabs in the Middle East were dubious, based on opportunism and deception. Vague and inclusive terms have abundantly been used throughout the treaties and agreements signed between the British and the Arabs, all in all, to lead to British ends and prevent the other parts from achieving any real gains. British interests in the Middle East were vital, and even though they were not colonial at core, they were basically interests related to trade, commerce, political power, and the protection of the British colonies in the Far East.

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Baer, G. (1981). British Interests in the Middle East.

New York: McGraw Hill Inc.

Heston, F. (1971). Britain And The Arabs. New Jersey:

Prentice Hall Inc.

Lambert, R. (1977). British Colonization in the Middle

East. Boston: Brown & Benchmark.

Mansour, M. (1985). A History of World War I. Translated.

Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal Publishers.

Wells, L. (1967). A History of the Middle East. London:



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