Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East

Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East

Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East

Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East

Synopsis

At the start of the twentieth century, British intelligence agents began to venture in increasing numbers to the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire, drawn by the twin objectives of securing the route to India and finding adventure and spiritualism in an antique land. But these competing objectives created a dilemma: how were they to discreetly and patriotically gather facts in a region they were drawn to for its legendary inscrutability and promise of fame and escape from Britain? Spies in Arabia tracks the intelligence community's tactical grappling with this dilemma and its myriad cultural, institutional, and political consequences during and after the Great War. Arguing that violence and culture were more closely allied in imperial rule than has been recognized, it tells the story of an imperial state dependent on equivocal agents groping through a fog of cultural notions and an interfering mass democracy towards a new style of "covert empire" centered on a brutal aerialsurveillance regime in Iraq. Drawing on a wealth of archival sources - from the fictional to the recently declassified - it explains how Britons reconciled genuine ethical scruples with the actual violence of their Middle Eastern empire - how imperialism was made fit for an increasingly democratic and anti-imperial world. In doing so, it offers the first cultural history of Britain's Middle Eastern empire, anchored in a radically new interpretation of the institutions and practices of intelligence-gathering and the state. The result is a new understanding of the military, cultural, and political legacies of the Great War and of the British empire in the twentieth century. Unpacking the romantic fascination with "Arabia" as the land of espionage, Spies in Arabia presents a start tale of poetic ambition, war, terror, and failed redemption - and the prehistory of our present discontents.

Excerpt

I wonder why Arabia is the best-looking land, however you see it.

I suppose it is the name that does it.

—T. E. Lawrence, 1916

These gentlemen have formed a plan of geographical morality, by
which the duties of men… are not to be governed by their relation to
the great Governor of the Universe, or by their relation to mankind,
but by climates, degrees of longitude, parallels, not of life, but of
latitudes: as if, when you have crossed the equinoctial, all the virtues
die…; as if there were a kind of baptism, like that practised by
seamen, by which they unbaptize themselves of all that they learned
in Europe, and after which a new order and system of things
commenced.

—Edmund Burke, 1788

At the start of the twentieth century, British intelligence agents first began seriously to venture into the region they knew as “Arabia.” They were drawn there by two objectives: the desire to secure the land route to India and the hope of finding in a proverbially mystical and antique land the metaphysical certainty they no longer felt at home. These competing objects created a dilemma for them as agents: How were they to gather practical information and serve the British state in a region they were attracted to because of its legendary inscrutability and promise of escape from Britain? The agents’ grappling with this . . .

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