The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

21

Britain's Informal Empire in the Middle East

GLEN BALFOUR-PAUL

'If these are the rival angles of vision of contemporary authorities, 1 wrote Foreign Secretary Curzon in 1919 when the disposal of the collapsed Ottoman empire was being debated between the European powers, 'what will not be the perplexities of the future historian?" They were prophetic words.

Since the eighteenth century Britain's response to the Eastern Question had been to prop up Ottoman sovereignty in western Asia as a manageable buffer protecting both British India and the eastern Mediterranean against the designs of other European powers. The threat was perceived as coming primarily from Tsarist Russia and, most notably when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, from France. Both were headed off. The prime strategic value of Egypt was greatly enhanced by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Despite French cultural pre‐ eminence in Egypt, it was Foreign Secretary Salisbury's aim in 1879 to secure exclusive political influence, coupled with the promotion of peaceful indigenous government. 2 In 1882 British troops landed in Alexandria, ostensibly to protect the Ottoman Khedive against a popular uprising, and despite French and Russian protests the plunge was taken.

The extending of Britain's dominance over a much wider area between the Mediterranean and India to establish her informal empire in the Middle East was thereby given a crucial push. 'Informal empire' may sound a contradiction in terms, since Empire in the proper sense involved annexation and full subordination to the Crown. The term must serve to embrace the varying modes and degrees of overlordship imposed on different territories and for different lengths of time, from Libya to Iran and from Syria to the coasts of Arabia and the Sudan. The primary object throughout was the security of routes by land, sea, and later air to India. As the Ottoman empire collapsed, the area came to be known as the Middle East. The rationale behind the Occupation and Administration

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1
Curzon to Lord Derby, 30 May 1919, E. L. Woodward and Rohan Butler, eds., Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939 (London, 1952), IV, p. 255.
2
Salisbury to Malet (Consul-General, Cairo), Secret, 16 Oct. 1879, F[oreign] O[ffice] 78/2997, no. 275. For Britain's policies in Egypt generally, see Vol. III, chap. by Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot.

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