British Imperialism and 'The Tribal Question': Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919-1936

By Fisher, John | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

British Imperialism and 'The Tribal Question': Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919-1936


Fisher, John, The Middle East Journal


In this interesting, thoroughly researched, and very thought-provoking book, Robert Fletcher explores the phenomenon of "'the Tribal Question': an empire-wide debate over the nature of nomadism, the future of arid environments, and the challenges both posed to the perpetuation of British rule" (p. 2). He suggests that imperial historians might benefit from having an understanding of a "'tribal Frontier of the British Empire' in their tool kit" (p. 63), in which frontiers are regarded as "integrating factors" rather than "separating factors" (p. 181). It is part of Oxford University Press's Oxford Historical Monographs series, deriving from doctoral theses.

The core of the book discusses the Syrian Desert, stretching from Iraq to TransJordan to Egypt, and its administration by a number of British officials. However, the discussion is contextualized with reference to allegedly common understandings of tribal policy, and of nomadism, in the Empire more generally. It suggests that, far from supporting the notion of a gradual imperial contraction in the interwar period, the reverse was true of desert administration. Here, British authority grew. The reader is encouraged to envisage the desert corridor as "hubs of rivalry" with "distinct dynamics" (p. 7). Its importance, as Fletcher explains, was accentuated by interwar developments, notably the increase in travel by motorized vehicles, including those of Nairn Transport Company, and by airplane in the region. Thus, as Leo Amery had counseled during the First World War, some form of control of these desert areas was desirable. Such were the imperatives of British desert policy rather than, as Fletcher correctly notes, the pursuit of oil (p. 80, fn. 72). The other dynamic was "indigenous patterns of mobility and exchange" (p. 156) and the interconnection of these factors is explored. Particularly impressive is the detail provided on the different ways in which desert administration developed according to local circumstances and in the description of the varied nature of official duties. Crucially, as Fletcher suggests, practice evolved in such a way as to deflect rivals. As such, he claims that desert administration became a "touchstone of imperial authority" (p. 129).

As with most published theses nowadays, reworked or otherwise, a theoretical framework is provided. Here, it has three dimensions: revised understandings of pastoral nomadism, the revived literature of global frontiers and borders, and the reimagining of the British Empire, "as a networked entity, constituted by a variety of flows of people, objects, and ideas" (p. 10). The main argument, in conceptual terms, is that, hitherto, imperial historians have overlooked perceptions of nomadism and have relegated the desert corridor to the periphery in their analyses.

Those who teach in this area will find much to stimulate discussion and it is an admirable book in many ways. However, a few caveats might be noted. The book lacks a clear prosopography of the officials under discussion. …

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