End of the Ottoman Empire

by Mark Mazower – February 13, 2015

The Financial Times

Before the first world war, the term “Middle East” was virtually unknown. The Ottoman empire had ruled for centuries over the lands from the Sahara to Persia but did not refer to them as part of a single region. Coined in the mid-19th century, the phrase became popular only in the mid-20th. It reflected the growing popularity of geopolitical thinking as well as the strategic anxieties of the rivalrous great powers, and its spread was a sign of growing European meddling in the destiny of the Arab-speaking peoples.

But Europe’s war changed more than just names. In the first place, there was petroleum. The British had tightened their grip on the Persian Gulf in the early years of the new century, as the Royal Navy contemplated shifting away from coal. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company opened the enormous Abadan refinery in 1912. The British invasion of Basra — a story of imperial hubris and cataclysmic failure that Eugene Rogan weaves superbly through The Fall of the Ottomans — thus marked the beginning of the world’s first oil conflict.

Second, there was the British turn to monarchy as a means of securing political influence. The policy began in Egypt, which British troops had been occupying since 1882. Until the Ottomans entered the war, Whitehall had solemnly kept to the juridical fiction that Egypt remained a province of their empire. After November, that was no longer possible and the British swiftly changed the constitutional order: the khedive Abbas II, who happened to be in Istanbul at the time, was deposed and his uncle, Husayn Kamil, was proclaimed the country’s sultan. In this way the British unilaterally declared an end to almost four centuries of Ottoman rule in favour of a puppet who would allow their continued control of the Suez Canal.

This was not the only way the British could have taken over: Cyprus, for instance, they simply annexed. But the Egyptian strategy was less of a slap in the face to the local population and this kind of imperial improvisation became the template for the region after 1918, when Hashemite princes were placed in charge of one new kingdom after another for no very good reason other than their likely subservience to British wishes. A fine system it was most of the time too, at least for the British, and it is not surprising that when the Americans took over in the region during the cold war, they did their best to keep it going.