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Ghosts of imperial Britain continue to haunt Arab world

BY MATEIN KHALID / 18 November 2005

THE ghosts of the British Empire still haunt the international politics of the Middle East in our time. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad fulminated against the Sykes-Picot Plan and the Baghdad Pact, two classic ventures of British imperialism in the Arab world, in his recent, fateful speech to his Baath Party lieutenants.

Meanwhile, Iran accused British intelligence as the malign force behind the bombings in Ahwaz.  Paranoia in Damascus and Teheran?  Not really.  After all, Sir Mark Sykes denied the Hashemites the throne of Syria and handed the ancient Arab heartland of the Ummayad caliphate to France despite Britain's wartime promises to Sherif Hussein during the revolt in the Hejaz. French colonial rule was a disaster for Syria. 

France created a Maronite Christian enclave that dismembered Bilad Shaam and tried to defuse Sunni Arab nationalism with its fabled "politique minoritaire” policy that, ironically, enabled the Alawite general Hafez  Al Assad to seize power in 1970.  So voila!  No British empire, no Sykes- Picot, no French Syria, no Alawite military dominance and takeovers, no Republic of Lebanon, no Dr Bashar Al Assad as the heir to the Ummayads in 2005.

The mutual paranoia between Teheran and the spymasters of Whitehall has even more bitter historical precedent. During World War II, Britain invaded Iran with Soviet connivance to overthrow and exile Reza Khan, the Shah's father, a semi-literate sergeant of the Cossack Brigade whom its proconsuls had installed in the 1920’s as the self-styled imperial successor to Cyrus, Xerxes and Darius.  

In 1953, the nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown in a CIA-MI6 joint venture code-named Operation Ajax.  British intelligence "sexed" up secret reports from Iran to persuade the anti-Communist Dulles brothers in Washington that Mossadegh planned to turn Iran into a Marxist-Leninist satellite of the Kremlin While the real reasons for Mossadegh's overthrow was the nationalisation of BP (once the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) oilfields and refineries in Iran, Britain's spooks knew the US would not act to restore the Shah to the Peacock Throne merely to protect the oil interests of the Sceptered Isle. 

So intelligence reports from Teheran were doctored to sell the coup conspiracy to the White House, much as the WMD argument was fabricated by Bush and Blair to invade Iraq fifty years later.  The secessionist violence in Khuzestan, Iran's only Arab Sunni province also has a long and sanguinary imperialist pedigree.  Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980 using war plans the British general staff concocted in 1937.

The Ayatollahs were convinced that Ms Thatcher's tilt to Baghdad in the 1980's was not just business but yet another clever strategy to dismember the nation whose oilfields had once enabled the Royal Navy's warships to switch from coal to oil, who Britain had cynically invaded and partitioned as recently as a decade earlier.  As British Foreign Office accuses Iran of encouraging the ambush of Royal Marines in Basra, it is impossible not to  recall the ghosts of Churchill, Eden and the national outrage when "Mossy stole our oil," the jingo-squared media blitz that preceded  eventual regime change in Teheran.

The Bush-Blair military adventure in Iraq has eerie echoes of the Suez debacle, which must rank with Jallianwallah Bagh and the Palestine Mandate as one of the monumental mess-ups of the British Empire.  Sir Anthony Eden, Churchill's successor, was convinced that Nasser was another Hitler when the Egyptian Colonel dared to throw out the 80,000 British troops stationed in the Suez Canal (naturally, our canal,old chap.) 

Not coincidentally, Suez was one of the great choke points of the global oil bazaar long after it had relinquished its role as Britain's passage to India, literally the new jewel in the crown of Albion's oil pashas.  So Eden plotted with France and Israel to invade Egypt in a conspiracy so brazen that the US forced Whitehall and the Quai d' Orsay to withdraw their paratroopers from the Canal Zone.  Yet the Suez debacle, long forgotten in the West, still scars the psyche of the Arab world, remembered here as the Triple Aggression. 

Suez made Nasser the greatest Arab populist hero since Sultan Salahuddin, accelerated Britain's imperial decline, dragged France into the futile bloodbath of Algeria and enabled the Soviet Union to coax Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus into its orbit.  Above all, Suez instigated the Israeli dreams of conquest and aggression that led to its preemptive strike against Egypt in the Six Day War in June 1967, the one single event that doomed the Middle East to two generations of bloodshed, mass murder and war. 

Suez also led to the overthrow and slaughter of Britain's friends in the Arab world, notably the kings of Hashemite Iraq and the Yemeni royalist Imam Yahya.  Five decades after Suez, the military adventure in Iraq threatens to unleash the same centrifugal forces of chaos, hatred and nationalist passions that poisoned Arab politics in the 1950s.

Imperial Britain's fin de regime in the Gulf was as disastrous as in Mandate Palestine, Iraq, Cyprus, Egypt and Kashmir.  Britain first sent its warships to shell Ras-Al-Khaima  and protect its East India  merchantmen as far back as the 1830's .

Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, even landed in Sharjah and Muscat in order to "shock and awe" the Gulf sheikhs with the power of the Union Jack.  For centuries, the Royal Navy, a network of Political Agents and even British palace guards, preserved the peace in the Gulf, a multi-generational Pax Britannia. Britain saved Kuwait from Iraq's General Kassem in 1961.  British SAS units helped the Sultan of Oman emerge victorious in the Dhofar revolt. 

British diplomats defused the Buraimi Oasis dispute between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.  British officers helped integrate the Trucial Scouts into the UAE armed forces, much as they had once helped create and command Jordan's Arab Legion. 

Yet despite such a long history and the existence of the greatest geological prize of all time in Arabia, Britain's Labour Party cut and ran after successive sterling devaluations and Whitehall budget intrigues. Britain's East of Suez” withdrawal could so easily have led to disaster in the region if the Shah had done a Saddam on Bahrain on the pretext that it was part of the ancient Persian Empire, if the KGB had successfully subverted the oil sheikhdoms, if Marxist-Leninist Yemen had attacked Oman, if the USSR or its proxies had mined the Straits of Hormuz and crippled world shipping.

Lawrence of Arabia once wrote to Sir Mark Sykes "we betray our little friends for the sake of big friends". Poodle diplomacy in 1919? Sad but true. From Balfour to Blair, they forgot the promises of Hejaz and their double cross in Palestine, the twice-promised land. But we remember because we paid the price when the Empire betrayed us little friends for the sake of its big friends. We may well forgive but we cannot afford to forget them.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker. He can be reached at matein@emirates.net.ae

 
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