Reader Review: Secret Affairs

British historical interest in influencing Middle Eastern politics is well recognised, largely through the actions and subsequent attention paid to protagonists such as T.E. Lawrence and Sir Mark Sykes. Far less frequently discussed is the subsequent – and ongoing – involvement of the British government with the internal affairs of an arc of nations stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan. In Secret Affairs, Mark Curtis focuses on the cooperation and often collusion between the British and a variety of Islamist groups in this region, showing how these relationships are not merely historical but affect the social and political landscapes of the world today.

From an initial somewhat strong position in the Middle East to the profoundly weaker one of today, Curtis reveals how British policies of ‘divide and rule’ in the region have remained unchanged. Drawing on many now declassified Foreign Office documents, he considers how the British sought to implement such policies both in countries where they held direct power (India, for example) and those where they did not (such as Iran and Egypt).

During the Cold War, the overwhelming concern of the Foreign Office to maintain the balance of power produced many secret alliances with Islamist groups as Britain sought to prevent or destabilise nationalist movements in a variety of countries. Curtis shows how this often came at the expense of many allegedly core British values, including democracy, justice, women’s rights and freedom, which were denied to the local population in the name of British short-sighted regional interests.

Most eye-opening for the generalist reader like myself is the direct relationship between Britain and British foreign policy and modern-day terrorism. Curtis draws on an impressive range of sources to reveal the close links, both historical and contemporary, between many of today’s high-profile Islamist groups that are involved in terrorist operations and the British government, military, or intelligence services.

Secret Affairs follows a rough chronological timeline, from the British Empire to the present day. It is entirely possible to read the various chapters out of order; however, one of the major strengths of the book is in how Curtis shows the patterns in British policies develop and repeat over time and over national borders – this is best appreciated if read in order of inclusion.

The book as a whole is accessible to a general readership and Curtis ensures that the text is not overridden with confusing acronyms and names of organisations (of which there are many). The index is particularly useful, and the extensive notes both develop ideas further and provide excellent source material should the reader wish to investigate certain aspects in greater detail.

Secret Affairs is essential reading for anyone wishing to fully understand the political and social situation in the world today, in particular Britain’s role in the Middle East and Central Asia. It constitutes a historical reference, as well as an investigation into current affairs, that is both enlightening and somewhat depressing. In the words of the author, the hallmark of British foreign policy in the region has been ‘expediency: the willingness to do whatever, with whomever, at the time to achieve short-term objectives irrespective of the long-term costs and any moral calculation.’ This has had a profound effect on Britain’s status and security in the world today.


Secret Affairs, Mark Curtis (Profile Books)