A Line in the Sand

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East
James Barr
Simon & Schuster   454pp   £25

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In 1898 British and French forces faced off at Fashoda in the Sudan, an outpost on the upper Nile. It was the high point of the European scramble for Africa and momentarily there was a threat of war, which was only averted when the French stood down. For Paris the incident was a never to be forgotten humiliation, symptomatic of an age-old rivalry for global supremacy stretching back to the 18th century, which was only partially eclipsed by the diplomatic rapprochement of 1904, the so-called Entente Cordiale. Under this the French reluctantly recognised Britain’s rule in Egypt and the Sudan and, in return, the British acknowledged French claims to Morocco. The British also expunged Fashoda from the map.

Britain and France were allies but theirs was a relationship dogged by mutual suspicion. Thus in November 1942 De Gaulle was pleased that the British and US landings in Algeria and Morocco had wrested most of the French Empire away from the Vichy Regime and into the hands of the Free French. But he hated the presence of British and US armies in French North Africa. Their well-equipped troops underlined French weakness, undermining France in the eyes of the Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian populations. Furthermore De Gaulle was angered by the way in which President Roosevelt and his envoys actively encouraged North African nationalism.

De Gaulle’s attitude emphasised the ambivalence in the relations between France and les Anglo-Saxons. The Fashoda complex meant that cooperation was interspersed with hostility as all three countries battled for geo-strategic influence. One aspect of this imperial rivalry, the struggle between Britain and France for mastery of the Middle East between 1914 and the late 1940s, is analysed by James Barr in his excellent new book.

It is a complex story of intrigue and skulduggery, which Barr pieces together in a deft, well-written narrative. A journalist by profession, he manages to bring the whole subject alive through a series of well-chosen details and characters. At the heart of the story are two personalities: François Georges-Picot on the French side and Sir Mark Sykes on the British. Picot, a man whose ‘belief in France’s Imperial “civilising mission” ran in his blood’, had a keen interest in the pressure for change in the Arab world. In the years just before 1914 he had been a consul in Beirut, where he was sounded out by educated and ambitious Arab army officers, lawyers and journalists, who wanted France to help them in their goal of autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. In the same vein Sykes, Conservative MP for Hull, had set himself up as an expert on the Ottoman Empire in the years just before the First World War, although Barr casts doubt on the depth of Sykes’ knowledge.

Given their ‘expertise’, it was these two men who drew up a secret agreement in 1916 effectively carving up the Ottoman Empire between the two old imperial powers. Their line in the sand stretched from the Mediterranean to the Persian frontier and gave Britain all the territory to the south and France everything to the north. On this basis post-1918 saw the creation of five mandates with Britain ruling Palestine, Trans-jordan and Iraq, while France took Lebanon and Syria.

Barr’s argument is that the consequences were disastrous. British dissatisfaction with the Sykes-Picot agreement, he claims, led London to proclaim its support for Zionist ambitions in Palestine because this was seen as a way of defending British strategic interests against the French. But the effect of this was to antagonise deeply the Muslim Arab population in the Middle East, just one of the many ways, in Barr’s opinion, that the fallout from Anglo-French rivalry continues to shape the region today.

Martin Evans is the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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