This morning I was struck by another one of the reasons that the British Empire still has such a positive reputation (in some circles). When we focus on the British interaction with a group of people, we tend to focus on the end. It’s the struggle for independence that matters for the national stories of all the formerly subjugated countries. Of course, these stories are still in living memory for many, which also contributes to their popularity. But beyond that, nobody wants to look like a victim. Newly independent countries understandably want to focus on their victorious heroes rather than their defeated and brutalized ancestors from centuries past.
The British certainly committed many atrocities as their empire fell apart. Jallianwalla Bagh and the suppression of the Mau Mau are just two instances that leap to mind. But the more popular image is one of haplessness. The humiliation of Suez, the pretentious pointlessness of Mountbatten. The things that Britain is most blamed for at the end, like the Israel Palestine situation, and horrors of Indian partition, are stories about British neglect and poverty, not British greed and destruction. You can almost (not quite) find yourself pitying the British as their carefully crafted systems of control fall apart.
If you look at the other end of the Imperial story, there is nothing British to sympathize with. In country after country we see the people who live there struggle and fail, against differing degrees of brutality, as universally hypocritical Englishmen proclaim their civilizing values and cash their checks. Today’s video attempts to surface just one of those hundreds (thousands?) of stories, by telling the neglected tale of the British subjugation of Egypt.
History can seem predictable sometimes. We know how it turned out, so we assume that the countries that are powerful today had somewhat predictable paths to power. Sure, there were ups and downs, but the countries we’ve come to expect to have done well, did well. No surprises there. The story of Egypt’s 19th century provides a counterpoint to that complacency. There was a lot about its story that was quite similar to the stories of the Japanese and German world-beaters we are more familiar with. In the 1830s, an African country was, quite successfully, intervening in Europe. If a few things had gone differently, Egypt might have ended up as one of the world’s great powers.
It all went wrong of course. And the British had a lot to do with this. But too some extent, it was also just bad luck. There was nothing to guarantee that Japan or Germany would be successful countries. There wasn’t even anything guaranteeing that the United States would have been as successful an experiment as it has been. It’s all much more up in the air than we might think. This is a little terrifying, but also a little exciting. Today’s video on Egypt talks about what could have been.
Two weeks later, it is beginning to look like I got fooled again, and the United States is not in fact leaving Northern Syria. But I’m not as crushingly disappointed as I was the last couple times Trump pulled this back in December of 2018, or back in March of 2018. After telling everybody we were withdrawing, we are apparently going back to Northern Syria to “take the oil”. I’m not as bothered by this, because this Syrian intervention is just too ridiculous to survive.
US intervention in Syria has always been darkly absurd and absurdly selfish. We spent billions to take down Assad, which created ISIS, which weirdly ended up with us spending billions to protect Assad from the Islamic State in the most convoluted way possible. But this new Trump initiative is too absurd to last. Trump seems to think he can just steal the oil, which is a moral and legal atrocity. The horror of it wouldn’t keep it from happening, but what will keep it from lasting is the pointlessness. Despite massive efforts from OPEC, Oil can’t get over 60 dollars a barrel, and Syria doesn’t have much oil at all. Neither Exxon nor any other US company has any serious interest in getting involved in something with such high risk and such little reward. The Pentagon isn’t actually arguing for Trump’s silly heist plan. What they want is to keep the oil from Assad, to keep the civil war going, and they are saying that they want to keep it from ISIS, which is pretty ridiculous, because as I’ve repeated again and again, it’s US involvement that keeps ISIS going.
The reason none of this really bothers me is that it can’t possibly last. When I ran a video last year claiming that Washington DC had won the war in Syria, it was the Kurds that were at the heart of that victory. The Kurds, or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were the perfect imperial tool for the United States. Because of the threat from Turkey, they were a capable militia force that desperately wanted to keep the United States in Syria for as long as possible. Thanks to Trump’s weird choices, the SDF is now protected by Assad, not the United States. And Assad happens to be the legal sovereign authority in Syria. He wants his oil back, and if anybody in the US or the world wants to preserve a pretense of international rule of law we will have to give it to him. This oil adventure could last as long as a year or two, but US power in Syria has been comprehensively broken, and that’s something that Syria, the world, and the people of the United States can continue to be grateful for. And, very weirdly, as this video shows, we owe it to Donald Trump.
Yemen is having a pretty horrific time. But it’s not as straightforward as some of the Middle East’s other disasters. Yemen’s fall has been expected for quite some time. That’s the most striking thing about every account I’ve read of Yemen over the past few months. Everybody saw this coming. Which is a pretty horrible thing when you think about it. If everybody knew what was coming, why didn’t anybody do anything to stop it?
That’s one of the many questions that we start to answer with this second video in my quickly ballooning Yemen series. I hope you enjoy it. These videos are taking a ton of work, but they’re also very rewarding. My hope is that peeling back the layers of Yemen’s disaster will help us avoid similar disasters in the future. Let me know what you think!
Saudi Arabia is a US colony. It owes its existence to the British Empire, and it owes its continued existence to the United States. This is not widely known. Folks just assume that Saudi Arabia was always there, they got lucky with oil, and now we’re stuck with them. That’s not how it went at all. It’s probably worth documenting this claim in a longer blog post than normal. It’s a bit too complex to wrap into this video.
The Saud family, and its nasty relationship with religious extremism does go back a ways. I document this relationship at length in the essay, which I recommend you buy. They managed to put together a pretty impressive, if briefly lived state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They held Mecca and Medina briefly, from 1802 to 1818. They were booted out of there by an Ottoman Egyptian Army. The Saud family then managed to put together another chunk of land based around Riyadh, but by the 1890s they were refugees, forced to seek shelter in Kuwait. If you’d picked a family ca. 1910 to end up the most powerful (and possibly richest) of the last royal families standing it certainly wouldn’t have been the Sauds.
Which is where the British empire stepped in. In 1915 the British were fighting World War I against the Ottoman Empire, among others. They were looking to support any Arab leader they could against the Ottomans, who had controlled the Middle East since the 1500s. Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? That’s about the British support given to the Hashemite family, that had ruled Mecca for hundreds of years. The Arab Revolt that made Lawrence a celebrity was led by Faisal of the Hashemites. This was all lovely, stuck it to the Ottomans, and turned Faisal into a somewhat internationally respected figure.
This presented the British with a problem when the war ended in 1918. They had Faisal, a well respected, charismatic leader, with established connections to the Arab urban centers, and some modernizing instincts. Faisal had a pan-Arab mindset, and envisioned a unified, powerful and developing Arab state, stretching from his family’s territory in Mecca and Medina as far as Damascus and Baghdad, and maybe beyond. This was more or less what he had been promised during the War, and he went to the Paris Peace conference to press his case.
But the British didn’t want that. They wanted the territory for themselves. They got it, establishing “Mandates” in Palestine and Iraq. The Brits got Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the French got Damascus, establishing what became the ill-fated state of Syria. Arabia, or rather all the unimportant and desert bits of Arabia were left to the Hashemites. But not just the Hashemites. The British continued to support the Sauds, with cash subsidies, and a ton of surplus munitions from the war. It depends who you read, but many sources maintain that the British subsidies were the only thing keeping the dirt poor and enthusiastically anti-modern Saudi army going.
If you were the British who would you rather support as a neighbor? A charismatic descendant of the prophet, experienced in international diplomacy? Or a bunch of desert whackos? The desert whackos looked a lot less threatening. The British continued to support both families, but it’s unlikely that they were all that disturbed when the Sauds came screaming out of the desert and took Mecca and Medina in 1925. This conquest was accompanied by strikingly ISIS like destruction of ‘idolatrous’ Muslim heritage sites and massacres of non-combatants. The British didn’t lift a finger to help the Hashemites reclaim their historic lands. They felt a bit bad though, so they made Faisal King of Iraq. In May 1953 his descendants were massacred, and the monarchy was ended in one of Iraq’s many brutal changes of government. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the last ruling member of the Hashemite dynasty, descended from one of Faisal’s brothers. The Sauds got Mecca and Medina, the de facto leadership of Sunni Islam, and extraordinary oil wealth. The Hashemites got that really cool set from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The British catch a lot of flack for their mishandling of the Israel-Palestine issue, but if you ask me, their creation of Saudi Arabia is a lot more unforgivable.