How the British Screwed Up the Middle East, in 10 Classic Cartoons


"The sun never sets on the British Empire."

This phrase was often used to describe the British Empire at the peak of its power as the largest empire in history. Covering 13.01 million square miles of land, almost one-fourth of the world, the empire encompassed about 458 million people in 1938 through overseas colonies, dominions, protectorates, trading posts and mandates. 

Image Credit: AP. British troops in the Egyptian Desert, 1936. 

Despite its numerous accomplishments, the imperial empire was also responsible for sowing the seeds of global tension, conflict and wars, many of which still continue to rage on. 

When asked how Britain could help end the conflict over Kashmir during a visit to Pakistan in 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron said, "I don't want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world's problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place."

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. All countries and regions that have ever been under British rule. 

While the British may not have been directly responsible for every event, their interference and self-serving policies at the time were more often destructive than helpful.

Many historians also say Britain does bear historic responsibility for many regional disputes in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it is near-impossible to summarize the entire history of the Middle East in just one article, with all of its complexities and nuances, here is a brief modern history lesson on how Britain basically screwed up the region: 

1. 1875: Making their way to India

By Tenniel, 'Punch', December 11, 1875

During the 19th century, Egypt and Sudan were considered strategic regions for imperial powers in terms of continental and possible global control. In 1875, Britain bought Egypt's shares in the Suez Canal for £4 million, making them the largest shareholder and safeguarding the water route to India.

While Britain held these until 1956, this strategic move marked the beginning of imperial Britain's control over Egypt.

2. 1876-82: Protecting Egypt before taking over

By Tennison, 'Punch', September 27, 1882

By 1876, Egypt's ruler, the Khedive Ismail Pasha had run up debts of about £100 million, in spite of Egypt's sale of its holdings in the Suez Canal to Britain in 1875. As a result, he was forced to accept Anglo-French control of his treasury, customs, post offices, railways and ports. 

Following riots in Alexandria, heightened tensions and the rise of a nationalist movement led by Ahmad Urabi Pasha Al-misri, Britain ordered the bombardment of Alexandria which led to the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 between British and Egyptian defenses, and eventually the seizure of both the canal and the country by British troops.

3. 1915: Dividing up the Ottoman Empire

Just two days after the British navy lost against the Turkish army, the British government signed a secret agreement with Russia that included a hypothetical post-WWI division of the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence.

According to the agreement that was signed on March 20, 1915, Russia would claim Constantinople, the Bosporus Strate, the Dardanelles, the Gallipoli peninsula and more than half of the European section of Turkey. Britain, on the other hand, would lay claim to other areas of the former Ottoman Empire and central Persia, including Mesopotamia, which was known to be rich in oil. 

The sneaky agreement signified a change in alliances during the Great War, as Britain promised away territory it sought to defend a few years earlier. In 1854, Britain had gone to war with Russia to prevent it from claiming Constantinople and the strait, while in 1878, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli sent the British fleet to the Dardanelles during the Russio-Turkish War to send them away from Constantinople. 

4. 1914-18: World War One and the Fall of the Ottoman Empire

By Raven Hill, 'Punch', November 11, 1914

Although the German attempt to take over Europe was stopped, the Middle East was also affected in the process. The Ottoman Empire, once the greatest Islamic power in the region, sided with Germany and declared war against France, Russia and Great Britain in November 1914. 

Considering the Ottoman Empire a serious threat to the British Empire, London launched preemptive strikes and attacks to knock Turkey out of the war and take down the Ottoman Empire.

The war ended with Great Britain occupying territory that would eventually become Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Trans-Jordan.

5. 1916: Encouraging the Great Arab Revolt

The Passing Show

"Employing bags of gold, the diplomacy of Lawrence of Arabia and promises of Arab independence," the British sparked and encouraged an Arab uprising in 1916, known as the "Great Arab Revolt," against the Turks.  

However, after the war, the victorious allies failed to grant full independence to the Arab people, and instead placed them under British and French control according to the mandate system under the Treaty of Versailles. 

6. 1916: Carving up the Middle East

The San Francisco Chronicle

More than a year after the agreement with Russia, Great Britain and France also signed a secret agreement known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which most of the Arab region under the Ottoman Empire would be divided into British and French spheres of influence after World War I. 

British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, believed that the Arab people were better off under European empires and divided up the region with a ruler and without Arab knowledge.

The two men created uncomplicated, immaculate straight-line borders that would cater to the needs of Britain and France. However, these borders "did not correspond to sectarian, tribal or ethnic distinctions on the ground," and failed to allow for future growth of Arab nationalism and secularism. 

"Even by the standards of the time, it was a shamelessly self-interested pact," writes British historian James Barr in his book A Line in the Sand

7. 1914-18: Sowing the seeds for the Israel-Palestine conflict

By Kennington from 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom'

After World War I, the British government was given a mandate to rule Palestine in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, including a commitment to Britain's Jewish community to create a Jewish "national home" in the region put forth by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour. Eager to make sure Britain kept good on their promise, Arabs also demanded an Arab state on the same land. 

The simmering tension that would eventually evolve into the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict had already begun. For the next quarter of a century, the British faced riots and uprisings from both the Arab and Jewish sides. 

8. 1947: The United Nations votes for partition of Palestine

By Illingworth, 'Punch', March 31, 1948

Having ruled Palestine since 1920, Britain handed over responsibility for solving the Zionist-Arab issue to the United Nations in 1947. At the time, the region was plagued with chronic unrest between native Arabs and Jewish immigrants dating back to the 1910s, when both groups laid claim to the British-controlled territory.

Image Credit: By Illingworth, The Daily Mail, December 2, 1947

The U.N. recommended splitting the territory into separate Jewish and Palestinian states. According to the partition plan, 56.47% of Palestine would be given to the Jewish state and 43.53% to the Arab state. While the Palestinians opposed the plan, the Jewish forces secured control of their U.N.-allocated share of Palestine, as well as some Arab territory.

9. 1948: Setting the stage for today's Israel-Palestine conflict

With the expiration of its mandate, Britain withdrew from the region on May 14, 1948, and the State of Israel was proclaimed as the first Jewish state for nearly 2,000 years.

The next day, five Arab armies from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq invaded Israel.

Image Credit: By Illingworth, The Daily Mail, May 10, 1948

The Israeli army managed to fend off the Arabs and seize key territories, including Galilee, the Palestinian coast and a strip of territory that connected the coastal region to the western side of Jerusalem. After a U.N.-negotiated cease-fire in 1949, Israel gained permanent control of these areas.

10. Post-WWI: Self-serving interests in Iraq

Mideast Cartoon History

After the Ottoman Empire fought on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), the British captured Baghdad. Iraq remained a British mandate for the next three decades as a complex mix of ethnic and religious groups.

However, Britain's gluttonous appetite for the new nation's oil fields, new railway system and navigable rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, for trade and transportation overshadowed their concern over the country's ethnic communities and tribes, including the Kurds, the Shi'a in and around Basra and the Sunni kings in Baghdad. 

A Hashemite monarchy was established in 1921 under the British, and the country was granted independence on Oct. 3, 1932. Under the terms of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty in 1930, the British retained military bases and an agreement to train Iraq's army. The army, however, "became a breeding ground of resentment against the British presence, particularly amongst new nationalist officers." 

After the Hashemite Royal family and politicians were swept away in a vicious nationalist army revolt in 1958, the Republic of Iraq was created and was then ruled by a series of military and civilian governments for the next two decades until General Saddam Hussein became the Iraqi dictator. Hussein's authoritarian tactics and hold on power suppresed any regional, sectarian revolts. The face of the country, however, took a turn for the worse after the American-led, British-supported invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to renewed sectarian violence that was brewing for nearly a century and attacks from al-Qaida and its affiliates.