World War I and the continuity of control in the Middle East

Principal author:
John L. Clark

Prior to the start of World War I, the great Powers in Europe (The United Kingdom, France, and Russia) had continually expanded their influence in the Middle East. The conclusion of the war formalized this influence in key areas with the treaties and diplomacy that developed the system of mandates in the region. The United Kingdom serves as a key example of an outside power that reshaped Middle Eastern political institutions to serve its own ends. The victors of World War I, for example the UK, used both their military victory and the regional circumstances in the Middle East to further solidify their dominance in the area.

The victors used the mandate system to continue the economic exploitation of the region that was well underway before the war started. Prior to the war, the Ottoman Empire and the Qajar dynasty were declining in power, in no small part because of the growth of European influence. In response, these governments reached out to European nations—primarily the UK and France—for increasing amounts of support. In exchange, the Europeans were able to extract concessions that gave them key economic and political benefits in their territories, further undermining these regimes. The war led to the full collapse of the Ottoman Empire and gave the European victors an opportunity to formalize their control over its valuable former territories.

Britain had already started to leverage its interests in Middle Eastern oil with the oil concessions in Persia and later in the Ottoman Empire. The d'Arcy concession initiated the pattern in 1901 in Persia, and the British obtained a similar concession from the Ottomans shortly afterwards. [Gel2008, p248–249] Other concessions provided the UK with varying types of additional influence and wealth. When Russia backed out of the war, the UK became the dominant power in Persia, as it had been in Egypt since the end of the 19th century.  The Persian concessions to the UK and the economic and political influence that the British had exercised over Egypt since the end of the 19th century gave the UK continued control over these regions. The UK did not need to use the formal structures set up after the war to maintain the influence it had gained through concessions and conquest. Multiple European Powers had claimed a stake in the remaining Ottoman territory, however, which did require establishing formal mandates to preserve and solidify the existing European influence.

The putative reason for establishing the mandate system was to guide Middle Eastern peoples towards stable self-rule. Ray Stannard Baker, who participated in the Paris Peace Conference with President Wilson, provided a detailed analysis of what he saw as the actual motivation behind the mandate system: “booty”.


Turkey was by all odds the richest spoil of the war … Here were untouched deposits of oil, copper, silver, salt; vast riches in agricultural land easily within reach of the irrigation engineer. Here, above all, were large and industrious populations, long enured to labour, which, given a stable government, would immediately become great producers of wealth and creators of trade.

 --[Bak1922, p64]
The eventual victors of the war had established secret treaties during the war, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that would allocate control of various territories to European authorities. Baker described how the negotiations during the conference after the war corresponded closely with these secret treaties, as well as with the ongoing planning of an oil pipeline and a railroad. “[I]t suddenly emerged in the secret councils … that powerful British and French commercial interests were at that moment negotiating for the laying of a pipe line from the Mesopotamian oil fields to the port of Tripoli in the French zone of Syria.” [Bak1922, p78] In fact, Baker proposed that economic exploitation may have been the main reason for the war in the first place. “The great war [World War I] has even been described as primarily a struggle for the domination of the Near East.” [Bak1922, p65]

The secret treaties that the British, French, and others negotiated during the war were designed to help them obtain support for their war effort. Both sides of the war courted Italy to join on their side, offering it various areas of influence in the Middle East after the war. [Bak1922, p68] The British also encouraged Arabs led by Sherif Hussein to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In response, “Hussein became the centre of an Arab uprising which made a definite impression upon the result of the campaign in Palestine.” [Llo1939, p660] Hussein was explicit that his goal was “to achieve Arab independence and unity in all the regions where the Arab people preponderated: Arabia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and the desert lands in between, over which the Bedouins roamed.” [Llo1939, p660]

The European victors demonstrated that they were more committed to their own interests than to the desires of people in the Middle East. President Wilson championed self determination in his famous 14 Points, but when he put together a team to survey Middle Easterners to determine their position, “the French refused to appoint their members, and the British blew hot and cold”. [Bak1922, p77] It is then of little surprise that these governments ignored the recommendations of the King-Crane Commission such as “that Emir Feisal be made the head of the new united Syrian State.” [Laq1969, p27] The Syrians themselves also petitioned for Feisal (who was the son of Hussein) to be their king, but they were similarly shunned.

The interests of the victors won out over the desires of the people who lived in these Middle Eastern regions. Many groups within the Ottoman Empire had been gaining their own sense of identity and had been pulling away from Ottoman control, for example the Egyptians and the Arabs. During the negotiations after World War I, the Arabs who participated in the uprising against the Ottoman Empire sought the state that they had been promised. When President Wilson asked Emir Feisal for his opinion on how the mandates should be arranged, Feisal said “that personally he was afraid of partition. His principle was Arab unity. It was for this that the Arabs had fought.” [Llo1939, p676] Feisal clearly saw what the alternative would mean. “Any other solution would be regarded by the Arabs in the light of a division of spoils after a battle.” [Llo1939, p660]

The Arabs were also opposed to a separate Israeli state, claiming that instead a larger Arab state would be a better fit for the region. In a 1919 petition, the General Syrian Congress asserted that a key principle of their government would be “safeguarding the rights of minorities” and that instead of a separate nation, “[o]ur Jewish compatriots shall enjoy our common rights and assume the common responsibilities.” [Gel2008, p215–216] Instead, the British were openly committed to the creation of a Palestinian mandate for Jews. Three of the reasons offered for UK control over the Palestinian mandate, at a 1919 meeting, were that the mandate would provide the UK with “great prestige”, to give access to the Hedjaz railway, and to provide a defensive buffer against possible French threats towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. [Ing1972, p75–78] The Palestinian mandate and the resulting state of Israel would long remain a symbol of the power and true priorities of foreign, European interests in the Middle East.

World War I cleared the way for increased European domination of the Middle East. The war provided the UK, France, and others with the tools they needed to solidify their control of key Middle Eastern territories. Their actions were a continuation of policies and positions that they had taken prior to the war. These actions were designed to obtain the best possible economic and political access to these territories, which included access to resources, markets, land, and labor. In his notes, Baker commented on these matters. “I am conscious that this makes a pretty dark picture” [Bak1922, p80], but, as he went on to indicate, it is important to understand the reasons why the region came to be divided, as it remains today.


Ray Stannard Baker. Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922.

James L. Gelvin. The Modern Middle East: A History. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Doreen Ingrams, ed. Palestine papers, 1917-1922: seeds of conflict. J. Murray, 1972.

Walter Laqueur. The Israel-Arab reader: a documentary history of the Middle East conflict. Citadel Press, 1969.

David Lloyd George. Memoirs of the Peace conference. Yale University Press, 1939.

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