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Empire, Environment and Representations: The British and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Tutor: Dr Guillemette CrouzetLink opens in a new window


Seminar times: Friday 10.00-12.00, FAB 4.79 (Group 1); Friday 13.00-15.00, FAB 4.80 (Group 2).

Office hours: On Fridays, 12-1 in FAB 3.79 and by appointment only (Please send me an email).

Module description

The geopolitical label ‘Middle East’ was developed in the decades around 1900 mainly in order to describe this region’s salience to the British empire. This course traces the history of British engagement with the region, how this engagement — encompassing both imperial imaginaries and a variety of forms of often violent interventionism —transformed over time, and the extent to which this reshaped the region itself. In the process, this course uses the
case of the entanglement between the ‘Middle East’ and the British to explore methodological approaches andcritically review key concepts around histories of empire, the environment, orientalism and globalization.

This course proposes that there were two main chronological phases, and two distinct geographical and environmental focuses, among the differing iterations of British entanglement with this region. In the first instance, the long-term expansion of British colonial power in the Indian subcontinent would prove of defining importance — both figuratively but also ultimately literally — to notions of a ‘Middle East’. The early modern Middle East had become a major theatre of imperial competition and resistance involving both regional powers such as the Ottoman and Qajar(Persian) empires but also encroaching European trading empires, including the English (and then British) East India Company; this process would be further catalysed by the late eighteenth-century ‘Age of Revolutions’, which made the region a focus for Franco–British rivalry and violence. From the late 1700s onwards, the Persian Gulf area in particular would become seen as a natural frontier zone for British India, and therefore developed as a focus of British informal empire. This maritime-facing ‘Middle East’ also came to embrace Egypt, especially in the wake of opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which consolidated region as the effective fulcrum of the British imperial world. In the wake of the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century, however, a radical alteration in the role of the Middle East within British geopolitical strategies occurred, and under the aegis of imperial oil projects the region would be launched upon a path which eventually made it one of the global economy’s central hubs. Here the geo-environmental focus turned to Middle East’s previously-ignored deserts and hinterlands and their populations as much as to its more familiar terraqueous environments. This so-called ‘oil revolution’ would help define the region’s stakes during the First World War and the redivision thereafter of the former Ottoman empire’s territories under the Mandates system dominated by Britain and France. New ideologies of empire, centred around the notions of modernity and development, the course ends with the Suez Crisis of 1957 and its legacies for Britain’s role in the Middle East down to the present day.

Each weekly two-hour sessions will consist of a short lecture and then of discussions based on the readings.