Why are we so resented? It's not hard to work outby David Wearing / January 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
The British elite has been agonising over its place in the world for as long as anyone can remember. In the years after the Second World War, the process of downgrading from empire to second-tier global power was just beginning, and in Lords of the Desert James Barr provides a dramatic, absorbing account of how this played out in that most tempestuous and strategically significant of regions: the Middle East.
Some of these stories—like the 1953 coup in Iran, or the Suez Crisis of 1956—have been told before. But others, such as the UK’s retreat from Yemen in the 1960s, are less well known, and Barr tells them with the panache of a gifted storyteller. His real contribution is to set these episodes within the context of an uncomfortable alliance between Washington and London, characterised by inter-imperialist rivalry.
Both powers shared the objectives of supporting conservative allies against popular independence movements, and excluding the Soviets. But within those parameters there was plenty of scope for vigorous tactical disagreement. Britain’s belligerent response to its decline, particularly over Suez, discomfited the Americans who feared a nationalist backlash undermining their own implausible attempts to portray themselves as an anti-imperialist force.
Worthy principles are difficult to discern among an almost uninterrupted series of overt and covert interventions. Harold Macmillan described a key objective as getting “the oil out of these territories for as long as the inhabitants remain fairly primitive.”
How much has changed? Local regimes have more autonomy but most remain repressive while retaining Anglo-American support. UK and US-made missiles are helping the Saudi-UAE coalition pulverise Yemen. Popular resentment towards the west remains widespread in the region, and the reasons are far from mysterious.
Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to dominate the Middle East by James Barr (Simon & Schuster, £20)