French and British colonialism and its legacy in the MENA region

Authored by: Sune Haugbølle , Roberto Mazza

Routledge Handbook of EU–Middle East Relations

Print publication date:  December  2021
Online publication date:  December  2021

Print ISBN: 9780367330767
eBook ISBN: 9780429317873
Adobe ISBN:




This chapter analyses the remaining impact of British colonialism in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan, and French colonialism in Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The aim is to show how the colonial framework created the conditions of current-day politics in the region, as well as the deep cultural influences that persist. EU actors are often oblivious of the complex dynamics set in motions at the end of the nineteenth century and more importantly after the end of the First World War, when Great Britain and France redrew the borders of the region under the mandate given by the League of Nations. The chapter shows the complex process of nation state formation in a tussle between the French and British on one side and local elites and popular parties on the other. It also analyses the lasting cultural effects of the colonial presence at the level of social organisation, institutions and the political. Turning to the decolonisation period, the chapter shows how France and Britain both attempted to remain relevant to Middle East politics by forging alliances with their former colonies through trade, military and diplomatic relations. The EU has incorporated these complex relations into its own Middle East policies, but often in ways that fail to recognise their colonial point of departure.

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French and British colonialism and its legacy in the MENA region

Introduction: legacies of colonialism

In 2011, the British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Britain and the legacy of its empire was responsible for many of the world’s historic problems (BBC News, 2011). It seems obvious to argue that the crises and conflicts of today’s Middle East are rooted in its colonial past. The relationship between local elites, global economies and states that remain tied into dependencies of security and trade continues to determine these legacies. As the two most important colonial powers who shared the League of Nation’s mandate over the Levant during the crucial period of state formation in the early twentieth century, France and Britain remain deeply invested in the economies and politics of the region. They also remain interventionist, both militarily and through their diplomatic as well as economic connections. These investments and interventions intersect with formal EU policies towards the MENA region.

It is the aim of this chapter to show first the remaining impact of British colonialism in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan, as well as the histories and legacies of France in Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. We suggest that the colonial framework created the conditions for the current strife in the region. Current EU relations with the Middle East, while recognising the historical impact of European colonialism, are often oblivious of the complex dynamics set in motion at the end of the nineteenth century and more importantly after the end of the First World War. Starting with a focus on Britain, we highlight the creation of the Iraqi and Jordanian nation states from scratch, while Palestinian and Egyptian identifications already existed but were reshaped in light of British colonialism (Gelvin, 2011). The economic development and exploitation of these lands was closely associated with British interests as in the case of the occupation of Egypt in 1882, triggered by an economic crisis and fears over the Suez Canal. Similarly, Iraqi economic development followed the expansion of the oil industry under British control (Sluglett, 2007). Not yet fully studied is the economic impact of the British colonial enterprise in Palestine, but we will see later that both Palestinian-Arab and Jewish communities followed British economic developmental patterns which were then replicated after 1948 up to the present time (Norris, 2013; Seikaly, 2015). A general assessment of cultural influence and its remaining impact is rather difficult considering its pervasive nature. Nevertheless, from language to nationalism, from sport to media, it will be possible to look at some examples in order to highlight those continuities that also came to mark EU relations with the countries under review.

Like in the case of Britain, French colonial practices were formative. From Napoleon to today, the French state has attempted to assert its influence in the Arab Middle East. Military adventures in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the nineteenth century were motivated partly by imperial ambitions and interests, and partly by the revolutionary export of enlightenment ideals, which went hand in hand with the racialised belief that France had a mission civilisatrice. Just as the British ostensibly took up the “white man’s burden”, French debates from the 1870s onwards began to promote the need to civilise the natives. This debate intersected with romantic Orientalism in the arts, producing images of the Arab as beautiful and sensual, but also as lazy and stuck in medieval time, or alternatively as Muslim, militant and fanatically resisting modernity. Both these archetypical representations underpinned colonial intervention. As in all colonial interventions, cultural representation was the veneer cast over a complex web of administrative restructuring that invariably benefitted the metropole and allowed for the extraction of raw materials and the establishment of favourable trade relations.

The British in Egypt: 1882–1956

In 1882, Britain, with the implicit support of France, occupied Egypt with the stated purpose to restore political and financial stability, but more importantly to control the Suez Canal. While the country was not officially declared a colony, it remained a veiled protectorate (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013). British covert colonialism shaped Egyptian economic development for the century to come. At first the British encouraged the expansion of cotton cultivation and its transportation fostering both the increment of cultivable land and railroads (Gelvin, 2011). However, despite fast and massive economic growth, the British prevented the development of a looming industrial revolution, originally fostered by Mehmet Ali and his successors (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013). The Khedivate of Egypt was an autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, created by Mehmet Ali in 1805 following his victory over the invading French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte. The Egyptian population was for the most part composed of fellahin (farmers) whose needs were largely neglected by the investments put in place by the British de facto ruler Lord Cromer. The Egyptians who benefited the most were large landowners including members of the ruling Turco/Circassian circles, local Muslim and Coptic elites. The Egyptian economy, although fast growing, was becoming extremely dependent on the export of this single crop and the import of goods from the British Empire. This situation remained unchanged until the end of the Second World War, when the influence of Egyptian nationalism led to the revolution of 1952. From 1945 Anglo-Egyptian relations were governed by the treaty of 1936, which essentially placed restrictions on Egyptian sovereignty (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013). The growing gap between rich and poor, and between the elites and common Egyptians, led to the alienation of the masses who eventually retaliated against the British following the infamous incident at Ismailiyya on 25 January 1952. The following day, known as “Black Saturday”, ultimately led to the overthrow of the regime on 23 July 1952. A group of young military officers took over, and soon promoted various reforms targeting the effects of British economic policies, including redistribution of land, industrialisation and nationalisation of foreign infrastructures (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013; Gelvin, 2011; Yapp, 1996).

The Cromer years were not only marked by the neglect of the population, but also by a strong disinvestment in education. While before 1882 state-supported schools were introduced, Cromer inverted this trend for both financial and political reasons. He believed that a Western-style school system could foster the emergence of Egyptian intellectuals imbued with nationalist ideas – capable of transforming their frustration into action. It was only after the end of the First World War that more investments were poured into public education. Eventually, Cromer’s fears turned into reality as a generation of new intellectuals and educated individuals developed a strong sense of Egyptian nationalism. Yet, if we take the current literacy rate amongst Egyptians who are 65 years and older, we can see a barely 32% literacy rate (UNESCO, 2017): a clear negative legacy of British rule and its lack of investment in education and culture, attesting to the fact that the so-called civilising mission was a mere excuse for British imperialism.

Inventing Iraq

The most visible legacy of British imperialism in Iraq is in fact its very name and borders. While Iraq did not exist before the First World War, the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra were connected by extensive trade and linkages, some dating back to the days of the Islamic Caliphate (Sluglett, 2007). British control of Mesopotamia started in November 1918, when the changed international atmosphere did not allow for the outright annexation of this crucial territory connecting the Middle East to India. Under a mandate from the newly created League of Nations, Britain was granted the administration of the new State that took the form of a monarchy and ruled through a policy of devolving responsibilities to the Iraqi government (Yapp, 1996). The newly created state was composed of a variety of ethnicities and religions, with the south being mainly Arab Shia, the area around Baghdad mostly composed of Sunni Arabs, the north of Kurds. The picture was then further complicated by the large presence of Christians and Yezidis in the North and Jews in Baghdad. While the British overlooked this complex population structure, the state and governmental institutions set up after the creation of the Mandate were mostly constituted on the basis of an exclusive focus on Sunni Arabs who represented less than 20% of the population (Tripp, 2002). At the Cairo Conference led by Winston Churchill in 1921, Iraq was officially established as a Kingdom and the throne was offered to the Hashemite Amir Faisal. In a matter of a few years from the end of the First World War, the British created a new state ruled by a foreigner and supported by a minority, and while an Iraqi identity slowly emerged in order to reflect these developments, the British set in motion processes, conflicts and developments – many still discernible up until this day.

In 1922, the British formalised the devolution process with the Anglo-Iraqi treaty which was supplemented in 1924 by a military agreement. This treaty imposed a severe burden on the Iraqi Treasury which was to be relieved only later in time thanks to oil income (Sluglett, 2007; Yapp, 1996). The economic development came to favour mainly Sunni Arabs, while Kurds in the North and Shia in the South often expressed their opposition staging violent rebellions. The new Iraqi army supported by the RAF heavily crushed these rebellions establishing a system of control and repression used for decades by the various regimes that ruled Iraq. While for Britain the principle objectives were the safety of communications with India and the protection of the oil fields, in both Iraq and Persia, the economic, educational and cultural development of the country were left with the state and its own budget. By 1958, 85% of Iraqis were still illiterate and those who received an education went through what we may certainly call a state indoctrination (Yapp, 1996). In the 1920s, the Iraqi economy was predominantly agricultural, and the small developing manufacturing sector could not rely upon any form of state support given the small budget available. Eventually, in the 1930s, more oil revenue became available making the state more stable and providing it with the ability to support, to an extent, the development of a local industry often tied with the agricultural sector (Tripp, 2002). Nevertheless, we can safely say that the British Mandate did not help or support the creation of an indigenous and strong economy. While the British encouraged the creation of a stable political system, they fostered the emergence of an Iraqi identity meant to be secular and inclusive (Bashkin, 2012), but eventually excluded the Kurds who ever since have sought full independence. Thus, the legacy of British colonialism has been visible since the establishment of Iraq, historical events including the revolutions that brought Saddam Hussein to power, the invasion of Kuwait, the following Gulf Wars and the emergence of ISIS: All these can only be fully understood within the context of that lasting legacy.

Creating a conflict: Palestine from 1920 to 1948

British imperialism may not be responsible for all of the troubles of the modern Middle East, yet, if we look at current events in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, the impact of British colonialism is palpable and hard to disentangle. The British rule of Palestine started late in 1917 when, during the First World War, General Allenby conquered Jerusalem and later the entire region. In 1920 the San Remo Conference awarded the British with the Mandate for Palestine and Trans-Jordan. The British then – despite attempts at establishing forms of political representations – ruled directly until the end of the Mandate in 1948. The legacies are many, starting with the borders of Palestine and Jordan after their separation in 1921. The territory that became Palestine under the British was not a unified Ottoman administrative unit and was regarded by the indigenous population as part of Southern Syria (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013). Somehow, the borders set by the British followed political necessity, old Ottoman administrative boundaries, and biblical visions over what was also known as the Holy Land. Borders alone, however, cannot explain the substantial legacy of the British over the unfolding history of the region. Jewish immigration to Palestine predates the arrival of the British, however with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British signed an alliance with the Zionist movement, de facto radically changing the future development of the region (Renton, 2007; Gardner, 2019). The economic development of Palestine was left in the hands of European Jews who best represented British interests in the area, but more importantly possessed the necessary capital to start their own enterprises (Norris, 2013). While Palestinians tried to compete (Seikaly, 2015), the British established a dual system replicated in every area of society, from education to culture and from politics to religion. The Palestinian economy remained largely confined to soap, olives and other local products, while the Zionist economy developed large industries such as cement, steel and mining, preparing the ground for what in 1948 became the Israeli economic system (Norris, 2013; Seikaly, 2015). Cultural and educational legacies are different compared to Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. Palestine already had a sizable number of schools and literacy rates were higher than other parts of the Middle East. However, the establishment of Zionist schools in the 1920s promoted another form of segregation and division which led to two sets of educational and cultural developments. Nevertheless, spaces of encounters across religious and ethnic groups remained quite spread and culture was enjoyed in common spaces often created by the British for their own consumption (Hilel, 2019). Segregation was then openly promoted with the clear distinction between Arabs and Jews, conveniently forgetting the complexity of these identities. While two forms of nationalism came to clash with each other, the British played the third-party role. However, they never acted as partial referees and often supported the Zionists and their project which best suited their interests.

Jordan became a separate and later independent territory from Palestine, yet deeply connected with the events unfolding across the border. Jordan and its borders were artificially created by the British in order to establish a buffer zone between the various new entities that were emerging in the 1920s. Without any economic means available, Jordan heavily relied on British support (Robins, 2004). With Amman becoming a political and cultural centre, a Jordanian identity slowly began to emerge. Nevertheless, the massive influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and later in 1967 brought the country to the brink of collapse and, while constantly relying on foreign help since its existence, the British colonial legacy has slowly faded away in favour of a stronger influence of the new “imperial” presence in the region: the Americans (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013; Robins, 2004).

France: connections and colonial legacies

Like in the case of Britain, it is hard to overstate the colonial roots of French relations with the Middle East, as they created intertwined histories of culture, migration, trade and diplomacy that continue to this day. French society still struggles with this legacy, as do the former French colonies. This history has dark and lighter chapters. Other than guilt, conflict, violence and mutual distrust, French colonialism in the Middle East also produced lasting cultural connections, underpinned by a network of French cultural centres, language institutes, strong embassy presence and trade deals that tie these countries to the Francophone world. What the French call La France Arabo-Orientale designates the effects that colonialism had on two centuries of French society, for better and worse, from the publication of the Description de l’Égypte in 1806 – the scientific report from Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt that kick-started scientific and artistic interest in the Orient – to debates about Islam and migrants today (Blanchard, 2013: 3–44). Coming to terms with the violent side of colonialism has been a determining factor for Arab-French relations, in ways that have sometimes made it difficult for France to negotiate a path in the formulation of EU policies in the region. Paris wants its relations with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon to be privileged over other Arab countries. Such privilege is obviously best maintained via a national rather than a multilateral foreign policy framework. This conundrum has led the French to face a difficult and at times impossible accommodation, particularly with German inputs into EU policy in the region (Behr, 2008).

France’s entanglement with the Arab-Islamic world is deeper than other European countries. During formal colonialism in the Maghreb and the League of Nations’ Mandate system, the French did not only participate in various state formation projects but also inspired elites to adopt both liberal and anti-imperial frameworks. Various hommes de lettres made a sojourn in Paris part of their intellectual upbringing. Rifaa al-Tahtawi, the emissary from Muhammed Ali’s Egypt who famously wrote about his impressions of the French in the 1820s, was soon followed by other travellers (Rogan, 2009: 124–128). They brought back ideas of constitutions, educational reform, urban design and modernity. This flow of people and ideas strongly connected Arab capitals and the movement of renewal and modernisation known in Arabic as the nahda (awakening) with Paris, which many Arabs favoured (over London and Berlin) as the metropole of Western civilisation. In France itself, Égyptomanie and subsequent waves of French orientalism coloured cultural life, while both poor migrants and wealthy elites settled in Paris, Marseille and other cities, and gradually became part of French society (Blanchard, 2013: 128–143).

In this and other ways, France was a frontrunner of European colonialism. By the 1870s, when imperialist competition gained steam in Europe, France had already entered Algeria in 1830 following Napoleon’s earlier campaign in Egypt. The colonisation of Algeria followed France’s loss of most of its first overseas empire in the Americas in the eighteenth century and Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 (Rogan, 2009: 220–256). Algeria connected French presence in West Africa stretching far south of the Sahara with its strategic position in the Mediterranean. The conquest of Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and later French rule over Syria and Lebanon in the Levant between 1920 and 1946 meant that French control extended to both major regions of the Arab world, with informal influence (through schools, commercial interests, and technical and military advisers) reaching more widely, particularly into Iran.

The Maghreb (Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria)

The French colonial project centred on Algeria more so than on Morocco or Tunisia. Still, each country felt the French influence and control greatly during and after colonisation. Following disagreements in 1827 over repayment of a debt which France incurred during the French revolution, Paris initiated a military campaign (McDougall, 2018: 30–38). The French remained until 1964 when the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria forced them out. In contrast to the Levant, which they never colonised extensively, French settlers occupied large parts of North Africa. Settler colonialism and a French policy of extensive restructuring of society, particular in Algeria, made the long-term effects of this experience more lasting, with more than 3.5 million French of North African origin living in France today.

From the beginning, the French considered Algeria to be a part of France. This Algérie Française provided “civilised Europe” with a foothold on African land. Algerians resisted the expansion and fought a guerrilla war that lasted until 1875. By then, around 800,000 Algerians had been killed, and more than 100,000 settlers from southern France, Italy, Spain and Malta had poured in to take over both rural and urban land. These settlers, known as colons and later pieds noirs, came to control the bulk of Algeria’s wealth in manufacturing, mining, agriculture and trade. The modern European-owned sector of the economy, centred on small industry and highly developed export trade, was designed to provide food and raw materials to France in return for capital and consumer goods. The benefits of this exchange, rather than revolutionary ideals, primarily motivated the French to retain their control for so long (McDougall, 2018: 156–184).

The French excluded natives from many sectors, but their presence also produced a class of Algerians who benefitted from education and access to French society. This created a divide between the Algerians who strongly identified as Muslim Arabs and those who blended more into French society. The French reinforced Westernisation by building Western-style settlements, converting mosques into churches and teaching French. This attempt to erase Algerian culture and Islamic heritage was often counterproductive, creating resentment and laying the grounds for independence movements (McDougall, 2018: 86–129).

From Algeria, the French expanded their influence to the neighbouring countries of Morocco and Tunisia. They began to assert their influence on Tunisia, then a province of the Ottoman Empire, long before the invasion of the country in 1881. The French consul in Tunisia played an important role in disbanding the Tunisian Constitution of 1860 after only four years of use. In addition, he convinced Tunisia’s ruler to create an International Financial Commission to control state expenditures. The Commission catered mainly for European interests, minimising Tunisia’s financial independence by making them reliant on other countries, particularly France. In May 1881, following the Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire in the 1879 war, France occupied Tunisia with very little resistance and made it a French protectorate in 1884.

The conquest of Morocco proved more difficult. Vying with Spain and Germany for the right to dominate the country, France prevailed in 1912 and won Morocco with the exception of two areas: a small coastal region that belonged to Spain and the city of Tangiers, which became an international zone. The French could use their experience from Algeria and Tunisia as models for their Moroccan policy. There were also important differences. First, Paris established the protectorate only two years before the outbreak of World War I, which brought with it a new attitude towards colonial rule. Rejecting the typical French assimilationist approach to culture and education as too soft, Morocco’s conservative French rulers attempted to prevent cultural mixing and to uphold traditional society and its powerful urban elites upon which the French depended for collaboration. Like in Algeria, Moroccan resistance movements continued to mobilise against French presence, culminating in the French defeat and withdrawal in 1956.

A much smaller territory than Algeria and Morocco, with just over one million inhabitants in 1871, Tunisia required fewer resources for the French to administer. The capital Tunis occupied a strategically important position, sitting across the Algerian frontier and only 150 kilometres from Sicily. The country also offered good port facilities, especially at Bizerte. France, Italy and Britain had significant expatriate communities in Tunisia and maintained consulates there. With fewer colonial settlers than Algeria, France undertook major developments and improvements. They also favoured French businesses and citizens which undermined popular Tunisian support. Like elsewhere, French dominance and extortion stoked nationalist sentiments and an independence movement already before World War I. It continued to gain strength. After World War II, Tunisian nationalists demanded the return of the deposed Bey and institutional reform, first in terms of Tunisian autonomy, and later, after Habib Bourguiba and his Néo- Destour Party switched their aim to complete independence, with a more confrontational agenda. Tunisia eventually gained independence in 1956 (Rogan, 2009: 320–342).

The Levant (Lebanon and Syria)

French involvement in the Levant before formal colonialism included the Crusades, trade and close connections with Christian groups, in particular the Maronite Catholics. After WW1, the Third Republic grappled with the growth of nationalist protest throughout the empire. Many opponents of imperialism pointed out that it was the ideological fervour of la mission civilisatrice that had produced brutality and militarism. Others believed that France should still play a role in protecting nascent nation building and assisting in their transition into full independence (Blanchard, 2013: 110–134). In this way, the mandate system designed by the French and British victors of World War I was supposed to differ from colonialism, with the governing country acting as a trustee until the inhabitants could stand on their own.

During the two years that followed the end of the war in 1918 – and in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement hammered out by French and British negotiators during the war – the French assumed control of Ottoman Syria, Lebanon, Alexandretta (Hatay) and other portions of south-eastern Turkey. The idea of French protection of Christians in the Levant went back to the 1840–1860 riots that left a large number of Christians dead in Damascus and Mount Lebanon and forged French intervention, leading to a new power sharing arrangement overseen by Europe. In the early 1920s, French control of these territories became formalised by the League of Nations’ mandate system. The French administered the region through a number of different governments and territorial entities, including the Syrian Federation (1922–1924), the State of Syria (1924–1930) and the Syrian Republic (1930–1958), as well as smaller states: the State of Greater Lebanon, the Alawite State and the Jabal Druze State. Turkey annexed Hatay in 1939.

This division of Greater Syria was not the only possible outcome. In early 1919, France considered the idea of Mount Lebanon as a component of a Syrian Arab kingdom led by Emir Faysal, the Arab sharif (nobleman) who, in October 1918 and with the support of “Lawrence of Arabia” helped set up an Arab government under British protection. The Syrian Arab Kingdom plan required Faysal to accept French tutelage (Harris, 2012: 174). Maronite lobbyists protested loudly and eventually won over the French administrative council to the idea of a Greater Lebanon under French protection. The increasing hostility of Faysal’s Arab nationalists in Damascus brought France into line with its Maronite friends. Eventually, in November 1919 French Prime Minister Clemenceau endorsed an independent Lebanese state with a French High Commissioner governing in Beirut. Although chiefly engineered by Maronites, the new state garnered support from various urban elites from all sects under the guise of what the Greek Catholic author Michel Chiha termed “Lebanism”, a vision of Lebanon as a pluralist country.

On the Syrian side, a French ultimatum demanding Syrian recognition of the mandate was followed by occupation and the expulsion in July 1920 of Fays˙al’s forces. In July 1922, the League of Nations approved the texts of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. Lebanon was already independent as of August 1920. From that moment on, Syria no longer meant Greater Syria, but rather the area left of geographical Syria once Transjordan, Lebanon and Palestine had been detached from it. As the Mandate power, France took on the responsibility of creating and controlling an administration, developing the resources of the country and paving the way for self-government. They set up local governments for independent regions in the Alawite Mountains region, the Druze region and eventually one for the rest of Syria with Damascus as its capital (Rogan, 2009: 220–248).

Like in the Maghreb, the French administration developed infrastructure including roads, town planning, introduced land tenure reforms and new agricultural methods. Most of the Syrian population however remained opposed to French presence. Further, the French did not hide their reluctance to handing over power to the Muslim majority in a way that might persuade their Christian allies that they were giving up France’s traditional policy of protecting Christians in the region. Members of those minorities in Syria as well as a smaller proportion of the majority indeed wanted the French to remain and help in constructing a modern society and government. The greater part of the urban educated elite, however, wanted Syria to be independent. This fundamental discord led to conflict, first in 1925, when a revolt in the Druze Mountains led to an alliance between the Druze rebels and the nationalists of Damascus. The French eventually quelled the rebellion but only after bombing Damascus, killing 1500 people. In 1928, Syrian nationalists won the election in the new Constituent Assembly. The Assembly drafted a constitution, but Paris felt that it did not explicitly safeguard the French position of control. Such conflict remained a mainstay of Syrian politics in the coming decade and made it clear that French presence would be temporary (Neep, 2012: 101–130). In response, the French attempted to divide and rule by strengthening certain minorities, not least the Alawite sect in the army.

From a regional perspective, French “protection” of Syria and Lebanon was always a tenuous project that served French interests more than it was motivated by any mission civilisatrice, which had, as mentioned, significantly weakened after World War I. This project was only possible through a tacit agreement with the strongest powers in the Middle East in the interwar years, Britain and Egypt (Traboulsi, 2011: 108). While nationalists in Syria rejected French presence and prepared for their departure, large groups in Lebanon embraced the notion of France as a “mother” country with a civilising effect, which even if the French were to leave the region militarily after independence, should continue in the form of a special relation.

Conclusion: decolonisation and beyond

Decolonisation dealt a blow to Franco-Arab relations. However, despite the bloody independence war with the FLN and the Suez war of 1956 when both France and Britain lost influence in the region, French cultural presence remained strong, in particular in Lebanon. In Syria, Arab nationalists made a cleaner break with the French, including breaking diplomatic relations. The 1962 Evian peace accords with Algeria laid the basis for a broader regional revival of French influence. As early as 1962, the French government restored diplomatic relations with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. During the mid- to late 1960s, it strengthened its political and economic relations with Arab states. De Gaulle wanted a strategic presence in the region to balance American and Soviet power. He was also concerned about access to raw materials. Algeria’s 1965 dismissal of the economic provisions of the Evian accords prompted the (partly state-owned) French oil companies to diversify their supply sources, and shift towards the emerging petrol economies of the Arabian Gulf. There and elsewhere, the French weapons industry was pleased to find new clients (Crosbue, 1974: 110).

British rule in the Middle East ended in different ways. Iraq and Egypt were given independence respectively in 1932 and 1922, but both countries remained under strong British control particularly during World War II (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013). Palestine was simply abandoned in 1948 after declaring the end of the Mandate a year before. In the post-war order Britain assumed a leading role in the region during the early stages of the Cold War under the umbrella of projecting American power in the Middle East. The coups that ended the monarchies in Egypt and Iraq of the 1950s, and the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 ended British presence and influence in both countries. Nevertheless, this did not mean the end of British interests in the region given the presence of strategic oil resources needed at a time when the British Empire was transforming itself into a Commonwealth. As for Palestine, the ignominious withdrawal of 1948 marked the initial relations between the newly created State of Israel and Britain which remained quite cold for a period of time, at least until 1956 when the common perceived threat posed by Nasser brought the two countries together. Only after 1967 did the British more actively promote a diplomatic solution between Israel and Palestine. More recent events have triggered a resurgence of British activity in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq. As a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, British troops joined a United Nations authorised military intervention led by American forces, and early in 1991 set foot once again on Iraqi soil. While British presence and influence in the region fluctuates, it is quite clear that Britain, like France, continues to perceive itself as a key player.

The 1960s revival of Franco-Arab ties necessitated a rebalancing of France’s relationship with Israel. The French Left pushed for such an engagement after becoming enthralled with Nasser’s Arab socialism – a love affair epitomised by Jean-Paul Sartre’s official visit to Cairo just before the June 1967 war (Di-Capua, 2018). This balancing act remained difficult and delicate both for France and for the European Community. After World War II, the Fourth Republic built an alliance with the new state of Israel based on the experience of World War II and on mutual ideals and anti-authoritarian values. France even assisted Israel in its nuclear ambitions with the aim of building a deterrent in the region. In 1960, de Gaulle ended nuclear cooperation with Israel, even though he subsequently authorised French firms with existing contracts to continue their work on the Dimona reactor. In 1963, he rejected the Israeli proposal for an alliance. Despite this rebalancing, France and Israel maintained friendly ties during the early to mid-1960s, pursuing economic, technical and cultural cooperation talks (Leveau, 2001: 7–9). This alliance ended with the 1967 war. Fearing a superpower confrontation over Egypt, De Gaulle banned all arms deliveries to frontline states, meaning principally Israel. By failing to take the Israeli side, and subsequently pushing for the November 1967 United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 that requested Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the recent conflict, De Gaulle opened the path for France to regain a role in the Arab Middle East (Crosbue, 1974: 190–213). In this way, the Franco-Israeli “divorce” arguably paved the way for a more pro-Arab French Middle East policy, based on (in hindsight) problematic visions of French common ground with “progressive socialist” regimes in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Despite the end of these alliances and the follies that underpinned them, France retains its self-perception as a friend of the Arab countries and therefore a natural leader of European policymaking in the region (Behr, 2008).


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