Confidential Print: Middle East includes the following classes from the National Archives, Kew in their entirety:
CO 935/1-25 Middle East General, 1920-1956
FO 402/1-33 Afghanistan, 1922-1957
FO 406/1-84 Eastern Affairs (Middle East), 1812-1946
FO 407/1-237 Egypt/Sudan, 1839-1958
FO 416/1-113 Persia, 1899-1957
FO 423/1-70 Suez Canal, 1859-1947
FO 424/1-297 Turkey, 1841-1957
FO 437/1-9 Jordan, 1949-1957
FO 464/1-12 Arabia, 1947-1957
FO 481/1-17 Iraq, 1947-1969
FO 484/1-11 Lebanon, 1947-1957
FO 487/1-11 Middle East General, 1947-1957
FO 492/1-11 Israel/Palestine, 1947-1957
FO 501/1-10 Syria, 1947-1956
For a downloadable list of all documents in the resource, please click here.
“Anyone working on the Modern Middle East will find the Confidential Print: Middle East collection extraordinarily useful. This collection is an absolutely invaluable resource for both researchers and teachers because of the range of documents available and the ease with which one can access them. The database is straightforward, simple to use, and is readily searchable. Anyone accustomed to popular databases such as JSTOR will find the Confidential Print: Middle East collection immediately familiar. One can bring up an original document on one’s own computer and/or download a PDF facsimile. The database also provides all the documentary information needed by researchers in an easy-to-use format.”
Professor Michael Gasper, Occidental College
Nature of the material
- Descriptions of leading personalities
- Political summaries
- Economic analyses
Scope of the collection
This collection covers a broad sweep of history from c. 1839 to 1969, taking in the countries of the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, Iraq, Turkey and many of the former Ottoman lands in Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and Sudan.
CO 935/1-25 Middle East General covers the years 1920 to 1956. Topics include:
- The contemporary political situation in the British mandate of Palestine
- Finances of Palestine and Transjordan
- Relations between the British colony of Aden and its associated Protectorate
- Foreign concessions in Bahrain and Kuwait
These files cover the whole of the Middle East but have a focus on the Arabian peninsula. During the period of their coverage, the Arabian countries began to emerge as the world's most significant source of oil, though the states around the rim of the peninsula, the Trucial States, Oman and Aden, were still under a strong, but waning, British influence. Saudi Arabia, the peninsula's largest state, was pieced together by the ruling Saud family at the beginning of this period; oil was discovered there in 1938, beginning Saudi Arabia's rise to becoming the world's largest oil producer and exporter.
FO 402/1-33 Afghanistan covers the period from 1922 to 1957. Topics include:
- The arms trade
- Relations with the government of British India
- King Amanulla’s foreign visits of 1928
- The rebellion of 1929
- The short-lived emirate of Habibullah Kalikani, the succession of King Mohammed Nadir Shah and the evacuation of the British legation in Kabul
- Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1933
- Relations with the Soviet Union and Germany
- The Afghan air force and competing British and Italian aspirations to influence it
- Relations with the governments of independent India and Pakistan after 1947, particularly in respect of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, the Durand Line (the Afghan-Pakistani border) and the Anglo-Afghan treaties of 1919 and 1921, which remained in force
- Frontier disputes with Iran
- Disagreements about the waters of the Helmand River
- Relations with the United Nations and with Arab states
- Communism in Afghanistan and developing relations with the Soviet Union
During the Second World War, Britain was concerned about the Afghan government’s interpretation of neutrality, the lavish send-offs given to German and Italian officials and agents, influence from the Soviet Union in the region and continued uncertainty about the outcome of the war in the Middle East. Taken as a whole the documents suggest that educational improvements led to a decreased feeling of isolation and a growing interest in world affairs, at least amongst some of the population.
FO 406/1-84 Eastern Affairs consists of volumes on Syria, Palestine, the Arabian states, Iraq (including the Baghdad Railway and international disputes concerning the completion of the line from Constantinople to Basra between 1903 and 1911), Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan from 1812 to 1946. Around half the volumes focus on the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the earlier documents reflect increasing tensions in the region and amongst the Great Powers in the decade leading up to the First World War.
FO 407/1-237 Egypt and Sudan covers the period 1839 to 1958 spanning the decline of Turkish power and its replacement by British power. Later material encompasses the rapid decline and end of British influence in the 1950s. There is a subsidiary focus on Sudan. Early topics addressed include:
- Muhammad Ali’s declaration of effective independence in 1839, which reduced the Ottoman sultan’s rule in Egypt to a nominal one
- The progress of triangular Anglo-French-Egyptian relations which characterised the subsequent decades, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the establishment of effective Anglo-French control of the Egyptian government, particularly its finances, in the 1870s
- The Egyptian financial crisis of 1875-9 which led to this control
- The British deposition of the khedive, Ismail Pasha, in June 1879
- The proposed all-power conference on Egypt (to include Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary as well as France and Britain) of 1882
- The British reaction to anti-European riots in Alexandria (1882) and the issue of refugees fleeing the city, which was followed by the occupation by British troops of the area around the Suez Canal
Many documents highlight the central importance of the Suez Canal to British imperial policy and Britain’s willingness to assert control over the canal by whatever means possible to secure such a vital artery for British use.
The volumes for the last two decades of the nineteenth century are dominated by the Mahdist War in the Sudan (which flared up sporadically between 1881 and 1899) and by Britain’s frequent setbacks in the conflict – including the siege of Khartoum (1884-5) and the death of General Gordon at the city’s fall (January 1885) – until the battle of Omdurman (1898), at which the British under Kitchener inflicted a decisive defeat on the Mahdis.
Later events covered include:
- The Fashoda Incident (1898), in which competing British and French colonial ambitions in Sudan almost led to war
- The Italian conquest of Libya from the Turks (1912) and the subsequent boundary dispute with Egypt
- The connections during the First World War between Egyptian nationalists (the Wafd) and the Young Turk movement
- The British declaration of a protectorate over Egypt in 1914
- Negotiations with France about this decision and the British deposition and replacement of the khedive, Abbas Pasha
- The exiling of the Wafd leader Saad Zoghlul Pasha to Malta in 1919
- The subsequent ‘First Revolution’ and its suppression
- Zoghlul’s second deportation after further disturbances (1921)
- The termination of the British protectorate over Egypt and Sultan Fuad’s proclamation as king (1922)
- Fuad’s appointment of Zoghlul as prime minister, Zoghlul’s attempts to achieve a full union with Sudan, his subsequent threats to resign and an attempt on his life (1924)
- The assassination of Sir Lee Stack, governor-general of Sudan, and Zoghlul’s resulting resignation (1924)
- King Fuad’s death and the accession of his son Farouk (1936)
- The subsequent negotiations leading to the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, by which Britain agreed to remove its troops from Egypt (except from the Canal Zone) within twenty years
- Britain’s threats to force a change of government in Egypt if cooperation on war with Italy was not forthcoming (1940)
Viscount Allenby and Sir Percy Loraine as High Commissioners, and Sir Miles Lampson as the British Ambassador to Egypt and High Commissioner for the Sudan (1936-1946), feature prominently during this period.
During and after the Second World War, topics addressed include:
- Reactions to the Italian invasion of Egypt from Libya and the political confusion arising from it
- Egypt’s role in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and its subsequent occupation of the Gaza Strip
- Egypt’s abrogation of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1951
- The deaths of forty-one Egyptians in Ismailia at the hands of British troops, subsequent anti-British riots, and the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy by Neguib’s Free Officers’ Movement in 1952
- Egyptian efforts to frustrate shipping to and from Israel in the Canal Zone
- The Anglo-Egyptian agreements on Sudanese independence (1953)
- The phased withdrawal of British troops from the Canal Zone (1954)
- The proclamation of Sudanese independence (1956)
- The events of the Suez Crisis: this encompasses Nasser’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China, the withdrawal of US aid for the Aswan Dam, Egypt’s nationalisation of the Canal and the subsequent Anglo-French-Israeli invasion and withdrawal (1956)
See also FO 423 below.
FO 416/1-113 Persia (Iran) covers the period 1899 to 1957. The material addresses topics such as:
- Oil concessions and the development of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company
- The development of railways and telegraphs
- The Constitutional Revolution, which led to the establishment of the first parliament (1906)
- The activities in Iran of France, Germany and Russia (and later the Soviet Union), as well as border disputes with Afghanistan and the Ottoman Empire
- International loans
- The Imperial Bank of Persia
- The military coup bringing Reza Pahlavi to power in 1921
- Reza’s acclamation as shah (1925)
- Post-Second World War Iranian-Soviet agreements on oil and the extension of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s concession
- Disputes with Afghanistan over the waters of the Helmand River
- The assassination attempt on the shah (February 1949)
- Government efforts to suppress the Tudeh (communist) party
- The assassination of prime minister Ali Razmara (March 1951)
- The decision of the Majlis (parliament) to nationalise the oil industry and British protests against it (1951)
- The subsequent breaking of Iranian-UK diplomatic relations
- The Anglo-American-backed coup that deposed prime minister Mossadeq and reversed the nationalisation (1953)
- The subsequent renegotiating of the terms of the AIOC’s activities, increasing US involvement in the region
The period covered by these files includes both the apogee of British power in Iran and its sudden end. Certainly from the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention, that demarcated British and Russian spheres of influence in Persia, Britain was the most powerful presence there, and its influence was reinforced by the abnegation of Russian influence in Persia by the new Bolshevik government in 1917. The 1941 Anglo-Soviet invasion, undertaken to secure the use of Persia's ports and railway lines to supply Allied war material to the Soviets (the 'Persian Corridor') and which saw the Allied replacement of Reza Shah with his son Mohammed Reza, perhaps represents the peak of this influence. Just over a decade later the anti-Mossadeq coup, led by the CIA, led to a rapid US eclipse of Britain as the paramount foreign influence in Iran, a situation that was to persist until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
FO 423/1-70 Suez Canal provides details on the canal’s construction, relations with the French, dues levied, and Suez Canal Company business and financial difficulties and the resultant International Commission. External debts forced Said Pasha's successor, Ismail Pasha, to sell his country's share in the canal to the Briitsh Government in 1875 for £4 million; French shareholders still held a majority, but Britain now wanted full control. Disraeli had used funds from the Rothschild family to buy Ismail’s shares, without recourse to Parliament for consent. Disraeli and Gladstone continued to argue about policy in the region and the volumes are a good source for information on subsequent events through to 1915. The Convention of Constantinople of 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the British; British troops had moved in to protect it during a civil war in Egypt in 1882 and this was to happen again in 1915, when the waterway was threatened by a major Ottoman attack. The final 20 volumes cover the period from 1920 to 1947. Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 the United Kingdom insisted on retaining control over the canal. It continued to be of great strategic importance during the Second World War.
FO 424/1-297 Turkey covers the Ottoman Empire and then the Republic of Turkey from 1841 to 1957. Topics covered include:
- The Anglo-Ottoman commercial convention of 1838
- Refugees from the Hungarian Revolution in the Ottoman dominions in 1849-1850
- The rights of Christian churches in the Empire
- Ottoman diplomatic relations with Greece after Greek independence
- Administrative reform
- Postal services
- Relations with Russia
- Border disputes with Montenegro
- Successive commercial treaties between the Empire and Britain
- The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and the territorial changes in the region which resulted
- The lead up to the First World War (with much correspondence to and from Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary 1905-16)
- The development of the oilfields in Ottoman Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in the early decades of the twentieth century
- The military conflict between the new Republic of Turkey and Greece in 1922
- Greek attempts to occupy Constantinople and their evacuation of Smyrna (İzmir) following Turkish military successes under Atatürk
- The Treaty of Lausanne (1923), recognising Turkish claims to all Anatolia and abrogating the Treaty of Sèvres, under which Anatolia had been substantially dismembered by the Allies
- The abolition of the Ottoman sultanate (October 1923)
- The intense promulgation of westernising reforms under Atatürk which dominated the 1930s
The volumes for the inter-war period track developments through to the death of Atatürk in 1938 and the succession of his lieutenant İsmet İnönü, and contain an increasing amount of correspondence monitoring relations between Turkey and Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Turkey was admitted to the League of Nations in July 1932, but the British Foreign Office continued to be very wary of German, French, Italian and Soviet influence in the region. There are further documents on Turkish reactions to the Italian invasion of Greece in 1940, the loss of the Republican People’s Party’s grip on political power with the election of the Democratic Party in 1950, and Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1952.
FO 437/1-9 Jordan covers the period from 1949 to 1957. In 1946, Britain had requested that the United Nations approve the ending of the British Mandate in Transjordan, and as a consequence the Hashemite emir, Abdullah, was proclaimed as the first king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. Abdullah continued to rule until a Palestinian Arab assassinated him in 1951 as he was departing from the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Transjordanian forces occupied the area then called Cisjordan (the West Bank), which it continued to control in accordance with the 1949 armistice agreements and a political union proclaimed in December 1948. The second Arab-Palestinian conference, held in Jericho on 1 December 1948, had proclaimed Abdullah as king of Palestine and called for a union of Arab Palestine with Transjordan. The Transjordanian government agreed to the unification on 7 December, and six days later parliament in Amman approved the creation of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The act of union contained a protective clause which preserved Arab rights in Palestine without prejudice to any final settlement. Abdullah took the title King of Jordan, but following the annexation of the West Bank, only two countries – Britain and Pakistan – formally recognised the union, members of the Arab League granting only de facto recognition. These events provide the backdrop to these nine volumes which cover the period up to 1957.
The documents confirm Britain’s continued interest in the region and reveal certain aspects of that interest that were opposed by the United States; the other power on which the fledgling kingdom relied for international support. King Abdullah took a moderate line on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Neighbouring Arab nations viewed him as a liability, as he was “wedded to Britain” and because his nephew was the Iraqi regent, Abdul Illah. King Talal, who succeeded Abdullah after his assassination, was only in power for a year due to problems with his health; he was succeeded by King Hussein, who established clear nationalist credentials and had firmly asserted his authority over the entire kingdom by 1956. All British officers in the army, including the veteran commander, Sir John Glubb (‘Glubb Pasha’), were quickly replaced by Jordanians. Any remaining vestiges of British influence were severely discredited with the onset of the Suez Crisis, and disappeared very quickly afterwards. Under King Hussein’s careful stewardship, the kingdom of Jordan became an “oasis of stability” in the Middle East. He was to become an important international statesman, engaging in regular secret meetings with the Israelis from the 1960s onwards.
FO 464/1-12 Arabia covers Saudi Arabia, the states of Persian Gulf, Aden and Yemen from 1947 to 1957. Significant discoveries of oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938 had transformed the economic outlook for this country. After the death of King Ibn Saud in 1953, his eldest son, Saud, succeeded; his eleven-year reign was dominated by power struggles with his half-brother, Faisal, to whom Saud delegated control of government affairs in 1958 and in whose favour he was finally forced to abdicate in 1964.
The material here traces the developments under both Ibn Saud and Saud. After 1953, Saud embarked on a lavish and ill-considered spending programme that included the construction of a massive royal residence on the outskirts of the capital, Riyadh. He also faced pressure from neighbouring countries, especially from the left-leaning republican Nasser in Egypt. Saud’s inept handling of foreign affairs and fiscal policy caused concern in Britain and the United States, as they did not want to see further instability in the region.
Britain’s Persian Gulf Residency in Bahrain monitored trade and strategic issues in the region for the British Government. Sir (William) Rupert Hay was the Chief Political Resident until 1953, when he was replaced by Sir Bernard Burrows. British control, as the correspondence shows, was exerted through a network of representatives known as political agents, operating in the ‘Trucial States’ of Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Further political officers were retained for the remaining Trucial States, acting under their treaties with Britain. Foreign relations in Muscat were conducted by a Consul-General, who was also, administratively, answerable to the Resident in Bahrain. Through his political agents the Resident preserved close connections with Gulf rulers, protecting both their political and economic interests and the British government's on the basis of established treaties and agreements. According to Hay, the sheikhs enjoyed control over internal affairs, whilst Britain “ordinarily only exercises control in matters involving negotiations or the possibility of complications with foreign powers, such as civil aviation, posts and telegraphs”. However, he added that “constant advice and encouragement are […] offered to various rulers regarding improvement of their administrations and development of their resources, mostly in an informal manner”.
The Resident clearly had considerable power and influence. He administered British extraterritorial jurisdiction, which had been exercised in certain Persian Gulf territories since 1925. Regarding the Resident’s role in concluding concession agreements between rulers and foreign oil companies, Hay wrote that: “The oil companies naturally bulk largely in the political resident’s portfolio. He has to closely watch all negotiations for new agreements or the amendment of existing agreements and ensure that nothing is decided which will seriously affect the position of the rulers or the British government.” In terms of all oil and concession agreements and all other 'political' agreements, the oil companies were bound up with the British Government. Britain tried, through such methods, to ensure that all negotiations with the local rulers were conducted through, or with, the knowledge of British political officers.
The situation began to change after 1956, but Muscat and Oman did not gain its independence until 1962 and Britain clung on to its position in the Persian Gulf until 1971. This is stepping ahead of the subject content of these files, but British power in the region was already well on the wane after the end of the Second World War. The material reflects British attempts to shore up and defend its position in the region despite limited resources. The United States and other competitors were keen to take advantage of this relative weakness.
Britain had had a key military base at Aden since the 1840s and had developed a Protectorate around this establishment in what was to become South Yemen. North Yemen had secured independence, under its Mutawakkilite imam, at the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The material on Yemen reflects the tense relations with the British colonial authorities in Aden. The port was a vital entrepot of great strategic importance and included a huge BP oil refinery. Again, the documents show that Britain was on the retreat in the region, but desperate to protect vital national interests. Nationalist attacks on British interests (the ‘Aden Emergency’) began in 1963 and Britain was finally forced to withdraw from Aden in 1967.
FO 481/1-17 Iraq covers the period from 1947 to 1969. Important topics include:
- The suppression of Iraqi communists
- The Iraqi-Jordanian treaty of 1947 and the government crisis of that year
- Iraqi attitudes concerning the Arab League and the idea of union with Syria
- Anglo-Iraqi negotiations over oil and the oil industry’s prospects
- The position of Jews in Iraq
- US military aid
- King Faisal II’s attainment of majority and the beginning of his active rule (1953)
- The military agreement between the UK, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries (the ‘Baghdad Pact’) of 1955 and the subsequent British gift of fighter aircraft
- Iraqi-Saudi relations
- Civil unrest in Kurdistan (1961)
Of particular interest is the file on 1958, when the new monarchical union of Iraq and Jordan was dissolved, only a few months after its promulgation, following King Faisal’s overthrow and murder by a group of army officers; the documents record British reactions to these rapidly changing circumstances and note that the new prime minister, Abdul Karim Qassim, “has made it clear that his Government wish to be friends with anyone who is prepared to be friends with them, on a basis of equality and mutual interests”, as well as his “intention to keep the oil flowing” (FO 481/12). The remaining volumes track the slow rise to influence and power of the Ba’ath Party and the resultant waning of British influence in Iraq – the RAF, for example, left in 1959 (FO 481/13) – until, in June 1967, diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom were broken off altogether in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.
FO 484/1-11 Lebanon covers the period from 1947 to 1957. Three champions of independence figure prominently in these documents: Camille Chamoun served as Lebanese ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then as ambassador to the United Nations, before returning home to become President of Lebanon from 1952to 1958. Bechara El Khoury was president until corruption allegations forced him to resign in 1952 and Riad as-Solh had served as prime minister until 1951; all three struggled to keep the nation’s competing religious factions in harmony under Lebanon’s National Pact, which carved up government and representation according to confessionalist criteria.
In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Lebanon had become the home to more than a hundred thousand Palestinian refugees, and this significantly altering the state’s internal dynamics. Some had been expelled from the newly formed kingdom of Jordan, because King Hussein saw such large numbers of refugees as a threat to the stability of his kingdom. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were denied citizenship there and suffered other forms of discrimination. A tense and complex sectarian mix threatened to destabilise, and Britain, France, Israel and the United States continued to monitor the internal political situation closely. This was to come to a head in 1958, just outside the scope of this run of documents, when pressure from Lebanese Muslims to join Nasser’s Arab-nationalist United Arab Republic clashed with Christians’ support for President Chamoun’s pro-Western alignment and flirtations with the Baghdad Pact. Civil war was averted, or at least postponed, by military intervention from the United States (‘Operation Blue Bat’), the first such action predicated on the Eisenhower Doctrine.
FO 487/1-11 Middle East General covers British relations with various Middle Eastern countries from 1947 to 1957. Topics include British economic policy towards the Middle East in the aftermath of the Second World War; British attitudes to the Arab League (formed in 1945) and federal possibilities in the region; British military aid to Middle Eastern countries; Britain’s own defence interests in the region (under the auspices of Middle East Command); and the issue of Arab neutrality as Cold War tensions increased. Turkish membership of NATO and Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy, relations with France, French policy in the region (in particular French arms sales), British relations with Egypt in light of the Egyptian abrogation in 1951 of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and proposals for an Israeli-Jordanian conference in 1953 are also well covered.
FO 492/1-11 Israel/Palestine focuses on the eventful period of Israel’s first decade as a nation state, from 1947 to 1957. The foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, noted in a statement to the House of Commons in February 1947 that “For the Jews [of Palestine], the essential point of principle is the creation of a sovereign Jewish State. For the Arabs, the essential point of principle is to resist to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine. The discussions of the last month have shown that there is no prospect of resolving this conflict by any settlement negotiated between the parties” (FO 492/1). There follows, over the next few years, discussion of the role in Palestine of the United Nations; the activities of pro-Israeli Jewish activists in the USA and British fears of a deterioration of the Anglo-American relationship over the Palestine question (1948-1950); and the end of the British mandate in May 1948 and the near-simultaneous declaration of the State of Israel. The problems caused by Arab refugees from Palestine and huge Jewish immigration to the new state (1949-1953), the perceived concentration of political power in the hands of the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as well as Israeli relations with Jordan and their bearing on British treaty relations with Jordan and Egypt all feature prominently. Many other subjects, including the growth of the cooperative kibbutz movement and the wider development of the Israeli economy, the progress of Israeli parliamentary democracy, relations between Israel and West Germany in the light of potential Jewish claims to reparations for the Holocaust, the death of President Chaim Weizmann (1952), border skirmishes with Jordan and disputes over the waters of the River Jordan (1953), the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union (1953), the opposition of Orthodox Jews to the extension of compulsory military service to women, a survey of Israel’s armed strength and military thinking (1956) and Israeli access to the Gulf of Aqaba, are well covered.
FO 501/1-10 Syria covers the years from 1946 to 1956. Although rapid economic development followed the attainment of independence, Syrian politics continued to be dominated by uncertainty and by upheaval. Between 1946 and 1956, the period covered by these volumes, Syria had twenty different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions. In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, aligning itself with the other local Arab nations which were attempting to prevent the establishment of Israel. The Syrian army was forced out of most of the Israeli territory they had entered, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan Heights and elsewhere and maintained their old borders in other areas. The land gained was then converted into demilitarised zones under United Nations supervision, but this land was gradually lost to Israel over the following years and the status of these territories continued to prove a major stumbling block for Syrian-Israeli negotiations.
As the material suggests, the humiliating defeats suffered against Israel were one of several factors behind Colonel Husni al-Zaim's seizure of power in 1949 in a military coup d'état. This was soon followed by a second coup, by Colonel Sami al-Hinnawi, who was then himself quickly deposed by Colonel Adib Shishakli; all these changes of power took place within the same year. After exercising influence for some time, Shishakli launched a second coup in 1951, entrenching his rule and eventually abolishing multi-party politics altogether.
Only when Shishakli was himself overthrown in a 1954 coup was the semblance of a parliamentary system restored, but democratic politics was fundamentally undermined by continued political manoeuvring, supported by the competing factions in the military. Power was increasingly concentrated in the military and security establishment, at the expense of most of the civilian population. Parliamentary institutions remained weak and ineffectual, dominated by competing parties representing the landowning elites and various Sunni urban notables, while the economy was chronically mismanaged. Little was done to improve conditions for Syria's peasant majority. This process of mismanagement and the influence of Nasser, pan-Arabism and other anti-colonial ideologies created fertile ground for various Arab-nationalist, greater-Syrian and socialist movements, representing disaffected elements of society, including various religious minorities, to pursue demands for radical reform. Both the domestic and international ramifications of this instability are well documented here.
Highlights from the collection
There follow a few interesting selections from the documents, which help to illustrate the varied and fascinating nature of the material.
Axis influence in Afghanistan:
“I spoke to the Soviet Ambassador, when he came to see me this afternoon, about Afghanistan and explained the difference in the position we had to deal with there from that which had previously existed in Persia. After consultation with the Government of India, we had come to the conclusion that the best line of action to start with would be for us to make representations to the Afghan Government for the removal of all non-official German and Italian subjects. Sir F. Wylie would be instructed to keep in touch with his Soviet colleague, but in the first instance we thought it might be wiser for us to make the representations alone. The Ambassador said he would report what I had said to his Government and give me a reply urgently.”
(Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, London, to Sir Stafford Cripps in Moscow, 23 September 1941, FO 402/22)
The importance of the Suez Canal to British imperial policy in the nineteenth century:
“I have to state to your Excellency that, in view of the uncertainty that exists as to the movements of Arabi Pasha and his forces, Her Majesty’s Government have telegraphed to the British Admiral at Port Saïd, authorizing him to concert with the French Admiral for the protection of the Suez Canal, and to act in the event of sudden danger.”
(Earl Granville, Foreign Secretary, London, to Viscount Lyons, 16 July 1882, FO 407/21)
The Mahdist Wars in Sudan:
“The general situation is excessively serious. There are no less than 20,000 rebels round Suakin. The number of friendly Arabs is very limited. […] There can no longer be any doubt that we are faced with a most formidable fanatical religious movement, which is organized and directed with considerable skill, and which is spreading rapidly over the whole country. [… The Mahdi] is sending his agents everywhere to preach his power, his victories, and his divine mission, and these agents are meeting with extraordinary success. The once-despised Arab tribes of these parts have changed their character. […] They have felt their power, and utterly despise State troops, whilst latter have completely lost all their morale.”
(abridged from a letter from General Baker at Suakin to Sir Evelyn Baring, Consul-General of Egypt, Cairo, 27 December 1883, FO 407/60)
“Sinkat has fallen. [Anglo-Egyptian] Garrison made a sortie, but were cut to pieces.”
(Sir Evelyn Baring, Consul-General of Egypt, Cairo, to Earl Granville, 12 February 1884, FO 407/60)
Egyptian politics during the Second World War:
“After to-night’s interview [with] the [Egyptian] Prime Minister […], I am far from happy as to his good faith. What I fear is that unless we take a really strong line with him (which means with the King too), we may find ourselves duped and in the cart; issue at stake is so vital we cannot risk that. Please do not think me an alarmist, but if need for action comes it may come quickly. I think it would lie in insisting upon the formation of a broader Government with some Prime Minister prepared to stand by us loyally, and later a definitely strong hand towards Italy. There are such men – for example: Hassan Sabri, Hussein Sirry, Hafez Afifi, and maybe others. The King would certainly object: but I feel that we should be prepared, in case of need, to face that, and tell him he must comply or get out. In Prince Mohamed Ali we have a staunch loyal supporter on whom we could confidently rely. And I believe the bulk of the Egyptian people would be relieved.”
(Sir Miles Lampson, British ambassador, Cairo, to Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary, 11 June 1940, FO 407/224)
The ambitions of Atatürk’s Turkey:
"[… ] it is unfortunate that ill-feeling should be unnecessarily stirred up in this way, for there are numerous outstanding questions which Comte de Chambrun still has to settle with the Turks, and his task will not be rendered any lighter by these effusions. Incidentally, harm may be caused to British interests in such Franco-British questions as the Ottoman Debt and the Constantinople Quays Company, which are among the difficult questions which France is pressing Turkey to settle."
(Sir George Clerk, Constantinople, to Sir John Simon, Foreign Secretary, 9 June 1932, commenting on a newspaper article criticising the action of the British Government in presenting Atatürk a copy of a British history of the Dardanelles campaign, FO 424/276)
"Mr Berson understood that the Soviet Government would raise no objection to Turkey joining the League of Nations so long as she – i.e., Turkey – agrees to raise the question of the abolition of the international control of the Straits as soon as possible after becoming a member. ”
(Sir Esmond Ovey, Moscow, to Sir John Simon, Foreign Secretary, 20 June 1932, FO 424/276)
Views of Mossadeq’s government in Iran after the oil nationalistions:
"I am […] leaving Persia at a time when Anglo-Persian relations are worse than for very many years. Nor are they likely to improve so long as the present trinity of anachronistic xenophobes remains in power. Of these Kazimi is a strong and narrow-minded Nationalist with a veneer of Western pretensions, whose conviction that the Persians can do anything as well as anybody else makes him the bitter opponent of British influence. Kashani has all the ignorance and rigidity of the professional Mahommedan priest opposed to any development that would weaken the traditional and narrow structure of Islam. Mussadiq is an exalté who is fired with enthusiasm for fighting in 1952 foreign political conditions which existed in 1900 and have long since sunk beneath the waves of progress. These men are all that Persia can produce to lead what might possibly have become a movement for genuine national regeneration.”
(Sir F. Shepherd, outgoing British ambassador in Tehran, to Anthony Eden, 25 January 1952, FO 416/105)
The complexity and brinkmanship of European diplomatic manoeuvrings during the First Balkan War:
"I told Herr von Kühlmann to-day that there had been two things in yesterday’s news that had rather disquieted me. One, which I had heard through the Italian Ambassador, was to the effect that there was some loose talk on the continent – in, I thought, not very responsible quarters, and I was sure that it did not represent the feeling of the Russian Government – that Austria should be told definitely that Bulgaria must have this and Servia must have that, as if Austria was to have no say in the matter at all. If this reached the ears of Austria, it would be very unfortunate. The other thing which disquieted me was an impression left by news from Vienna that Austria was making up her mind to settle with Servia and Bulgaria direct and might take the line that a settlement with them was something in which no one else should have any say. Of course, an amicable agreement between Austria, Servia, and Bulgaria would not endanger peace; but what I feared was that Austria might apply some pressure, perhaps using Roumania also for this purpose. Bulgaria and Servia would then appeal to Russia, and we should be confronted, perhaps suddenly, with a situation in which Austria was the declared opponent and Russia the protector of the Balkan States. Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg’s desire that Austria and Russia should lead the concert, a desire which I shared, would then be blown to the winds.”
(Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, to Sir Edward Goschen, British ambassador in Berlin, 2 November 1912, FO 424/235)