British foreign policy during WWI

History major Sam Brown forms interesting conclusions regarding complex historical narrative (2017 senior projects, part 1)

This six-part series highlights academic projects completed by Walla Walla University students during their senior year.

While many historians blame Britain for causing many of the current problems in the Middle East, 2017 Walla Walla University graduate Sam Brown, who researched British Middle East foreign policy after WWI for his history capstone project, suggests that the historical narrative actually points to a more complex conclusion.  

Brown, who majored in history, spent his sophomore year studying in the Adventist Colleges Abroad program at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon. There, he picked up some basic Arabic skills and visited some of the locations he would eventually examine in his senior paper. He says his time living in the Middle East helped him “gain some experiential knowledge of the region,” providing valuable perspective for his research.

In his paper, Brown explains that the political situation in the Middle East was already tense prior to WWI due to the British empire’s expansion into the Arabian Peninsula and the simultaneous collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As a “bevy of aspirational Arab rulers, each with their vision of grandeur,” fought to fill the power vacuum, Britain remained disinterested in internal Arab affairs—that is, until the outbreak of WWI.

“Britain found itself on the opposite side of the Great War from the Ottomans,” Brown says. That’s when the British sought Arab allies to help protect their interests in the region: controlling both the region’s oil deposits and the shipping lanes in the Red Sea. However, in return for their help, these Arab allies, many of whom were at odds with each other, expected Britain to become involved in their local disputes. Brown observes, “Britain found itself in the awkward position of having promised the same things to allies who were already antagonistic towards each other.”

British diplomats withdraw from conflict
Two such allies were Sherif Hussein in Mecca and Ibn Saud in Riyadh. At first, Britain attempted to mediate their dispute while maintaining cordial relations with both allies. However, when the Saudi-Hashemite tensions proved too much for British diplomats, they withdrew completely, allowing the conflict to play out. Britain’s withdrawal was a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East. Brown says, “Without British opposition, Ibn Saud was able to win a couple of key victories and went on to create the country we call Saudi Arabia.”

While many historians argue that Britain is culpable for “creat[ing] a policy that deceived Arab allies while engineering many of the problems we see [in the Middle East] today,” Brown came to a different conclusion in his research. Though he recognizes the effects of British policy in the Middle East, he hesitates to place the blame solely on Britain’s shoulders. He argues that although the British certainly manipulated the situation to protect certain strategic assets, their Arab allies were just as manipulative and deceptive as any other country during the War. “The Middle East had a lot of deep-seated problems that WWI brought to the surface,” Brown says. “Blaming the British for modern Middle Eastern problems is temptingly easy, but a very unbalanced view of the history.”

Though one might think Brown’s interest in the Middle East was sparked during his year in Lebanon, Brown says his fascination goes back much further than that. “Somewhere back in middle school, I became enamored with the enigmatic figure Lawrence of Arabia. I learned as much as I could about him and the events he participated in. When it came time to select a topic for my capstone project, my childhood fascination seemed a good place to start. As I did my research, I realized he was a rather minor, albeit famous, player in a more expansive tale.”

Brown says his immediate plans post-graduation are not solidified yet, but he will likely join the Navy, “hopefully in intelligence.” “Politics, diplomacy, and government have always been my passion,” Brown says of his long-term career goals. “One day, I hope to be at the top level of policymaking.”

Posted July 7, 2017

Portrait of Sam Brown with a bright green tie.
Sam Brown, 2017 WWU graduate with a major in history, says the inspiration for his senior research project goes back to a childhood fascination with Lawrence of Arabia.