Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, British intelligence agents began to venture in increasing numbers to the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire, a region of crucial geopolitical importance spanning present-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. They were drawn by the twin objectives of securing the land route to India and finding adventure and spiritualism in a mysterious and ancient land. But these competing desires created a dilemma: how were they to discreetly and patriotically gather facts in a region they were drawn to for its legendary inscrutability and by the promise of fame and escape from Britain?

In this groundbreaking book, Priya Satia tracks the intelligence community's tactical grappling with this problem and the myriad cultural, institutional, and political consequences of their methodological choices during and after the Great War. She tells the story of how an imperial state in thrall to the cultural notions of equivocal agents and beset by an equally captivated and increasingly assertive mass democracy invented a wholly new style of "covert empire" centered on the world's first brutal aerial surveillance regime in Iraq. Drawing on a wealth of archival sources—from the fictional to the recently declassified—this book explains how Britons reconciled genuine ethical scruples with the actual violence of their Middle Eastern empire. As it vividly demonstrates how imperialism was made fit for an increasingly democratic and anti-imperial world, what emerges is a new interpretation of the military, cultural, and political legacies of the Great War and of the British Empire in the twentieth century.

Unpacking the romantic fascination with "Arabia" as the land of espionage, Spies in Arabia presents a stark tale of poetic ambition, war, terror, and failed redemption—and the prehistory of our present discontents.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A significant addition to the historiography of the First World War beyond Europe [and] a timely reminder that these 'sideshows' of the First World War were in fact very important in determining the political structures of the modern Middle East."—History Workshop Journal

"'Arabia' was both a frightening and an alluring concept for Englishmen, and Satia vividly captures the mindset and psychological attraction that drew so many to work in that region.... Satia's extensive knowledge of the personalities involved both in England and Middle East provides the reader with a vivid and fascinating picture of the interactions and connections between the players. One can only hope that she will provide us with future books focusing on the spies whose activities helped shape British imperial policy."—Ranee K. L. Pnjabi, History: Reviews of New Books

"Almost thirty years after the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, Satia's careful deconstruction of the British colonial archive illustrates how cultural procedures could lead to devastatin political outcomes.... A very important book for our understanding of Empire and foreign policy in Middle East, in the past and in the present."—Magnus T. Bernhardsson, Taarii Newsletter: The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq"

"In her wide-ranging, impressively researched and forcefully argued book, Satia demonstrates how cultural preconceptions regarding Arabia shaped the actions and forcefully argued book, Satia demonstrates how cultural preconceptions regarding Arabia shaped the actions of agents and officials of the British Empire from the turn of the century to the beginning of the Second World War. Her analysis provides a compelling explanation of the shift from the 'gentlemanly' and amateurish intelligence efforts of British agents in the region prior to the First World War to the institution of a brutal postwar air control regime in Iraq, and the debates which this engendered in the age of mass democracy in Britain.... An exemplary example of what the 'new Imperial history' can achieve in its blending of wide-ranging archival research and the critical application of theoretical perspectives from post-colonial studies."—Michael Silvestri, Journal of Colonialism and Colonical History

"Drawing on a rich array of archival sources, and interweaving military, diplomatic, social, and literary history, Satia offers a groundbreaking cultural history of the British involvement in Arabia. A brief review cannot do justice to Satia's erudite writing: the power of her book lies in its painstaking attention to detail. Meticulously researched, this work seems to take the cultural history of the British Empire to a new phase of sophistication."—American Historical Review

"Satia analyzes a dizzying array of literary and official sources in order to understand how and why the British invested so much time, energy and imagination into its conquest of the Middle East. The author's ability to move between official 'group think' and the cultural pretensions of a generation of Britons as well as her utilization of private letters, memoirs, novels and official documents marks this as a crucial addition to the history of Britain, the Middle East, and imperialism generally."—Journal of British Studies

"Satia provides an important window into the activities of the British Scholar-Agents and their role in creating and ultimately destroying Britain's informal empire in the Middle East."—Frederic Krome, British Scholar

"Spies in Arabia provides a new account of British intelligence exploits in the Middle East, but its real achievement is to consider these not just from an historical perspective, but to provide deeper analysis of the events themselves. Satia achieves this with aplomb, and it would be nice to think that in the current climate of heeding historical lessons, it will be seen as more than just an historical case study."—Dr. Michael S. Goodman, Middle East Journal

"Priya Satia tells a timely story about British engagement with the Middle East in the period surrounding the crisis of the Great War. Well researched and cogently argued.... A deeply historical and politically relevant book."-Michelle Tusan, H-Net Reviews

"Priya Satia makes a seminal contribution to the history of Britain and the Middle East at different levels: her book is as much a study in cultural assumptions as it is an examination of the political and strategic circumstances of the British presence in the region. At an even higher level, in a manner reminiscent of T. E. Lawrence, it is a story of honor and redemption, and of degradation and damnation, in which chivalry and good intentions collapse into torture and mass murder."—Wm. Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin

"This is a most original, exciting, and exhilarating book, which gives an entirely new interpretation of some of the overseas activities of the British state in the first third of the twentieth century."—Peter Sluglett, author of Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country

"Spies in Arabia is a fine-grained and closely researched history that interweaves diplomatic, military, and cultural themes to highlight the centrality of Britain's brief 'moment in the Middle East' for the imperial state in decline. This tale offers an indispensable lesson for the American adventure in the Middle East to those who are prepared to learn it."—Joel Beinin, author of Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East

"This is no ordinary diplomatic or miltiary history. ...Spies in Arabia occupies a position in the literature straddling different approaches, and will be a valuable resource to scholars in a variety of field. ...It delivers a fresh look at a pivotal period in the history of an important region of the world; it sheds light on the imperial tribulations of pursuing a democratic foreign policy in a violent region; and, it provides insight into how our understanding of the region and its inhabitants can lead us into self-desctructive blunders." —International Social Science Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199734801
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 472
  • Sales rank: 1,551,626
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Priya Satia is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University.

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Table of Contents

Note on Arabic Spellings     xiii
Reference Map     2
Introduction     3
War and Hope
The Foundations of Covert Empire     23
The Cultural World of the Edwardian Agent     59
The Failure of Empiricism and How the Agents Addressed It     99
Cunning in War     137
Imperial Expiation     165
Peace and Terror
Official Conspiracy Theories and the Wagers of Genius     201
Air Control     239
Covert Empire     263
Seeing Like a Democracy     287
Conclusion     329
Notes     339
Selected Bibliography     409
Index     443
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