The expansion of both the American and British Empires in the Middle East was based on imperialism, which started with the aggressive overseas expansion of Europe in the 1400s. The Middle East region was excluded from the initial European occupation until the 1780s, when the first invasion occurred. The British Empire was the first to establish its presence in the region in the late 18th century before being replaced by its American counterpart after World War II. These empires share common characteristics, especially the need to control natural resources and markets. However, some clear differences between the two empires stand out, specifically based on how the expansion was executed. This paper discusses the expansion of the American and British Empires in the Middle East and draws similarities and differences between the two entities.
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The British Empire in the Middle East
The history of Great Britain in the Middle East goes back to “1798 when Napoleon invaded Egypt” (Fieldhouse 2006, 73). British authorities were worried that France would interfere with its trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the British navy colluded with Ottoman authorities to force French troops out of Egypt. The 1882 occupation of Egypt by Great Britain marked the start of the most important period of British imperialism, occupation, and expansion of empire in the Middle East (Kennedy 2002). The British Empire in the region could be classified into four major periods – (i) the economic and political pursuits before 1798, (ii) the formal occupation that started in 1882 with the official British occupation of Egypt. (iii) The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and (iv) the era of global decolonization post World War II.
Between 1798 and 1882, Britain focused on three major areas in the Middle East. It sought to ensure stability in the Persian Gulf, support the Ottoman Empire’s rule in the region, and defend its trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean. After Napoleon invaded Egypt, Britain leveraged its good relations with the Ottomans to advance its economic activities in the region, thus dislodging France, Russia, and Austria as the biggest trading partners in the Middle East (Fieldhouse 2006). Britons were the main suppliers of colored cotton textiles and other commodities such as Indian tea and Caribbean sugar sourced from its colonies. In the 1870s, the Ottomans borrowed heavily from Britain to advance their modernizing reforms in Egypt. However, when the loans fell due in 1875, the Ottoman Empire could not repay, and thus Egypt lost its economic sovereignty to Great Britain (Kennedy 2002). A financial crisis ensued in Egypt, and rebellion followed, and Britain capitalized on the situation to attack the coast of Alexandria and occupy the country officially in 1882.
The British occupation of Egypt created the appropriate conditions for the expansion of the empire in the Middle East. The British government sought to entrench its presence in the Persian Gulf by signing treaties with local leaders in Bahrain, Muscat, and Kuwait in 1880, 1891, and 1899 respectively (Fieldhouse 2006). With the start of World War I in 1914, Britain formally announced that Egypt had become its protectorate, thus severing it from the Ottoman Empire. To meet its War demands for oil, the British government bought the majority of shares in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) of Iran and later forcefully occupied the southern and central parts of the country (Kennedy 2002). During the war, Britain expanded its empire in the region, starting with the capture of Baghdad and Jerusalem in 1917 before gaining control of Palestine and Iraq.
Britain collaborated with France to dismantle the Ottoman Empire after World War I. In 1920, the San Remo Conference was held whereby the British authorities agreed to redraw the region’s map and defend the new boundaries, thus effectively gaining colonial control (Kennedy 2002). The newly created countries were forced to sign mandates, which according to clarifications by the League of Nations, were “territories inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” (Kelsen 2000, 556). Therefore, the British Empire also expanded its rule over the region by using diplomatic terminologies, such as mandates, which were a euphemism for colonialism.
After World War II, the British lacked the economic capacity and political willpower to continue ruling over its far-flung colonies. At the same time, anti-colonial nationalism was mounting, and the empire could no longer be sustained. Countries such as Palestine gained independence in the late 1940s, and on May 14, 1948, Britain hoisted down the famous Union Jack flag and retreated (Berberoglu 1999). Israel immediately claimed independence, and British rule was waning quickly across the Middle East. The Suez Crisis of 1956 in Egypt marked the end of the British Empire in the Middle East. The Egyptian President, “Gamal Abdel Nasser, declared that his government would take control of the canal from the British authorities” (Berberoglu 1999, 17). In response, Britain, in partnership with France, sought to attack Egypt, but the United States intervened and averted the confrontation. This gesture heralded the death of the British Empire and the rise of the American Empire in the Middle East.
The American Empire in the Middle East
The American presence in the Middle East rose quickly during the Second World War, and it was affirmed after the war. Between 1920 and 1950, the US embarked on an imperialistic mission to gain control of the Middle East from Britain using “surrogate states such as Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia” (Berberoglu 1999, 21). The Roosevelt and Truman administrations played a central role in the attempt to dislodge the British Empire from the region. Specifically, the US used American oil companies to pursue economic interests across the Middle East (Ferguson 2004). The expansion of the American Empire in the Middle East could be classified into three major themes.
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First, the vast oil reserves in Saudi Arabia incentivized American oil companies to establish a base in the region to exploit the associated economic opportunities (Ali 1976). Oil was needed to sustain powerful military operations, and thus it influenced the world’s economies. Second, the US wanted to counter the aggressive expansion of communism, which was being advanced by the Soviet Union in the region, specifically in Iran and Turkey. This argument underscores the essence of the Cold War and how the conflict advanced the American agenda in the Middle East. Third, in 1948, President Truman vowed to support Israel’s statehood as a campaign strategy to appease Jewish voters in the US (Badeau 1968). These broad themes shaped the expansion trajectory of the American Empire in the Middle East.
The Second World War almost bankrupted the British Empire, and Americans took advantage of this situation to entrench economic hegemony in regions where Britain’s influence was waning, especially in the Middle East. In what President Eisenhower would later term as the military-industrial complex, the US established an empire based on inter-related military power and economic influence (Badeau 1968). American multinationals focused on creating strategic alliances with countries rich in oil fields. Overall, any country in the Middle East willing to maintain open trade with the US and contain the spread of communism attracted American attention. Therefore, diplomatic decisions and actions hinged solely on how opportunities or problems would advance American political or economic interests.
Saudi Arabia – United States relationship is one of the best case studies that could be used to understand how the US gained control of the Middle East. In the 1930s, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia needed monetary resources to continue living extravagantly and American oil companies, specifically Aramco, agreed to meet his needs. In 1939, Aramco signed oil concessions with the Saudi King to lease 360,000 square miles for 60 years with an option of purchasing an extra 80,000 square miles (Ali 1976). The dollar became the default currency of exchange when trading oil in the Middle East, thus strengthening the American Empire. At the same time, the American government was working behind the scenes to establish military bases in the region.
The US also used military power to advance its empire in the Middle East. In Iran, in 1946, President Truman threatened Stalin to withdraw Soviet troops from the country or face military confrontation (Lenczowski 1990). Stalin took Truman’s threats seriously, especially given that the American President had earlier on dropped atomic bombs in Japan. Ultimately, the Soviets exited Iran, and the US took over to expand its empire (Pollack 2004). The US started advancing monetary aid to Iran, and in turn, American oil companies were allowed to control the oil business in the country. Therefore, the US used military presence and economic support to promote its empire in the Middle East.
The American Empire has dominated the Middle East for decades after the post-war era starting from the late 1940s. The US presence in the region is still widespread, but the context has changed from economic and political interests to security and other imperial concerns (Johnson 2000). The empire continues to use coercive power to attain its objectives, albeit covertly. However, the influence that was experienced in the late 1900s has waned. Currently, the Trump administration is withdrawing its support for Kurds in Syria. These events show how the empire’s influence in the region is waning.
Both the American and British Empires sought to promote their interests in the Middle East. For instance, Britain’s initial focus in the region was protecting its trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean. This explains why it collaborated with the Ottoman Empire to achieve its goals. Similarly, the Americans entered the Middle East seeking to make financial gains from vast oilfields spread across the region. American oil companies were used as conduits for the empire to entrench its rule. The US also supported Britain after the Second World War to ensure that its interests in the region were protected. Both empires were also characterized by violent invasions. Political influence also characterized both empires. For example, Britain invaded the coast of Alexandria, captured Egypt to become part of its protectorate, and promoted its political agenda across the region. Americans similarly sought to advance their political and ideological interests by fighting the spread of communism in the Middle East. At the heart of the two empires was the need to promote self-interests. Diplomacy policies were not based on morality but on how the empires would benefit.
The major difference between the American and British Empires in the Middle East was the expansion approach applied. While Britain chose armed confrontation like in the case of capturing Egypt from the Ottomans, Americans applied soft power by creating economic ties with different countries. In Saudi Arabia, American oil companies signed oil concessions with the King, and in return, they would fund his extravagant lifestyle. Additionally, while Britain wanted to colonize the region, the US pursued mutual ties with the involved countries by advocating the idea of the nation-state. Towards the collapse of the American Empire in the Middle East, the focus had shifted to advancing security issues and humanitarian support, something that did not happen with the British Empire.
Both the American and British Empires sought to promote their interests in the Middle East. Britain was drawn into the region after Napoleon attacked Egypt in 1798, and it consolidated its presence by capturing the country from the Ottomans. The Americans took advantage of economically struggling Britain to assert its dominance in the region after World War II. While Britain used armed conquest focusing on colonization, the US employed soft power tactics by forming economic ties with countries in the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia. However, both empires wanted to rule the region through political agendas and gain economically.
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