Spies in Arabia Priya Satia, writes Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East to examine the establishment of the pre-war intelligence community in the Middle East and the eventual establishment of Britain’s covert empire following World War I. Of particular focus is the cultural characteristics of Edwardian intelligence agents and Britain’s use of air control in Arabia. Satia greatly contributes to the scholarship of British occupation in Arabia, and Spies in Arabia is a lively and interesting work.
Satia begins by answering the question of why Arabia was important to the British. The region provided a land route to India where the British ruled indirectly as we read in Ideologies of the Raj by Thomas R. Metcalf (3). Arabia also provided a place for heroic action which took the form of intelligence gathering. This beginning is important for our purposes because we can better understand why the British desired a presence in Arabia and how they overcame obstacles there. The British relied on intelligence agents for information from the interior of a land shrouded in mystique.
Due to a weakened military force in South Africa, the rise of German power and imperial ambition, and political rumblings inside the Ottoman Empire, it became evermore important for the British to improve intelligence gathering in the Middle East (15). The cultural world of British agents proved the most interesting for me to read. Satia argues that upper-class British citizens with an eye towards literary careers found in Arbia a place to exploit their dreams (61). The agents sought a respite from political changes happening in Britain.
In short, Arabia provided redemption from industrial, social, and political life in Edwardian Britain (72). Satia argues that British agents’ fascination with Arabia shaped information gathering. “Interest in Arabia flooded Edwardian society just as that society had begun to steep itself in metaphysical enquiry” (96). In general, the British considered Arabia as a land of myth, mystique, and wreathed in an atmosphere of unreality (91). No other region had a biblical past like Arabia and Satia surmises that that past added a sense of otherness and mystical aura (84).
Desert travel was travel back in time that required the agents to be hearty and not dependent on the trappings of everyday Edwardian society. Gertrude Bell believed that minimalism in the desert was ideal for spiritual and aesthetic redemption (92). Most agents argued for immersive travel through the Middle East to gather greater insight into the area. They were profoundly interested in the deepest secrets of creation while at the same time gathering information on politically- and militarily-useful information (97).
It is understandable that the romantic years of the war and post-war offered opportunities for intelligence gatherers to fulfill dreams of adventure and storybook ardor (80). Arabia was the natural choice for adventure-seeking intelligence agents. In laying the groundwork for a covert empire, Satia explains the challenges the British intelligence agents had as they attempted to “Orientalize” themselves while collecting information. Despite adopting styles, habits, and mannerisms of Arabian peoples, they experienced quite a bit of trouble in their endeavors.
British agents characterized the Arabian people as never telling the truth, estimating, or otherwise being coy. Natives were also known to mix fact with mysticism. For example, in a report submitted as intelligence by Mark Sykes, he relayed a story as told by a sheikh in response to an inquiry about agricultural activities in the area. The sheikh went on to tell a mythical story about two owls falling in love and the issues they encountered. Sykes submitted the story because it was generally believed by the agents that even the most outlandish recounting contained some truth or useful information (100).
This is just one example of many that Satia uses to clarify for readers the difficulty agents faced. They were left to their own devices to translate what they gathered into useful information. In addition, it is clear from Satia’s chapter on the cultural world of the agents that they used the intelligence gathered as an outlet to hone their literary skills. If the agents had trouble gathering information, Satia describes how perhaps the environment itself gave them more trouble.
The British agents had never before encountered a region as filled with mysticism and history as they did in Arabia. Arabia was a land wreathed in an atmosphere of unreality. Not only did the British have trouble surveying the area, for a time they thought it an impossibility. Agents described the land as infinite, immeasurable, interminable, and featureless. How could the British map a country that was constantly blown into a new form every day? The Royal Geographical Society admitted that Arabia was almost wholly without survey in any scientific sense (105).
I think Satia’s treatment of how the British reacted to the land of imprecise borders, mirage, and myth is her greatest gift to Britain’s history in Arabia. Satia expertly weaves together the difficulties experienced by the agents in gathering useful information and the trouble the agents experienced with the environment. The author makes it seem like air control was a foregone conclusion in the attempts of colonialism by the British in Arabia. Surveillance practices and methods of coercion became dependent on air control; this turned Arabia into an arm of the British empire but without outright British occupation.
Given the fact-finding issues with native Middle Easterners and the challenges of desert life and travel, I think Satia presents a convincing argument that the British were faced with more challenges in Arabia than either India, Africa, or China. T. E. Lawrence is credited with being the first to realize the need to aerial control over the region. Satia expertly sets up the need for aerial surveys. By utilizing aircraft, agents were able to extract truth from an essentially deceptive land (159). Air control allowed easier communication between tribes and agents.
The Royal Air Force was able to aerially patrol Arabia from a network of bases and coordinate information from agents on the ground in order to bombard subversive or corrupt villages and tribes (240). Air control meant control without occupation and a secret, covert empire. Agents on the ground in Iraq believed that country was specially suited to aerial surveillance. Given the nature of the environment in Iraq, there were many landing zones, little cover to insurgents, and the use of far-flung bases allowed the British to radiate power throughout the country.
The British justified air control by believing that air control was chivalric warfare (242). Overall what Satia is able to prove, is that although the British began with knowledge gathering in mind, their quest evolved into a struggle for power in Arabia. “The quest for knowledge became entangled with a quest for power” (137). To gather knowledge, the agents simply needed to immerse themselves in Middle Eastern culture and landscape (138). As the war ended and the use of air control increased, the quest for power manifest itself in the covert empire.
Air control was used because more overt colonial rule was a political impossibility (262). The only way the British could keep their hand in Middle East matters was the rule aerially, and thus, covertly. Satia ties this to today’s events in the Middle East where it’s more economically and politically acceptable to control from the air (think: the bombs recently dropped in Syria) than “boots on the ground. ” Overall I liked this thematically organized book. The initial reader impression may be a haphazard and overwhelming organization, but as one reads through the chapters Spies in Arabia becomes easier to comprehend.
This book is not for the common reader, nor someone with no prior knowledge of British Imperialism in the Middle East. Satia gives few hints on what an Edwardian character was, nor does she clarify the cultural or political differences between a consul, intelligence gatherer, or agent. I think there was one aspect missing from the work, and that is the tie between aerial control and wireless technology. One could not have been very useful to the British without the other. While Satia does write that ground agents did not become indispensible with the rise of air control, she never actually examines why.
Finally, the similarities between the problems encountered with mapping the area during the British colonial project in Arabia call to mind Google’s general problem in the same area. If you pull up Google StreetView, “Arabia” is a blank map, especially when compared to other parts of the world. Although the reasons why are different, even today the region still maintains an aura of mystery. Today’s society has the benefit of high-technology satellites, drones, GPS, and imagery mapping, but “Arabia” is still shrouded in mystery on one of the Internet’s greatest travel tools.