James Barr is a British historian, living in London. He read modern history at Oxford and has travelled widely in the Middle East. He has worked for the Daily Telegraph, in politics, and in the British Embassy in Paris. Alongside that, he has written two critically acclaimed histories of the Middle East in the twentieth century, “A Line In The Sand” (about the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and its consequences) and “Lords Of The Desert”, which describes the constant tensions in the relationship between the rising United States and declining Britain in the post-war Middle East. His book Lords of the Desert has been described as “brilliant, detached and eye-opening” by The Times and “like a page-turning spy thriller” by the Wall Street Journal.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his latest book, the research that it entailed, and the reason for the Anglo-American conflict in the post-World War II Middle East.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a British historian. I studied modern history at Oxford and, in the past 25 years, have worked in politics, finance, and journalism, and spent an interesting year-and-a-bit as a political officer working in the British embassy in Paris. Today I live in London and I am working on my next book. My wife is a doctor and we have two young children.
The United States and Britain have mostly been seen as partners, not rivals, in their geopolitical approach to the Middle East. But in this book, you bring out the competition between Britain and the US for hegemony in the Middle East for 25 years, from the battle of El Alamein in 1942 to Britain’s abandonment of Aden in 1967. What made you think along these lines at the start and drew you to writing this book?
A lot of people assume that the United States and Britainare the closest of allies – the Great Satan and the Little Satan, to quote the late Ayatollah Khomeini. But when I was working on an earlier book I found files in the British national archives which suggested that the British were spying on American politicians visiting Palestine in the late 1940s. These piqued my interest and inspired my latest book.
How did you go about researching this book? When you first began with this project, did you have a plan or outline of where you’ll look for information?
My original plan was to rely on the official archives for material. This had worked well for my previous books – if you dig deeply enough, you always find interesting new stuff. I also used the UK’s freedom of information law to oblige the government to declassify files which are no longer sensitive. That had also previously worked well. But this approach did not work anything like as well this time around, because I was writing about more recent history. Many files remain secret, and most of my requests to open them were rejected because the government deems their contents to be too sensitive. And that left me with a serious problem.
Did you ever worry you might not find enough material?
Yes! When I realised the official archives were not going to provide me what I needed, I realised I would have to look elsewhere. I struck gold in Oxford. The Middle East Centre there holds the diary of a man called John Slade-Baker, who was ostensibly a Sunday Times Middle East correspondent but was actually also an agent for Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6. The references in the diary are subtle, and which no one had previously noticed.
This makes the diaries an extraordinary historical document. MI6’s archives remain secret and are unlikely ever to be opened. From the diaries we are able to understand a lot about secret British operations in the Middle East, and what the British government did and didn’t know. Slade-Baker had a good eye for detail as well.
Can you share a little bit about your writing process for “Lords of the Desert”?
I started working on the book in 2013, and it was published in August 2018. Between the start of 2013 and late 2016, I spent a lot of time in the archives, feeding everything significant into a timeline that enables me to build the story and to make connections I would never otherwise have seen. I wrote the book in about 15 months, finishing it very early in 2018. I have a study at home, where I am surrounded by books, a big computer screen enabling me to look at more than one document at a time – I now tend to photograph the documents I find in the archives and read them carefully at home later on.
What challenges did you face while writing this book?
The big personal challenge was a growing family. My previous book was published just before our son was born, and our daughter joined us in the early stages of my research. I was sleep-deprived and not half as organised as before.
Were there any startling facts or surprises that you came across during this book’s research? Can you share about a few of them with our readers?
The reason for the Anglo-American conflict is very interesting. It was India – then of course part of the British Empire – that brought the British to the Middle East in the first place, at the end of the eighteenth century. They reckoned that control of the region was key to “imperial security” – by which they meant their control of the sub-continent. And yet, after India finally gained her independence in 1947, the British were determined to cling on in the Middle East. Control of the region became an end in itself, vital for Britain’s increasingly implausible claim to be a great power. And that was what brought Britain into conflict with America.
Two discoveries I made illustrate what then happened. I found out that the CIA agent Kim Roosevelt (later famous for his involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh) in 1947 sabotaged an attempt by the British to claw back influence by encouraging the unification of Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
I also reveal how the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, well known for his travels in the desert of southern Arabia in the late 1940s, was involved in rivalry between rival British and American oil companies exploring for oil in southeast Arabia in the late 1940s. Thesiger was approached by both to work for them, and ended up working for the British company. He never admitted where the funding for his travels came from. But he did – hypocritically – say that he thought oil had ruined the character of the people of the region.
What overriding message would you like the reader to take from this book?
That the “special relationship” between the US and the UK is nothing like as good or as close as it may appear from the outside.
Which books, both in fiction and non-fiction, have you read recently and would like to recommend to our readers?
Kim Ghattas’s Black Wave – the story of how Saudi-Iranian rivalry has shaped the history of the Middle East since the late 1970s – is great. I am currently enjoying Hannah Lucinda Smith’s Erdogan Rising, on the phenomenon that is Recep Tayyib Erdogan.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
A big history of why people fight over the Middle East.
‘Lords Of The Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East’ by James Barr has been published by Simon & Schuster. Read more about the book here and buy it here.
Also Read: An excerpt from the book “Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East”.