Iraq Oil and British Foreign Policy after World War I


By G. H. Bennett

The following text is an excerpt from British Foreign Policy During the Curzon Period, 1919-1924 (London: Macmillan, 1995).

(p. 98)

Beyond Britain's strategic interests in Iraq lay the influence of oil. It had been Britain's need to protect the Persian oilfields that had led to the occupation of Basra in 1914. Though Iraqi oil was a matter for speculation, rather than serious exploitation, the Turkish Petroleum Company, in which British capital predominated, had established a firm foothold in Iraq in the prewar period. Possession of Iraq would further the interests of this potentially important British commercial undertaking. Moreover, as the petroleum department of the Foreign Office explained in a memorandum of December, 1918: "The vital necessity of an unlimited supply of oil for naval, military and aviation requirements has been abundantly, even menacingly, demonstrated during the war." Though the range of military and industrial uses for oil was only just becoming evident, rising demand leading to rapid diminution of existing reserves was forecast. Already, Britain's reliance on foreign oil supplies gave cause for concern. With the security of the British Empire dependent upon a navy which was in the process of transformation from a coal-fired into an oil-fired fleet, the importance of oil could not be ignored.

(p. 102)

Anglo-French oil relations became the one area in which progress had been made by June 1919. In April, Walter Long, minister in charge of petroleum affairs, had signed an agreement with a French representative establishing "co-operation and reciprocity in all those countries where the oil interests of the two nations" could be united. In short the agreement laid the basis for an Anglo-French partnership in the development of the oil business in the British and French Empires and in Roumania. The Admiralty, in particular, hoped that Anglo-French solidarity on oil questions would serve as a check to aggressive state-encouraged American oil interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. Yet in June, when [UK Prime Minister David] Lloyd George learned of the terms of the agreement, he immediately wrote to [French Prime Minister Georges] Clemenceau canceling it. This was an ill-considered act. Lloyd George had undone an agreement which was substantially in Britain's interests. Indeed the Anglo-French oil agreement signed at the San Remo Conference in April 1920 was strikingly similar to that which Lloyd George had rejected in June 1919. His action was high-handed and could not have been better calculated to produce greater French irritation.

(p. 106)

The discussion of long-term British policy in the Middle East was changed beyond recognition by the outbreak of an Arab revolt near Mosul on 26 May 1920. The violence was not widespread but it did constitute a serious challenge to British rule in Iraq. British forces were reinforced over the summer as the seriousness of the situation became ever more apparent. By the end of 1920 the danger of a major British military reverse had subsided, although it was not until early 1921 that the violence finally abated.

During the revolt press opinion moved sharply against government policy. In July 1920 the liberal Manchester Guardian urged that Britain should place the responsibility for the Iraq mandate on the League. The Times added its criticism, asking in an editorial on 7 August: "What is the total number of casualties our forces have suffered in Mosopotamia during the single month of July, in our efforts to "emancipate" the Arabs, to fulfill our mandate, and to make smooth the way for the seekers after oil."

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