The Sykes-Picot agreement and lines in the sand

Historian article

By Paula Kitching, published 15th December 2015

Paula Kitching reveals how a secret diplomatic negotiation 100 years ago provides an insight into the political complexities of the modern-day Middle East.

The Middle East is an area frequently in the news. Over the last ten years the national and religious tensions appear to have exploded with whole regions at war or close to it. The news is so constant that, for many, understanding the events there seems impossible. In the last 12 months events have spilled out of the region and have meant that for much of Europe the Middle East has arrived at our own borders. Having a grasp of at least some of the history now seems essential, not simply interesting.

To write about the Middle East is to set one up for all kinds of headaches. If you do not hail from that area it is hard to avoid the accusations of bias; if you do hail from that area it is certainly impossible to avoid the accusations of bias. The big problem is falling into sweeping generalisations when talking about a diverse and complex region with a developed history that reaches far back over millennia. It is a region that holds the roots of three of the world’s most important religions and while the area’s significance has been downplayed by Europeans at various times, events there have never been completely ignored. One term in particular that is used to describe some of the regional events and actions in the Middle East is to describe them as tribal, with ‘tribe’ being used in the derogatory sense. It is important for us to understand that tribal in the Middle East does not mean a small group of people; a tribe there is a familial, ethnic alliance that can and does include anything from several hundred to thousands of people. A tribal affiliation can be through family, but also regional as the family associations become increasingly distant. The term may be used by some in the same way that in the west we would call upon a regional alliance...

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