Stanford Scholar Explores Lessons From Britain's Past in the Middle East

Share Article

In her latest book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East, author and historian Priya Satia delves into an aspect of the British intelligence community which few have scrutinized before. Drawing on a wealth of archival sources, including recently declassified documents; Spies in Arabia tells the first detailed account of an unprecedented twentieth-century style of espionage and military control undertaken by British intelligence agents in the Middle East following WWI. This wholly new style of "covert empire" was reliant on an intensely brutal aerial surveillance regime designed to secure the region by preventing and controlling any subversive or insurgent activities.

In a manner reminiscent of T. E. Lawrence, it is a story of honor and redemption, and of degradation and damnation, in which chivalry and good intentions collapse into torture and mass murder.

    Unpacking the romantic fascination with "Arabia" as the land of espionage, Spies in Arabia presents a stark tale of poetic ambition, war, terror, and failed redemption - and the prehistory of our present discontents. Peter Sluglett, author of Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, notes that, "At a time when the public is presented almost daily with revelations about the ways in which the Bush administration deceived it both before and during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Satia convincingly places the origins of this kind of helplessness in the 1920s." Author and University of Texas at Austin Professor Wm. Roger Louis adds, "In a manner reminiscent of T. E. Lawrence, it is a story of honor and redemption, and of degradation and damnation, in which chivalry and good intentions collapse into torture and mass murder."

Spies in Arabia begins at the dawn of the twentieth century, when a steady stream of British intelligence agents began to venture to the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire, a region of crucial geopolitical importance spanning present-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. They were drawn by the objectives of maintaining land and air routes to India, preserving access to oil reserves and securing the region for economic development. The British were hopeful that their presence would be welcome by the Arabs, whom they freed from the Turks, but they soon discovered that preventing local rebellion would be an essential, and coercive component of their occupation. By exploring this history, Spies in Arabia offers the first cultural account of Britain's Middle Eastern empire and a new understanding of the legacies of World War I.

The historical lessons to be gleaned from Britain's mistakes and successes are so relevant to the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, that the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence asked Prof. Satia to present her findings to U.S. intelligence agency representatives. In the spring of 2007, officials from more than a dozen intelligence agencies and policy-making units attended her talk on the historical parallels between British Iraq in the 1920s and today. Satia explained how a kind of institutional "group think" romanticizing Iraq's topography and people led the British to invent a brutal aerial surveillance regime in Iraq. This scheme was ultimately ineffectual, but it nevertheless produced enormously influential myths of British expertise in counter-insurgency and an enduring legacy of Iraqi suspicion of Western intentions. Stressing the importance of intelligence cultures in shaping policy and operations, she also showed how British "group think" about the Middle East has crucially shaped American intelligence in the region.

This groundbreaking book offers an original interpretation of the British Empire in the twentieth century. "The road to British imperial failure in the Middle East was paved with romantic illusions," comments Joel Beinin, author of Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East. "This tale offers an indispensable lesson for the American adventure in the Middle East to those who are prepared to learn it."

Spies in Arabia explores an array of historical topics, which provide unique insights into a number of contemporary issues, including:

-- The post-9/11 conversation about intelligence difficulties and failures in the Middle East

-- The current Iraq war and questions about military and counterinsurgency tactics, the use of airpower, security, and sovereignty

-- The portrayal of Arabs and the Middle East in the media and the government

-- The emergence of a particular regime of "expertise" on the Middle East

-- State secrecy and the exercise of democracy

-- Descriptions of Middle Eastern paranoia about Western intervention

-- Global Islamic conspiracy

-- The fine line between humanitarian intervention and imperialism


To schedule an author interview or to obtain more information, contact Corrie Goldman: or (650) 724-8156.

High-resolution images of the book cover art and copies of the book are available upon request. The book is available for pre-order on or through Oxford University Press. Copies will be released for shipment on April 2, 2008.


Spies in Arabia available through Oxford University Press: /19001945/?view=usa&ci=9780195331417 (Due to its length, this URL may need to be copied/pasted into your Internet browser's address field. Remove the extra space if one exists.)

Priya Satia's Stanford History Department profile:

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Corrie Goldman
Visit website