By Courtney Trenwith
The author of the recently released book on how the famed British soldier influenced the making of the modern Middle East says T.E. Lawrence foresaw today’s ‘disaster’
If Thomas Edward Lawrence were alive today, witnessing the destruction of several Middle Eastern countries, he would say: “I told you so”.
That is according to Scott Anderson, who recently published Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. The 575-page book is a unique perspective on the famed British soldier who became known as Lawrence of Arabia for his central involvement in the complex actions during World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which led to today’s version of the Middle East.
The weighty book has been highly acclaimed as a thorough and insightful analysis of not only T. E. Lawrence’s role in the making of the modern Middle East but that of the European powers.
“He foresaw the disaster that was created by the European imperial designs on the region, in particular this carving up of the region, not so much here [the GCC], but of Syria, Iraq, Palestine and of Lebanon,” Anderson told Arabian Business on the sidelines of the Emirates Airline International Literature Festival.
“He really understood, in a way that few Westerners did at the time, how Arab society worked and the importance of clan and tribe. This was stuff that Europeans were not thinking about at all, and they’re still not thinking about.”
The West cared more about the future of Belgium, a country with relatively little international significance these days, than it did about the break-up of the Middle East 100 years ago, Anderson said.
“Unfortunately, with the way the boundaries were drawn, [they] both split cohesive tribes and clans apart… and put people together who traditionally hadn’t been together and really had no interest in being together.”
The end result, albeit a century later, was to see those artificially created nations fall apart.
The unravelling began in 2001 with former US president George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Anderson said Bush’s administration went into the Arab country without first thinking about how they would resolve the problem, particularly the division between Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
“The Americans came in and completely scrambled an existing system, as repressive as it was, [and] they had no idea what they were going to introduce to replace it, and so things fell first along sectarian and then tribal lines,” he explained.
“So I think what you’re now seeing is the final dissolution of those artificial borders that were imposed almost 100 years ago. I don’t think Iraq is ever really going to be put back together again, I don’t think Syria will be and I don’t think Libya will be.
“Egypt could go through, and it will, a lot of ferment in the next few years but Egypt has a national consciousness going back 3000 years – you’re not going to see disintegration of the Egyptian nation.”
Anderson is an American scholar and journalist and has reported from numerous war zones, including in the Middle East.
“One thing that struck me about this part of the world, having covered war all around the world, is I think there is a very deep seeded culture of grievance in this part of the world, especially in relation to the West,” he said.
“If I talk to rebels or guerrilla fighters almost anywhere else in the world and I ask them what they’re fighting for, it can be an absolutely inane answer, and it usually is, but they can articulate what they’re fighting for. In this region, it tends to be always what they’re fighting against.
“It might seem almost a semantic difference but I actually think it’s huge and very much informed by this idea that they have been maligned and taken advantage of by the West for a century. So what you see in a variety of forms, all the way from the Baathists to the Nazarites, is anti-West, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionist, anti-West in a variety of forms, cultural and political. So it’s always articulated in what they’re fighting against.
“I was very struck by that in Tharir Square in Cairo – everybody was unified against Mubarak. [But] there was absolutely no unity of what was going to replace Mubarak and very little thought given to it.”
Despite decades of keen interest, the West has been particularly reluctant to become involved in present Arab conflicts. Anderson said that was because they now had such little sway in Middle Eastern affairs.
“The West in general, the US in particular, is seen with such distrust, and earned distrust, throughout this part of the world that there is very little they can do,” he said.
“The problem is that the American coin is so de-valued and so scorned now, the instant [they] come out in support of a group, [the group] is seen with suspicion by everyone else, [its] kind of seen as an American lackey.
“I think the Obama administration understands it has a very limited role it can play in this region now and there’s going to have to be regional solutions to the problems here; you’re not going to see American troops come in on the ground again … [unless there are] unforeseen events 15 years down the road and Americans forget again. So I think it’s going to have to be much more soft power and working through regional allies.”
If T. E. Lawrence were to come back today, Anderson said he would still advocate paying attention to the Arab practice of “governing by consensus” built along the clan and tribal lines and not enforcing state boundaries that suit outsiders.
But, he said, global politics today meant the idea of one man having a similar influence on history as the 20-something-year-old architect did, was no longer possible.
"The unravelling began in 2001 with former US president George Bushâ€™s invasion of Iraq. Anderson said Bushâ€™s administration went into the Arab country without first thinking about how they would resolve the problem, particularly the division between Shia, Sunni and Kurds."
The unravelling of the Middle East can be traced back a lot further than this; British colonialism in the region and the establishment of the Israeli state to name a couple of key points in history.