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The British Mandate of Iraq: Part II

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

mosul.jpgBy Joe Spring

For Part I click here.

II. Iraq and the World Market
The Industrial Revolution, which had already taken the western world by storm, slowly began to find its goods and ideologies taking plant all over the world which included the Ottoman Empire and its soon to be transformed backwater Wilayets. New innovations, technologies and ideas such as the steam ship, telegraph, the establishment of state schools, the development of the free press, the significance of private property and most importantly for the region, the building of the Suez Canal all provided capitalism an open gate to the remote Wilayets. Not only were goods able to travel freely up and down the Tigris and Euphrates but ideas, particularly surrounding the tenets of Capitalism were diffused into the region’s psyche. Just as well, pressure from the Ottoman Empire with their Tanzimat reforms (specifically the abolition of higher tariffs on non-Muslims) of the mid-nineteenth century allowed for increased foreign activities within the region. Thus, the emergence of capitalism within the Wilayets produced a vast social and economic change from which the people of the region would never fully recover.
The introduction of Iraq into the world market in accordance with British Imperial economic interests primed Iraq for the eventual British occupation and subsequent British control. Even before the outbreak of war in 1914, an Iraqi member of the Ottoman Parliament noticed that wherever one looked in Basra:

A thousand different things connected with England will immediately strike your attention and you will feel how deep the claws of English influence have sunk into our country’s flesh. The very hammals-street porters- adapt to their own dialect the naval and other technical terms which have been Arabicized from the English and decline and conjugate them.[1]

In fact, Batatu outlines that by 1919 “out of the total of sixteen million Turkish pounds, at which Iraq’s imports stood, ten million or almost two-thirds came from England”[2] thus showing the massive role which British imports played in the region’s economy. The people of the region already began to feel the strain as Britain realized that the possibilities for exploitation within the region were endless. The region and its people had simply become “mere cogs on the rim of England’s imperial economic wheel” [3] from which it would not be able to disattach itself for decades to come.
With the introduction of foreign (chiefly British) goods into the region’s market, traditional economic and social traditions began to break down completely at a rapid pace leaving a region which was wide open to influence. The introduction of foreign goods decimated the old crafts of the Wilayets as the British began to supply their goods to the Iraqi people rendering their traditional goods obsolete. The inhabitants’ traditional skills and products were being replaced by mass-produced textiles produced by machines in Britain. Out of this change emerged a new social structure which relied heavily upon property, ownership of the means of production, and class. The British Imperial Market relied heavily on large-scale industry and thus sought Iraq both as a market for goods and a provider of resources for the production of goods. The appearance of a heavily capitalist based market within the towns pressed tribesmen towards the cities resulting in a movement from the traditional subsistence based economy. Thus, the emergence of a landlord class where property and not allegiances was dominant emerged furthering the split between already divided tribesmen and setting the scene for a new urban way of life. Consequently, a much more acquiescent populace was created with which the soon to arrive British would quickly use to their advantage.
Socially fractured by the new world market the region of Iraq was now deficient of a deep tribal allegiance or traditional urban social structure. Opportunistic individuals, specifically tribal sheikhs and merchants, had become primed for capitalism and monopolies and thus were much more susceptible to foreign influence. Just as well, the people who depended on them were left vulnerable without figureheads who had once formed the bedrocks of their community to lead them. As a consequence, the British entered a land which was vulnerable and ready for manipulation, eventually looking upon the most heavily divided and affected group, the region’s tribesmen, to serve as the vanguard that would soon turn their aspirations within the region into reality.
Although many of the aspects associated with the introduction of a capitalist market to the region were extremely negative and detrimental to the region’s population, there were some positive aspects which grew out of it, namely nationalism and the subsequent belief in Pan-Arabism. With exposure to the capitalist economic system and the accompanying ideologies loosely associated with it (specifically the idea of nationalism) Arabs began to see that they had their own unique identity which might warrant an Arab nation. Cemented by the actions of the Turks who sought to Ottomanize the region’s population with their Tanzimat reforms, the inhabitants countered with an inner movement of their own realizing that although they weren’t Ottomans, the reality of a national identity was possible.
That belief was in the creation of an Arab state which would be formed based on a connection via shared religion and regional convenience had begun to emerge. As ethnic, tribal and religious loyalties continued to erode in the face of the new world market, a new glimmer of hope shone through into the new dark and terrifying world which was to become Iraq. The people of the region began to attend organized schools, read more Arab books and newspapers as well as take interest in their culture and history as the emergence of Pan-Arab clubs and societies began to take occur. In fact there is evidence that “Iraqi nationalists met in Cairo with the Ottoman Decentralization Party”[4] thus showing a drive for not just anti-Ottoman but national sentiments as well. As well, Iraqi officers within the Ottoman Empire drew on regional bonds to create Al Ahd (the Covenant) membership in which “spread rapidly in Baghdad and in Mosul, growing to 4,000 by the outbreak of World War I”[5] showing the growing nationalism based on regional affiliation. The Ottomanization of the region had made an impression upon the populace as they began to draw parallels based on religion, speech and common plight with even their most distant of neighbors.
The idea of Pan-Arabism both excited and alarmed the British who were soon to become the leading authorities in the region. On one hand it gave them (the British) a precedent by which they could establish a state which they could control from behind the scenes. In fact, fueled by the support of Western interlopers, the inhabitants of the city of Basra, a main trading center for the British and one of the busiest points of contact between Iraqis and Westerners, had soon become a hotbed for Iraqi nationalists who were now seeking self-rule. On the other hand, Iraqi nationalism represented something very dangerous and authentic as a realized Iraqi identity would most likely not include a desire for British intervention. The rising wave of Arab nationalism within the region coupled with the breakdown of traditional ties via world market integration seemed to be bringing the region closer and closer to some semblance of a national identity. However, soon this dream would cast the region into a proverbial nightmare as the state of Iraq was established under the full control and manipulation of what was to be known as the British Mandate.


1. Batatu, 243.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Metz, 29.

5. Ibid, 31.

Image From:
King’s College London


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