Who Controlled the Middle East Before World War One?

Laura Mackenzie

2 mins

19 Jun 2018

The Middle East was largely controlled by the Ottoman Empire before World War One — a dominance that had prevailed for half a millennium.

But although the Ottomans still ruled over what is now Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and parts of Saudi Arabia in 1914, the empire was in decline and had been for decades.

Amid this decline, other imperial powers were moving into the region.

Rival players

In this fascinating discussion with Dan Snow, Cambridge University’s Dr Kate Fleet takes us on a tour of the hugely successful and long lasting empire, and questions how we should view its legacy in the modern era.Watch Now

France had been making headway in the Middle East long before World War One, first annexing Algeria from the Ottomans in 1830 and then Tunisia in 1878. It had also been extending its influence in Lebanon and Syria. Closer to the war, Italy also made gains, seizing Libya in 1912.

But there was another European power that had been establishing a far greater foothold in the region — Britain.

The Middle East was important to Britain because of its geographical location. With India seen as the second pillar of the British Empire, Britain needed to ensure access to the Suez Canal in order that the Indian army could be easily moved around.

Britain’s foothold

British areas of control in the Middle East at the start of World War One. From the documentary Promises and Betrayals: Britain and the Struggle for the Holy Land.Watch Now

To this aim, Britain had established a significant presence in the Middle East, gaining control of Arab territories around the Persian Gulf as well as parts of modern-day Yemen and Egypt, which it annexed from the Ottomans in 1882. By the time Egypt was made a British protectorate in 1914, Cairo had become the centre of British power in the Middle East.

World War One would finally sound the death knell for the Ottoman Empire, changing the map of the Middle East forever.

Even during the war, Britain and France were positioning themselves to pick up the Ottomans’ spoils in the region and afterwards the two countries were given mandates to administer the Levant; the areas of modern-day Lebanon and Syria went to France, while Palestine, Iraq and Jordan went to Britain.