Dr James Renton, Edge Hill University


The Ottoman Empire governed the Middle East for four centuries. Following the defeat of the Ottomans by the Allies during the First World War, that political system was swept away. In its place came a system of new states in Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia; a raft of violent ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts; and the establishment of autocratic elites and Zionist colonialists propped up by Western empires and the international community. This research project is the first study of the ideas that shaped the West’s attempt to replace the Ottoman Empire, their origins, evolution and effects.

This research focuses on the actions of the British Empire, which occupied the former lands of the Ottoman Empire during the war and was the prime mover in developing a new vision for the region. During the war, British Western Asia specialists developed the concept of the ‘Middle East’- a region based upon the principle of nationality under the tutelage of the West, particularly the British themselves. Western Asia was viewed by these policy-makers as a developing region, between East and West, the historical basis of which were the ancient nations of the Arabs, Jews and Armenians that had been oppressed by the despotic Ottoman Turks. The project begins by exploring the origins of this view of the region, and places it within the wider context of an intellectual world shaped by racial, nationalist and Orientalist assumptions.

This concept of a nation-based ‘Middle East’ was championed by senior British policy-makers as they believed it would mobilise support for the war among the peoples of the region and their diasporas, and coincided with the commitment to national self-determination made by the powerful United States and others in the international community. As protectors of the oppressed nations of the Middle East, the British hoped to secure post-war control of strategically important areas in the region. Imperialism was thus to be re-invented for the age of nationality. The second part of the research project explores the global propaganda campaign that was undertaken by the British Empire to advertise its commitment to a new era of nationality and freedom in a post-Ottoman ‘Middle East’. Looking at press, film, posters, pamphlets, and books, the research examines how the British Empire spread the idea of a new age of nationality around the world. It shows how this propaganda machine increased the influence of nationalism among Arabs, Jews and Armenians on a massive scale.

The final part of the project analyses the impact and consequences of the idea of a nation-based Middle East among the societies of the region and their diasporas. It shows how the British promotion of national self-determination had the unforeseen effect of mobilising widespread calls for immediate independence, without Western tutelage. When this independence was not forthcoming after the war, as the British and French Empires staked out their claims in the region, there was widespread protest and violence. This popular anti-colonial nationalism combined with a resurgent Turkey and lack of resources in Britain to result in a political system that was a far cry from the wartime slogans of freedom. Instead, the British and French Empires, with the approval of the international community in the new League of Nations, imposed a system that featured autocratic elites, quasi-colonies, and backing for Zionism. This system, in broad terms, remained in place until the beginning of the 21st century, and its remains to be seen how much of this system will survive the after effects of the Arab Spring of 2011.


Edge Hill University Interview on the Project

RCUK Gateway to Research

Featured in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches


Publications and Outputs:


‘The West’s War Against Palestinian ‘Extremism’ is Doomed to Fail‘, The Conversation, 3 August 2014.

‘The Age of Nationality and the Origins of the Zionist-Palestinian Conflict’, The International History Review, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2013), pp. 576-599.

Britain in Palestine: Time to Apologise?‘, opinion piece, History & Policy Network, June 2013.

‘Should Britain Apologize for the Balfour Declaration?‘, Ha’aretz, 29 April 2013. Hebrew edition, 19 May 2013: שבריטניה תתנצל



‘World War I through Arab Eyes: The New Middle East’, Al Jazeera English, 2 December 2014.

Al-Nakba: The Debate‘, Al-Jazeera English, June 2013.


Public Talks

‘An Afternoon Meeting in the Jaffa Reading Room; or, the Entente and the Nationalist Politics of Palestine,’ The First World War: Perspectives from the Home Front, Royal United Services Institute, 5 November 2014.

‘The Balfour Declaration and its Importance in Contemporary History’, Manchester Metropolitan University, History Evening Lectures, 23 October 2014.

‘The Balfour Declaration and the Present Situation’, The Birmingham Association of Jewish Graduates, 28 September 2014.

Should the British Government Apologise for British Rule in Palestine?‘, in conversation with Nasim Ahmed, Palestinian Return Centre, ‘Ethnicity, Race, and Racism Seminar’, Edge Hill University, 1 May 2014.

‘Should Britain Apologize for the Balfour Declaration?’, hosted by Jews for Justice for Palestinians, 25 June 2013.

‘Why did the Israel-Palestine Conflict Begin?’, Jewish Historical Society, Leeds branch, 20 May 2013

‘Why did the Israel-Palestine Conflict Begin?’, Jewish Historical Society, Liverpool branch, 28 October 2012.

‘Democracy Promotion and the Arab Spring’, Round Table, Obama’s Foreign Policy in a Transforming Middle East, AHRC Network on the Presidency of Barack Obama, University of Warwick, 10 May 2012.