Collection Spotlight: In the Name of Oil: Anglo-American Relations in the Middle East, 1950-1958

By William Gerhardt | Intern, - Middle East Institute (MEI) - Washington DC | Mar 20, 2015

 Ivan L. G. Pearson’s In the Name of Oil: Anglo-American Relations in the Middle East, 1950-1958 provides a comprehensive analysis of the extent to which British interests in the Middle East influenced or were furthered by the United States between 1950 and 1958. Although traditionally it is thought that the 1956 Suez Crisis marked the end of British prominence in the region, the monograph discusses how more recent research indicates that Britain continued to have the capacity to influence affairs in the Middle East—but vicariously through the United States. By utilizing original sources such as documents from the U.S. Department of State, the CIA, and the United Kingdom’s Public Head of Office, Pearson posits that the United States was acting in both self interest and in the interests of Britain while operating in the Middle East during this period.

Pearson outlines two schools of thought in regard to power dynamics in the Middle East during the Cold War: the traditionalist view and the regionalist view. The traditionalist view argues that local powers had virtually no authority in the Middle East; as such, they barely had control over their destinies and they had no diplomatic influence over the “great powers” such as the United States and the USSR. In contrast, the regionalist view argues that local powers had a great amount of leverage over the great powers.

Pearson points out that only the United States and the USSR are defined as great powers within the two frameworks, and postulates that Britain should not be excluded from the category of great powers on the basis that it attained power and influence in the Middle East through non-coercively prompting U.S. foreign policy to make decisions in its best interests.

Pearson presents key ways in which he believes the British were able to influence or benefit from U.S. policy in order to protect their interests in the region:

  • Britain persuading the United States that there was a connection between Communism and Arab nationalism, and the U.S. attempt to contain the perceived Communist threat almost entirely on its own;
  • Britain’s exploitation of U.S. bureaucracy to advance its own policy objectives, such as during the Buraimi Oil Dispute between Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the United States;
  • The United States safeguarding British economic interests during events like the Iranian Oil Crisis;
  • Britain and the United States pursuing the same policy objectives in order to influence Arab economies to benefit the British and U.S. economies.

Whether it was inspiring U.S. policymakers to develop a CIA plot to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddeq or strongly advising the United States to intervene in Jordan against Arab nationalist sentiment, based on the evidence that Pearson presents, it can be seen that while Britain’s physical presence may have ended after the Suez Crisis, its influence still remained.

For Scholars

Pearson’s book is a resource for any scholar attempting to interpret the role that Britain played in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis. Given that the United States did not make decisions solely based on Britain’s opinion, some of his arguments for how easily Britain influenced U.S. foreign policy may be slightly exaggerated. However, Pearson notes throughout the book that the United States was also acting in its own interest while simultaneously protecting Britain’s interests. As a whole, Pearson’s work establishes a clear and persuasive argument that British influence in the Middle East was carried out vicariously through U.S. foreign policy.

Primary Research Applications

  • British foreign policy in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis
  • U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis
  • The Buraimi Oasis Dispute
  • The Iranian Oil Crisis
  • Arab nationalism in Jordan during the 1950s

Further Reading

 “Unseating Mosaddeq: The Configuration and Role of Domestic Forces,” by Azimi Fakhreddin, in Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcom Byrne, eds., 2004.

Suez: Britain’s End of Empire in the Middle East, by Keith Kyle, 2003.

The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case, 1953-1960, by Bonnie F. Saunders, 1996.

“Britain and the Jordan Crisis of 1958,” by Lawrence Tal, Middle Eastern Studies 31, 1, 1995.

The Making of British Foreign Policy, by David Vital, 1968.