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Britain in Basra: Past Experiences and Current Challenges

By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)
11 July 2006


[Paper presented to the Global Gulf conference, University of Exeter, 4–6 July 2006 and originally titled “Melting Pot of the Gulf? Cosmopolitanism and Its Limits in the Experience of Basra’s British Community, 1890–1940”; published here with some additional reflections on multi-culturalism in contemporary Basra and the current British role in the city.]

Between 1914 and 1932, the city of Basra experienced a period of political upheaval on a scale not seen for many centuries. After four hundred years of Ottoman rule, the question of Basra’s status in the greater regional and international order abruptly came on the agenda when the city fell to British forces in late 1914. A few years later, the leading economic elites of Basra launched a project to establish the city and its immediate hinterland as a separate mercantile and cosmopolitan republic, with a privileged position within the British Empire. Proponents of the scheme stressed how Basra’s trade and its international atmosphere justified a special status separate from the upriver areas. The port city, they claimed, differed markedly from Iraq because of its long-established mercantile character, and therefore had political priorities of its own. For much of the 1920s, plans for a separate Basra remained alive. Not until the late 1920s did Iraqi nationalism prevail – after a masterful propaganda and nation-building effort by young elites who were poorer but more adept at politics than the autonomy-minded landed merchants of Basra.(1)

     This paper considers the role of the British community in Basra in relation to this “separatist movement” (as it was known at the time) – followed by some reflections on current British policy towards a contemporary regionalist movement in Basra with certain parallels to the secessionist bid of the mandate period. In the 1920s, official British policy, as directed by the high officials based in Baghdad, soon responded with emphatic rejection of any notions of Basra autonomy. Less clear-cut, however, were the attitudes of the British who lived and worked in Basra. In 1925, a British writer based in Basra wrote about the southern “Cinderella city” and listed many of the grievances of the Basra notables who favoured separation – including the poor performance of the central government in areas such as health and communications.(2) As late as 1927, similar charges about Baghdad’s neglect were reiterated by other members of the British community.(3) And British intellectuals were to some extent involved in projects that came to focus on the distinctiveness of Basra and its environs: British archaeologists pioneered the exploration of a Sumerian pre-modern culture in the vicinity of Basra, and in 1932 a British-born author published a romantic tale set in the Sumerian city of Ur, to the north-west of Basra.(4) Clearly there existed a certain potential for potent combination of autochthonous ambitions of self-rule and British commercial and intellectual circles. In other parts of the British Empire, like Penang, such syntheses would later materialise with far greater force, as a real challenge against London by British expatriates who favoured localist visions over grand imperial schemes.(5) And there were certainly economic arguments that could favour British capitalist support for a small-scale entity: the would-be Basra separatist regime had been framed in a free-trade spirit, and, with its pronounced pro-British attitude, could have offered a more predictable business climate than turbulent Baghdad.

Romanticising about Basra? Ashar in the imagination of British amateur painter T.F. Brook shortly after the First World War


In the event, though, the British contribution to the local autonomist enterprise imploded – as indeed did the separatist project itself. By the time Iraq became formally independent in 1932, local members of the British community were advocating the establishment of a club for European expatriates only, to replace what had a few years earlier been described as “the only cosmopolitan club in the land of the two rivers” – the Nadi al-Fayha, where Basrawis and British had joined in a celebration of local patriotism.(6) In 1926, around 75 British inhabitants of Basra and 40 locals had come together for a joint excursion to the Sumerian excavation site at Ur; when a similar trip was arranged in 1932, the party counted only 15 British participants and no Basrawis at all.(7) And instead of contributing actively to the promotion of a cosmopolitan culture through education, British expatriates in Basra remained passive, leaving it to a Christian missionary from the Reformed Church of America to take the lead in educational work.(8) All this seemed a complete contrast to Alexandria in Egypt, where British-born members of the local urban elite were instrumental in creating Victoria College – an anti-sectarian, cosmopolitan institution which thrived despite initial scepticism from official British circles (London was concerned about the unshackled autonomy of an urban society where unpredictable Egyptians, Greeks and Italians formed vital components of the local coalition).(9) Alexandrian cosmopolitanism has been characterised as a situation where “although each group ultimately had its own national loyalty, this was often less important than the common cultural existence that they shared”;(10) Basra, by contrast, failed to achieve a comparable level of integration under a banner of local patriotism.

     The main question in this paper is why the British community in Basra never became a vanguard for the local separatist movement. The explanation offered refers mainly to structures in demography, urban geography and business patterns, but also includes reflections on the negative impact of intellectual currents among British expatriates at the time – currents that favoured racial rather than civic definitions of political communities, and were of no help to a project that sought to transcend ethnic and communal divisions.


The demography of the British community in Basra

The British presence in Basra in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was never huge; for long periods it was minuscule.

     To speak of a British “community” in Basra before the 1880s would be an overstatement. For most of the time, the British presence consisted merely of a few men in the service of the Lynch Company, which pioneered steamship traffic on the Tigris and produced many of Britain’s Basra consuls in this period.(11) Deceased sailors accounted for the vast majority of those interned in Basra’s small British cemetery.(12) Indeed the size of Basra itself in the middle of the nineteenth century was unimpressive: flooding disasters, cholera and plague had reduced it to a position where its population by some accounts was less than 5,000. But regeneration came, thanks not least to a decline in epidemics and natural disasters, coupled with the growth in trade brought about by increased steamship traffic in the 1880s and the 1890s. Population figures began to climb again, and some steamship passengers decided to settle for longer stays. By 1895, the British consul could report a “Protestant community” of some 27 souls – most of them engaged in the shipping business.(13)

     Despite explosive economic growth, though, the small British colony was to remain at a relatively modest level for the subsequent two decades. In 1901, there were 37 British subjects resident in Basra;(14) by 1911, the figure had risen to 51, almost all of whom were males.(15) Additionally, Britain’s dominant position in steamship traffic meant that, for most of the year, there would be one or two steamers in the port, with a crew of some 20 to 30 each. However, these figures dwarfed in comparison with the general demographic growth of Basra in the period, which transformed it from a small town to a true city of perhaps 50,000 inhabitants. The British were left as a fractional component of the total population, although they had a leading position in the “European” community, which also counted some Greeks, Italians and Russians. In general, the cosmopolitan character of Basra was due to non-European contributions: Persians numbered several thousands and Indians a few hundreds – mainly Muslims but also including some Hindus. Among Arab immigrants to the city, regional subdivisions were readily identifiable, perhaps most clearly so with respect to Najdis, Hasawis, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis and Omanis.(16)

     With the First World War, Basra found itself inundated by British soldiers and officials. Until the fall of Baghdad in early 1917, Basra was the regional centre for the British war effort, and it remained an important transit station for the duration of the war. With the soaring numbers of semi-civilian staff attached to the British forces, it became increasingly difficult to speak of a distinctive British expatriate community in Basra in this period, although a certain influx of new trading companies did materialise. The most pronounced demographic change during the war affected the resident Indian population of Basra, which grew to almost 1,000 persons – many of them shopkeepers or clerks.(17)

The growth in the numbers of British in Basra proved temporary, and abated after the end of the war. The British civilian presence stabilised at around 200 persons (chiefly merchants, merchant assistants, agents, clerks and engineers) and did not increase beyond this level despite continued economic growth during the first years after the war.(18) Towards the late 1920s, numbers began to fall again, and Baghdad, with some 400 permanently settled British subjects, definitively superseded Basra as the prime spot for British expatriates in Iraq. In a broader comparative perspective, the British colony in Basra remained tiny as well: in Alexandria in 1907, British subjects had numbered 9,000 out of a total population of 300,000, or nearly 3%.(19)


The British impact on Basra’s cityscape

Throughout the twentieth century, Basra remained a decidedly sprawling city. Multiple quarters competed for pre-eminent centre status, with a resultant dispersal of its urban culture instead of synergic fusion in an undisputed centre. The small British community in Basra became party to this rivalry, rather than serving as a unifying force that could strengthen a sense of local patriotism for the city as a whole.

     “The old Basra”, tucked away several miles inland from the Shatt al-Arab, was a remnant of times when the river had represented a threat (of attacks by pirates and robbers) more than an asset. Gradually, as government authority was strengthened and steamship traffic grew in the late nineteenth century, a competing centre emerged at the head of the small creek that connected Basra to the Shatt; this became known as the suburb of Ashar. It soon acquired prominence as a mercantile centre, and, due to its superior location on the river, attracted traders, especially foreigners of Indian and Persian origins. Slowly but surely, the old Basra was reduced to a residential area – although the patriarchs of the old town were at first quite reluctant to relocate their businesses towards the river. During the British mandate, the two poles remained in intense competition.(20)

     The British contribution created further diffusion in Basra’s cityscape. During Ottoman times, no proper facilities for handling shipping existed, so visiting ships would anchor anywhere in the river, and load and unload by way of smaller boats. Thus, instead of strengthening the emerging suburb of Ashar, the British commercial presence in Basra first established itself around a steamship depot at a place called Ma‘qil (also known as Kut al-Faranji, literally “the fort of the European[s]”), considerably to the north of Ashar. Gradually, in the late nineteenth century, British companies succumbed to the forces that pulled towards Ashar, but after the occupation in 1914 the British preference for Ma‘qil seemed to reassert itself. Many of the British who settled in Basra after the war chose to reside in Ma‘qil, described in 1937 as “a new town of up-to-date bungalows laid out in a garden-city”.(21)



Infrastructural expansion during the British mandate only underlined the multiplex character of Basra. Both the brand new port – complete with administrative buildings described as among the most impressive in Iraq at the time – and the railway terminus were constructed near Ma‘qil to the north of Basra, at a considerable distance from both Ashar and old Basra. Similarly, those British military cantonments that remained in place after the war were located far from Basra itself, at Shaiba in the desert to the west, and at Makina, to the north of the old town. Crucially, this included all the Royal Air Force facilities, and meant that the civilian airport also came to be based close to “European” Ma‘qil. And as before, much of the British presence in Basra remained highly transient and thus not conducive to closer integration with the local population: in 1926, British vessels accounted for no less than 166 of the steamships that called on Basra.(22) (Germany came a very distant second, with 9 ship arrivals.) A British visitor in 1932 who had lived in Basra in the immediate aftermath of the First World War lamented the city’s descent into a disjointed and unrecognisable state; his own preferred Basra had been the old town, with its “great hotels, jazz bands and Russian dancers”.(23)

     In short, the increased British influence on the physical structures of Basra after 1914 was not much of a catalyst for a more integrated cosmopolitan city. The contrast with truly cosmopolitan hubs is striking. In Alexandria, for example, foreign and local elites – and economic and cultural power – converged in an extravaganza of architectural might focused on Place Méhémet Ali in the Manshiyya quarter. Basra paled in comparison: British residents might commend “Bridge Street” in Ashar for its line of shops with European goods, but here were no public parks or cultural institutions like those that catered for the polyglot elites of Alexandria.(24)


British business interests in Basra and Iraq

From a purely commercial point of view, Basra would be the obvious nucleus for British mercantile interests in Iraq. Basra formed the sole seaport for a market in rapid expansion, and one of Iraq’s principal export crops – dates – was almost exclusively harvested within a radius of some 100 miles from the Gulf city.

     But while most British traders acknowledged Basra’s economic primacy and kept their headquarters in the south (as late as in 1927, a leading British merchant claimed that British firms had most of their “volume of business” in Basra),(25) they soon became entangled in inland operations that directed them northwards to Baghdad.  To some extent, this was rather accidental. The Mesopotamian-Persian Trading Corporation (MESPERS), for instance, was established in 1920; whilst the point of gravity of its operations was doubtless Basra, the company happened to include among its six directors three British merchants of Baghdad and one from Tehran.(26) MESPERS would later emerge as one of the dominant firms in Iraq during the British mandate.

     Once new markets had been opened up, however, commercial minds tended to find the option of further expansion irresistible. The leading firms were general traders cum shipping businesses, with extensive agency activities and industrious “engineering departments”; their primary concern was not political risk (and the concomitant drive towards coastal fastnesses) but rather that the “Mesopotamian” population was not growing fast enough to provide for even greater profit.(27) They soon found niches where they could make financial gains also in the upriver areas, such as the grain trade (especially involving areas north of Baghdad) and the sale of disused British military materiel like oil engines (this contributed to enormous profits in Baghdad).  In fact, the control of Basra’s date monoculture – potentially the cornerstone for a separate Basra autarky – was in fact largely ceded to a US company, Hills Brothers, which dominated the trade in the 1930s (and whose secondary interests in the profitable liquorice sector made them look northwards and upriver as well). British firms, for their part, seemed versatile and happy to conquer shares of whatever markets might be economically sustainable.(28) Profitability, rather than political considerations, appeared to be the guiding principle when these corporations established their territorial desiderata, and these soon extended far beyond Iraq – let alone the confines of Basra. Thus spoke the Basra-based agents of British economic imperialism in the Gulf in 1926:

“Gulf Control: It was decided that, in view of the growing importance of Bahrain, and the fact that trade conditions in Bushire show no indications of improvement, Bahrain should become the principal Branch in the Gulf, and the assistant in charge of Gulf Branches to be resident there. It is considered that the management of the Lower Gulf Ports can be carried out equally well, if not better, from Bahrain [in comparison with Bushire].”(29)

     In the 1940s, a British company finally did establish itself in a dominant position in the date trade. But this turned out to be part of a greater strategy that was emphatically “national” and “Iraqi”, rather than focused exclusively on Basra. After negotiations with the central government in Baghdad, Andrew Weir – a company with a long tradition of close cooperation with British government departments – managed to secure a date monopoly for all of Iraq that was to last from 1939 to 1949.(30) In the same period, the company obtained similar arrangements of more limited duration for grain exports – a crop of negligible importance around Basra. In general, British business circles seemed to prefer reliable government partners instead of castle-building separatists. Upon the removal of the semi-independent shaykh of Muhammara (just opposite Basra) and the re-establishment of Persian control, leading British entrepreneurs based in Basra in 1926 expressed optimism rather than any sentimentality for the fallen principality:

 “Conditions in Arabistan are now more settled and the Persian government has complete control over this country. The country is being opened up, and cultivation necessitating the installation of pumping plants is being encouraged. This action of the Persian authorities has opened up a fresh channel for increased activity in this branch of our business”.(31)

As early as in 1928, a leading company like MESPERS had real-estate investments in Baghdad equivalent to its Basra headquarters properties;(32) by the mid-1930s, virtually all Basra-based British firms had succumbed to the logic of the unitary state governed from Baghdad, and had established branch offices in the Iraqi capital.(33)

     It should be added that the political context of British commercial expansion in Iraq in the first half of the twentieth century was decidedly quirky. Iraq was certainly no crown colony, nor was Basra a treaty port on the Chinese pattern. The entire area from Basra to Mosul was supposedly on its way to nationhood as a unified “Iraq”, and yet the mandatary frequently toyed with the idea of withdrawing to Basra and keeping as a separate territory of the British Empire this juiciest part of the country.(34) (Not until 1927 was Mosul oil decisively elevated to a strategic priority.) Even the formal independence of Iraq in 1932 was not the watershed that retrospective accounts describe; with a continued British military and “advisory” presence, many British in Iraq seemed to think that they were still part of the empire. This context may have lulled instincts that in other settings were to translate into “enclave mentality”, as seen among British expatriates in Penang and Shanghai who worried about nationalist monsters emerging from the urban hinterlands. True, these arguments would occasionally manifest themselves in business correspondence in Basra as well: In 1922, during a crisis in Anglo-Iraqi relations, MESPERS directors, “in view of the uncertain political situation”, warned against “any further outlay of capital at Baghdad”;(35) in 1931, an official of the Euphrates Tigris Steam Navigation Company was more specific in expressing concern about “inflated quinquennial [tax] assessments” caused by the “mentality of Iraqi officials coupled with the nationalistic spirit which is now rampant”.(36) But this fear of “discrimination against the foreigner” never induced the British in Iraq to relinquish their business ties to northern Iraq in favour of the politically more predictable (and, at the time, markedly more pro-British) Basra. In the minds of British capitalists, Basra continued to form a bridgehead, not a defensive citadel.

Informal empire: British seaplanes awaiting flight near Basra in the late 1930s


Similarly, the peculiar framework of a mandate that became an informal empire created tensions between British officials from different departments. By endorsing the framework of a nominally independent unitary state, local British staff formerly in the employ of the Colonial Office were able to maintain their quasi-colonial roles – to the point where Foreign Office consuls and other members of the British mercantile community complained that these individuals had become “more Iraqi than the Iraqi themselves”. In the 1930s, the powerful port director of Basra, J.C. Ward, was described as the “real ruler of Basra” by an Iraqi observer,(37) and a jealous British consul charged him with thinking he was “the uncrowned king of Basra”.(38) To Ward it had clearly paid off to play by the rules of the informal mandate, instead of aligning himself with the diehard “Basra must be British” circles that had still existed in the mid-1920s.


An intellectual climate unsupportive of cosmopolitanism

Beyond these structural and economic factors, certain aspects of the dominant political discourse during the British mandate were hardly conducive to the emergence of a multi-ethnic partnership for a Gulf cosmopolis in Basra.

     Even before the First World War, there had been certain impediments to the fraternisation between foreigners and natives in Basra. In many other parts of the Ottoman Empire, local Christians had played key roles in facilitating cultural exchange between East and West. But in Basra, the situation was somewhat different: the leading Christians were almost exclusively Catholics (with certain connections to France) whereas the principal European influence was British (the French mercantile presence in Basra was insignificant). Symptomatically, correspondence between the Chaldean priest in Basra and the British consul in the 1890s was conducted in Arabic, with the assistance of translators.(39) Also the Jews of Basra had long cultivated ties to the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle, despite efforts by London’s Anglo-Jewish Association to gain a foothold in the Gulf city.(40) But again there was no Francophone economic vanguard to complement this cultural influence, on the pattern of for instance the Ottoman port cities of the Mediterranean region.

     After the war, “self-determination” was briefly in vogue in international politics, but to an overwhelming extent it was expected that this self-determination should be framed in “racial” nationalist terms. The literary output by British writers living in Basra largely confirmed this tendency, as exemplified by the writings of Ernest Main, a journalist based in Basra in the early 1930s who also wrote a book on Iraqi history. Main’s approach to Basra and Iraqi society was racist in the extreme, and consisted of a hierarchal model which placed the Arabs at the bottom of the heap, with slightly milder descriptions of Christians and Jews (who “mainly … carry out the middle-class functions in the towns of Iraq today”) and Kurds (“a hardy, brave and cruel race”).(41) Most of all, Ernest Main feared Arabs with education; in his view this produced the “effendi problem” – the proliferation of ambitious men trained in Arabic philology but supposedly without sufficient technical qualifications. As a lesser evil, he suggested that the more aristocratic “shaykhly” element among the Arabs, “whether educated or not”, be promoted to government positions – as they at least came from a “governing stock”.(42) Main, who held an MA degree from the University of Aberdeen, was by no means an outsider in British circles, and very similar attitudes could be found among British administrators at the Anglo-Persian Oil Company works at Abadan (right across the river from Basra), where many Basrawis found work – but in menial positions, due to the British policy of employing only Persians as higher-ranking technicians.(43)

A Basra coolie in the 1930s. Port labourers were an important component of Basra’s multi-cultural fabric


Racist balderdash of this calibre came in a variety of guises, and sometimes the hierarchy was reversed, with the Arabs on top of the pyramid instead. Indeed, many British in Iraq were notorious for their weak spots for Arab culture and ideas of Arab “racial purity”. And this they found in the Basra area too, although not in the bustling port city but in the isolated desert town of Zubayr, to the west. This walled town, a virtual colony of emigrants from the Najdi plateau, was celebrated by some British as a sanctuary of true Arab culture. Here, there were no windows, no women, no dirty coolies… Everything was pure and clean; visitors were courteously offered free coffee from white cups and were never subjected to bazaar haggling. British writers protested passionately against proposals by the locals to connect the desert town to Basra by rail or tram to improve the economy.(44) What they shared with writers like Ernest Main was the inability to liberate themselves from racist stereotyping – to all of them, complex and chaotic Basra with its heterogeneous population posed an unclassifiable anomaly, a disorderly threat to established categories, rather than an exciting possibility for multi-cultural coexistence. Little wonder, then, that another potential contributor to the separatist coalition – the local Indian community, still counting nearly 1,000 members towards the late 1920s and at one point actually in contact with local proponents of separation – was brusquely dismissed by British writers as “a large floating community” which ought to be repatriated as soon as possible.(45) Alternative conceptions of a Gulf identity – without the standard emphasis on shaykhdom and Arab nobility – simply seemed to fall on deaf ears in British intellectual milieus.

     The problem was not that cosmopolitanism as an ideal was non-existent at the time. But those who advocated cosmopolitanism were true to the term in its original sense: transcending loyalty to the local environment in a greater humanist project (after all, in ancient Greece, loyalty to the city-state was the norm and not, as in the 1920s, the exception). Thus, instead of fusing cosmopolitan ideals and local patriotism, the exponents of this sort of reasoning became (Iraqi) nationalists, or supporters of even greater imagined communities. And so it was that an Iraqi nationalist governor led the most concerted effort to establish a multi-cultural social club in Basra in the late 1920s, and another leading government official headed the initiative to create a public park where members of all of Basra’s diverse community could come together.(46) During the mandate, Basra witnessed some startling displays of multi-cultural solidarity – like a public meeting where Persians and Sunni Arabs lauded the efforts of British-born Zionist Moses Montefiore – but again, all those involved tended to be emphatically anti-separatist and strongly supportive of the idea of a unified Iraq.(47) British inhabitants of Basra would occasionally express affection for their adopted city – one British lady in 1932 commended it for the “friendliness between its communities” and the “absence” of politics – but more often, there would be complaints, above all about the long summers with their hot and humid climate.(48)

RAF staff in Basra celebrate the coronation of King George VI in 1937


More coincidentally, perhaps, none of the British academics and writers who were devoted to Basra culture and history in the 1920s adopted any pronouncedly particularistic attitude supportive of the idea of Basra autonomy, and they refrained from presenting episodes in the past history as precedents or possible symbols for any such localism. Thus, Harry Reginald Hall of the British Museum, who led the expedition to Ur, saw his work mainly as part of a greater effort in Mesopotamian archaeology – where northern Akkad was just as important as southern Sumer. He completed his dig, complained about the monotonous natural surroundings, and then loaded the principal artefacts onto London-bound steamers.(49) Similarly, Stuart Edwin and Monica Grace Hedgcock, authors of the first major work on the Marsh Arabs living north of Basra, framed their work as a case study within the greater family of “Iraqi tribes” – instead of portraying the unique natural and cultural conditions of the vast marshlands as an essentially local phenomenon.(50) By way of contrast, a more innovative – some will say inventive – scholar from the United States, Raymond P. Dougherty, in the same period drew up a grand theory about how the inhabitants of modern-day southern Iraq exhibited striking parallels to the Sumerians of ancient times.(51) Hall and the Hedgcocks, of course, were quite closely connected with the Baghdad-based British administration, which strongly promoted the idea of a unified single Iraqi state, whereas Dougherty was not. Still, the non-emergence of a British bard with a passion for Basra and the south may have been perfectly accidental, although it is noteworthy that the two main intellectual challenges to Iraqi nationalism mounted by British thinkers at the time – one focusing on the Kurds, the other on the Assyrians – both followed prevailing discursive trends in that they had rather simplistic ideas about race and ethnicity as their point of departure.


Basra’s inarticulate cosmopolitanism

During the British mandate, multi-cultural Basra never became anything more than a colourful collation of various communities whose members happened to inhabit the same city. There was certainly the occasional manifestation of seeds of a shared urban identity – as with the grandiose wedding of a Syrian Catholic notable in 1931 where 300 guests from all the different communities of the city attended, or the annual celebration of the Jewish Passover, which was in fact a big event for Basra as a whole, with river-craft being provisioned even from neighbouring Muhammara (on the Persian side of the river) to cope with the demand from crowds of picnic-makers.(52) But no political expression of this multi-culturalism ever materialised, despite the considerable efforts made by the leading economic elites of the city.

     The British community in Basra offered no contribution to the campaign for local patriotism that went on in the early 1920s. In part, this had to do with structural variables like the modest size of the British colony in Basra. The size factor was further affected by the spatial dispersal of the British community in various parts of Basra and its entanglements in business operations extending far to the north of the city. The result was diffusion of economic and political interests, instead of the creation of a synergic hub of the kind that emerged in Egypt’s Alexandria.

Horse racing was one of the few niches where the British made an attempt at bringing together expatriates and locals in Basra


But beyond these factors, this was simply not the age of cosmopolitanisms. If British writers appeared to be locked in racial stereotyping antithetical to the project of urban autonomy, they in fact represented mainstream Western thinking at the time. In Shanghai, the British “Shanghailanders” largely squandered the potential for creating a truly cosmopolitan enclave by extreme anti-Chinese measures like excluding the Chinese majority from public parks.(53) And despite all their local patriotism, even the cosmopolitan Alexandrine notables ultimately subscribed to a greater (Egyptian) nationalism. True, the example of the Adriatic enclave of Fiume in this period shows that small-scale city-state ideologies were not totally inconceivable. But it is fair to say that their proponents faced a greater uphill struggle than those who advocated nationalisms on a larger scale.

   Lacking a protective ideological coating, Basra’s multi-cultural fabric suffered further damage after the 1930s.  In 1948, the Jewish entrepreneur Shafiq Ades was hanged in Basra in front of a jubilant crowd – accused of active support for Israeli warfare against Palestinians but never accorded anything but a summary three-day trial, and with his Muslim business partners escaping prosecution. After the coup in 1958 and a pro-socialist republican takeover, many wealthy Sunni Arabs of Zubayr migrated to Saudi Arabia. As in the case of Shafiq Ades there was an economic aspect to the tension, but it became painfully clear that Basra was further disintegrating along communal lines instead of mobilising any kind of local patriotism. And following the failed uprising against the Baath regime in 1991, the Shiites of Basra were savagely targeted by the Sunni-dominated Iraqi government (and its collaborators in Basra, many from Sunni clans) in a series of bloody reprisals. All this in a city whose leading notables in the 1920s had claimed that “intercourse with the outside world has always influenced the inhabitants of Basra and has given them cause to believe that their progress will be different in kind and speed from that of Iraq”.(54)


Britain and Basra today

Today’s political trends in Basra exhibit some remarkable parallels to conditions in the 1920s, but also some very marked contrasts.

     As far as regionalism is concerned, there has been an interesting resurgence of ideas of an autonomous region in the far south with a Basra nucleus: a project to create a separate federal entity covering the three southernmost provinces of Iraq only. The geographical scope, at least in some incarnations of the scheme, is slightly wider than in the 1920s, and the foundation myth for the project is different – with oil wealth and feelings of decades-long neglect being more salient than commercial culture. But, at least to begin with, back in 2004, there were some fascinating parallels to the 1920s, especially in that sectarian Shiite loyalties were downplayed in favour of local patriotism. The people of Basra were looking to the United Arab Emirates (rather than to Najaf) in search of inspiration for a suitable federal model,(55) and there were even tendencies of secularist–Islamist cooperation, something of a rarity in today’s Iraq. Was a Basra cosmopolitanism about to reassert itself?(56)

     The seeds of such cosmopolitanism may have been there, but since 2005 a certain fragmentation of the coalition of local federalists seems to have occurred. As in the 1920s, potentials that were present have failed to come to fruition. Christians and Sunni Arabs have not shown any enthusiasm for the small-scale southern federalist project, and lately even secularist Shiite supporters of federalism for the far south have grown more silent. Additionally, some Basra adherents of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) now support their own party’s central (Baghdad and Najaf) leadership and the more recent plan for a much bigger Shiite super-region from Baghdad to Basra, leaving the Fadila Party and its allies in the local governorate council as the principal advocates for a separate federal region based on Basra, with or without its two nearest neighbours.(57) The Fadila politicians of Basra have in turn come under pressure from the central government under (fellow Shiite) Nuri al-Maliki in an attempt at creating stability in an increasingly lawless city; it remains to be seen whether this is a genuinely Iraqi nationalist attempt at re-imposing central government control over Basra and its oil assets, or simply action taken at the instigation of SCIRI to deal with internal unrest within the Shiite alliance and to push for a greater degree of sectarian unity. Whatever the motive of the government’s current Basra policy, it seems distinctly unrealistic to dismiss Basra regionalism as a one-party phenomenon which can simply be decapitated by isolating Fadila recalcitrants in the far south. However tongue-tied and politically unskilful some of the representatives of Basra opinion may seem at times, historical trends clearly point to the possibility of sustained regionalism – although today, in contrast to the 1920s and the experimental proto-federal manoeuvres of 2004, this seems more like a competing Shiite project (and a Basra challenge to hegemony by Baghdad and Najaf Shiites) than an explicitly anti-sectarian, multi-cultural platform for a separate urban identity.

     As for the British role, there are some important differences compared with the situation in the 1920s. Whereas London’s official policy during the mandate emphatically favoured the centralised state, Britain has since 2003 professed neutrality in the question of federal subdivisions in the new democratic Iraq. Largely, this trend has been mirrored in apparent disinterest and even apathy towards the federal initiatives in British-controlled areas in the far south, although a visit to Basra in March 2006 by Kim Howells, a minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, apparently included energy-related discussions with the Basra governor and as such touched on a sensitive issue in a way that could be construed as a departure from the general policy of non-interference.(58)

     Still, in a context of increasing political violence and militia rule in Basra, one may well wonder whether non-interference is indeed the same as “neutrality”. Shortly after the onset of the occupation of Iraq in 2003, there was much fanfare about Britain’s “soft” approach to the policing of Basra, with a “hearts and minds” focus and strict avoidance of heavy armour and helmets whenever possible.  Quite soon, however – in fact already in 2004, but this is generally overlooked by a short-memoried Western press – it became clear that whatever their particular choice of headgear, British soldiers gradually gave in to the advance of militia rule and were themselves less and less in evidence on the streets of Basra. This in turn created a situation where critics claim that the sole remaining objective of the British forces in Iraq is to hold out and maintain a physical presence somewhere within the borders of the four (soon, three) governorates in the south formally left under their control while at the same time minimising their own casualties. Thereby, they also leave everyone in the south who is not affiliated with a militia disadvantaged and exposed in the political process – not least those vulnerable elements of Basra’s population who refuse to abide by neo-fundamentalist Islamic conformity demands and who contribute to whatever remains of the city’s cosmopolitan air and cultural diversity.

     That judgment of the British record in Basra is however too harsh. After all, militia rule is by no means a phenomenon limited to Basra or the south of Iraq. Rather, it is widespread throughout the country, but in other governorates tends to go unnoticed to the outside world – in some areas, like Baghdad, because of a Sunni-led anti-American insurgency which attracts more attention, elsewhere, such as in the Kurdish north, due to ceasefires between rivalling militias (and, more recently, certain signs of political rapprochement). Only in Basra has militia rule come to the fore, simply because there are fewer insurgency distractions here, and because a heated internal Shiite battle for control over oil and political power is interwoven with the militia struggle. The basic cause of the problem is quite simple: as long as the United States allowed the Kurdish militias to keep their weapons (and probably deemed it necessary to do so due to pressures on its own military resources), everyone else felt encouraged to stick to their arms as well.

     Ultimately, therefore, the whole issue is related to the key problem of doing low-budget nation building – without the overwhelming power (and the comprehensive development packages) required to guarantee the state a monopoly of violence. And because of this linkage, Britain’s fate in the south will depend on US decision-making on issues of general security in Iraq in coming months. Within the parameters of current US policy, two tracks seem possible.(59) On the one hand – and this is ostensibly the line of the Bush administration – the United States could peg the withdrawal of its own military forces to the expansion of genuinely national units of the Iraqi army capable of maintaining order, a process likely to be painstakingly slow, but one that may have the best potential for delivering stability in the long run.(60) Alternatively, Washington could go for the facile and dangerous solution of accepting militia rule wherever the surface is kept calm and crease-free – the model adopted for the Kurdish north and one which could be on the rise in the south, where SCIRI and its Badr units are probably waiting in the wings and eager to reassert control over the Basra governorate. This second model seems like a sectarian variant of a quick-fix that was frequently employed at the tribal level during the British mandate in the 1920s: relying on selected Iraqi partners to deliver security, and even supporting these elements in their efforts to suppress other segments of Iraqi society and maintain local “equilibria”.(61)  It is a model fraught with weaknesses; suffice to say that it played a major role in immobilising the Iraqi monarchy and preparing the ground for the Iraqi revolution of 1958.

     One obvious task for the British in the south is therefore to provide sound intelligence input to this decision-making process, to ensure that any handovers of security result in the deployment of bona fide all-Iraqi army units instead of a reproduction of patterns of militia control of the kind already evident in the security forces of the interior ministry. In areas like Basra, doing nothing and “standing aside” is simply not the same as “neutrality”, because here the tension between competing militias is linked to a rivalry between ideas about how to organise Iraq as a state – ideological competition that was supposed to blossom in a democratic atmosphere in the new Iraq, rather than being subjected to authoritarian pressures reminiscent of the old regime. As a minimum, Britain should do its utmost to ensure that the people of Basra come under control of military forces that have been purged of militia influences, and that the Basrawis also get to express their opinion on the contentious issue of federalism in an atmosphere free from militia-led intimidation and election engineering. In 2006, Britain can perhaps no longer play a direct role in shaping Basra’s multi-culturalism, but it should at least do its best to enable the remnants of the city’s cosmopolitanism to be articulated in a setting worthy of a new, democratic regime.


1. For the emergence and downfall of the Basra separatist movement, see Reidar Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2005/New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2006).

2. Basrah Times (BT), 9 July 1925.

3. BT, 11 January 1927.

4. E.L. Grant Watson, Moonlight in Ur: A Romance (London: Noel Douglas, 1932).

5. For the case of Penang, see Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonization, Nationalism and Separatism (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996), pp. 28–52.

6. BT, 5 February 1930 and 6 October 1932.

7. BT, 7 March 1926 and 17 March 1932.

8. On the activities of the Reformed Church of America in the Basra area, see Dorothy F. Van Ess: Pioneers in the Arab World (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974).

9. For a history of the Victoria College, see Sahar Hamouda and Colin Clement, Victoria College: A History Revealed (Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press, 2002).

10. Robin Ostle, “Alexandria: A Mediterranean Cosmopolitan Centre of Cultural Production”, in Leila Tarazi Fawaz & C.A. Bayly (eds.), Modernity and Culture: From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 315.

11. J.G. Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia (Farnborough: Gregg, 1970 reprint), pp. 1472–1473.

12. UK National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office), FO 602/48, L.M. Dicey to Col. Tweedie, 11 August 1891.

13. FO 195/1885: S.G. Knox to the Baghdad consulate, 5 November 1895.

14. FO 195/2096: A.C. Wratislaw to N.R. O’Conor, 1 April 1901.

15. FO 195/2368: F.E. Crow to G.A. Lowther, 2 April 1911.

16. J.G. Lorimer, Geographical and Statistical Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia (Farnborough: Gregg, 1970 reprint), pp. 276–277.

17. Some demographic information on foreigners in Basra is available in British Library, India Office records, IO/L/PS/10/617 (P3540/16)/P4169: Note on the population of Basra by T.H. Bishop, dated 1 September 1916.

18. IO/L/PS/10/547 (P1093/2)/4876: Office note by J.P. Gibson dated 20 August 1924.

19. Robert Ilbert, Alexandrie 1830–1930: Histoire d’une communauté citadine (Cairo: Institut francais d’archéologie orientale, 1996), vol. II pp. 760–761.

20. These dynamics are covered in Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State, p. 156.

21. Ernest Main, Iraq: From Mandate to Independence (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935), p. 37.

22. IO/L/PS/10/547 (P1093/2): Memo by C. Wills dated 11 January 1928.

23. BT, 5 July 1932.

24. BT, 31 July 1930.

25. BT, 9 February 1927.

26. Guildhall Library manuscripts collection, Ms. 27,700: MESPERS directors’ report, 9 August 1922.

27. British entrepreneurs soon came to imitate the nomenclature of the British administration based in Baghdad. “I am an optimist”, declared a leading MESPERS shareholder in 1923, “in regard to the future development and prosperity of Iraq”; Guildhall, Ms. 27,724: W.A. Buchanan to Lynch, 9 July 1923.

28. One of the most lucrative aspects of MESPERS activity in Basra was in fact its engineering department, which in 1922 returned a healthy profit of some 166,000 rupees; Guildhall, Ms. 27,707 MESPERS balance sheets and profits and loss accounts, 1922. Similarly, in 1928, the profit from date exports was no more than rs. 40,000 whereas the sale of oil engines landed a net profit of rs. 144,000; ibid.. Ms. 27,700: MESPERS directors’ report, 18 April 1929.

29. Guildhall, Ms. 27,694/1: MESPERS directors’ meetings minutes, 8 March 1926. Conversely, branch offices that proved unprofitable were quickly shut down again, as in Mosul, ibid., 31 October 1927.

30. Joseph Sassoon: Economic Policy in Iraq, 1932–1950 (London: Frank Cass, 1987), pp. 152–154.

31. Guildhall, Ms. 27,700: MESPERS directors’ report, 30 April 1926.

32. Guildhall, Ms. 27,707 MESPERS balance sheets and profits and loss accounts, 1928.

33. Dangoor’s Printing and Publishing House, The Iraq Directory (Baghdad, 1936), pp. 112–113.

34. On London’s enduring “Back to Basra” emergency scheme, see Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State, pp. 136–137.

35. Guildhall, Ms. 27,694/1: MESPERS directors’ meetings minutes, 7 August 1922. Similar considerations had applied with regard to expansion towards Mosul, see Guildhall, Ms. 27,695, memo on Baghdad economies, 20 October 1922.

36. Guildhall, Ms. 27,727: Secretary of the Euphrates Tigris Steam Navigation Company to Bristows, Cooke & Carpmael, 14 May 1931.

37. Musa al-Shabandar, Dhikrayat baghdadiyya. Al-iraq bayna al-ihtilal wa-al-istiqlal [Baghdad memories: Iraq between occupation and independence] (London: Riyad el-Rayyes, 1993), pp. 255–256.

38. FO 369/2203: Gerard Selous to Hubert Young, 22 March 1931.

39. FO 602/48: File on the British cemetery, Ma‘qil.

40. “Bassora” in I. Singer, The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, 1901), p. 586.

41. Main, Iraq, pp. 17–32.

42. Ibid., pp. 233–236.

43. The Persians in turn complained about Indians receiving preferential treatment, see J.H. Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company. Vol. II: The Anglo-Iranian Years, 1928–1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 78.

44. BT, 27 March 1923 and 11 December 1925.

45. BT, 11 July 1922. Still, well into the 1940s, the British tended to prefer Indian clerical staff over Basra natives, see for instance Guildhall, Ms. 27,696: Gray, Mackenzie & Co., board meeting, 27 April 1942. And there was a strong belief in the need for employing “European” staff to undertake demanding business operations; Guildhall, Ms. 27,700: MESPERS directors’ report, 16 April 1928. Again, there are instructive contrasts in the more balanced approach of European entrepreneurs in other port cities of the British Empire, such as Aden; see David Footman, Antonin Besse of Aden (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 85–90.

46 Al-Awqat al-Iraqiyya (AI), 15 March 1930; Rajab Barakat, Baladiyyat al-basra, 1869–1981 [The Municipality of Basra, 1869–1981] (Markaz Dirasat al-Khalij al-Arabi, 1984), pp. 471–475; BT, 5 February 1930.

47. AI, 4 June 1925.

48. BT, 11 July 1932.

49. Hall’s expedition is recorded in H.R. Hall, A Season’s Work at Ur (London: Methuen & Co., 1930).

50. Fulanain [i.e. “the two anonymous”, pseudonym of the Hedgcocks], Haji Rikkan: Marsh Arab (London: Chatto & Windus, 1927).

51. Raymond P. Dougherty: “Survival of Sumerian Types of Architecture”, in American Journal of Archaeology vol. 31 (1927).

52. BT, 31 December 1931 and 25 April 1922.

53. Robert Bickers, Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900–1949 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 36.

54. For a discussion of the original separatist petition and its contents, see Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State, pp. 73–91.

55. Today, the Gulf offers a greater number of alternative models for how to deal with multi-culturalism  than it did in the 1920s. Examples include the “Qatar Airways” paradigm, as well as the example of Dubai – where the most recent attempt at creating a common cultural space for its cosmopolitan population is the importation of the Broadway musical Chicago! Critics claim that Dubai has gone too far and during the last decades has effectively shed its own identity. 

56. For an interesting case of the survival of cosmopolitan sentiment in a port city where it, on the pattern of Basra, failed to achieve any political institutionalisation, see the description of contemporary Aden by Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “Adeni Reflections”, http://al-hiwar.blogspot.com/2005/09/adeni-reflections.html (accessed on 7 May 2006, temporarily? unavailable.)

57. Recent Fadila comments on this project seem to focus more on Basra than the iqlim al-janub (Region of the South) that was defined in 2004 as consisting of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces; comments by Nadim al-Jabiri quoted in al-Manara, 8–9 July 2006, p. 6.

58. Whereas it seems like a good idea to engage in greater dialogue with the different constituent elements of the pro-Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the subject chosen for dialogue in this case – oil – is extremely contentious with regard to the process of constitutional revision, and any interference by foreign powers may prove directly unhelpful. Russia and France have reportedly been engaged in similar conversations with local Basra authorities.

59. There is of course the argument that an immediate withdrawal (or a declaration that such a withdrawal is imminent) might induce some sort of Hobbesian state of nature in Iraq, followed, in an optimistic scenario, by a new democratic compact that would be incontrovertibly Iraqi and free from any foreign influences. That model could have been viable in 2003, but in 2006 there seems to be a danger that the destructive forces in Iraqi society might gain the upper hand in this sort of situation, and that a less risky – if far from ideal – alternative is to work for a withdrawal that is “clean” (i.e. unencumbered by demands for permanent US military bases) and speedy, but at the same time orderly and correlated to progress in Iraqi army capabilities and positive political developments, especially with regard to a constitutional revision compromise.

60. For an intriguing, if relatively rare, example of United States military officials succeeding in playing a truly constructive role in this field, see the case of Hilla described by Bartle Breese Bull, “Calm at the Center of the Storm”, The New York Times, 2 May 2006.

61. See Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), pp. 77–79; Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State, pp. 59–60.

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