Wikimedia Commons The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, May 9, 1916.

Pipelines in the Sand

The Middle East After Sykes–Picot

Many historians misunderstand Sykes–Picot, the treaty that carved up the Middle East, as a random act of colonial mapmaking. In fact, the secret World War I agreement between France and the United Kingdom had everything to do with oil. France and the United Kingdom, as well as Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States, knew of the Middle East’s vast petroleum fields and had set up a consortium to share the oil before the outbreak of the war. Through Sykes–Picot, France and the United Kingdom planned to absorb the German share and build pipelines to ports along the Mediterranean. Yet the two countries did not want to share a pipeline, fearing that their alliance might someday fray. The plans for two separate pipelines—the French one from Kirkuk, in modern-day Iraq, to Tripoli, in modern-day Lebanon, and the British one from Kirkuk to Haifa, in modern-day Israel—determined how Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot split up the region.

Historians usually quote Sykes’ 1915 statement to the British war cabinet—“I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,”—as proof that the borders he drew were arbitrary. In fact, he was describing the path the British government had in mind for its pipeline. Herbert Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, corrected Sykes after he spoke: “I think that what Sir Mark Sykes means is that the line will commence at the sea-coast in Haifa.” And so it did. After the war, the demarcation came to define the oil-producing state of Iraq, the oil-transit states of Jordan and Syria, and the oil-export states of Lebanon and Palestine.

Shortly after World War I, the Allied powers began seeking oil concessions in the Middle East. The concessions conferred the region’s oil rights to the Iraq Petroleum Company. Despite its name, the Iraq Petroleum Company had nothing to do with Iraq; it was a consortium of the Anglo–Persian

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