The Man Who Created the Middle East by Christopher Simon Sykes – review

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A sympathetic biography of the Edwardian diplomat Sir Mark Sykes by his grandson can’t disguise his bumbling role in carving up the Arab world

The Man Who Created the Middle East is an attempt by Christopher Sykes to overturn “preconceived notions” about his grandfather, Sir Mark Sykes, a man whose name epitomises colonial arrogance and aristocratic ignorance. But can he save one of the most tarnished reputations in the Middle East?

Mark Sykes was one half of an Anglo-French double act that negotiated how their governments might divide the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman armies. The result, the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, was a series of lines drawn across the Middle East establishing British and French “areas of influence”. This secret agreement, made halfway through the first world war and with Russian approval, has drawn so much criticism because it ignored the interests of the region and because it contradicted promises made to local leaders. Most obviously it went against the promises of autonomy made to the leaders of the Arab Revolt: when TE Lawrence heard about it, he recognised that “we are calling on them to fight for us on a lie”.

TE Lawrence called Sir Mark Sykes ‘the imaginative advocate of unconvincing world movements’

Related: Shifting Sands: The Unravelling of the Old Order in the Middle East review – why the Arab spring failed

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