Tancred Bradshaw. The Glubb Reports: Glubb Pasha and Britain's Empire Project in the Middle East, 1920-1956. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 208 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-38010-4.
Reviewed by Gregory Brew (Georgetown University)
Published on H-War (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
John Bagot Glubb, known as Glubb Pasha, was a British military officer and Arabist who possessed a unique status in the history of the Middle East. While a captain serving in the Iraq mandate in the early 1920s, Glubb resigned his commission as a British officer and took up service with Emir Abdullah of Transjordan. He acted as the emir’s chief British advisor and in 1939 became the head of the Jaysh al-Arabi, the Arab Legion, Transjordan’s small British-led armed forces. Under Glubb’s command, the Arab Legion was transformed from a border police force into a modern military unit and was regarded as the finest Arab army in the Middle East. Glubb Pasha was a dichotomous character. A former British officer who wrote extensively on Middle Eastern affairs and regularly reported to the British Foreign Office, Glubb was symbolic of the extensive influence Great Britain wielded in the region, and his advice, while not always heeded, rarely passed entirely without regard by British policymakers. Yet Glubb was also a servant of the King of Transjordan (Jordan after 1948) and a key figure in the politics of the region until his removal by King Husayn in 1956, a moment often regarded as a key indicator of Britain’s declining regional power.
While Glubb’s reports to the Foreign Office are often cited by historians writing on Britain’s “Middle East moment,” rarely have they been addressed as a body of work or analyzed in the context of their author’s own experiences. Tancred Bradshaw’s new book, The Glubb Reports: Glubb Pasha and Britain’s Empire Project in the Middle East 1920-1956, seeks to do just that, organizing the personal papers of John Bagot Glubb (housed in the Middle East Center, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford) into an edited volume, together with other reports written by Glubb over his thirty-year career in the Middle East. The book “is not a biography of Glubb,” writes Bradshaw, nor does it seek to account for the entirety of Glubb’s activities during this time (p. 2). Instead, The Glubb Reports offers insight into how Glubb’s ideas of Middle Eastern politics formed and changed over time, particularly his views of tribes, military modernization, and the partition of Palestine.
Most of the book consists of Glubb’s own reports, organized into chronological chapters and selected for their particular relevance to key issues. Bradshaw precedes each chapter with a relatively detailed synopsis of Glubb’s views contained in each document, with additional context pulled from other documentary and secondary sources. The first chapter deals with Glubb’s time in the British Mandate of Iraq, where his reports focus on ideas of “desert control,” the issue of tribal raids and the depredations of the “Akhwan,” the Wahhabi raiders of Ibn Saud. Glubb was critical of British policy in Iraq and towards the tribes, who he believed could be incorporated into regional military and police forces, and from this early stage his reports displayed a number of characteristic biases, including criticism of Saudi Arabia and an overtly paternalistic view of the tribes (pp. 19-20). The second chapter focuses on Glubb’s time in Transjordan from 1930 to 1945. It is during this period that Glubb develops his affinity for the rule of Emir Abdullah and the “soft-touch” approach Britain adopts in Transjordan, a policy he attempts to promote elsewhere. The final two chapters deal with the most significant events of Glubb’s careers: the conflict over Palestine, the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, the death of King Adbullah in 1951, and Glubb’s dismissal by King Husayn I in 1956.
Bradshaw offers a limited, though critical reading of Glubb’s reports. While often notable for their accuracy and insight, Glubb’s writings were not always significant to British policy making. Bradshaw notes that Glubb often wrote unsolicited, lengthy, and repetitive memos to Whitehall; that his observations on Palestine in the 1930s “had no appreciable impact on the making of policy in London” (p. 39); and that late in his career Glubb’s point of view was often “strikingly complacent” (p. 125) and out of touch with postwar political conditions, in which Arab nationalism and British imperial decline were important realities.
Bradshaw is especially effective in his analysis of Glubb’s writings during the first Arab-Israeli War. As commander of the Arab Legion, Glubb was at the center of the political intrigue surrounding the partition of Palestine, and he played an important role in Transjordan’s occupation of the West Bank and the annexation of those territories by King Adbullah. Glubb, notes Bradshaw, believed that British and Jordanian interests were “coterminous,” while his resistance to an independent Palestinian state was due to his long-standing resistance to the grand mufti of Jerusalem and his staunch support of the Hashemite monarchy (p. 85).
Throughout the book Bradshaw strikes a workable balance between praising Glubb’s insights and his prescience (particularly regarding British policy in the Iraqi mandate and its inadequate managing of Palestine) and criticizing his follies, his stubbornness, and his eventual failure to recognize his own irrelevance. By 1950 Glubb had been in Jordan “too long,” and Bradshaw notes that there was “a complete failure … in the Foreign Office to divine that his position was untenable” following the death of King Abdullah in 1951 (pp. 131-132). Bradshaw’s conclusion is in line with scholarship surrounding the decline in British power in the 1950s, and he notes that the removal of Glubb from Amman in 1956, while a complete shock for Whitehall, was proof that his dichotomous position as both a British officer and commander of an Arab army was unsustainable.
If there is a weakness to the book, it lies in its organization as an edited volume of primary documents. Bradshaw gives only limited context and analysis at the beginning of each chapter. The bulk of the slim volume consists of Glubb's reports. While Bradshaw notes thatGlubb's total collections number “4,000 pages” (p. 9) and are stored in several different archives, the sample provided in the book is necessarily incomplete. Bradshaw's first chapter, which deals with Glubb's time in mandatory Iraq, is quite brief and could have benefited from some additional content.
The reports of Glubb Pasha represent a valuable resource for historians working on the British experience in the Middle East. While Tancred Bradshaw’s new book explores a great deal of Glubb’s writings, much more needs to be done to fully excavate Glubb’s place in the voluminous documentary evidence. His reports concerning Arab tribes, military modernization in Arab nations, and tactics of desert control are particularly relevant areas of inquiry for those who hope to fully contextualize Glubb within the military history of the Middle East. In that capacity, Tancred Bradshaw has provided an excellent introduction for other scholars to continue the work and probe Glubb’s history more thoroughly.
. Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1971 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).
. Peter L. Hahn, The United States, Great Britain and Egypt, 1945-1956: Strategy and Diplomacy in the Early Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
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Gregory Brew. Review of Bradshaw, Tancred, The Glubb Reports: Glubb Pasha and Britain's Empire Project in the Middle East, 1920-1956.
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