British Imperialism and ‘The Tribal Question’: Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East

British Imperialism and ‘The Tribal Question’ reconstructs the history of Britain’s presence in the deserts of the interwar Middle East, making the case for its significance to scholars of imperialism and of the region’s past. It tells the story of what happened when the British Empire and Bedouin communities met on the desert frontiers between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. It traces the workings of the resulting practices of ‘desert administration’ from their origins in the wake of one World War to their eclipse after the next, as British officials, Bedouin shaykhs, and nationalist politicians jostled to influence desert affairs.

Drawn to the commanding heights of political society in the region’s towns and cities, historians have tended to afford frontier ‘margins’ merely marginal treatment. Instead, this volume combines the study of imperialism, nomads, and the desert itself to reveal the centrality of ‘desert administration’ to the working of Britain’s empire, repositioning neglected frontier areas as nerve centres of imperial activity. British Imperialism and ‘The Tribal Question’ leads the shift in historians’ attentions from the familiar, urban seats of power to the desert ‘hinterlands’ that have long been obscured.

“Robert Fletcher’s excellent book is an important and highly original contribution…Drawing on an impressive range of archival research, he argues convincingly that the British empire’s desert corridor, which ran from Egypt to Iraq, was a critically important transnational zone of British imperial power…His book provides one of the first attempts to delve into the nitty-gritty of interwar imperial power across the Middle East.” —Twentieth-Century British History

“A marvellous piece of work…Fletcher genuinely manages to help us see the interwar empire in a new way” —Susan Pedersen, Columbia University


Oxford University Press, April 2015


Robert S. G. Fletcher is the Kinder Institute Professor of British History and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Missouri’s Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy