U.S. power today relies on sophisticated global surveillance networks, which the world is keenly aware of but rarely sees. In Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008), Priya Satia explains how it became possible to possess an empire that was both vast and possible to ignore—how an empire could hide in the skies. Her account is not a story of the United States in the last half-century, but of Britain in the first decades of the twentieth. Through what she defines as a cultural history of intelligence, Satia traces how intelligence agencies came to wield unbridled executive power.
Satia argues that the making of Britain’s “covert empire” was bound up in intelligence-gathering tactics pioneered by British agents in the Middle East (Arabia and Iraq, specifically). The ultimate tool of covert empire—aerial surveillance—came to be used far beyond the Middle East; but, Satia argues, its initial deployment there resulted from the marriage of a cultural epistemology peculiar to British agents in Arabia with the emergence of mass democracy, and a new suspicion of empire, in Britain itself.
Priya Satia’s second book, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution came out this month with Penguin. I sat down with Satia to discuss Spies in Arabia, how she got from writing about spies in the twentieth century to guns in the eighteenth, and her commitment to writing history that people will read. Satia received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and is now Professor of Modern British History at Stanford University. She teaches courses on Britain and its empire, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia.