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Complete classes from the CAB & PREM series in the Public Record Office
Series Two: CAB 50 & CAB 51 - The Papers of the Committee of Imperial Defence - Papers of the Oil Board, 1925-1939, and Middle East Questions, 1930-1939

"The Committee of Imperial Defence files in CAB 50 and 51 (the Oil Board, 1925-1939, and Middle East Questions 1930-1939) will be of high importance to students of British Imperial policy and strategy in the inter-war period."
Corelli Barnett, Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge

This series of Cabinet Papers provides all minutes and memoranda of the Committee of Imperial Defence’s Oil Board (CAB 50), and Standing Ministerial and Official Sub-Committee for Questions Concerning the Middle East (CAB 51) for the years 1925-1939. During this period, the British Empire was at is zenith, and the need for a large and uninterrupted flow of oil, for both civil and military purposes, was crucial to ensure Britain’s continued position as a global power. As a result, considerable government efforts were spent in studying all aspects of the situation, ranging from the exploration for new oil fields and experimentation into alternative energy sources, to monitoring and predicting total oil requirements for various scenarios, to laying contingency plans to ensure the continued flow of oil in case of war or political unrest.

The Middle East, already an area of immense strategic importance during the 1920s and 1930s, assumed even greater significance as the Second World War approached. The discovery and exploitation of large oil resources had already brought the region to the attention of the world’s major powers, all of whom were faced with growing demands for oil from industry, increasingly mechanised armies, and (most importantly for Britain) their Navies. Britain, being the dominant colonial force in the area with colonies, mandates and protectorates in Egypt, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, British Somaliland, Iraq, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Aden, Kuwait and Muscat and Oman, was obviously keen to keep a close watch on events both in the Middle East, and further afield. The scramble for oil rights (involving American, British, Dutch and French companies amongst others) was exacerbated by the Arab Revolt in Palestine, a reaction to British support for a Jewish homeland, and increasing demands for greater autonomy throughout the region.

The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) was established in 1902, as an advisory body with no executive powers. With the assistance of numerous sub-committees (such as the Oil Board and the Middle East Sub-Committee) it advised the Cabinet and government departments on both general principles and on detailed issues. The Prime Minister was its Chairman and only permanent member.

The Papers of the Oil Board (CAB 50) include the minutes of meetings (June 1925 to July 1939) and some 346 detailed memoranda, together with sub-committee papers on Oil Requirements in War, Sources & Supplies, Tankers, Treatment of Coal, Aviation Spirit and Petroleum Reserves. Topics covered include:

- Oil requirements and reserves of the Admiralty and the War Office, as well as the civil requirements of Britain and her Dominions and Colonies.
- Control, acquisition and use of oil tankers
- Effects of USA neutrality legislation on oil supplies
- Estimates of fuel requirements in the event of Far Eastern and European wars
- Estimated scale of air attack on England in event of war with Germany, and effects of air attack on oil storage
- Alternative sources of energy (oil from coal etc)
- Implications of the rationing of oil and petrol amongst the civilian population

The Papers of the Middle East Questions Sub-Committee (CAB 51) provides minutes of meetings, February 1931 to August 1939, and 317 Memoranda (dating from September 1930 onwards) and includes material looking at such issues as:

- Possible establishment of a Monarchy by the French in Syria
- Eastern Air Route: Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Air
- Persia and the Arms Traffic Convention
- Relations with Persia: Anglo-Persian oil dispute
- Aden Protectorate: Relations with the Iman of the Yemen
- Strategic importance of the frontier between Italian Libya and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
- Situation in the Persian Gulf
- Baghdad-Haifa railway

In sum, the Committee of Imperial Defence files contained in this project provide a crucial source for any analysis of the Middle East between the two World Wars, showing the high priority which the British government placed upon maintaining an uninterrupted flow of oil, and the lengths to which they were prepared to go to guarantee its continuation. They not only help explain British policy, but also provide the background memoranda which prompted the decisions, and give a detailed insight into the regional geo-political situation.

Digital Guide
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