Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Meeting in San Remo, the Allied leaders of Great Britain, France, and Italy divided up the Turkish possessions of the Middle East, with Great Britain and France dividing Middle Eastern oil.

Summary of Event

The map of the Middle East during much of the twentieth century was the product of political decisions made during World War I (1914-1918). These decisions in their turn were the product of wartime exigencies confirmed in the peace settlement of Versailles, Versailles, Treaty of (1919) including arrangements made elsewhere and enshrined in the peace treaties among the belligerents, such as the San Remo Agreement. The decisions made by the Allied leaders who met at San Remo in April, 1920, laid out the lines of the political settlement of the Middle East. San Remo Agreement (1920) Oil industry;San Remo Agreement World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period [kw]Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement (Apr. 26, 1920) [kw]Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement, Great (Apr. 26, 1920) [kw]France Sign the San Remo Agreement, Great Britain and (Apr. 26, 1920) [kw]San Remo Agreement, Great Britain and France Sign the (Apr. 26, 1920) San Remo Agreement (1920) Oil industry;San Remo Agreement World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period [g]England;Apr. 26, 1920: Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement[05090] [g]France;Apr. 26, 1920: Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement[05090] [g]Italy;Apr. 26, 1920: Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement[05090] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 26, 1920: Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement[05090] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 26, 1920: Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement[05090] [c]Trade and commerce;Apr. 26, 1920: Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement[05090] Lloyd George, David Clemenceau, Georges Ḥusayn ibn ՙAlī Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;Sykes-Picot Agreement[Sykes Picot Agreement] McMahon, Sir Henry Balfour, Arthur Berthelot, Philippe Cadman, Sir John

The San Remo Agreement had several antecedents. First, a commitment made in 1915 by the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, to Ḥusayn ibn ՙAlī, the emir of Mecca, promised British support of a movement for Arab independence from Turkish control. Second, in May of 1916, Great Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916)[Sykes Picot Agreement] Under this agreement, Russian territorial expansion east of the Black Sea, at the expense of Turkey, was recognized. A very large Syria, including Lebanon, was to go to France. Great Britain was to receive southern Mesopotamia in addition to the Mediterranean coastal ports of Haifa and Akka. Both Syria and Mesopotamia were to be made into Arab states, under the control of the two European powers. The Holy Places were to be placed under international control.

The contradictions between the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the promises made to Ḥusayn on behalf of Arab independence were evident, and the British and French tried to keep the Sykes-Picot Agreement secret. When the Russian Communists seized power in November, 1917, however, they found the agreement in the Russian archives and published it in the newspaper Izvestia. The Sykes-Picot Agreement proved to be a difficult obstacle for Great Britain to overcome, and it caused even greater problems for France.

The postwar situation in the Middle East was made even more complex by the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, Balfour Declaration a declaration made by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to the leaders of Zionism that the British government looked with favor on the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. The declaration took the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild, head of the British Zionist Committee, on November 2, 1917. The letter reserved the rights of the indigenous population.

With the end of World War I clearly imminent, on November 7, 1918, the British and French issued a joint declaration in which they promised freedom to the various peoples subjugated by the Turks, with the right to set up governments of their own choosing. The Arabs interpreted this statement to mean that the British and French did not intend to impose the settlement outlined in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In fact, the British were prepared to modify the agreement and insisted on some modification to reflect the fact that British arms, not French, had liberated the Middle East from the Turks. British prime minister David Lloyd George insisted on a modification reflecting this fact when he met with French premier Georges Clemenceau in London in December of 1918.

Matters were further complicated by the arrival in Paris of the American delegation to the peace conference, headed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. Paris Peace Conference (1919) Wilson refused to be bound by the Sykes-Picot Agreement and demanded that an investigative commission be sent to the Middle East to determine local sentiment. The British were prepared to cooperate, but France refused; out of a sense of loyalty to France, Great Britain then declined to participate. Accordingly, the commission went to the Middle East staffed only by Americans.

Meanwhile, the British and the French continued negotiating. It was at this point that oil entered the picture. It was strongly suspected that substantial oil deposits existed in the region around Mosul. This area had originally been incorporated in the “greater Syria” promised to France in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Great Britain, which in 1919 had full military command of the area, demanded that the Mosul area be attached to Mesopotamia and included in the portion of the former Ottoman Empire assigned to Great Britain. France proved willing to concede the point provided that France gained some access to the potential oil profits of the area. This proved possible because the exploration rights around Mosul had been granted by the Ottoman government—although in a somewhat informal matter—to the Turkish Petroleum Company Turkish Petroleum Company in the summer of 1914. British interests owned 75 percent of the Turkish Petroleum Company; German interests owned the rest. The German interest had been confiscated at the outbreak of war by Great Britain, where the company was incorporated. Great Britain offered to turn over to France the German interest in the Turkish Petroleum Company.

The negotiations over the disposition of the Mosul area and the rights to its oil were formalized in the Long-Berenger Agreement of April 18, 1919. Long-Berenger Agreement (1919)[Long Berenger Agreement] With some modifications, the results of the negotiations were also incorporated in the San Remo Agreement of April 26, 1920.

The political provisions of the San Remo conference laid down many of the boundary lines that prevailed in the Middle East through the end of the century. Syria and Lebanon were destined for France as mandates under the League of Nations, although the mandate system had yet to be set up by the League. Mesopotamia and Palestine were to go to Great Britain. As a corollary, and as the price Britain had to pay to get the whole of Mesopotamia, including the district around Mosul, the British and French signed the Cadman-Berthelot Agreement Cadman-Berthelot Agreement (1920)[Cadman Berthelot Agreement] San Remo Oil Agreement (1920) on April 24, 1920. It was confirmed the following day by Lloyd George and Alexandre Millerand, Clemenceau’s successor as premier of France.

The Cadman-Berthelot Agreement, otherwise known as the San Remo Oil Agreement, was negotiated by Sir John Cadman and Philippe Berthelot. It gave to France the former German interest in the Turkish Petroleum Company. This assured France of 25 percent of the profits from the Mosul oil field and from any other oil found in Mesopotamia. Other provisions assured both signatories equal access to oil resources in Romania and the Soviet Union should these become available for private exploitation.

The agreement also looked forward to the construction of a pipeline to the Mediterranean coastline in order to facilitate shipment of Mosul oil to Europe. The parallel construction of railroads from the oil-producing region to the Mediterranean was also foreshadowed in the agreement. France agreed to facilitate these projects so far as they passed through French-controlled territory in Syria. Should pipelines and a railroad be built from the oil-producing regions to the Persian Gulf, Great Britain promised equal facilitation of the projects.


The immediate impact of the San Remo Agreement was to spark a revolt among the Arabs living in interior Syria. The Syrian Arabs had already proclaimed Faisal I Faisal I as king. The San Remo Agreement was seen as a betrayal of promises made by Great Britain, then seemingly confirmed by France in November of 1918, that the Arabs of the Middle East would be allowed to form an independent Arab state (or states) in the Middle East. Although the San Remo Agreement technically provided for Arab states, these were to be under the tutelage of Great Britain or France through the system of mandates.

The French, who had substantial forces in western Syria, defeated the Arabs in July, 1920. They dethroned Faisal I, who fled. Although the French were unpopular in Syria and Lebanon, they proceeded to organize the governments of both areas. The French maintained a military presence in Syria and Lebanon that ensured their control.

Meanwhile, the British had taken control of Mesopotamia. A revolt of the Arabs followed; it was finally brought under control by October of 1920. The British decided that the best policy was to organize an Arab government and to invite Faisal I to become king of Iraq, subject to approval by the populace. A referendum showed 96 percent approval, and in August of 1921, Faisal I was installed in power. Meanwhile, a constituent assembly, organized by British High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox, had designed a constitution for Iraq. Confirming this state of affairs, Great Britain converted Iraq’s status from a mandate territory, entering into a treaty relationship with the kingdom of Iraq in 1922; at the same time, a special military agreement gave the British a substantial degree of control. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, the British military presence in Iraq was steadily reduced.

The most important consequence of the San Remo Agreement was that it opened the Middle East to development of its oil resources. Prior to World War I, only Iranian oil had been developed to any significant extent. The Iranian oil fields had been discovered just after the turn of the century by English interests and had been substantially developed by the outbreak of the war. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was organized in 1908 to exploit a concession originally designed to last sixty years, granted in 1901 to the British exploration group. Anglo-Persian acquired Abadan Island in 1909, then built a pipeline from the oil field to the island and a refinery on the island between 1910 and 1913. Production began in 1912 and rose rapidly to 273,000 tons by 1914.

Exploitation of the oil potential in Iraq did not occur until the late 1920’s. The legal situation continued to be murky after the end of World War I. The Turkish Petroleum Company, a British company with a 25 percent French interest, was the owner of the concession made by the Ottoman government in the summer of 1914. The collapse of the Ottoman government and its effective displacement after World War I by the native Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) left the status of the concession uncertain. Until 1922, the Ankara Turks continued to demand the return of the Mosul area to Turkish control, and the issue was finally submitted to the League of Nations. In 1925, the League ruled that the area was properly part of the kingdom of Iraq but that Turkey was to receive 10 percent of any oil revenues derived from the Mosul province.

This determination in turn made it possible for the Turkish Petroleum Company to renegotiate the concession for Mosul. The Iraqi government gave the Turkish Petroleum Company permission to explore for oil in the Mosul province, and in 1927 an immense oil field was struck in the vicinity of Kirkuk. Meanwhile, the ownership of the Turkish Petroleum Company was being protested by the Americans, who favored an “open door” policy for the exploration and development of Middle Eastern oil. A compromise was reached in 1925, under which some of the shares of the Turkish Petroleum Company that were owned by Anglo-Persian Oil would be made available to a consortium of American oil companies, provided they accepted a proviso that they would not seek other oil development properties in the area controlled by the Turkish Petroleum Company.

Originally, the American consortium consisted of most of the major American oil firms of that time, but by the time the agreement was formalized in 1928, it consisted of only two companies, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (later Esso) and Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (later Mobil). These two firms formed a new company, the Near East Development Corporation, Near East Development Corporation that became the owner of 23.75 percent of the shares of the old Turkish Petroleum Company, which was now renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company. Iraq Petroleum Company In addition, there was a special agreement, signed by all the participating firms in the Iraq Petroleum Company, that they would not seek oil concessions elsewhere in the Middle East except with the approval of the British government. This agreement was known as the Red Line Agreement. Red Line Agreement (1928) It was later challenged in court by American oil companies not party to it and was nullified after World War II.

The discovery of the major oil field in the vicinity of Kirkuk made the construction of a pipeline essential. The pipeline was constructed in a wishbone shape, with two terminals, one at Tripoli, Lebanon, the other at Haifa, in Palestine. This pipeline construction was foreshadowed in the San Remo Agreement. The pipeline opened in 1935. The decision by the Allied leaders at San Remo that the mandate for Palestine should go to Great Britain was of importance for the pipeline, because one of its terminals on the Mediterranean coast was located at Haifa. The British endeavored to fulfill their commitments to both the Arabs and the Jews by allowing limited immigration into Palestine by Jews and by creating the kingdom of Transjordan (which became Jordan) and placing on its throne a brother of the king of Iraq.

During the 1920’s, Ibn Saՙūd Ibn Saՙūd secured for himself the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Arabian desert, technically independent but closely linked to the British. He was not bound by the Red Line Agreement and so was able to negotiate oil concessions with American oil companies, notably Standard Oil of California and Texaco. These two companies created Aramco Aramco to carry out exploration in Saudi Arabia as well as development of the oil resource.

It is clear that although the extent of Middle Eastern oil resources was not known at the time of the San Remo Agreement, experts had a suspicion. This suspicion became reality between the two world wars. Between 1920 and 1940, Middle Eastern oil rose from a mere 1 percent of world oil production to 5.5 percent. The full import of Middle Eastern oil resources was not realized fully, however, until after World War II. San Remo Agreement (1920) Oil industry;San Remo Agreement World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">American Association for International Conciliation. International Conciliation. No. 166. New York: Author, 1921. This bulletin, part of a series published by the American Association for International Conciliation in the period immediately after World War I, contains the full text of the San Remo oil agreement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dockrill, Michael L., and J. Douglas Goold. Peace Without Promise: Britain and the Peace Conferences, 1919-1923. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1981. A retrospective view of the peace conference, from the perspective of half a century. The book contains one chapter on the Middle East settlement and some useful maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fieldhouse, D. K. Western Imperialism in the Middle East, 1914-1958. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Comprehensive look at European mandates and imperialism in the Middle East, beginning during World War I. Includes separate chapters on British Mesopotamia, French Syria, and French Lebanon, as well as the decline and partition of the Ottoman Empire. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lenczowski, George. Oil and State in the Middle East. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1960. Although the book is focused on the post-World War II period, the introductory chapters contain useful background material in more compressed form than in Longrigg’s book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longrigg, Stephen Hemsley. Oil in the Middle East: Its Discovery and Development. 3d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Longrigg, himself a participant in many of the events he describes as an employee of Anglo-Persian Oil, has written the ultimate account of the development of Middle Eastern oil. The first hundred pages deal with the period prior to World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Temperley, Harold W. V., ed. A History of the Peace Conference of Paris. 6 vols. London: Henry Frowe and Hodder & Stoughton, 1920-1924. Volume 6 of this exhaustive account of the Paris peace settlements deals with San Remo. All the intricacies of the negotiations are revealed. Because the book was written immediately after the conclusion of the peace conference, it does not have the benefit of historical perspective.

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Categories: History