Belgium and the Ottoman Empire: Diplomacy, Capital and Transnational Loyalties, 1865-1914

Date: 29 June 2017

Venue: Auditorium Felixarchief - Oude Leeuwenrui 29 - 2000 Antwerpen

Time: 3:00 PM - 5:30 PM

PhD candidate: Alloul Houssine

Principal investigator: Prof Henk de Smaele, Prof Isa Blumi

Short description: Phd defence Alloul Houssine - Faculty of Arts


This dissertation investigates the manifold contacts and exchanges that took place between the Kingdom of Belgium and the Ottoman Empire from the reign of Leopold II (r. 1865-1909) up until the outbreak of World War One. Combining macro-level (foreign relations, trade, and finance) with micro-level analyses (interpersonal relations, discourses), it aims to construct a sociocultural history of the interactions between Belgian and Ottoman elites and their respective polities that places these interactions within the larger politico-economic context of the late nineteenth-century when the world was rapidly being transformed by the intertwined and disruptive forces of Western-centered imperialism and capitalism. The main actors focused on are traditional decision makers—foreign ministry staff and government and palace officials, as well as the non-state elites that inhabited the edges of the diplomatic world (entrepreneurs, various go-betweens, and pro-government journalists). A broad array of oppositional actors (parliamentarians, activists, critical ‘news’ makers) is also studied. One elite social and vocational group occupies center stage in this research, however, namely Belgian and Ottoman field diplomats. The lives and careers of these professionals who stood close to state power and held privileged positions in both their home and host states, poignantly illustrate how fluid the boundaries were between the official and unofficial, the public and the private, and the so-called West and the non-West.

The chief purpose of this study is to show, then, not only how state and economic interests structured the historical course of Belgian-Ottoman interrelations, but also how they were shaped by the plurality of interpersonal engagements between subjects of the two polities. Exploring multiple individual stories, it aims to revise and complicate existing diplomatic historical narratives of Euro-Ottoman relations, which often depart from state-centric visions of historical change and focus lopsidedly on ‘high diplomacy’ and the so-called Eastern Question. The case studies presented in this dissertation permit us to amend and enrich such histories by showing how states interacted with each other through ‘real’ (often unofficial) people and private interests.

This thesis puts forward three main arguments: First that the scholarship on (interstate) relations between ‘Europe’ and the Ottoman Empire is fixated on the policies of the ‘great powers’ and that an analysis of the Belgian case not only indicates the inadequacy of these accounts, but also produces new questions which have not been considered previously. Among other things, an approach that shifts the focus away from the major powers of the time allows for histories that focus not only on the hostile and unilateral exploitation of, but also the mutually beneficial synergies with the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the second claim put forth in this study is that the young ‘liberal’ bourgeois state that was Belgium should be perceived as an evident ally of the regimes that succeeded one another in Istanbul. A traditional historiographical perspective that narrowly studies official diplomacy, however, is permanently at risk of overlooking the social complexities that lie behind, and shape these relations. That is precisely why the third argument of the dissertation is that Belgo-Ottoman relations can be better understood as a product of intense and sustained engagement between political and economic elites of both states. This engagement was not limited to a formal and/or professional level, but consisted of private bonds of amity, affection, and rivalry as well. Indeed, close inter-personal interaction between various Belgian and Ottoman state and financial elites, either in Istanbul or Brussels, fostered strong transnational loyalties that unsettled some of the binary categories of the hegemonic Orientalist discourses of the time, while equally revealing the deep and often contradictory entanglements connecting the Belgian and Ottoman worlds in a Western-dominated age of global colonialist and capitalist exploitation.

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