Britain and the Near and Middle East have been trading partners since medieval times, with merchants travelling to London on business. Yemeni sailors lived around the docks from the second half of the 19th century. Iraqis have been settling in London since the 1930s, most recently to escape political oppression. In the 1970s, owing to war in the Lebanon, London became the centre of the Arab press. The oil boom during this decade led Middle Eastern businessmen to invest in Britain and professionals still come to London in search of career opportunities. Kurds form a minority in a number of countries. Some have sought refuge from oppression in London over the past decades.
There has been contact between Britain and the Near and Middle East from Medieval times. Crusades to the Holy Land and Muslim culture in Spain introduced Arab, Asian and Chinese mechanical ideas to Europe.
The knowledge the crusaders brought back was also significant in sparking off the Renaissance from the end of the 14th century.
From the 1580s, trade between Britain and the Middle East brought Turks and ‘Mahometans’ from the Ottoman Empire to London. There are references to such figures in Shakespeare’s plays and other literary works. These people were mainly merchants who stayed for only short periods.
Lascars (sailors) living around the London docks during the second half of the 19th century included Yemenis, some of whom married London women.
South Yemen became a British protectorate in 1905 and Yemeni seamen contributed to the British effort during World Wars I and II. However, by the end of the 1950s, the Merchant Navy was in decline and they sought onshore employment.
Iraqi settlement in London dates back to the 1930s, when the Christian Assyrian sect began to arrive in Britain. They now have their own church in Ealing. After World War II, skilled and professional Iraqis settled in Britain, some pushed by the effects of the 1958 revolution.
A number of Palestinians arrived in London following the creation of Israel in 1948. General migration to Britain increased during the 1950s and 1960s as the Middle East struggled to emerge from the era of colonialism. Most countries in the region were economically underdeveloped and politically unstable.
The economic boom following the 1973 oil crisis was coupled with continuing political uncertainty in parts of the Middle East. This led many to seek a new life and investment opportunities in London.
Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians and Jordanians, mainly from middle and upper class backgrounds, arrived. They used their capital and expertise to establish businesses.
Beirut, once hub of the Arab press, was badly affected from the 1970s by the Lebanese civil war, and London became the new centre for Arabic language newspapers.
Meanwhile Kurdish and Shi’a Iraqis fled political persecution in the 1970s and 1980s and a discernible Iraqi community began to emerge. It consisted, however, of groups with different political and religious views.
Professionals such as doctors, engineers and journalists still come to London because they often cannot find outlets for their skills in the Middle East. Many live in Westminster and Kensington.
Lebanese food is considered to be the best in the Middle East and Lebanese restaurants and shops line the Edgware Road. The majority of the worshippers at the Central London Mosque in Regent’s Park are of Middle Eastern origin.