KINGDOMS BUILT UPON SAND
When the war ended, the whole of Syria and Iraq were described as “Occupied Enemy Territory” and administered under military law pending a peace settlement. The area was occupied by British troops with a small French force on the Syrian coast and Feisal’s army in the interior. In Palestine there was a British military administration, on the Syrian coast a French provisional government. Although the main cities of Syria and Transjordan were governed by an Arab administration under Feisal, there was a significant attachment of British and French officers.
Iraq was treated as a single unit under one administration with a British civil commissioner at its head. This was the cool and careful Sir Percy Cox who had many years experience in the Persian Gulf. He was assisted as Oriental Secretary by one of the most remarkable English women of the century, Gertrude Bell. Tall and gaunt with an addiction to Parisian hats, Gertrude Bell had already earned her reputation as an intrepid traveller and oriental scholar. She knew as much if not more than Lawrence about Arab tribal politics and she shared his dream of establishing a Hashemite Arab state under British patronage.
The Paris Peace Conference which, among other things, was to decide the future of the Ottoman Empire, opened in January 1919. Feisal, with Lawrence as his adviser went as spokesman for the Arabs, but was in a weak and difficult position. Snubbed and cold-shouldered by the French, who never relaxed their hostility towards the Hashemites, he was more than ever dependent on British support. On French insistence he attended the conference as a representative only of the Hejaz and not of his dream empire.
In fact, the important decisions about the future of the Arab lands had already been taken without his knowledge as the British and French premiers, Lloyd George and Clemenceau, had come to an understanding on the revision of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Militarily, Britain was much stronger than France in the Middle East, but the area had to be seen an a global context in which France was still Britain’s principal ally despite growing friction between them.
Lloyd George and Clemenceau had agreed that Palestine and Iraq would be under British administration while the French would have Syria, Lebanon and a proportionate share in Iraqi oil. The British government still hoped that the French would be willing to co-operate with Feisal’s government in Damascus, but there was nothing much it could do if it would not.
Lawrence had not despaired of “biffing the French out of all hope of Syria” as he had written in a now famous letter earlier in the war. In January, 1919, he had coaxed a dubious Feisal into an agreement with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann on Zionist-Arab co operation in Palestine.
Lawrence had conceived a half-baked scheme whereby with the help of Zionist money, Feisal could be made financially and therefore politically independent of the French. In a letter to a colleague at the time, Lawrence sketched out a remarkable vision of the future: “The British Empire has been increased by this war in Africa, and in Australasia: and in Asia we have taken on Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabia, and half of Syria. We will crash with all these new houses, unless we can find tenants for some of them.”
“Therefore we need Zionist and Arab cooperation. Australia wont like brown citizens of the Empire - but it’s coming anyhow. They are 5 million and the Browns about 300 million, (Lawrence was looking forward to the day when India and the Arabs would have a dominion status.) To Lord Curzon, Lord President of the Council, Lawrence wrote, “My own ambition is that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony.”
Lawrence’s dream may have been imperialist but it was far from illiberal at a time when those with non-white skins were still considered to be incapable of self government . But the dream was not realised for a number of reasons: determined French opposition, the ultimate impossibility of co-operation between Zionists and Arabs who had their own aims in view, and finally the military incompetence of the Hashemites who Lawrence hoped would lead the Arabs into the British Empire. As King of the Hejaz, Hussain was the only independent Hashemite monarch to have emerged from the war. He still enjoyed the prestige of the Keeper of the Holy Places but his kingdom was desperately poor and financially dependent on Britain. Moreover he was no match in the field for the rising new warrior, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the new power in central Arabia. In December 1915, Ibn Saud had signed a treaty with the British government which gave Britain a large measure of control over his policy in return for a monthly subsidy and recognition of the internal independence of the Njed. Ibn Saud enjoyed the support of the Government of India which, although under the ultimate control of Whitehall, held its own views about the future of the middle East. It tended to regard both the Arabian peninsula and Mesopotamia (Iraq) as its special provinces and, in common with the 70 million Muslims of India, had no sympathy with King Hussain’s pretensions as a religious and political leader. Thus there existed the extraordinary situation of two arms of the British government in direct conflict with each other. The Foreign Office continued to support the Hashemites while the India Office favoured Ibn Suad’s plans to take over the Hejaz.
In May 1919, Ibn Saud attacked and nearly annihilated a force led by the Amir Abdullah which had been sent to deal with him. Only British pressure prevented him from going on to seize the Hejaz from Hussain. For this he had to wait another five years.
Meanwhile Feisal was trying to consolidate his role in Syria which was even more vulnerable than that of his father in the Hejaz. In May 1919, he returned from Paris to Damascus and elections were held in those parts of Syria under his control. The National Congress which resulted, proceeded to pass vigorous resolutions declaring Syria (including Palestine) an independent Arab state, repudiating both the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.
But none of this was very realistic, and when Feisal returned to Europe in the autumn of 1919 he was forced to compromise in order to try to save what was left of Arab hopes of independence. Urged on by Lloyd-George, he reached an agreement with Clemenceau by which he accepted the French occupation of the entire costal area of Lebanon and Syria. This did not please his followers; on March 8, 1920, the Syrian National Congress passed a resolution proclaiming Feisal King of Syria (including Palestine and Lebanon). At the same time a meeting of Iraqi leaders passed a similar resolution concerning Iraq and chose Abdullah as their first monarch.
The Allies reacted swiftly. The Supreme Council of the League of Nations (equivalent to the United Nations Security Council) met at San Remo and announced its decision on May 5. Britain was to have the mandates for Palestine and Iraq, and France a joint mandate to administer Syria and Lebanon.
Feisal now ruled what was perhaps the shakiest kingdom in history. The French made little secret of their intention of establishing direct control over the whole of the Syrian interior as well as the coast and were looking for an excuse to occupy Damascus. Enraged, young Syrian Arabs were only too ready to provide the French with the pretext by attacking their “border posts” between the coastal region and the interior . Feisal was unable to constrain them.
On July 14, General Gouraud, the French commander ion Beirut, issued an ultimatum which demanded an unqualified acceptance of the mandate and a French military occupation of Aleppo the other main towns of central Syria. Feisal, urged by Lord Curzon to avoid hostilities at all costs, actually accepted the ultimatum. But it was no use. General Gouraud’s terrifying Senegalese and Moroccan Arab troops advanced and occupied Damascus. Feisal’s forces fought back bravely but could do little against the French tanks and artillery. Feisal himself was “invited” by the French to leave Syria. The British government, genuinely dismayed by what had happened, could nevertheless only express sympathy and wash its hands. It did invite Feisal to London where he arrived, a dignified but pathetic figure, in December 1920.
Unlike the French, Britain did not have to use force to establish her Arab mandates because her troops were already in occupation. But she was facing severe trouble in both of them. In Palestine, the first incidents in the Arab-Jewish conflict occurred in 1920 and in Iraq Britain faced a full-scale Arab rebellion against this occupation.
Cairo Conference 1921. Churchill front centre.
British officials in Iraq were divided between those, like Gerturude Bell, who favoured indirect British control through Arab institutions and an Arab (preferably Hashemite), Amir, and others, like the Acting Civil Commissioner, Col. A.T. Wilson,an arch-imperialist, who believed in direct colonial rule.
Wilson’s ideas were in line with the imperialists in the British cabinet who argued during the war that Britain should do everything to obtain “a continuity of territory or of control of both in East Africa and between Egypt and India.
Eventually it was Gertrude Bell’s views which prevailed, but not before Wilson’s repressive measures had helped to provoke an uprising of the tribes of central Iraq which was only put down at the cost of 10,000 casualties and £40 million - more than three times the sum Britain had spent on subsidising the Arab Revolt.
In view of the generally unsatisfactory situation in Britain’s semi-colonial Arab Empire, Lloyd George decided on a fresh approach.In order to put an end to the disastrous rivalry in the Middle East between Lord Curzon’s Foreign Office and Edwin Montague’s India Office, he decided to put the whole problem into the hands of the young Winston Churchill’s Colonial Office.
One of Churchill’s first actions was to persuade Lawrence to join his newly created Middle East Department as adviser on Arab Affairs. After a series of urgent discussions in London in which the exiled Feisal was involved, Churchill called a conference in Cairo in March, 1921, to endorse his decisions.
The conference was attended by all the senior officials in Britain’s new Arab “empire” - Sir Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell from Iraq and the new appointed High commissioner for Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel. It had already been arranged between Churchill, Lawrence, Cox and Bell, that Feisal should be made King of Iraq. Brushing aside Lloyd George’s doubts about the reaction of the anti-Hashemite French towards this sudden promotion of the man they had recently expelled from the throne of Syria, Churchill suggested that Iraqi public opinion should be prepared well in advance to give Feisal a good welcome.
Churchill had, in fact, another more immediate problem. In November 1920, the Amir Abdullah had arrived in Maan (later Transjordan), at the head of a motley army of tribesmen and retainers and announced his intention - possibly spurious and certainly unrealistic - of marching on Damascus to avenge his brothers expulsion.
His presence on the East Bank of the River Jordan was not unjustified. This dry, unpromising territory, inhabited largely by Bedouin, had, in Ottoman times, been virtually independent under its tribal rulers and during Feisal’s brief reign in Damascus it came nominally under his authority. Moreover, although the French were demanding that Britain expel Abdullah, the British felt some obligation towards the Sharif Hussain’s second son, who now appeared to have no hope of acquiring an Arab throne, let alone an empire.
Churchill accompanied by Lawrence, went up from Cairo to Jerusalem and summoned Abdullah to meet him. Abdullah, like a good oriental salesman, began by naming what he knew to be an impossible price : that Transjordan should be incorporated into Palestine as a single Arab state with himself as king. When Churchill turned this impossible dream down, he suggested that Transjordan should be joined to Iraq. Finally he accepted Churchill’s proposal that he should “temporarily” become ruler of the independent Amirate of Transjordan, with an annual British subsidy and British advisers, on the understanding that Britain would try to persuade the French to restore an Arab administration in Damascus with Abdullah at its head. Abdullah knew very well that there was no chance of this, but a reasonably secure Amirate was worth several hypothetical kingdoms.
The temporary arrangement, therefore became permanent and Transjordan was incorporated into the Palestine mandate, under the High Commissioner in Jerusalem with the proviso that the Mandate(Britain) could exclude it from the area of Jewish settlement. This was done and for nearly 30 years Transjordan remained a poor but relatively peaceful desert Arab state under British guidance and protection.
There remained the problem of ensuring that Feisal was accepted as the King of Iraq by a large majority in a national plebiscite. Gertrude Bell and Sir Percy Cox gave all their considerable energy to the task. (Some members of the British administration, such as St. John Philby, famous Arabian explorer, doubted the wisdom of imposing Hashemite rule on Iraq and favoured a republic. Philby was overruled and resigned.)
Feisal went first to Mecca from London and made a carefully staged triumphant arrival in Baghdad in June. A series of meetings of tribal leaders was held throughout the country. Gertrude Bell was usually present to give support. At one meeting, when a tribal leader remarked with tactless honesty that he was ready to swear allegiance to Feisal because he was acceptable to the British, Gertrude saved the day by clasping her hands as a symbol of British-Arab friendship and equality.
Feisal’s most serious rival in Iraq, Sayid Talib, was invited to tea with Gertrude Bell and Lady Cox but was whisked away in an armoured car and shipped off for a prolonged stay in Ceylon. Finally, Feisal was elected King by a 96.8% majority. On April 23 1921. Feisal I was proclaimed King of Iraq and Gertrude could write to her father: “We have had a terrific week but we have got our King crowned.”
With Abdullah and Feisal settled in Amman and Baghdad, their aged and by now bitterly resentful father still presented a problem. Lawrence was dispatched to Jeddah to persuade the old man to accept the accomplished fact that Syria, Lebanon and Palestine were lost to the rule of his family.
Hussain’s stubborn refusal to sign the treaty which was offered to him drove Lawrence into a fury. He wrote home describing the King of the Hejaz as “ conceited to a degree, greedy and stupid.”
Hussain never did sign and in 1924 the matter was settled when Ibn Saud, freed from his promise not to attack Iraq, Kuwait or the Hejaz by the ending of the annual British subsidy, overran Mecca with his fierce Wahhabi troops. Hussain abdicated in favour of the ineffectual Amir Ali, who withdrew to Jedda. The old Sharif retired to a bitter exile in Cyprus. In 1930 at the age of 75, he suffered a stroke and was allowed to move to Amman where he died a year later.
In December 1925, Ibn Suad overran the rest of the Hejaz and in the following year was recognised by the Great Powers as King of the Hejaz, with the Soviet Union leading the way.
Only two British-sponsored Hashemite states therefore, emerged from the post-war settlement and its aftermath - the Kingdom of Iraq and the Amirate of Transjordan.
Lawrence who held Churchill in high regard and this was warmly reciprocated but it is difficult to believe that he suffered no pangs of conscience when he wrote glowingly of him in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom . Whatever the reason Britain had not fulfilled neither the letter or the spirit of the promises which inspired the Arabs to revolt against the Turks.
BRITAIN-ITS PLACE IN THE MIDDLE-EAST
But what of the interests of the British Empire, none of which, according to Lawrence, had been sacrificed? The brown dominion of which he had dreamed had not come into existence. Yet it could be claimed that that for some 30 to 40 years after the First World War,. Britain held the position of paramount power in the middle East. The eastern Arab world (that is excluding French North Africa and Italian Libya) was not part of the British Empire but it was emphatically part, and a very important part, of the imperial system. British troops in Palestine and Egypt guarded the lifeline of the Empire. One M.P. was to remark as late as 1956 that: “The Suez Canal and the area surrounding it are in some essential sense part of the United Kingdom.” Many Britishers would have gone further and included the Red Sea and Aden.
In Iraq, once the views of those who favoured the creation of a permanent link with India had been decisively rejected, Britain’s primary interest was oil. Through her special position in Iraq, Britain was able to secure a concession covering virtually the whole country for British oil interests.
Later political and commercial pressures obliged Britain to allow one French company a share in the development of Iraq’s oil resources, but the Iraq Petroleum Company remained under British control and was always regarded by the Iraqis as the major instrument of British power and influence in their country. Its existence made it easier for Britain to relax the outward forms of its political control which were repugnant to Iraqi nationalists.
A series of Anglo-Iraqi Treaties in the 1920’s - which were always opposed by the Nationalists because they did not go far enough towards removing the limits of Iraq's independence - culminated in one of 1930 by which Iraq became a sovereign member of the League of Nations two years later.
Yet to a certain degree, Iraq still remained tied to the British Empire. Under the 1930 Treaty, Britain retained Air Force bases in Iraq who was obliged to regard herself as Britain’s ally in the event of war. (In the Second World War Britain actually over threw an Iraqi nationalist revolt, which was seeking to help the Axis powers, and restore the Hashemite monarchy.) It was not until the Iraqi Hashemites were finally destroyed in the bloody revolution of 1958 that Iraq ceased to be regarded in the Arab world as a British satellite.
Unlike Iraq, Transjordan was a wholly artificial British creation. But despite this, and although its population was composed largely of quarrelsome Bedouin tribesmen, it was easier to fashion it into the semblance of a unified nation with which Britain was able for a time to establish a fairly harmonious relationship. Two outstanding Anglo-Arab administrators, Sir Henry Cox and Sir Alexander Kirkbride, were given the chance as Abdullah remarked “to do good to the Transjordanians even against their will.”
The most notable British achivement in Transjordan and the partial fulfillment of Lawrence’s dreams was the creation of the Arab Legion. This was the Transjordanian Amy named by Abdullah after the regulars who fought with Feisal in the Arab Revolt.
As in Iraq, but at a more leisurely pace, Britain transferred its mandatory powers to Transjordan. The 1928 treaty recognised Transjordan’s independence, although Britain retained control over finance, foreign affairs, jurisdiction over foreigners and “freedom of conscience.” In 1939 Britain agreed to the conversion of the Legislative Council into a cabinet with ministers responsible to the Amir.
In 1946 Transjordan became fully independent and, following the Arab-Israli War and Abdullah’ annexation of the West Bank - the part of Palestine which remained in Arab hands - he was proclaimed King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan - the only Hashemite monarchy which survives precariously to this day under Abdullah’s grandson Hussain.
Even after the declaration of Jordan’s independence the country remained under British tutelage. Lacking any resources of its own, Transjordan depended heavily on British subsidies - especially for the army , which continued to be trained and commanded by British officers until General J.B. Glubb, (Glubb Pasha), summary dismissal in February 1956, by the young King Hussain, who deeply resented his paternalist attitude. With the termination of the Anglo-Jordanian Treaty (including the British subsidy) in the same year, the United States replaced Britain as Jordan’s chief outside protector and supporter.
Elsewhere in the Arab World the United States was taking over Britain’s semi-imperial role, although its style and methods were different. In the 1930’s American interests acquired the concession to exploit Saudi Arabia’s oil resources which were to prove to be some of the richest in the world. Oil was discovered in 1937, but production was held up by the Second World War,and it was Britain who provided King Ibn Saud with an annual subsidy to help him in his severe financial straits.
King Abdullah bin Hussain
The American oil Companies became alarmed that Britain might increase her political hold over Saudi Arabia to a point that would endanger their concession and, with support from the U.S. Government, provide the old king with loans to see him through the war. The United States won the rather curious competition with Britain to pay Ibn Saud the most money fairly easily because it was richer and because oil revenues increased rapidly again after the end of the war.
In 1945 Britain, with her huge military bases in Suez and Palestine, was still seemingly the paramount power in the Middle East. In that year she was largely responsible for forcing France to grant independence to Syria and Lebanon and the Arab League was established under her auspices. Thirteen years later, after the Suez fiasco of 1956 and the Iraqi Revolution of 958, Britain’s Middle East Hegemony was little more than a memory except on the fringes of Arabia - in the booming port of Aden the barren hills of the Aden Protectorate and in the Persian Gulf, where the British Resident was still to play a pro-consular role from his headquarters in Bahrain for another decade.
Many factors contributed to the extinction of British power: the post-war exhaustion which caused Britain to hand over the Cold War command in the Middle East sector to the United States; the disastrous failure to find any solution to the Arab-Jewish problem in Palestine and its abandonment on the doorstep of the United Nations; and above all, the granting of independence to the Indian sub-continent which removed the very foundation of British interest in the Middle East. Britain's brief Arabian adventure was over.
It is often said that an instinctive bond exists between Britain and the Arabs. If this were true, the attempt to incorporate them within the British imperial system was natural, if belated. But the proposition hardly stands up to examination. Certainly there were individual Britishers who distinguished themselves as explorers, scholars, soldiers, or more recently, as administrators in the Arab world. Apart from Lawrence, there were men like doughty, Philby, Cox, Kirkbride, Ingrams, Glubb and a score of others who have played a role in the modern history of the Arab nation even if there are few Arabs who care to remember them today.
There were too, some fearless and formidable English ladies in a line that stretches from Lady Hester Stanhope, William Pitt’s niece, who became the uncrowned Queen of Palmyra, through Gertrude Bell to the traveller Freya Stark.
Some of these Britishers, but by no means all, were genuinely devoted to the Arabs. It is easy to believe Glubb when he writes of the time he was serving as a young officer in Iraq:”I made up my mind to resign my commission in the British Army and devote my life to the Arabs. My decision was largely emotional. I loved them.”
But almost invariably the aspect of the Arabs these British people fell in love with was the dying civilisation of the nomadic desert tribes. They hated its destruction by the overpowering influence of Western urban values. Undoubtedly, the new forces had their uglier aspects, but no 20th Century nation could ignore them. The new Arab political elite was formed more by its attitude to the riches that lay under the desert than the romance of the desert itself. Unless Britain could compete with America and Russia on an economic level, then her Arab pseudo-Empire was doomed. And Britain could Not!.
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