King Ibn SaudThe mandates for Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq were formally approved by the Council of the League of Nations in July 1922 and became effective in September 1923. In 1924 the United States, which was not a member of the League of Nations, gave its approval to them. Transjordan was added to Britain’s Palestine mandate, but the mandatary was permitted to exclude it, and in fact did exclude it, from the area of Jewish settlement.

The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire thus resulted in the creation of five new states- Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq and Palestine. All of them were under the tutelage of Britain or France, which had also been chiefly responsible for establishing the shape of their frontiers. With the Treaty of Mundros (1918), Turkish suzerainty over Yemen, which has never been very effective, finally came to an end. The country’s remoteness and inaccessibility, reinforced by the wishes of its rulers, ensured that it remained backward but independent. Another new state- the kingdom of Hejaz, the residue of King Hussein’s dream of an independent Arab federation under Hasemite rule- was short-lived. In the rest of Arabia, Ibn Saud, ‘Sultan of Nejd and its Dependencies’, was expending his rule. Having finally subdued his Rashidi enemies to the north, in 1920 he sent his 15-year-old son Feisal to the south-western Arabian highlands of Asir to secure the allegiance of its people. He did the same with the Jawf region on the borders of the newly created emirate of Transjordan. But Ibn Saud was faced with a recurring problem- his undisciplined and ferocious tribal warriors, who had no regard for international frontiers, launched raids deep into the territory of Transjordan and Iraq. British planes and armoured cars joined local tribesmen to drive them back with heavy losses.

The boundaries between Nejd and both Kuwait and Iraq were still not properly defined. Ibn Saud regarded border demarcation as ludicrous in an area where the nomad inhabitants lacked any sense of nationality and were accustomed to wander over huge stretches of desert to find pasturage for their flocks. But the British protectors of Iraq and Kuwait were determined to establish a frontier beyond which Wahhabi power would not be allowed to expand. At Uqair, the sea-port of al-Hasa on the Gulf, Sir Percy Cox, high commissioner of Iraq, reached an agreement with Ibn Saud whereby a large slice of territory claimed by Iraq was allocated to the new kingdom of Iraq. In order to placate Ibn Saud, some two-thirds of the land that had been considered to belong to Kuwait at the time of the 1913 agreement with the Ottoman government became part of Nejd. An embarrassed Cox later explained to the Amir of Kuwait that nothing could be done to prevent Ibn Saud from taking the territories if he wished.

Britain was less successful in arranging an accommodation between Ibn Saud and his old rival and enemy King Hussein of the Hejaz, to which all Wahhabi ambitions were now directed. The embittered old king refused to sign the 1921 draft treaty, which would have meant accepting the accomplished fact that Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were all lost to the rule of his family. His annual subsidy from Britain had been discontinued. However, he still aimed to assert himself. He demonstrated his authority over his family by making a state visit to Aqaba, where he was received with due deference by his sun Abdullah, the new amir of Transjordan. He then made a fatal error. Since Mustafa Kemal of the new Turkish Republic had just abolished the institution of the Islamic caliphate, Hussein declared himself to have assumed the title of ‘Prince of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet’.

Early in the war Britain had supported the idea of a restored Arab caliphate, but now it was no longer interested. In the Muslim world as a whole, apart from some Hashemite loyalists in Palestine and Syria, reaction to Hussein’s declaration ranged from indifference to anger. Among Ibn Saud’s Wahhabi warriors there was rage. It was at this moment that Britain decided to end the £60,000 subsidy it had been paying Ibn Saud since 1915. He therefore no longer had any motive for restraining his warriors, who at once fell upon the Hejaz. Hussein, who, whatever his faults, remained dignified and courageous to the last, wanted to fight to the end, but the Hejazis persuaded him to abdicate in favour of his eldest son, Ali, who had retreated to barricade himself with his forces in Jedda and might be able to sue for better terms from the Wahhabis. Hussein sailed away to an embittered exile in Cyprus, taking with him what remained of him treasures.

Ali held out in Jedda for a year until he surrendered and abdicated. Ibn Saud’s forces soon overran the rest of Hejaz, but he took care to restrain his Ikhwan warriors, reports of whose excess terrified the local population. Ibn Saud gave priority to security. He reopened the Islamic pilgrimage route and set out to demonstrate that he could ensure the security of the holy places after centuries of disorder. An English Muslim who made the hajj (pilgrimage) in 1925 wrote of Ibn Saud, ‘He is probably the best ruler that Arabia has known since the days of the four Khalifas.’

With Ali’s abdication in December 1924, Ibn Saud became ruler of the whole Hejaz, except that in the extreme north-west the British authorities in Palestine retained some territory by sending troops and armoured cars to occupy the strip between Maan and Aqaba, on the grounds that, as part of the former Ottoman vilayet of Damascus, it should now be included in the British mandate for Palestine. The reality was that is was considered essential for Amir Abdullah’s emirate of Transjordan to have an outlet to the sea. Ibn Saud never accepted the fait accompli, but he was unable to prevent it.