Returning and Redemption
The Suez Canal

…with the building of the Suez Canal by France and Egypt, many decades of direct interference in the region began, culminating in Britain’s outright annexation of Egypt in 1914 when it found itself at war with the Ottoman Empire.

The importance to the British of the Suez Canal cannot be overestimated- right up until the Suez disaster of 1956, next to India itself – Britain’s jewel in the crown – the canal was probably the most important strategic holding the empire had to protect and defend. Not until the production of oil began in 1927 in Iraq did the Suez Canal share importance with any other British possession. The reason was that it drastically and most usefully reduced the time it took British ships – passenger liners and freighters, as well as Royal Navy warships – from Britain to India, the Raj. Once British ships no longer had to go all the way around Africa to make this vital journey, the Suez Canal became the most vital of all imperial arteries.


Arab Nationalism

Nationalism was in many ways the great explosive force of the twentieth century, causing world wars, colonial rebellions, and much else besides. Its sheer power – seen as late as the 1990’s nationalist wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, in which hundreds of thousands died or were forced into exile – is surely obvious. Yet amazingly, there are those, including famous and revered authors such as Elie Kedourie and his followers (such as the Karshes) who actually deny that such a phenomenon as Arab nationalism even exited…

I tend to think that while Hussein was out for himself, there was also a genuine – even if still small – sense of Arab nationalism he was able to cap into.


The Arab Revolt against the Ottomans

Up until 1908, Ottoman policy had been that if you were a Muslim, you were a loyal subject of the empire and would be given considerable leeway locally in what you did – something the overwhelmingly Muslims subscribed to. However, in 1908, the Young Turk regime had started to introduce what one might call a Turkification process, slowly changing it from an empire whose ruler was a Turkish Muslim, the Sultan/Caliph, into much more of a Turkish empire, with Turks as a ruling class.

In addition, by 1913, the Turks had lost most of their remaining empire in Europe, retaining only a tiny European foothold around Adrianople, now known as Edirne, the remaining part of what had once been an enormous Ottoman domain over most of the Balkans and even much of present-day Hungary.

The state of the Ottoman Empire makes the failure of the Arab peoples to revolt en masse against such oppression all the more remarkable…


The Arab Revolt did not do much to beat the Turks, but it did give the Arabs a powerful argument for legitimacy in the very changed circumstances of the end of the war; for, as many of them argued – notably in Egypt, which had become a British protectorate in 1914 – the right to self-determination that Wilson was granting to the oppressed peoples of Europe – the Czechs, Poles and others – applied to Arabs as well. They, too, had the right to and independent sovereign nation of their own.


An Arab Regime in Mesopotamia

Part of the predicament was that Britain was also facing major problems elsewhere, Ireland included. Not until 30 July was Churchill prepared to order the dispatch of a whole military division from India to Mesopotamia; yet by the beginning of August, General Haldane was telling his War Office colleagues that not even Baghdad could definitely be held against the rebels.

Then the former Acting Commissioner, A.T. Wilson, had an idea that would eventually come to Churchill’s rescue. Up to this point, Wilson, like many other India Office officials, had been against the notion of an Arab regime. Yet he now proposed that an Arab government be set up in the region, headed by Feisal, who had only just been brutally expelled from Syria by French troops.


Churchill Clashes with Cox

Needless to say, Churchill’s overarching desire to save as much money as possible did not go down too well with Sir Percy Cox, especially since Cox had told everyone in Baghdad that British troop levels would remain high, and Churchill’s policy in effect completely overruled what had been decided. He was equally incensed about the fact that it looked as if his scheme for Feisal to rule the new Iraq was being put on ice. On receiving Churchill’s telegram asking him to introduce major cuts, Sir Percy immediately offered his resignation. This was indeed a problem, since, as Churchill’s officials did not hesitate to remind their vacationing “secretary of state,” no one else held the same degree of prestige in the Middle East that was enjoyed by Sir Percy. If he resigned, they would “want more troops & not less!”


Religion and Arab Politics

But even more important were the religious problems Churchill raised, problems that still haunt the Arab world today – not just in how to maintain a unitary state but also in the version of Islam that arguably led to the horrors of 11 September 2001 and all that has flowed from that day.

First of all, the majority of people living in what was about to become Iraq, were – as Churchill was aware – Shia, not Sunni, Muslim. In fact, the theological differences between these two ancient branches of Islam are not very great. Rather, the differences are in many ways political and cultural, all stemming from a seventh-century debate on who was the legitimate successor of the Prophet Muhammad following his death in 632…

The Hashemites are Sunni Muslims, and in 1921, while the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims were Sunni (85 or more percent today), the majority in both Iran and the new Iraq were (and are) Shia. So even if Feisal (and his branch of the Sharifian clan) could be said to be the right ruler for Iraq, as his supporters argued, that would still not have given him any degree of legitimacy among the vast majority of his new – and loyally Shia – subjects. It would also mean minority Sunni rule over a predominantly Shia population.

Minority rule has been the fate of Iraq’s majority Shiites ever since and is thus a massive problem for any genuinely democratic Iraqi state that may try to emerge in the twenty-first century…


The Cairo Conference

The question of whether military withdrawal was a good or bad thing was not even open for discussion; the decision had been made…

So Churchill, having dealt with what to him was the main issue – troop reductions – went on to the other key decision- the new ruler. He asked Sir Percy Cox first for his view, and Cox replied that Feisal was by far the best candidate. The reason Sir Percy gave is significant, in that it spoke to Churchill’s primary aim – the creation of a native Iraqi army that could work alongside the Royal Air Force, Britain’s new means of maintaining order as cheaply as possible in the newly independent mandate state. Sir Percy said he “considered Feisal’s previous experience during the war placed him in the best position for raising an army quickly.”


This became a major issue of discussion- How could it be made to look as if Feisal was the choice of the Iraqi people? The formula Churchill had in mind, which he tested in a telegram to Lloyd George on the 14th, was as follows-

In response to inquiries from adherents of Emir Feisal, the British Government have stated that they will place on obstacles in the way of his candidature as Ruler of Iraq, and that if he is chosen he will have their support.

Churchill’s exact wording was important for diplomatic reasons as well- Lord Curzon was now having to do his best to placate the French, whose opposition to Feisal’s candidature had not diminished.

Churchill also concocted a bargain- Britain would offer to support France in German-related issues if the French agreed to let the British have Feisal.


Churchill, ever-mindful of the main reason for the conference, was continually telling his colleagues that the savings proposed to date were “quite insufficient”…Making these economies was eased by the unanimous view that airpower, rather than troops on the ground, should be the way of maintaining British military control in the region. In addition, was an ideal training area for the new Royal Air Force…Here again, British reasons – not Iraqi interests – were paramount.


Ibn Saud

…the real winner of 1921 was Ibn Saud. The British were mainly trying to appease him, except when it came to things like the borders of Kuwait, which Sir Percy Cox was to draw entirely in British interests, regardless of Ibn Saud’s preferences. Thanks to Sir Percy, Ibn Saud was able to create a massive new Arab kingdom, conquering large swaths of territory without any opposition at all.

Britain’s enabling the creation of an Arab kingdom with a uniquely medieval view of Islam (no other Muslim country has the draconian Hanbali/Wahhabi School of Islam as its official religion) was also a financial mistake. When oil was discovered in 1932 in what became Saudi Arabia, it was to the Americans Ibn Saud turned, not the British.


The Creation of Transjordan

Samuel strongly disagreed with Churchill’s growing idea that a separate Transjordanian state should be created for Abdullah, who was in Amman waiting to plot his next move. When the Palestinian Political and Military Committee met for the first time on 17 March, Samuel rapidly found himself isolated in his view, and Churchill told him that the decision to create a Transjordanian state had already been made in London, albeit “a view arrived at after considerable discussion,” Samuel was faced with an effective fait accompli. Nonetheless, he did his best. As he was able to remind Churchill and the others, the area had been one included in the specifically part of the League of Nations mandate. If separated, it would be seen “as an independent Arab state.” Should Abdullah become its ruler, he would not only use his new domain to attack the French in Syria, but he would also create a major source of anti-Zionist feeling “and thus prove a danger.” With what we now call massive understatement, there was, warned Sir Herbert, “some probability of controversy in Palestine for some years on the question of Zionism”…