By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

For reference, see a list of the personalities connected with British foreign policy towards the Arab Middle East, 1914–19.

As we have seen yesterday in the war of 1914-18, participants in the Middle East had their reasons for entering the conflict, and for the British, the focus was to secure the Suez Canal and the Gulf oilfields.

The actions in the Arab World during the First World War can be seen echoing throughout the history of the 20th century. The uprising sparked by the Foreign Office authorizing Sir Henry McMahon to enter into negotiations with Sherif Hussein and the debates surrounding the Sykes-Picot agreement has shaped the Middle East into forms that would have been unrecognizable to the diplomats of the 19th century.

Following the Arab revolt sparked by the Hussein-McMahon correspondence; and memoranda such as the Balfour Declaration, the first British (closely followed by the French) 1918 became very influential in the Middle East.

They acted without much ado upon recommendations by Lord Hardinge, Lord Kitchener, Sir Reginald Wingate, McMahon, and Sir Mark Sykes, even when these contradicted one another. This tendency was especially prominent during the first months of the war when Cairo was alternately instructed to encourage the Arab movement in every way possible and to refrain from giving any encouragement.

The negotiations with the Emir of Mecca could only be concluded after those with the French had successfully been completed. Even though the authorities in Cairo and Sykes urged the vital importance of a quick reply to Hussein’s overtures, the negotiations with the French, as these entailed consultations with the relevant departments and Russia, had to run their course. 

The revolt was officially initiated at Mecca on 10 June 1916, the aim of the revolt was to create a single unified and independent Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen, which the British had promised to recognize.

The discussions between the British and the French about who would control what following the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East would reach fever pitch during the Versailles deliberations.

During the Paris peace conference, Augustus John painted a portrait of T.E. Lawrence, dressed in Arab robes, including a dagger. It resonated with the British public. According to Christine Riding, it distilled a Western orientalist desire for power over the Orient while suggesting that that power in the figure of Lawrence would be exerted with ‘knowledge, understanding and empathy’.1.

By the time Faisal himself arrived in Paris on February 6, 1919, to present the case for Arab ‘self-government’ in Syria, Lawrence and the British had assembled an entire public relations team for him, pumping gullible journalists (especially American ones) with tales of derring-do by the Hashemite prince. Embracing his part, Faisal showed up to address the Supreme Council wearing ‘white robes embroidered with gold,’ with ’a scimitar at his side,’ thus inaugurating the curious twentieth-century tradition of Arab leaders addressing diplomatic assemblies while fully armed. In an inspired touch, Lawrence ‘interpreted’ Faisal’s remarks to the Supreme Allied Council himself (in fact, Lawrence’s Arabic was relatively poor, so what he was doing was making Faisal’s arguments for him). Speaking for Faisal, Lawrence said that the Arabs wanted, above all, self-determination. The Lawrence-Faisal promotion, judging by the effusions of Colonel House (in whom Faisal ‘inspired a kindly feeling for the Arabs’) and U.S. secretary of state Robert Lansing (Faisal ‘seemed to breathe the perfume of frankincense’), thoroughly bamboozled the Americans. The French, outmaneuvered, denounced the infuriating Faisal as ‘British imperialism with Arab headgear.’ 2

Below is the Arabian Commission to the Peace Conference at Versailles and its advisors.

Fear of French dominance and the need to establish an alliance that would support his political ambitions led Faisal to initiate the United States’ Middle East initiative. The inquiry was, in part, a result of the Hashemite prince’s choice not to reject the fresh mandates system outright while in Paris - a decision that immediately generated much controversy within nascent nationalist circles across bilad al-sham, or Greater Syria.3

Lloyd George and the British believed that, in Faisal and his Arab irregulars, they had an ace in the hole, a façade to rule behind.

Anticipating this very track, the French press sought to undermine Faisal’s Arabs by playing Lawrence’s role in leading them. In light of his later rise to world fame, Lawrence was entirely unknown to the Western public before the end of the war, largely by design. Both Allenby and his chief political officer, Gilbert Clayton, had concealed Lawrence’s role in public communiqués so as not to compromise Faisal’s political prospects. As late as December 30, 1918, Lawrence was unmentioned in the account of the fall of Damascus published in the London Gazette. 4 It was a French newspaper that first broke Lawrence’s ‘cover,’ expressly to belittle Faisal’s Arabs. Colonel Lawrence, the Echo de Paris reported in late September 1918, riding at the head of a cavalry force of ‘Bedouins and Druze,’ had ‘sever [ed] enemy communications between Damascus and Haifa by cutting the Hejaz railway near Deraa,’ thereby playing a part of the most significant importance in the Palestine victory.’ 5

By introducing T. E. Lawrence to the world, the French scored their own goal of the most self-destructive kind. Seeking to undermine Faisal, the Echo de Paris had instead glorified Faisal’s greatest champion, a man born for the role of mythmaker. Rather than deny his role in the Arab revolt, Lawrence shrewdly manipulated his newfound fame, presenting himself not as an effective liaison officer who had helped Arab guerrillas blow up some railway junctions but as a witness to an Arab national awakening.6

At a meeting of the Cabinet’s Eastern Committee in December 1918, Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, complained of drifting into a position’ Right from the east to the west there is only one possible solution to all our difficulties, namely that Great Britain should accept responsibility for all countries. 3 Whereby Churchill believed East and West Africa offered better opportunities for imperial development than the Middle East.7

Or, as an adviser to the British delegation to the Versailles peace conference also overheard Prime Minister Lloyd George musing aloud: ‘Mesopotamia … yes … oil … irrigation … we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine … yes … the Holy Land … Zionism … we must have Palestine; Syria … h’m… what is there in Syria? Let the French have that.’ 8 Other ministers sought to exploit the opportunity created by Turkey’s defeat and Russia’s implosion to ensure against a recrudescence of the latter’s power and strengthen India’s forward defenses.

However, outlining his Fourteen Points in January 1918, Wilson declared:

There was to be a free, open-minded, and impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined. As to the Ottoman Empire, the non-Turkish peoples ‘should be assured an undoubted security of life and an unmolested opportunity for autonomous development.9


Although Wilson proved unable to impose his ideas on his European allies, he had struck a powerful international chord. Even Mark Sykes acknowledged in March 1918 that the world had moved on since his agreement with Picot, which could now ‘only be considered a reactionary measure.’ 10

In November 1919, the British and French felt it necessary to declare publicly that the end for which the two countries had prosecuted the War had been ‘the complete and definitive liberation of the peoples long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations drawing their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.11 This was not, as events proved, to be taken at face value, not least because part of the British motive in issuing the declaration had been to undermine French claims to Syria. In Curzon’s words;

If we cannot get out of our difficulties in any other way, we ought to play self-determination for all it is worth wherever we are involved in problems with the French, the Arabs, or anybody else and leave the case to be settled by that final argument, knowing in the bottom of our hearts that we are more likely to benefit from it than is anybody else.12

Wilson’s primary influence next was reflected in the new concept of League of Nations mandates. To many, they were simply a means of draping the crudity of conquest in a veil of morality. That was the view indeed in Baghdad, where in June 1922, Al-Istiqlal declared that ‘we do not reject the mandate because of its name but because its meaning is destructive of independence.’ 13 Nevertheless, mandatory powers were accountable for their administrations of the new territories to the League of Nations. Category A mandates, which included those for the Middle East, were for countries nearly ready to run their affairs. The prospect of independence, in other words, was explicitly recognized, with the power of the mandatory being only temporary.14

Much would depend on the development of Arab nationalism. This could only be exacerbated by the imposition of British hegemony in the place of an Ottoman Empire, which had excited relatively little opposition and had at least the advantage of being Muslim.15 The time had gone, as Major Hubert Young at the Foreign Office noted in 1920;

when an Oriental people will be content to be nursed into self-government by a European Power. The spread of Western education increased communication facilities. Above all, the War, with the resultant emergence of the Wilsonian principle of self-determination, has combined with bred in the minds of Eastern agitators a distrust for, and impatience of, Western control. We cannot ignore this universal phenomenon without endangering and possibly losing, beyond possible recall, our position in the East.

The problem was not, in Young’s condescending view, insoluble, so long as Britain was careful to, distinguish between the wild cries of the extremist, anxious to secure for himself and deny to the foreigner what he regards as the spoils of government, and the childish vanity of the masses on which he brings his armory to bear. If we could but descend to tickling that vanity ourselves, we should deprive the agitator of his most potent weapon.16

Young’s solution, which was to work for the next two decades, was the recognition of native governments and then entering into a treaty relationship with them.

There were two more immediate constraints on British policy. The disadvantages of some of the wartime agreements were becoming apparent. British ministers and officials believed that they had conceded too much to the French. In the opinion of the General Staff, it was difficult to see how any arrangement ‘could be more objectionable from the military point of view than the Sykes-Picot agreement […] by which an enterprising and ambitious foreign power [i.e., France] is placed on interior lines concerning our position in the Middle East.14 There was talk of confining the French to the narrowest possible limit of Arab land, preferably in the region of Beirut. At the same time, there was a belated appreciation of the contradictions between the various British promises as they affected Syria and Palestine and the Zionists and Palestinians.18

The other pressing constraint was military overstretch. In 1918 British power in the Middle East was at its apogee. More than a million British and imperial troops now occupied the Ottoman Empire. 19 Forces on this scale could not be sustained for any time. However, the rapid demobilization of 1919 occurred against a background of emergencies across the world, stretching from India, via Egypt and Turkey, to Ireland, all of which were tying up British troops. The press, led by Lord Northcliffe’s Times and Daily Mail, believed they had found a useful stick to beat Lloyd George. A Times editorial of 18 July 1921 complained that while nearly £ 150 million had been spent since the Armistice on ‘semi-nomads in Mesopotamia,’ the government could only find £ 200,000 a year for the regeneration of British slums and had to forbid all expenditure under the 1918 Education Act. 20

If these weren’t handicaps enough, the continued division of responsibility for the region between government departments was now further exacerbated by the division of government between London and the peacemakers in Paris. This made for endless discussion without resolution. Nor did it help that Lloyd George had a habit of acting without reference to his advisers, departments, or prepared positions. 21

The Middle East was but one of many immensely complex problems facing the peacemakers. The broad outline of the settlement in the Middle East was not evident until the San Remo conference of April 1920. Here the British and French effectively awarded themselves mandates over Iraq (as Mesopotamia now came to be known), Palestine, and Syria. As Curzon told the House of Lords, the gift of mandates lay not with the League but ‘with the powers who have conquered the territories, which it then falls on them to distribute.’ 22 It was only at a conference of British officials and experts held in Cairo in March 1921 and chaired by the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, that the question of rulers was decided, with the award of the Iraqi and Transjordanian Thrones to two of the  Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family’s sons, Abdullah and Faisal.

Although British policymakers saw linkages between the various ex-Ottoman territories, there was little way of an overview of policy towards the region. The outcomes are best understood on a country-by-country basis. Thus Faisal and the French were immediately at odds over Syria. At issue was not simply a territorial dispute between two rival claimants but the first political contest between a European imperial power and a claimant standing on the rights of self-determination. As Faisal told Lloyd George, he ‘could not stand before the Muslim world and say that he had been asked to wage war against the Caliph of the Muslims and now see the European powers divide the Arab country.’ 32

With Woodrow Wilson reluctant or unable to turn his stirring rhetorical support for self-determination into political reality, Faisal was almost totally dependent on the British. Having committed themselves to both sides, they equivocated and wriggled. The French prime minister, Georges Clémenceau, who was primarily concerned with security against Germany, had little interest in the empire. In December 1918, he had been willing to agree to British control of Palestine and Mosul, the latter with the critical proviso that French companies would have a share of oil rights there. But he assumed that Damascus and Aleppo would be his quid pro quo. Syria was one question he could not politically afford to concede. Vital Catholic interests were determined to ensure that France retained its historic ‘presence’ in the Middle East. At the same time, the War had demonstrated France’s vital interest in the empire for manpower, money, and raw materials. ‘No other nation other than France’, wrote Maurice Barres in the Echo de Paris, in a comment which would certainly not have been approved by any official English reader, ‘possesses in so high a degree the particular kind of friendship and genius which is required to deal with the Arabs […] If England wishes to give a kingdom to this Amir, let him set up in Baghdad.’ 33

Lloyd George nevertheless seemed determined to try to deny the French their one Middle Eastern prize. His military advisers wanted a railway link between Palestine and Iraq across Syrian territory for imperial communications. Allenby warned of the risk that a French mandate would lead to a war between France and the Arabs. Besides, the Prime Minister admired Faisal and believed that he had been promised at least the interior of Syria and that French rule would be more oppressive than British rule in Palestine and Iraq. For much of 1919, therefore, the British tried either to reconcile the two parties or get the French to change policy and even withdraw. This led to some furious exchanges between Clémenceau and Lloyd George. On one of these occasions, Clémenceau accused Lloyd George of being a cheat. 34

In the face of French intransigence, the British opted for France by autumn. They could no longer afford to keep an army of occupation in Syria. Moreover, as Sir Arthur Hirtzel, Permanent Under-Secretary in the India Office, put it, ‘If we support the Arabs in this matter, we incur the ill-will of France; and we have to live and work with France all over the world.’ 35 British troops were withdrawn on 1 November 1919. The garrisons in Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Damascus were handed over to Faisal; those on the Syrian littoral went to the French. Faisal felt deserted. He complained of being handed over ‘tied by feet and hands to the French, insisting that Syria was ‘no more a chattel for political bargaining than is liberated Belgium.’ 36

The British advised Faisal to come to terms with the French; he could not do so. In March 1920, the Syrian General Congress declared the country independent within its ‘natural boundaries’ including Lebanon and Palestine. This earned a firm rebuke from Curzon, who pointed out firmly where power lay. ‘The Allied Armies conquered these countries, and their future […] can only be determined by the Allied Powers acting in concert.’ 37 The French were nevertheless subjected to guerrilla attacks along the coast and denied the use of Aleppo, which was being used to support French troops in Cicilia fighting Mustapha Kemal. In July 1920, not very surprisingly, the Hashemite leader was expelled. Syria, declared Alexandre Millerand, the new French premier, would henceforward be held by France ‘the whole of it, and forever. 38


The loss of the direct linkage to the broader Arab hinterland that accompanied Lebanon’s creation as a separate state (see next article) served to strengthen the power and wealth of Beirut’s merchants and bankers, who enjoyed a virtual monopoly on foreign trade. In contrast, smaller cities such as Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south, which relied on regional, inter-Arab work, declined economically.



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