The Arab Revolt and its Aftermath

The rational for the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule in concert with British forces was, in part, to throw off the yoke of an increasingly nationalist Turkish government from Arab lands. The aftermath of the Young Turks Revolution of 1908 was initially welcomed as a relaxation of the trend towards asserting Turkish identity onto Arab communities. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which had once been oriented towards the reform and democratization of the Empire, instead trended sharply towards the repression of Arabic culture, language, and autonomy, going so far as to regulate the vehicular language of schools in Arab communities to Turkish. This had been done with the guidance and leadership of the Three Pasha’s (Enver, Talaat, and Jamal).

The onset of the Great War in 1914 allowed Arab leaders a choice; to remain with and fight alongside the Empire, or join forces and rebel with the patronage of the Allies, particularly Great Britain. The decision to revolt was not so clear. Secret societies like Al-Fatat and Al-Ahd, organized by Arab nationalists and Arab officers in the Ottoman army, certainly welcomed the revolt and Sharif Husain of Mecca’s leadership in it. He brought legitimacy, particularly of an Islamic nature. Yet doubts remained. A lingering question for Faisal, son of Sharif Husain, was whether there were French designs in the Fertile Crescent, and if so what guarantee could the British offer if the Arabs did choose rebellion. In other words, would Ottoman defeat be replaced by a worse kind of occupation? The Sharif’s other son, Abdullah, shared these concerns but was more cautious about the prospects of Arab victory, not privy to the strength of the secret societies as Faisal was. Faisal’s position to negotiate with the British won out, and the revolt proved fateful based on two occurrences, the conclusion of the McMahon-Husain Correspondence in January 1916, and the public execution of prominent Arab nationalists in Beirut and Damascus of May in that same year. Under the latter, when hearing the names of nationalists executed, Faisal was said to shout an oath of revenge: ‘Tab al-maut Ya Arab’, “Death has become sweet, O Arabs.”[1] Any attempt to make peace with the Ottomans in Damascus was erased, and the Correspondence was the agreement left for Arab forces to stake their revolt on.

The British initially sought Arab friendship without definite pledges to their cause, but in mid-July 1915 when the letters between High Commissioner of Egypt and English diplomat Henry McMahon and Sharif Husain kicked off, the Arabs were in no mood for empty entreats. The Sharif relayed his amendments for an alliance to McMahon, and they were based almost verbatim off of the Damascus Protocol, sent to the Sharif through Faisal by al-Ahd. The Arabs wanted the abolition of all special privileges (capitulations) for foreign nationals, would allow economic preferences for Great Britain, and a defensive alliance between the two. The Sharif included the demand of Caliph Recognition, and fifteen years minimum of mutual assistance. Yet all this was moot without the recognition of an independent Arab state. Authors Cleveland and Bunton point out that “Husain had reason to believe that he was promised an independent Arab state…in Arabia, interior Syria, parts of Iraq, and possibly Palestine.”[2] The British had accepted the borders Husain had drawn up and sent, yet placed reservations on territories West of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo—it was then reasonable to believe that, besides the Lebanon, which the French believed they held special privileges in, the Arabs would receive their unified state. The Correspondence had concluded in January 1916, while other promises the British made did not come to light or were not in existence until after this date.

The most controversial ulterior British design on the Middle East for the Arabs came from the Balfour Declaration, produced on November 2, 1917 between the axis of Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), official spokesman for the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in Britain, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, and “a prominent figure in British Zionist circles” [3] Lord Rothschild. Weizmann played an instrumental role in furthering the Zionist cause in the halls of London’s power elite. Not only had he been able to assert moral arguments in favor of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, he lobbied with strategic rationales, leading the British to believe their interests were tied to that of Zionism. A prominent example of these strategic interests was the safeguarding of British Egypt from French positions in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Great War. The Zionists managed to convince the British that a friendly Jewish force in Palestine could act as a strategic hedge, blunting any French advances. Though the British government viewed “with favour the establishment of a National Home for the Jewish people”, the Declaration also stated that “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” should be upheld without prejudice. These internal questions would play out with more force as the interwar years began, yet in 1918-1920 the confusion from the Arab quarter came not in regards to Arab rights in Palestine, but how Great Britain could justify signing a document that overlapped a Jewish state with an independent Arab state.

One more document was concluded between the British and a third-party in regards to the future of the Middle East. The British had concluded a secret agreement with the French, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 between French Diplomat Picot and Sir Mark Sykes of Britain. This was “one of the most controversial documents of the war, for it appeared to contravene portions of the pledge that Britain had given to Sharif Husain.”[4] The French had taken the brunt of the trench warfare on the western front, and were thus unable to take part aggressively in operations in the Middle East, where the British had already a foothold in Egypt and could exert themselves in Iraq and of course through their Arab friends in the Hejaz. To maintain the balance of power in the great game being played between the imperial powers, Britain and France agreed to carve the Middle East between the two at the conclusion of the war. The French were portioned Syria and an expanded Lebanon as part of what was termed the mandates, and the British received a mandate in Iraq, Transjordan, and a newly created mandate in Palestine to oversee the creation of a Jewish homeland. Though Transjordan and Iraq received Hashemite monarchies, they continued to be heavily influenced by the British.

The mandate solution of 1918-1920 proved to be an increasingly untenable way to manage their affairs, yet the borders drawn up at the time stuck, and little political change occurred in mandate territories after their initial creation through the late teens and twenty’s. Faisal’s forces in the Kingdom of Syria could not hold up and were expelled. Yet Arab notables co-opted by the French continued in power. The British, believing Faisal was suited for governing on their behalf, was installed as king of Iraq instead, remaining until his death in the early 1930’s. Transjordan was carved for Abdullah, and enjoyed assistance from Great Britain that allowed the Hashemite Kingdom to survive. The Sharif, holding to the promises made to him by the British, became a nuisance and was allowed to fall to the Saudi family from Riyadh. Palestine remained without government, yet highly organized Jewish institutions willed their way through force and diplomacy into a favorable position to expand under British mandate. The British had no way of maintaining all their promises made, so they prioritized the maintenance of cordial relations with their ally France, and under the influence of increasingly powerful Zionist entities, aided in the influx of Jewish settlement in Palestine.

The Arabs, who had no real patron, a lack of organization, and little influence in the ministries of Europe, were allowed independent states in Arabia, but were kept firmly under the command of imperial occupying forces in the Levant and Iraq. The Mandate solution of Great Britain deprived the Middle East of its independence, of gaining state administration capabilities, and also set up a hostile Jewish force on its Western flank, determined to expel Arab populations from lands west of the Jordan River. By the time the San Remo conference of 1920, legitimizing mandate rule, concluded, the dismemberment of the Middle East was already completed secretly, at the expense of Arab unity and empowerment.

Works Cited

Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening. 2nd ed. New York: Capricorn Books, 1965.

Cleveland, William L, and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. 5th ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2012.

[1] George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, 2nd ed. (New York: Capricorn Books, 1965), 191.

[2] William L Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 5th ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2012), 147.

[3] Ibid, p. 226.

[4] Ibid, p. 149.

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