How the British Divided Up the Arab World

The development of the modern nation states throughout the Arab world is a fascinating and heartbreaking process. 100 years ago, most Arabs were part of the Ottoman Empire/Caliphate, a large multi-ethnic state based in Istanbul. Today, a political map of the Arab world looks like a very complex jigsaw puzzle. A complex and intricate course of events in the 1910s brought about the end of the Ottomans and the rise of these new nations with borders running across the Middle East, diving Muslims from each other. While there are many different factors leading to this, the role that the British played in this was far greater than any other player in the region. Three separate agreements made conflicting promises that the British had to stand by. The result was a political mess that divided up a large part of the Muslim world.

The Outbreak of World War I

In the summer of 1914, war broke out in Europe. A complex system of alliances, a militaristic arms race, colonial ambitions, and general mismanagement at the highest government levels led to this devastating war that would claim the lives of 12 million people from 1914 to 1918. On the “Allied” side stood the empires of Britain, France, and Russia. The “Central” powers consisted of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The Ottoman Empire in 1914 at the start of the war

The Ottoman Empire in 1914 at the start of the war

At first, the Ottoman Empire decided to remain neutral. They were not nearly as strong as any of the other nations fighting in the war, and were wracked by internal and external threats. The Ottoman sultan/caliph was nothing more than a figurehead at this point, with the last powerful sultan, Abdulhamid II, having been overthrown in 1908 and replaced with a military government led by the “Three Pashas”. They were from the secular Westernized group, the Young Turks. Financially, the Ottomans were in a serious bind, owing huge debts to the European powers that they were not able to pay. After trying to join the Allied side and being rejected, the Ottomans sided with the Central Powers in October of 1914.

The British immediately began to conceive of plans to dissolve the Ottoman Empire and expand their Middle Eastern empire. They had already had control of Egypt since 1888 and India since 1857. The Ottoman Middle East lay right in the middle of these two important colonies, and the British were determined to exterminate it as part of the world war.

The Arab Revolt

One of the British strategies was to turn the Ottoman Empire’s Arab subjects against the government. They found a ready and willing helper in the Hejaz, the western region of the Arabian Peninsula. Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the amir (governor) of Makkah entered into an agreement with the British government to revolt against the Ottomans. His reasons for allying with the foreign British against other Muslims remains uncertain. Possible reasons for his revolt were: disapproval with the Turkish nationalist objectives of the Three Pashas, a personal feud with the Ottoman government, or simply a desire for his own kingdom.

Whatever his reasons were, Sharif Hussein decided to revolt against the Ottoman government in alliance with the British. In return, the British promised to provide money and weapons to the rebels to help them fight the much more organized Ottoman army. Also, the British promised him that after the war, he would be given his own Arab kingdom that would cover the entire Arabian Peninsula, including Syria and Iraq. The letters in which the two sides negotiated and discussed revolt were known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, as Sharif Hussein was communicating with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.

Arab rebels with the British-designed Flag of the Arab Revolt

Arab rebels with the British-designed Flag of the Arab Revolt

In June of 1916 Sharif Hussein led his group of armed Bedouin warriors from the Hejaz in an armed campaign against the Ottomans. Within a few months, the Arab rebels managed to capture numerous cities in the Hejaz (including Jeddah and Makkah) with help from the British army and navy. The British provided support in the form of soldiers, weapons, money, advisors (including the “legendary” Lawrence of Arabia), and a flag. The British in Egypt drew up a flag for the Arabs to use in battle, which was known as the “Flag of the Arab Revolt”. This flag would later become the model for other Arab flags of countries such as Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Kuwait.

As World War One progressed through 1917 and 1918, the Arab rebels managed to capture many major cities from the Ottomans. As the British advanced into Palestine and Iraq, capturing cities such as Jerusalem and Baghdad, the Arabs aided them by capturing Amman and Damascus. It is important to note that the Arab Revolt did not have the backing of a large majority of the Arab population. It was a minority movement led by a few leaders who sought to increase their own powers. The vast majority of the Arab people stayed away from the conflict and did not support the rebels or the Ottoman government. Sharif Hussein’s plan to create his own Arab kingdom was succeeding so far, if it were not for other promises the British would make.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

British and French control according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement

British and French control according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Before the Arab Revolt could even begin and before Sharif Hussein could create his Arab kingdom, the British and French had other plans. In the winter of 1915-1916, two diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France secretly met to decide the fate of the post-Ottoman Arab world.

According to what would become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British and French agreed to divide up the Arab world between themselves. The British were to take control of what is now Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan. The French were given modern Syria, Lebanon, and southern Turkey. The status of Palestine was to be determined later, with Zionist ambitions to be taken into account. The zones of control that the British and French were given allowed for some amount of Arab self-rule in some areas, albeit with European control over such Arab kingdoms. In other areas, the British and French were promised total control.

Although it was meant to be a secret agreement for a post-WWI Middle East, the agreement became known publicly in 1917 when the Russian Bolshevik government exposed it. The Sykes-Picot Agreement directly contradicted the promises the British made to Sherif Hussein and caused a considerable amount of tension between the British and Arabs. However, this would not be the last of the conflicting agreements the British would make.

The Balfour Declaration

Another group that wanted a say in the political landscape of the Middle East were the Zionists. Zionism is a political movement that calls for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Holy Land of Palestine. It began in the 1800s as a movement that sought to find a homeland away from Europe for Jews (most of which lived in Germany, Poland, and Russia).

Arthur Balfour and the original Balfour Declaration

Arthur Balfour and the original Balfour Declaration

Eventually the Zionists decided to pressure the British government during WWI into allowing them to settle in Palestine after the war was over. Within the British government, there were many who were sympathetic to this political movement. One of those was Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary for Britain. On November 2nd, 1917, he sent a letter to Baron Rothschild, a leader in the Zionist community. The letter declared the British government’s official support for the Zionist movement’s goals to establish a Jewish state in Palestine:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Three Conflicting Agreements

By 1917, the British had made three different agreements with three different groups promising three different political futures for the Arab world. The Arabs insisted they still get their Arab kingdom that was promised to them through Sharif Hussein. The French (and British themselves) expected to divide up that same land among themselves. And the Zionists expected to be given Palestine as promised by Balfour.

In 1918 the war ended with the victory of the Allies and the complete destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Although the Ottomans existed in name until 1922 (and the caliphate existed in name until 1924), all the former Ottoman land was now under European occupation. The war was over, but the Middle East’s future was still in dispute between three different sides.

The mandates that the League of Nations created after WWI

The mandates that the League of Nations created after WWI

Which side won? None fully got what they wanted. In the aftermath of WWI, the League of Nations (a forerunner to the United Nations) was established. One of its jobs was to divide up the conquered Ottoman lands. It drew up “mandates” for the Arab world. Each mandate was supposed to be ruled by the British or French “until such time as they are able to stand alone.” The League was the one to draw up the borders we see on modern political maps of the Middle East. The borders were drawn without regard for the wishes of the people living there, or along ethnic, geographic, or religious boundaries – they were truly arbitrary. It is important to note that even today, political borders in the Middle East do not indicate different groups of people. The differences between Iraqis, Syrians, Jordanians, etc. were entirely created by the European colonizers as a method of dividing the Arabs against each other. 

Through the mandate system, the British and the French were able to get the control they wanted over the Middle East. For Sharif Hussein, his sons were allowed to rule over these mandates under British “protection”. Prince Faisal was made king of Iraq and Syria and Prince Abdullah was made king of Jordan. In practice, however, the British and French had real authority over these areas.

For the Zionists, they were allowed by the British government to settle in Palestine, although with limitations. The British did not want to anger the Arabs already living in Palestine, so they tried to limit the number of Jews allowed to migrate to Palestine. This angered the Zionists, who looked for illegal ways to immigrate throughout the 1920s-1940s, as well as the Arabs, who saw the immigration as encroachment on land that had been theirs since Salah al-Din liberated it in 1187.

The political mess that Britain created in the aftermath of WWI remains today. The competing agreements and the subsequent countries that were created to disunite Muslims from each other led to political instability throughout the Middle East. The rise of Zionism coupled with the disunity of the Muslims in that region has led to corrupt governments and economic decline for the Middle East as a whole. The divisions that the British instituted in the Muslim world remain strong today, despite being wholly created within the past 100 years.


Bibliography:

Hourani, Albert Habib. A History Of The Arab Peoples. New York: Mjf Books, 1997. Print.

Ochsenwald, William, and Sydney Fisher. The Middle East: A History. 6th. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Print.

 

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