In June 1916 thousands of Arabs rose up against the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled over the region for four centuries. They fought with the backing of the British and French governments, not realising they were being used as a weapon in the First World War, writes Simon Guy.
On 5 June 1916 the ruler of Mecca, Sharif Husayn, called for an Arab uprising against Ottoman rule. The goal, agreed with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, was to unite the Arab people, establish and then rule an independent Arab kingdom, ending 400 years of Ottoman domination of the Arab world. Britain promised funds, guns and grain in return for helping to defeat the Ottomans as part of the First World War. The scene was set for the events that David Lean’s classic film Lawrence of Arabia depicts, based on the romantic notion of a British diplomat, portrayed by the dashing Peter O’Toole, who got stuck in, setting dynamite charges under bridges to disrupt trains as part of the rebellion.
Unfortunately for Sharif Husayn and his Hashemite followers, the British and French had already, on 19 May, signed a secret agreement which divided up the former Ottoman territories between them. The Sykes-Picot agreement would only be revealed the following year after the victory of revolution in Russia, when the Bolsheviks published documents from the Russian diplomatic archives, including agreements between Britain and France, then Russia’s allies.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement’s division of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence had a profound effect on the region, shaping the borders of the states which the two colonial powers created over the following years. The Middle East the imperial powers created back then was to shape the rest of the century.
These events are not just of historical interest, but show how the imperialist powers have never been trustworthy partners in the struggle for national independence. They also illustrate how aspiring rulers in the Arab world have long been prepared to compromise with imperial powers to the detriment of the mass of the population. The parcelling out of the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot agreement was a reflection of much deeper processes at work in the world economy a century ago.
Capitalism developed unevenly. Some sections drew ahead and came to dominate others. Karl Marx identified that, as a result of the competitive dynamic of capitalism, while it develops capital becomes more concentrated and more centralised in a smaller number of large firms. This results in economic competition increasingly taking place on a global platform, pushing capital across borders to find profits. The state that particular firms are based in then becomes pivotal to the firm’s ability to control those profits and in turn those firms become crucial to the state’s ambitions. This is the foundation of what the Russian revolutionary Lenin identified as imperialism: a fusion of economic and geopolitical competition.
In the early 20th century the discovery of oil in the Middle East would dramatically accelerate the race between the major imperialist powers to seize control of the region’s resources. In 1907 the British Navy had begun to use oil instead of coal. In 1908 the first major oil reserve in the Persian Gulf was struck in central Iran. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later British Petroleum, was set up out of this find — which was the greatest of its time. At the start of the First World War, Churchill, then chief of the British Navy, prodded the government to become the company’s major stakeholder. BP’s website states that by 1918 “war without oil would be unimaginable”.
The First World War was an inevitable outcome of the logic of imperialist capitalism. The scale and duration of it had even been predicted by Marx’s great friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, in the 1880s when he wrote:
“No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany except a world war and a world war indeed of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will massacre one another and in doing so devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done. The devastations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three or four years…”
Yet the destruction, of course, was not to be restricted to Europe.
For 400 years the mighty Ottoman Empire had ruled over the Middle East from Istanbul. By the 19th century its grip over the Arab provinces was weakening, however, under pressure from the rising capitalist powers of Europe and emerging local nationalist movements.
The Ottoman rulers backed the losing side in the First World War. Britain, France and Russia had taken land from the Ottomans in the past and they respected Germany’s military prowess, so at the start of the First World War they made an alliance with Germany hoping to protect their empire.
The Arab Revolt began with attacks on Ottoman government positions in the Hijaz, a region in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. Within two weeks Mecca and the Red Sea port of Jidda had fallen. A big Ottoman stronghold in Medina held out and was resupplied by the Hijaz Railway line. Sharif Husayn’s forces moved north to cut off the line.
The Arab Revolt divided local loyalties. Sharif’s son Amir Faysal, commanding the Arab army in July 1917, took the Ottoman fortress in al Aqaba, Jordan, setting up a base to mount other attacks in the area. But Faysal’s forces failed to take the Ottoman strongholds in Ma’an and in Karak as locals united against them. Husayn had failed to win over the Arabs as a whole.
In August 1918 Faysal’s forces pushed further north to the oasis town al-Azrak. He expanded his army to 8,000 and in a pincer movement with British general Edmund Allenby in Palestine seized control of Damascus, in present day Syria, on 2 October 1918. The revolt’s greatest ambition had been secured and Sharif Husayn expected the British to come through on their pledge. Amir Faysal set up an Arab government in Damascus with the intention of obtaining Britain’s promise of an Arab kingdom. He proclaimed it would be a government based on justice and equality for all Arabs regardless of religion.
This felt like vindication for many Arab nationalists. Between 1918 and 1920 political leaders in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Hijaz entered a period of intense activity. They believed themselves to be on the edge of a new era of independence. Arab leaders and the anti-colonial fighters who had taken part in the revolt against the Ottoman Empire placed their hopes in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (also known as the Versailles conference) and the US president Woodrow Wilson, who talked of a new world order. They would be disappointed. Wilson helped let off the steam by proposing a lengthy commission into the wishes of the masses.
However, there was a flourishing of democratic activity, with petitions, signs, banners and elections. In June 1919 the first official session of the Syrian General Congress took place with 69 delegates from across the region. The resolution that they presented to Wilson’s commission demanded complete political independence for Syria to be ruled as a constitutional monarchy with Amir Faysal as their King. They did not wish to be ruled by France and wanted Britain to end its occupation of Iraq.
Britain withdrew its troops from Syria in October 1919. In January 1920 Faysal was forced into an agreement with France that said they would recognise the Syrian state but that France would exclusively supply advisers, counsellors and technical experts. This did not go down well with Faysal’s anti-colonial supporters so under pressure he reversed the agreement. In March 1920 the Congress declared the independence of Greater Syria.
In July France gave Faysal an ultimatum that he either flee or fight. With Britain not willing to back him up, he decided to go. Nationalists raised a popular force and fought a brave battle against the French army to the west of Damascus near Khan Maysalun.
Faysal, after being kicked out of Syria, was later offered Iraq as a kingdom under a British mandate. Iraq didn’t have a national anthem at the time, so they sang God Save the King. Faysal’s dream of a pan-Arab kingdom had ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
The Sykes-Picot agreement, which was named after the British and French representatives who made it, had been concluded in May 1916. The region was divided up: what is now Iraq for the British; the Syrian coastal region for the French. Palestine was left out, to be determined later. After Britain supported the creation in Palestine of a “national home for the Jewish people” in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Zionists lobbied for Palestine to be brought under British rule.
The lessons of the Arab Revolt are as relevant today as they have been throughout the century that followed. Trust cannot be placed in the imperial powers to deliver democracy or independence — they will always promise the world and then stab you in the back. Their interests are determined by increasing their economic and geopolitical dominance. It also shows the weakness of the local Arab rulers, who preferred compromise with the imperialist powers rather than fighting them, despite their fiery rhetoric in favour of national independence.