Guest Writings
15/03/04 Inventing countries: Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia- The Aftermath of World War and their invention by Edward Teague

The fate of the Ottoman Empire was sealed on October 30th 1918 when Rauf Hussein, the Turkish Minister of the navy signed an armistice on Admiral Calthorpe's flagship Agamemnon anchored off the Aegean island of Mudros.

The line of the Ottomans, their lands taken, their famed powers dissolved, sultans and caliphates, that had produced Suleyman the Magnificent were reduced to Mehmed VI whose main achievement had been to succeed his two brothers. The first went mad, the second his cruel and paranoid successor fearful of plots employed a eunuch to take the first puff on any cigarette to touch the thin cruel lips set in his bony head. Mehmed was a timid creature who had adopted the sultanate with great worries and asked as he sat in his vast palace on the Bosphorus for the people to pray for him. In 1922 the British spirited him on a warship to Malta and his cousin became caliph until that was abolished by Ataturk. The rest of the royal family retreated into exile and a few have returned to Turkey where a princess is said to run a tourist hotel and a prince works in the Topkapi Palace archives.

On the Syrian border, an army officer, Mustafa Kemal, not a Turk but from the port of Salonika in Macedonia, heard the news of the Armistice and charged to Constantinople to raise a nationalist force. It was 4 years before Ataturk, the charming and faithless womaniser, amoral, irreligious and ruthless leader was to lead his people. One of his first acts was to try and have killed for treason Rauf Hussein. Poor Rauf who had written, " There was a conviction that England and France were countries faithful not only to their written pacts, but also to their promises".

Paris 1918

So it was left to Clemenceu, Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson in the gilded and mirrored splendours of Versailles to carve up the remnants of the Middle Eastern Ottoman Empire. There must be many in France today who regret the flippancy of the great French Field Marshal who is reported to have said, "When I want oil, I send out to my grocer". Intent on settling scores with their ancient foe Germany, and absorbed with erecting with Wilson a new Europe, the French, happy with a foothold in Syria, and what eventually transpired to be an ephemeral interest in Mosul were happy to hand the Mandate for the newly created State of Iraq to the British. This took a further two years for the rich mix of Indian and British diplomats to map, constitute, police and patrol and provide a King.

The British had three goals. The military wanted to keep the Persian Gulf open and accessible to the oil of Iraq – said by an Army surveyor at the time, with a great deal more prescience than he can have imagined, to be the greatest oil deposits in the world.

Lord Curzon and Churchill saw the vast Arab territories safeguarding the gates to India and Empire and prophetically as a staging post on the Imperial air routes using the passenger planes then just emerging.

The Arabists in the Foreign Office, had however another knotty problem; they had an inheritance of a web of complex promises to resolve. They were the supporters of Lawrence's exploits and providers of the "cavalry of St George", the golden sovereigns that had funded Feisal's revolt against the Ottoman Turks. Feisal, T E Lawrence's Arab student, friend and follower, the son of Hussein the Sharif of Mecca, guardian of Mecca and Medina ( whose telephone number was MECCA 1) had been promised by Sir Henry McMahon in 1915 in Cairo an Arab empire, the boundaries of which remained somewhat unclear, depending as they did on the forthcoming revolt of the Arabs, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and an Allied victory.

Elsewhere Sir Marks Sykes and Georges Picot representing Britain and France had already in 1915 concluded an agreement, approved by their Governments in May 1916 on the division of the Arab lands as the spoils of war between their respective countries.

A Jewish Homeland State?

More importantly for the history , and future development of the region, a distinguished but relatively unknown professor of Chemistry in Manchester had developed a large scale production process for making acetone, essential to the manufacture of explosives. He refused an honour for his work but asked for but exchanged a free use of his process for the promise of a National Home for the Jews in Palestine. This request of Professor Weizmann was earnestly discussed. Curzon, a well travelled man, who had actually been to Palestine considered the Zionist dreams of a homeland absurd. "I cannot conceive a worse bondage to which to relegate an advanced and intellectual community." "What is to become of the people of the country?" he asked awkwardly.

The War Cabinet discounted any objections and A J Balfour was to announce the British policy in a short letter to Lord Rothschild, "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 attainment of this object".

The resulting dilemma was of the their own making. Promises had been made that could not be fulfilled. They had supported a Jewish homeland on land occupied by Arabs, and they had encouraged Arabs to revolt against the Turkish ottomans with promises of Arab Independence.

When the Arabs objected, the British called them ungrateful. "I hope", said the optimistic courtly, precise English gentleman, Balfour,"that remembering all, they will not begrudge that small notch, for it is no more geographically, whatever it may be historically, – that small notch, in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it."

Mesopotamia – a prize worth taking

Mesopotamia,the land between the rivers, a term still doggedly used by the French, naturally fell to becoming a British mandate. British troops were in occupation, British administrators from their Indian Empire were running it, and British ships were protecting the Persian Gulf and maintaining a presence in Basra. Russia was too weak to protest, the United States were uninterested, and Clemenceau had blithely given up interest in oil.

Leo Amery, the brightest of Lloyd George's young men in the Foreign Office had said with remarkable candour, knowledge and wisdom, "The greatest oil field in the world, extends up to and beyond Mosul…we ought as a matter of safety to control it."

The British and French Mandates

At the San Remo conference in April 1920 the British awarded themselves the Mandates for Mesopotamia and Palestine and the French that for Syria. Invalid until confirmd by the League of Nations, which unsurprisingly in a League dominated by the French and British (The US Congress having refused to ratify the League) in 1922 finally did give approval. Feisal's elder brother Abdullah was simultaneously made King of the quaintly named transJordan, now simply Jordan.

In 1921 at a conference in Cairo, Churchill agreed to make the youthful Feisal King, which a hastily prepared election voted him in with 96% in favour of his kingship. It was left to Gertrude Bell the fiercely independent Arabist and traveller, adviser to the British Government to arrange the coronation and even design the flag. Feisal was to die in 1933 a year after Iraq joined the League of Nations as an independent nation. His playboy son was to die in a car accident in 1939. It was his son who was assassinated in 1958 when Iraq became a republic.

Hussein, who had dreamt of a great Hashemite dynasty to rule the Arab world, first lost his reason and then his throne. Ibn Saud was to overthrow him to become the ruler of the Hijaz, founding the Kingdom that bears his name today.

His great, great nephew Abdullah guides modern Jordan between the dreams of the Arabs and proximity to the State of Israel with great skill and diplomacy. Absorbing huge numbers of Palestinian refugees, living with Saddam, whose oil would clandestinely flow through the family owned Zurqa refinery outward bound through Akaba. He is now faced with the fast imploding Eastern neighbour.

There are many who dream of a Hashemite dynasty that may yet expand again.

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