100 years ago, most Arabs were part of the Ottoman Empire, which was a large and diverse empire located in the Middle East. Today, a 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, dividing 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.
In the summer of 1914, war broke out in Europe. A complex system of alliances, a militarism, and colonial ambitions 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. 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. 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. One of the British strategies was to turn the Ottoman Empire’s Arab subjects against the government of the Ottoman Empire. 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 after the war, the Arabs would be given their own Arab kingdom that would cover the entire Arabian Peninsula, including Syria and Iraq.
The Arab army with the help of the British captured several cities and pushed the Ottoman forces back. 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.
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 Sykes-Picot Agreement directly contradicted the promises the British made to the Arabs and caused a considerable amount of tension between them and the British.
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. The British agreed to the Balfour Declaration which promised to create a nation for the Jews in the Middle East after WWI.
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 (Jews) expected to be given Palestine as promised.
None of the sides got totally what they wanted. In the aftermath of WWI, the League of 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 borders were drawn without regard for the wishes of the people living there, or along ethnic, geographic, or religious boundaries – they were truly without consideration. The political mess that Britain created in the aftermath of WWI remains today and has led to instability and war.
Author: Albert Habib Hourani