How the British & French crushed King Faisal I of Iraq’s dream of an Arab kingdom

By Laurent De Saint Perier
Posted on Wednesday, 24 March 2021 12:55

The little-known story of King Faisal I of Iraq: His shattered dream of a pan-Arab state

Throughout his 12-year rule, King Faisal I tried to build a new state in Iraq while simultaneously negotiating the country’s hard-to-define independence.

In late March 1921, Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi was informed that he had been named King Faisal I of Iraq, where his fate would be intertwined with the birth of a nation that continues to rest on shaky ground today.

This prince of Mecca and sharif descended from the Prophet Muhammad was most known for having led an army to victory against Ottoman forces in 1918. Two years later, however, the French military would drive Faisal out of his short-lived Kingdom of Syria, thus paving the way for his reign over Iraq.

The matter had been discussed a few days earlier by a group of British gentlemen inside the sleek lounges of the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo. Convened from 12 March to 30 March 1921 under the auspices of Winston Churchill, the new secretary of state for the colonies, the conference sealed the troubled fates of Palestine and Mesopotamia, the mandates of which the League of Nations entrusted to Great Britain, while France was granted Syria. Up to that time Mesopotamia had been ruled out of Calcutta by the British Raj, which had sent troops to the region to fight the Ottoman Turks.

A theatre of British colonialism

With authorities in Calcutta regarding the area as a natural trade outlet for India, they pressed for the outright colonisation of Mesopotamia. But Churchill, who presided over the 1921 Cairo Conference, saw things differently: in the aftermath of the destruction of World War I, Great Britain no longer had the resources, money or manpower to occupy such a massive country, while public opinion had grown wary of colonial exploits and anti-colonial resistance movements were already forming throughout the British Empire.

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In this region that would later become Iraq, an initial British landing in 1915 had previously driven influential Shia clerics, in an effort to fend off the foreign invader, to call on their followers to fight a jihad alongside Sunni Ottoman forces. In Al-Kūt, the British suffered a crushing defeat. It was the first Western loss to a non-Western army since Japan beat Russia in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War.

The 1920 Iraqi Revolt pitted Mesopotamia against its British occupiers, but bombing carried out by the Royal Air Force (RAF) put a bloody end to the uprising.

According to Matthieu Rey, a historian specialising in contemporary Middle Eastern history and author of the upcoming book, When Parliaments Ruled the Middle East: Iraq and Syria, 1946-63, and researcher at IFAS-Recherche, a team of scholars affiliated with the French Institute of South Africa:

“The revolt made the British realise that they would never be able to rule Iraq and the 1921 Cairo Conference began against this backdrop. British colonies drew much of their authority from groups of local figures who could be used to indirectly control one region or another.”

Faisal, who was the son of Hussein bin Ali, the emir of Hejaz and guardian of holy sites, had no other commitments at the time and was to be made king of a newly created Kingdom of Iraq. Faisal was enough of an outsider for his power to rest on the British Empire while being enough of a local to give off the impression that he could handle the country’s domestic conflicts.

The Mesopotamian question, which dominated the Cairo talks between 12 and 14 March 1921, was the first item on the agenda. Under Churchill’s leadership, the conference gathered three iconic figures from the early 20th-century Middle East.

For starters, there was Thomas Edward Lawrence – also known as Lawrence of Arabia – the liaison officer who aided Faisal’s rise as head of the Arab Revolt, a confrontation against the Ottomans that lasted from 1916 to 1918. During the negotiations, he made the case for his former brother-in-arms.

Then, there was Gertrude Bell, an archaeologist who had also become a liaison officer during the war and was an avid traveller, visiting places like Basra to Baghdad. She observed in 1919 that there was “no way to keep the Mesopotamian people on the road to peace unless they are given what they will not voluntarily give up”.

Gertrude Bell and Faisal

Like Lawrence, she felt the Hashemite solution was the best option. Finally, there was Percy Cox, a Colonial Office administrator who was appointed high commissioner of Iraq in order to ease tensions following the 1920 Iraqi Revolt.

Just as Lawrence and Bell, he pledged his support for Faisal, who had, after all, been a British ally since 1916 in both Mecca and Damascus. Cox ruled out the other potential candidates after presenting them. The list included the Naqib of Baghdad, Sayyid Talib of Basra, the Sheikh of Mohammerah, Ibn Saud, the Aga Khan and Dourhan ed-Din, a Turkish prince.

Churchill, the ‘kingmaker’

On 13 March 1921, Churchill suggested that the Foreign Office name Faisal king of Iraq, as British interests there would be guaranteed by treaty and protected by RAF bases, while the vital route to India would be secured. On 14 March, Churchill informed the two Iraqi representatives – the only Arabs who were in attendance – that the British authorities had chosen Faisal.

One of the newly appointed monarch’s older brothers, Abdullah, was crowned king of the Emirate of Transjordan, a buffer country between Palestine (eventually the site of a Jewish homeland), the future Iraqi state and Arabia which, through Ibn Saud’s string of conquests, was on the verge of becoming Saudi and Wahhabi.

When Faisal first set foot in Basra on 21 June 1921, he was unacquainted with the country that he would go on to rule for 12 years and that would become the first Arab state to join the League of Nations. But ever since he was born in Mecca 37 years earlier, the descendant of Prophet Mohammad and Bedouin emirs had always been a political nomad, whether in times of war or peace, out of necessity or for freedom’s sake.

When Faisal was nine years old, he went with his father, Hussein bin Ali, to Istanbul, where Hussein was kept under surveillance by the Ottoman sultan. Though Faisal had been a student of the Qur’an up to that time, once he arrived in the city he received a modern education typical of that given to sons of Ottoman noblemen.

After spending five years in Istanbul, he went back to his native Arabia. His father became sharif and emir of Mecca in 1908. Having absorbed the political effervescence of turn-of-the-century Istanbul, when his father, the emir, needed allies in the Ottoman Empire, Faisal was elected as a representative for Jeddah and moved back to Istanbul in 1913. His brother, Abdullah, served in the same role for Mecca.

Political nomadism

Opposed to the Young Turks’ nationalist agenda, Faisal developed ties with Syrian nationalists and drew closer to the British Empire. In 1915, British officials negotiated through Henry McMahon, high commissioner of Cairo, an alliance with Faisal’s father, Emir Hussein of Mecca, against the Ottoman Empire.

The British did not come to Faisal’s aid since they shared the French’s enthusiasm for the new status quo established at San Remo.

During the Arab Revolt in June 1916, Faisal led forces across the Arabian deserts to the Red Sea port of Aqaba, before moving on to Damascus and eventually reaching Aleppo in October 1918. While the Battle of Aqaba was still under way, Faisal learned of the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (named after the British and French diplomats who brokered it), a treaty that divided the Middle East into two separate spheres of influence.

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When Faisal and his army triumphantly entered Damascus, he refused to bow to French rule and proceeded to establish his own government. He would eventually make two long trips to Europe to promote his idea of a great constitutional Arab kingdom.

In 1919, the Syrian National Congress was formed in Damascus. On 7 March 1920, the congress declared Faisal king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. The following April, the San Remo Conference granted France, under the guise of a League of Nations mandate, a much larger swath of Syrian territory than was provided for under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, but the French had others ideas and issued an ultimatum to Damascus.

Syrian nationalists wanted to fight and took up arms, sending an under-equipped army of a few hundred men to launch an offensive against the French. On 16 July 1920, the Syrian forces disbanded a few short hours after coming under French cannon fire in the mountainous region of Maysalun, near the border with Lebanon.

The British did not come to Faisal’s aid since they shared the French’s enthusiasm for the new status quo established at San Remo. After his forces suffered a defeat at the Battle of Maysalun on 24 July, his short-lived rule had come to an end, forcing him into exile. The same diplomats who would go on to meet in Cairo in March 1921 helped Faisal find his way to London. In June 1921, he arrived in Basra, Iraq. Shortly afterwards, on 23 August, he was crowned King Faisal I.

Building an independent state from scratch

From that point on, the new king set out to accomplish a most delicate task: building an independent state from scratch that would be at the centre of a great Arab and Muslim kingdom in the region, while satisfying both the demands of the finicky power of the British and the interests of the nobility class alongside tribes and ethnic and religious communities.

“On several occasions, the British threatened to send Faisal packing – as the French had done when they expelled him from Syria – and to deprive his state of the Mosul region by carving out a Kurdistan if he didn’t use his position to legitimise their goals in Iraq. He tried to break free of this system but the balance of power rendered such a feat impossible,” says Iraq historian Pierre-Jean Luizard, who authored the French book La formation de l’Irak contemporain [The Formation of Modern Iraq].

Faisal’s kingdom, featuring prominently in a regional drama, came under fire in the north by Mustafa Kemal’s forces, as the impetuous Turkish general – today recognised as the founding father of modern-day Turkey – sought to stake a claim on Mosul Province.

In the south, Faisal’s reign was threatened by the Wahhabi conqueror Ibn Saud, whose Ikhwan forces regularly led incursions into southern Iraq until the signing in 1930 of a treaty between Faisal and the king of Arabia, who by that time had dethroned his father.

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Still with no army to speak of, Faisal was reliant on the British Empire to secure his nation’s borders. In October 1922, he was left with no other option but to assent to the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, which established the imperialist power’s mandate for Mesopotamia. The treaty required, however, ratification by an assembly that had yet to be elected.

A chain of events beyond Faisal’s control

“Both in Syria and Iraq, Faisal was criticised for his naive approach to the Europeans,” Luizard tells us. “In fact, he was deeply manipulated by the Foreign Office in Cairo, as officials there had made him believe that he and his family were destined to spread pan-Arab nationalism. But instead he found himself at the centre of a chain of events that he didn’t control.”

With the spread of Shia Islam among tribes in the mid-19th century, the sect had become the majority in Iraq and its influential religious authorities, the mujtahid, viewed Faisal as a traitor for making a deal with the foreign occupier. Accordingly, these leaders called on voters to boycott the elections for the constituent assembly that was supposed to ratify the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty and rallied their supporters as the British RAF dropped bombs on them.

In June and July 1923, prominent Shia clerics were arrested and sent to Iran under the pretence that they were more Persian than Arab. A man of consensus rather than an autocrat, Faisal claimed that the decision had been taken without his knowledge.

This move allowed, however, an election of sorts to be held and with an agreement reached between the king, the urban nobility and prominent tribal sheikhs, an assembly was elected that ratified, four days before the constitution, the treaty – the very same one that, under the trappings of the new monarchy, actually granted Great Britain control over the country.

“Faisal never abandoned the idea that he could create an autonomous, nationalist state by elbowing his way through all these foreign and domestic constraints,” Rey says. “He was an opportunist or even a pragmatist who wanted to establish an effective and sovereign monarchical state, and he was successful in that respect, as Iraq became the second independent Arab state on 3 October 1932, two weeks after Saudi Arabia – which had never been occupied – declared itself independent.”

A man of consensus trained in Ottoman practices

Faisal also sought to found an Arab nation around a capital – Baghdad – renowned in the Muslim world for its prestige. But he was confronted with a country organised into autonomous city-states managed by civilian or religious leaders and surrounded by tribal domains; city dwellers had to negotiate with such tribes to avoid demands for payoffs.

A man of consensus trained in Ottoman practices, Faisal “held banquets, invited guests, paid visits, travelled around and hosted events, and this whole game of courting eminent figures swiftly put him on a firm footing with the people who mattered in Basra and Baghdad as well as with a certain number of tribal communities,” Rey says.

To build an Arab nation by incorporating these segments of society into a new constitutional state, the king prioritised three areas: developing transport networks at the national level alongside links with neighbouring countries, creating an education system that emphasised Arab nationalism and, above all, forming an army.

“Faisal would say something that says a lot about his legitimacy as a ruler,” Luizard tells us. “The army is the backbone for the creation of the nation’, which means that there was no such thing as a common identity in Iraq and that what I refer to as the Iraqi question – the Sunni Arab elite’s monopoly on power – was firmly in place. The Iraqi state was going to encounter one disaster after another since there would be an almost constant war in Kurdistan. And after the Shia were defeated in 1925, a religious revival would begin in the 1950s and lead to a series of sectarian wars.”

The final years of Faisal’s reign played out like a Greek epic poem: violent and troubled, but driven by a desire for independence that would ultimately prevail. In 1928, the king entered into negotiations with the British mandatory authorities for a new treaty.

Nuri al-Said, Iraq’s young prime minister who went on to serve 13 more terms until his execution following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, represented the country during the talks. While Faisal secured Iraq’s independence on 30 June 1930, he faced yet another round of criticism because it would only take effect in 1932 and the country would remain tied to Great Britain through defence provisions that ensured the operation of two RAF bases in Iraq.

In addition, the treaty protected British interests in the large quantities of oil that were beginning to be extracted in the northern part of the country. The oil question had also been at the centre of bitter negotiations with London and would pose an ongoing issue until the nationalisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1971. “Faisal spent much of his rule dealing with the British question when all along he really needed to be handling the Iraqi question,” Rey says.

Just before his death in 1933, Faisal could be credited with bringing about his country’s independence, but he was also looking on as the Assyrian separatist movement was subjected to a horrible bloody crackdown that bordered on ethnic cleansing.

Premature death

“Faisal presided over a period of constant crisis almost until his death,” Rey adds. “And these difficult circumstances were probably a factor in his premature death. He was exhausted from the back-and-forth between Mecca and Damascus, Damascus and Versailles, Versailles and Damascus, London and Baghdad. He lived his entire life in a state of perpetual crisis, attempting to build a new state while trying to negotiate Iraq’s hard-to-define independence, without really knowing what this meant other than no longer having a cannon pointed at the country’s institutions.”

King Faisal I of Iraq with his daughters (Wikimedia Commons)

On 7 September 1933, Faisal I of Iraq died of a heart attack in Switzerland. He was 50 years old. Six months earlier, he expressed his bitter feelings about the country’s situation:

In Iraq, there is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever. Out of these masses we want to fashion a people which we would train, educate, and refine […] The circumstances being what they are, the immenseness of the efforts needed for this cannot be imagined. (Cited by Henry Laurens in the French work L’Orient arabe, Arabisme et Islamisme de 1798 à 1945 [The Arab East: Arabism and Islamism from 1798 to 1945].)

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