British WW I Promises to the Arabs

What did the British Promise to the Arabs?

The commencement of discussions about Middle East situation with Britain can be traced back to the rule of Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family, who were claimants of the descendents of Prophet Muhammad SAW and guardian of Hijaz. The basis of the Middle East conflict and resulting tension in the 20th Century can be found in the events surrounding First World War. Amir Abdullah, son of Sharif Hussein, paid a visit to the British consul general and agent positioned in Egypt in February 1914 to inquire about the support that Arabs can get from Britain should his father launch a revolt against Ottoman Turks. However, Abdullah received a non-committal response from Lord Kitchener as there was no war between Germany and Britain and no former alliance was formed between Germany and Turkey till yet.


On the outbreak of war in August 1914 and after witnessing the deteriorating situation of British military fortunes in Middle East in 1915, Kitchener sought a clever move of asking Arab support from the leader of the Arabs indebted to Britain, promising the transfer of the Islamic caliphate to Hussein. A comprehensive correspondence was held between Sharif Hussein and his two sons, Abdullah and Faysal from January 1915 to January 1916 in Cairo with the British high commissioner, Sir Henry McMohan. Abdullah and Faysal, later kings of Jordan and Syria respectively, were to play a significant part in the subsequent events as well.

Hussein wrote a letter to McMohan; with an enclosed letter from Abdullah dated July 14, 1915; specifying the areas he wished to be included in the “Sharifian Arab Government” after Arab independence. Hussein’s proposed land included the Arabian Peninsula other than Aden, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In his response to Hussein’s letter, McMohan agreed to post-war Arab independence on behalf of the British Government, limited only by the constraints and reservations of non-Arab territories or related to what Britain was not at liberty “to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France”.

“The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo” were the territories not assessed as Arab by the British. As the exact meaning couldn’t be derived from this, similar to the later Balfour Declaration, Arab spokesmen has asserted since the time of the correspondence that Palestine was included in the proposed Arab Peninsula.

Sharif Hussein saw this opportunity to liberate Arab lands from the oppression of Turks, who had abandoned their pluralistic and pan-Islamic policies to launch a secular Turkish nationalism, launched the Great Arab Revolt on June 5, 1915, trusting the word of British officials who promised Arabs a unified state. As the head of Arab nationalist, with his alliance of Britain and France, the Great Arab Revolt was initiated by Sharif Hussein, with the Arab armies led by his sons. Emir Faysal liberated Damascus from Ottoman rule in 1918 and till the end of the war; Arab forces had taken control of most of the Arabian Peninsula, Southern Syria and all of the modern Jordan.

Britain walked out on its promise after the conclusion of the war, denying Arabs the promised unified Arab state. And while Arabs did not get what they aimed for, it was nevertheless a demonstration of the effectiveness of Royal Hashemite family that they were able to secure a rule over Arabia, Iraq and Transjordan because of the Great Arab Revolt.

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