- British Pan-Arab Policy, 1915-1922: A Critical Appraisal
When Isaiah Friedman started writing on the history of Britain and the Middle East in the early 1970s, it was a popular subject for historians. The controversies over British promises concerning Zionism and Arab nationalism during World War I stimulated heated debate, and it was widely assumed that the British Empire had transformed the politics of the region. In the 1980s and 1990s the subject attracted less discussion, as scholars of twentieth century Middle Eastern history paid greater attention to the culture, politics and agency of the peoples of the region. However, as Empire in general has become again a preoccupying concern for historians, European imperialism in Western Asia has been, over the last decade, the subject of renewed interest.
Isaiah Friedman's most recent monograph published a year before the Arab Spring, is thus a timely re-examination of the origins and consequences of Britain's move into the Middle East. It is his fourth book on this period, and the third on Britain (the other being on Germany and Zionism). His overarching thesis in these works has been that British support for the Zionist movement was well-founded but the backing of Arab nationalism was a mistake. Friedman's latest book is no exception, though in this instance he widens his lens to incorporate British policy in the Middle East as a whole. Based on extensive archival research, Friedman seeks to answer two questions: why did the British support Arab nationalism, or as he puts it, a 'Pan-Arab policy', and did the destruction of the Ottoman Empire improve British security in the region? (13).
In response to his first question, Friedman argues correctly that British backing of the Arab national movement, and specifically Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons, was based on a colossal intelligence failure. Following [End Page 180] the outbreak of war, British policy-makers were greatly concerned by anti-Allied Islamic propaganda propagated by Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Pan-Islam was considered in Whitehall as a pernicious and very real threat to Britain's position in the Middle East and India, and had to be countered. In the aftermath of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of early 1915, the British Government were convinced by Arab nationalists that they could win over the Arab world and cripple the Ottomans by backing an Arab Revolt led by Hussein.
The British also thought that they could use their support for Arab nationalism to justify post-war control of the strategic territories of Palestine and Mesopotamia. As the principle of self-determination came to prominence in international politics from 1917, championed by Woodrow Wilson and Russian socialists, backing for the Arab cause could be used, it was believed, as a means of disguising British imperialism.
As Friedman argues, however, nationalism was a negligible force in the Middle East, and the revolt, which began in June 1916, was a flop. This failure derived, Friedman contends, from a profound misunderstanding of the Arab world, which had far-reaching, negative consequences for the West. In his estimation, Islam, loyalty to the Ottoman Caliph and a deep-seated hostility to foreign, Christian rule were at the heart of politics in the region, rather than nationalism. The British aim of tying Arab nationalism to Western imperialism was, thus, not only doomed, but incendiary.
Based on this analysis, Friedman attempts to explain both the failure of the Revolt and the problems that the British faced after the war, with Arab opposition to Allied rule and the mandatory system in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. He provides some insightful analyses of the mistaken assumptions among British policy makers, the outlook of the great champion of Arab nationalism and Zionism, Sir Mark Sykes, and challenges the argument that the Arab capture of Damascus was staged by the British as a prelude to keeping the French out of Syria.
In his explanation of the British Government's mistaken Arab nationalist policy he stresses their 'incompetence and faulty judgement' (153). There is a particular...