The development of the modern nation states throughout the Arab world is a fascinating and heartbreaking process. 100 years ago, most Arabs were part of the Ottoman Empire/Caliphate, a large multi-ethnic state based in Istanbul. Today, a political 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, diving 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.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, and were wracked by internal and external threats. The Ottoman sultan/caliph was nothing more than a figurehead at this point, with the last powerful sultan, Abdulhamid II, having been overthrown in 1908 and replaced with a military government led by the “Three Pashas”. They were from the secular Westernized group, the Young Turks. Financially, the Ottomans were in a serious bind, owing huge debts to the European powers that they were not able to pay. After trying to join the Allied side and being rejected, the Ottomans sided with the Central Powers in October of 1914.
The Arab RevoltIn June of 1916 Sharif Hussein led his group of armed Bedouin warriors from the Hejaz in an armed campaign against the Ottomans. Within a few months, the Arab rebels managed to capture numerous cities in the Hejaz (including Jeddah and Makkah) with help from the British army and navy. The British provided support in the form of soldiers, weapons, money, advisors (including the “legendary” Lawrence of Arabia), and a flag. The British in Egypt drew up a flag for the Arabs to use in battle, which was known as the “Flag of the Arab Revolt”. This flag would later become the model for other Arab flags of countries such as Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Kuwait.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement
The Balfour DeclarationEventually the Zionists decided to pressure the British government during WWI into allowing them to settle in Palestine after the war was over. Within the British government, there were many who were sympathetic to this political movement. One of those was Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary for Britain. On November 2nd, 1917, he sent a letter to Baron Rothschild, a leader in the Zionist community. The letter declared the British government’s official support for the Zionist movement’s goals to establish a Jewish state in Palestine:
“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 achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”