dissolution of Christendom, European
national identities emerged independently from the latter part
of the Middle Ages and the following centuries. The Middle East
remained dominated for several centuries by
a single power, the Ottoman Empire, right up until the First
World War. During the twentieth
century the region has evolved as a patchwork of nations whose
boundaries were largely defined by the colonial powers of
Europe when they created their own spheres of influence.
In World War I,
while Britain fought a seemingly interminable trench war
against Germany on the Western front, there was a welcome
breakthrough on another front. The emergence of an Arab
insurrection offered the hope of overthrowing the moribund
Ottoman Empire belonging to Germany’s ally, Turkey.
In 1916, Britain’s
High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, wrote to Sherif
Hussein of the Hashemite line, agreeing to recognize and
support his struggle for Arab independence in a territory
stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Adding
dramatic heroics to the Arab cause, Col. T.E. Lawrence
reinforced the British promises with his own word, unaware
that those promises were already being betrayed.
had a new favorite. As an ally Abdel Aziz Abdel Rahman Al Saud,
known to history as Ibn Saud, had, above other tribal leaders
of the Arabian desert, unique appeal. His need for weapons and
finance was sufficiently unbounded to make him amenable to the
will of the donors.
While Hussein was
successfully fighting to clear the Turks from Mecca, Britain’s
India Office secretly agreed to support Ibn Saud in making his
own conquests in the same territory. The agreement broke the
promise made to Hussein, whose small sin was that he was
grudging in his acceptance of foreign aid. Hussein's greater
sin was his belief in pan-Arab unity and independence, a
concept that conflicted with Britain’s imperial ambitions.
After World War I,
the 1st Earl of Crewe, Britain’s Secretary of State for the
Colonies, pithily summed up his country’s objectives:
“What we want is
not a united Arabia but a disunited Arabia split into
principalities under our suzerainty.”
In the following
years, Britain and France achieved the objective brilliantly
by partitioning the Arab lands of the former Ottoman Empire
into meaningless national boundaries according to Crewe’s
dictum. During this time, Britain quietly supported Ibn Saud
in a series of bloody conquests that in 1927 brought him
recognition as King of Hejaj and Nejd, a title changed to King
of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
While the British
used the title of “king” for the rulers they promoted for
Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the concept may have mystified
the new subjects since the Arabic equivalent appears in the
Quran only in reference to non-Muslim leaders.
the discovery of the oil reserves of the Eastern Province of
Saudi Arabia in 1938, the United States of America, with its
growing commercial ties, took over Britain’s role as protector
of the Saud dynasty. For many years, largesse from the oil
fields bought a complacent populace. Today, an oil-hungry West
embraces an ally in the embarrassed knowledge that democratic
change, should it come, is unlikely to produce an alternative
A Foreign Policy is
fiction and the events it imagines have not happened. Yet.
Other background topics: