- Guest Opinion - Filed 7/21/04
Our Present Troubles All Started Here: The British Built An Artificial Nation Called Iraq And A Fixed Boundary Was Drawn For Arabia And Kuwait.
Part Two of Four
By Perry Hicks
One of the criticisms of British Colonial Rule was the way vast borderless areas of the Earth were divided quite superfluously into artificial countries. To the British, it was all a part of civilizing primitive regions. With their penchant for order, it never occurred to them that their neat survey lines- straight as an arrow where possible, following geographical features where not- was ignoring the native socio-political landscape.
Tribes who previously had simply occupied what was nominally their territory now found themselves on the wrong side of a national border. If this wasn’t enough, the British somehow expected these native people to find political unity with their traditional enemies! This is how it went constructing what is arguably the artificial nation of Iraq, and defining a fixed border for Kuwait and Arabia.
Gertrude Bell And The Founding Of Iraq
Mysteriously, you will not find Gertrude Bell’s name among the pantheon of feminist goddesses. Yet, in the early years of the 20th Century she was arguably one of the most influential and powerful women on earth.
Bell was born in Washington, United Kingdom, in 1868. Her early education was home schooling before going onto a formal school in London. By age 18 she began reading history at Oxford taking a degree just 2 years later. The reader should recall that even in the Victorian years, it was still uncommon for a woman to attend a university much less take a degree.
Following her graduation, Bell made the social circuits of London and Yorkshire and traveled extensively throughout Europe and on to Persia. In 1897, at about the age 29, Bell began the first of her 2 round the world tours. Between her return in 1899, and her second world tour in 1904, Bell took to mountain climbing and her achievements in climbing unexplored Alpine peaks earned her the reputation as a mountaineer.
However, Bell developed a love for the Arab people during a trip to Jerusalem in 1899-1900. She learned to speak Arabic, visited numerous archaeological sites, and traveled extensively deep into the deserts taking along only her male guides and guards. She not only met, but developed friendships with numerous Arab sheiks who were often on opposite sides of long standing feuds.
It was this intimate knowledge of the various tribes, tribal leaders and the desert terrain that got the attention of British Intelligence in World War I. Bell was recruited as the sole female intelligence agent in the Cairo office. She served under both Sir Percy Cox and Sir Arnold Wilson. Bell was also part of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force in both Basra and Baghdad.
The British had a hard fight up through the 3 Ottoman vilayets (territory surrounding Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul) that was to make up Iraq. In 1914, at Kut, they lost about 25,000 men; then the greatest British military disaster to that date. However, by the end of World War I, they had fought their way north all the way to Mosul.
These military defeats did not “pacify” Mesopotamia (Iraq) in that while the Ottoman outsiders had been removed, tribal leaders were hardly willing to subordinate themselves to new Christian masters. As if dealing with underage children, the old League of Nations designated control of much of what was the Ottoman Empire to France and Britain.
Street demonstrations over foreign control quickly descended into violence. For a period of 3 months, the British actually lost control of the Mesopotamian countryside and regained it only after an extensive land and air campaign.
The idea of using warplanes against rebels and their villages was a favorite of Churchill. The desert peoples had no defense from aerial strafing and bombardment. Aircraft continued to be used against the Iraqi’s until the British departure in the 1950s. America took it up again in Desert Storm.
Obviously, Britain would not be able to directly administer Mesopotamia as they had their other imperial possessions. When Winston Churchill was made Colonial Secretary in 1921, he organized the Cairo Conference and summoned 40 of the greatest experts on the Middle East then extant. His call went out to 39 men and Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell. That same year, Bell published Review of Civil Administration in Mesopotamia.
The conference was called to identify a winning strategy such as fortifying the oil fields around Basra. However, Bell and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) argued for creating an Arab kingdom in Iraq. They believed that such an Arab monarchy, backed by British military might, would stabilize the region.
Bell and Lawrence’s vision was that of a prosperous oil-rich Iraq with its Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, Christians, and Kurds, united under a Sharifian king. Bell not only drew up borders, she personally backed Faisel who had conveniently been kicked out of Damascus by the French in 1921. Adrift and with an axe to grind, such a king could be expected to take direction from the British Foreign Office. Also, installing Faisel as king would prevent Britain from having to face a democratic Iraq dominated by a Shia majority. Bell feared the Islamic fundamentalist Shia would not be friendly to the west. Her concerns remain the concerns of the present day builders of the new democratic Iraq.
The main problem with Faisel was that he was not from Mesopotamia. However, he could claim that he was a direct descendent of Mohamed the Prophet. The British installed him with great fanfare, organizing a long processional train from Basra to Baghdad. In doing this, the British wished to claim Faisel was crowned, not by the British, but by popular acclaim.
A plebiscite was held to allow the Iraqis to decide whether or not Faisel would be Iraq’s first king. Reportedly, Faisel’s affirmation came in at 96% of the vote.
Bell appointed herself as an adviser to the new King and orchestrated everything from King Faisel’s daily appointments to the furnishings in the royal palace. After taking the throne, Faisel froze Bell out of his inner circle. Having founded the archeological museum in Baghdad, she ended her career as the Director of Iraqi Antiquities. Bell was also very involved with educating Muslim women.
On a personal note, Bell explained her preference for life outside Britain by writing, "I don't care to be in London much, I like Baghdad, and I like Iraq. It's the real East, and it is stirring; things are happening here, and the romance of it all touches me and absorbs me."
Bell died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1926 at the age of 58. Factors for her suicide were said to be her health and personal sense of loneliness. It is more likely that the increasing resistance of King Faisel and the Iraqis to British meddling in Iraqi affairs caused Faisel to cast Bell outside his circle of power. Bell biographer, Janet Wallach, wrote that Bell took the pills in order to “wipe away a dreary future.”
Drawing The Boundaries Of The Middle East:
The Making Of Saudi Arabia And Modern Day Kuwait
While Churchill’s Cairo Conference was carving up the Middle East, the rebellion was continuing on in Iraq. The British sought to suppress it by brutal force and in doing so likely killed thousands of Iraqis. However, the rebellion would not collapse. The conflict continued on for another 30 years until the British were forced to leave Iraq altogether.
The borders of the new nation of Iraq not only had to be drawn quite literally in the sand, but also those of Arabia and Kuwait. The original scheme was to insure Middle East solidarity with Britain by installing cooperative rulers over Greater Syria and Transjordan. However, a powerful local chieftain, Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (Ibn Saud), refused to submit to the reign of Faisel. He claimed the lands over which his flocks roamed were not that of Iraq or Transjordan but Arabia and so were under his rule.
The negotiations over the proposed boundries of Arabia and Kuwait went on for 5 days. Typical of the British, they sought fixed borders. Ibn Saud thought the borders should be fluid, belonging not to the land but, instead, the people. Specifically, Saud thought the border should follow the movements of certain Bedouin tribes; extending and contracting according to the Bedouin need for grazing.
In her biography of Gertrude Bell, Janet Wallach described the meeting as making no progress until Saud Sir Percy Cox lost his temper and severely criticized Saud for his refusal to see things Sir Percy’s way. Saud took this so much to heart that that he almost tearfully claimed he owed everything to Sir Percy Cox and that he would give up his whole kingdom if only Sir Percy would ask for it.
Wallach goes on to say that Sir Percy immediately put a map down before the Saud and drew a red line assigning a large portion of the Nejd dessert to Iraq. Then, as a sop to Saud, Sir Percy redrew the borders of Kuwait giving almost 2/3rds of it to Saud’s Arabia. He then designated both Iraq and Kuwait as “neutral zones.” When a representative of Ibn Saud insisted that the British not do that, Sir Percy asked the representative as to why not? The representative responded forthrightly saying, “Because we think oil is there.”
[Note: Ibn Saud’s family, Al Saud, had been ejected from Riyadh by a rival family, Al Rashid. At the time of his birth in 1880, the House of Saud’s power was already on the wain. In 1890, Ibn Saud was taken by his family in exile in Kuwait. Ibn Saud returned to Riyadh with a small armed force in 1901 to retake the city. He fought on driving the Al Rashid north toward Turkey. Al Rashid implored the Ottoman Empire for help but despite their aid, Al Saud was able to not only retake all of the Nejd in 1906, but also Al-Hasa and the Arabian Gulf that was still occupied by the Turks by 1913. World War I brought recognition from the British and with it the ability to oust any remaining members of the Al Rashid family. By 1925 Ibn Saud had dominion over the entire Arabian Peninsula and Saudi Arabia was recognized as a sovereign nation by the majority of the world’s powers in 1932.]
The Struggle For True Independence
Although the agreement was signed by all parties in December of 1922, the borders continued to be disputed for the next 70 years culminating in the 1992 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.
Islamic radicals rejected and ultimately overthrew the Hashemite dynasty of Faisel in 1958. They continue to view the House of Saud as illegitimate rulers of the Arabian Peninsula and puppets of the Christian West. Today, Osama Bin Laden actively seeks to overthrow the Saudi royal family. Indeed, his vision is for all of Islam to be ruled by a great new Islamic Caliphate. In his view, none of the present Muslim governments are legitimate.
Faisel’s pressure, along with a continuing violent resistance to the British presence, led to treaty renegotiations in 1923, 1924, 1926, and 1927. However, these steps were not deemed adequate enough by nationalists and some tribal leaders. They demanded full independence. This led the British to begin a new round of negotiations that would guarantee British dominance over foreign policy and rights to air bases and other “common interests” in exchange for turning over domestic matters to Iraq. This new treaty was signed in 1930 and came into effect in 1932, allowing Iraq to enter the League of Nations.
This appearance of independence from Britain was only allowed so far as the Hashemite leaders continued to look after British interests. When the Iraqi parliament refused to support Britain in its war with Germany is 1941, not time was wasted in overthrowing the recalcitrant government and replacing it with one required to declare war on Germany.
During World War I, Britain’s primary interest in Iraq was oil and maintaining land communication with her colony of India. With the development of long range aircraft, air fields but short distances apart were necessary for refueling and maintenance. Thus, for a time Iraq became even more important to British Interests.
Iraq’s need to getting the hated Brits out was two fold: Iraq would only become sovereign when British military power was no longer able to enforce western meddling; second, contracts with western oil companies drained vital cash out of the Iraqi economy. This last point became a continuing embarrassment for Hashemite leadership and fuel for the nationalist opposition.
European Jews had been trickling back into Palestine since the 1880s. In Europe, even the most secular of Jews faced enormous levels of anti-Semitism. By the late 19th Century, the idea had emerged among the Jewish intelligentsia that the only way out of their quandary was to found an autonomous Jewish nation-state. To that end, the World Zionist Organization was founded in Switzerland in 1897. The core purpose of the Zionists was to repatriate Jews back to Palestine.
As we will see in Part 3, World War I gave remarkable assistance to the Zionists in achieving their ends. The League of Nations gave Britain a “mandate” over Palestine which became the key to overriding Palestinian opposititon. Prior to World War II, the British both helped and hindered Zionist efforts in the holy land. Both this help and hindrance came at the cost of a lot of Palestinian and British blood.
Related: The Coming Conflict - It Has Finally Dawned On The Liberal Press That The Incursion Into Iraq Was More About Iran Than Saddam Hussein. The Real Question Is Can Establishing Western-style Democracies Alone Contain Iranian Mullahs?
About the Author.....
Perry Hicks is the senior writer for GCN. He is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel. Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.
Contact the Author: firstname.lastname@example.org