JOHN CALVERT, 3 MAY 2021
A century ago, in March 1921, the shape of the contemporary Middle East was decided at a conference held in Cairo, Egypt. In attendance were the movers and shakers of British imperial policy: Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell, among others. The decisions they made had lasting consequences for the region. The legacy of the 1921 Cairo Conference haunts the Middle East.
In mid-February 1921, Winston Churchill strode onto the stage of Middle East peace-making when his benefactor, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, appointed him Secretary of State to the Colonies with special responsibility for policymaking in the Middle East and Ireland. Five years on, and the fiasco at the Dardanelles still weighed heavily on Churchill. There was also the unfinished business of squaring Britain’s wartime pledges to the Hashimites, the Zionists, and the French. As the new head of the Colonial Office, Churchill was determined to convert Britain’s flawed track record in the Middle East into a durable peace that was congruent with British imperial interests. In reaching for these goals, he would lean heavily on the counsel of T.E. Lawrence.
Churchill’s immediate concern was the future of Iraq over which Britain held the mandate. Following the 1920 uprising, the country was in an unsettled state. The previous autumn, the dependable Percy Cox, having replaced A.T. Wilson, his India-Office predecessor whose imperious policies were widely blamed for triggering the uprising. Understanding the utility of indirect governance, Percy Cox, Iraq’s first High Commissioner, set up in Baghdad a government of urban notables. Yet it was a stop-gap measure. The situation in Iraq remained precarious.
There were other issues that caused Churchill concern. Months earlier, Abdullah, the second son of the Sharif Husayn, had led several hundred Utaybi fighters to Ma’an on the frontier of Britain’s Palestine mandate. Would Abdullah strike out for Damascus and make good his stated intention to avenge his brother Faysal? Such a move would almost certainly provoke a swift French reaction that could scuttle Britain’s position in the region. There was the issue of the Zionists who were moving forward with plans for the mass settlement of Palestine against the wishes of the indigenous Arab population. And what of Ibn Saud? Would he strike out from his desert fastness in Nejd and displace the Sharif in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina? Churchill wanted permanent solutions to these problems.
Churchill was open-minded about outcomes. But on one point he was clear: Britain would need to govern Iraq and the other areas under its sway inexpensively. Beset with imperial upheavals and industrial and political unrest at home, postwar Britain was strapped for cash. Civil and political order in Iraq and elsewhere would have to be maintained in the face of debilitating budgetary restrictions.
After having conversations with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, and others, he concluded that the imperial garrisons in Iraq would need to be replaced by the Royal Airforce. Aircraft would be less expensive to maintain than boots on the ground, and their weaponry and surveillance capability would give the British a decisive advantage over the tribes. Advising Churchill on the matter was Hugh Trenchard, Chief of Air Staff from 1919, who more than anyone was savvy to the coercive potential of aircraft, especially in contexts of colonial insurgency.
Churchill discerned a second way to cut costs, and that was to do away with the costly edifice of British administration altogether. The British, he concluded, should accelerate the payment of subsidies to select Arab allies and govern its new mandates discretely from behind figures of local or regional prominence – Hashimite princes, perhaps. Anchoring the system would be the father, Husayn, whom Britain would protect from the predations of the Saudis. Although Churchill’s instincts were imperial, he understood that the old global order of empires was fast shifting to one based on the formal sovereignty of states. It was time to take a different tack.
Churchill’s Middle East Experts
In working out the details of his plan, Churchill tapped the best Middle East experts available, including T.E. Lawrence whose dream of an Arab “brown dominion” under benign British tutelage he knew was close to his own scheme of Hashimite puppet states. At this point, Churchill didn’t know too much about Lawrence, other than that he was a war hero who had led a coalition of Arabs against the Ottomans during the Great War, and that like him, was a bit of a maverick.
At first, Lawrence had little interest in rejoining the fray. Although he admired Churchill, he was engrossed in the writing of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and still angry at the betray of Faysal at the Paris Peace Conference. Only when Churchill assured him that he would have leeway in determining the shape of the final settlement did Lawrence relent. Lawrence was pleased when Churchill allowed him a leading role in drafting the conference agenda.
The conference meetings commenced March 12 and were held at Cairo’s Nile-facing Semiramis Hotel. Built in 1907, the last year of Cromer’s consulship, it was part of an imperial complex that included the residency and the Qasr al-Nil Barracks. “Everybody Middle East is here,” wrote Lawrence to his mother. Among the assembled experts were Percy Cox, Gertrude Bell, Herbert Samuel, Hugh Trenchard, General Haldane, and many others.
Churchill affectionately dubbed the group advising him the “Forty Thieves.” Lawrence was the dominant influence. Yet in contrast to Paris where he commanded the stage in khakis and kufiyah, here his appearance was ordinary. Dressed in jacket and tie, a homburg on his head, he blended in with the other delegates. No longer a romantic warrior, he was now a bureaucrat working within an institutional framework, a role that to his own surprise he rather enjoyed.
As it turned out, Churchill’s “Forty Thieves” were all on the same page. Rather than deliberate, they finalized decisions that had been long in the making. Thanks largely to the advocacy of Lawrence and Bell, the issue of Faysal was settled the first day; he would be made king of Iraq. “We are making a most ambitious design for the Middle East,” Lawrence wrote his friend Robert Graves. “A new page in the loosening of the Empire tradition.” Over the following days some 40 or 50 sessions were held, during which Churchill’s Air Force strategy was approved and the Kurds were to be given a measure of autonomy in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, news came to Cairo that Abdullah had crossed the frontier and was in the dusty town of Amman. At Churchill’s request, Lawrence journeyed to Abdullah’s base camp and offered him a government in the eastern portion of Britain’s Palestine mandate if he would put aside his plan to attack French Syria. Both men then went to Jerusalem for meetings with Churchill, with the result that Abdullah agreed to the proposition. In April 1921, Transjordan was separated from the rest of Palestine and made into an independent Emirate. Henceforth, Jewish immigration would be limited to the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Churchill would later boast that he had created Transjordan with the stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon.
The Middle East after the Conference
Lawrence’s only failure came after the conference, during the summer months of 1921, when he was sent on yet another errand, this time to convince the cantankerous Sharif Husayn to recognize the legitimacy of the new order in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia in return for cooperation and cash. Fixated on the broken dream of Arab independence, he refused, and Lawrence was forced to return to London without a signed treaty. In 1924, the British watched impassively as Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan raiders overran the Hijaz and forced the old man into exile.
On the other hand, Faysal’s pragmatism won him a throne. On August 23, at the relatively cool hour of 6:00 AM, Faysal, dressed in khaki and wearing a topi stepped onto a carpeted platform amid the Baghdad serai and took a seat on a large wooden throne. Before him were 1,500 guests – Iraqis and Britons – including Gertrude Bell, who had done much to orchestrate the event. Over the years that followed, the British would employ the instrument of treaties to ensure that Faysal reigned but did not rule.
And so, a passable version of the Middle East that Lawrence had envisioned was taking shape. In the end, Britain had been able to honor the greater part of its war-time pledge to the Hashimites. Evincing his sense of self-importance, Lawrence later wrote: “I take most of the credit of Mr. Churchill’s pacification of the Middle East…The settlement was the big achievement of my life: of which the war was a preparation.” The Cairo Conference and its spin-off decisions relating to Palestine, Transjordan, and the Hijaz were Lawrence’s last great public ventures.
The borders created at Cairo resulted in the region’s devolution into one of the twentieth century’s most notorious bloodlands. Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq: All have been touched, in whole or in part, by the grand design hatched in Cairo in 1921.
[A version of this essay was presented to the North American Group of the T.E. Lawrence Society and the National World War I Museum and Memorial on April 18, 2021.]
John Calvert is Professor of History at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where he teaches courses related to Islam and the Middle East. He is the author of several books, including the widely acclaimed Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (2010). Calvert has also had chapters published in The Routledge History of Terrorism (2015), The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam (2021), and The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe (2012). He held Creighton University’s Fr. Henry Casper, S.J. Professorship in history from 2007-2014 and was the recipient of the Dean’s Award for Scholarship in 2011. In 2008, his mentorship of Arab students at Creighton University was recognized by an award by the Saudi Cultural Mission to The United States.
Cover Photo: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell (3rd from left), T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) at Giza during the 1921 Cairo Conference. Public Domain.
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights.