- The Legacy of the Middle East
The Husayn - McMahon Correspondence
Commentary by Rick Francona
While World War I raged in Europe, British forces fought the Turks in the Middle East. At this time, the Ottoman Empire extended all the way south to encompass the Hijaz – including the Muslim holy cities of Mecca (Al-Makkah Al-Mukaramah) and Medina (Al-Madinah Al-Munawirah) – and what what is now Israel (including Jerusalem), Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Saudi Arabia.
The British entered into a series of three secret – and conflicting – agreements concerning the eventual disposition of the Ottoman Empire, assuming that they would be victorious over the Turks. The first of these agreements was between Great Britain and Sharif Husayn bin ‘Ali of Mecca, leader of the Hashemites, then the rulers of the Hijaz. The second was made between Great Britain and France (and for a short time Russia), and the third was between Great Britain and a group of influential Jewish nationalists.
British forces, with commonwealth troops from Australia and New Zealand, were making only marginal progress against the Ottomans. The bulk of British military power was concentrated on the Germans in Europe. They sought help from the local Arab population who had suffered under harsh Turkish rule for over four hundred years. In return for this help, the British promised the Arabs their independence once the Turks had been defeated and the war ended.
The Husayn – McMahon Correspondence
A series of ten letters between British High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Husayn seem to spell out an agreement between the two parties. Two of these letters are regarded as significant. Key portions are excerpted here.
Sharif Husayn to Sir Henry McMahon, July 14, 1915:
The Arab nation is asking the Government of Great Britain to acknowledge the independence of the Arab countries, bounded on the north by Mersina and Adana up to the 37th degree of latitude, to the border of Persia; on the east by the borders of Persia up to the Gulf of Basra; on the south by the Indian Ocean, with the exception of the position of Aden to remain as it is; on the west by the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea up to Mersina. Both parties will offer mutual assistance to face any foreign Power which may attack either party.From Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Husayn, October 24, 1915:
The Government of Great Britain statement:
The British also entered into other secret agreements, both of which conflicted with the terms agreed to in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. Later, Britain would try to extricate herself from the commitments made to Sharif Husayn, claiming that these letters merely represented on-going negotiations and not a final agreement.
In the end, the Saudis under
‘Abd Al-’Aziz, who was also supported by the British, forced the Sharif
from Mecca. The Sharif’s sons were put on thrones in kingdoms created by
the British almost as consolation prizes. ‘Abdullah became King of Transjordan
(now Jordan) and Faysal became King of Iraq. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
survives to this day; the Kingdom of Iraq was overthrown in 1958.