Thursday, June 6, 2024

Review Cairo 1921, Ten Days That Made the Middle East

Faught, C. Brad, Cairo 1921, Ten Days That Made the Middle East, Yale University Press, 2022


The 1921 Cairo conference held by British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill helped create the modern Middle East. Borders were drawn, kings were installed, and a new policy of neo-colonialism was created. That’s what C. Brad Faught’s Cairo 1921, Ten Days That Made the Middle East focuses upon.


Faught writes that Churchill’s goal for the Cairo Conference was to create a unified British Middle East policy. The problem was London was already committed to a number of different agreements. In 1915 there was a correspondence between the British High Commissioner for Egypt and Sharif Hussein of the Hijaz that promised Arab independence if he joined the war against the Ottomans which became known as the Arab Revolt. The next year London and France created to the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided up present day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan between the two. Last in 1917 the British released the Balfour Declaration calling of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The book argues the Colonial Secretary believed that all of these different policies could be implemented even though they seemed to contradict each other.


The UK hoped to shape an entire region of the world. 1st the conference agreed upon two new Arab countries Iraq and Jordan. They would be under League of Nations’ mandates under British control but would eventually gain independence. That would not only fulfill the promise to Sharif Hussein for Arab sovereignty but his two sons Faisal and Abdullah would become the monarchs of the two nations. It was hoped the two brothers would be beholden to London and ensure its influence. 2nd the British would not dispute France’s control of Lebanon and Syria in accordance with Sykes-Picot. As part of that the English told Faisal to give up his claims to be king of Syria. In return, Paris would back the UK’s role in Palestine, Iraq and Jordan. Last, Churchill backed the creation of Israel. He believed that Jews and Arabs could reconcile within the new country and overcome any initial animosity. The officials at Cairo also thought Jordan becoming a new nation would appease any remaining Arab anger over Palestine. The conference led to a new policy of neo-colonialism. Instead of direct rule the British were now thinking about creating new countries and kings that would be under British hegemony. This especially appealed to Churchill who wanted to cut costs since London was broke after World War I.


The book points out that besides creating Iraq and naming its king the Cairo Conference had other long term impacts upon the planned country. The Colonial Secretary argued for an independent Kurdish state that would act as a buffer between Iraq and Turkey. Ankara was laying claim to parts of Iraq, testing the border and backing Kurdish tribes which challenged the British presence. Churchill also believed that Iraq would either ignore the Kurds or oppress them both of which would lead to troubles. Gertrude Bell and Sir Percy Cox who were officials in Iraq objected. Cox for instance said that Kurdish areas were integral to the new country and the future of its oil industry. Bell said that the Kurdish question should be postponed for 6 months and that by then the Kurds would agree to join the new Iraq. They eventually won over Churchill. His ideas proved prescience however as various Kurdish leaders would demand autonomy and independence and fight Baghdad for decades.


Cairo 1921 covers one of the last gasps of British imperialism. The author believed the conference led to mixed results with Jordan becoming a stable state while Iraq was the opposite. Churchill’s idea of Arabs and Jews being able to live together in Israel obviously proved very wrong. Faught writes in a very easy to read style and provides an engaging narrative of Churchill and the officials he brought together in Cairo. It’s amazing that they were able to agree despite having different perspectives and all the promises London made during and after World War I. The result was a new vision of indirect rule over the Middle East to maintain the UK’s power and interests. The repercussions are still being felt today so it’s important to understand where they originated from during the 1921 meeting.


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