This British strategy of colonial divide and rule reached its peak in the Middle East during and after the First World War. During the War Britain appealed to the Arabs in the Middle East to join it in overthrowing Ottoman rule of their territories. But where does T.E Lawrence, better known as, “The Lawrence of Arabia” come into all of this?
In this video we take a brief look at the role of T.E Lawrence in the Arab Revolt during WW1.
In May 1915, Britain proclaimed to the ‘people of Arabia’ that:
‘the religion of Islam has always been most respected by the English government’, and that, despite the sultan of Turkey having become an enemy, ‘our policy of respect and friendliness towards Islam remains unchanged’.
Britain made promises to the then ruler of the holy city of Mecca, Sharif Hussain who agreed to lead an Arab revolt in return for British recognition of him after the war, as the ruler of a vast territory stretching from present-day Syria to Yemen, thus encompassing all of modern Saudi Arabia.
“The British government wrote to Hussein in November 1914, stating that:
If the Amir and Arabs in general assist Great Britain in this conflict that has been forced upon us by Turkey, Great Britain will promise not to intervene in any manner whatsoever whether in things religious or otherwise . . . Till now we have defended and befriended Islam in the person of the Turks: henceforward it shall be in that of the noble Arab. It may be that an Arab of true race will assume the Khalifate at Mecca or Medina, and so good may come by the help of God out of all the evil that is now occurring.”
This last momentous sentence was Britain promising to help restore the Islamic Caliphate to Arabia and for Sherif Hussein to be the new caliph, the successor to the Turkish sultan.
Lord Kitchener, the secretary of state for war, noted in March 1915 that ‘if the Khalifate were transferred to Arabia, it would remain to a great extent under our influence.’
Sherif Hussein came out in revolt against the Ottoman empire in June 1916, recruiting a small Arab force of a few thousand men to fight in the Hijaz region, the western coastal area of Arabia containing the cities of Jeddah, Mecca and Medina.
British officers served as military advisers to Hussein’s revolt; one such was Colonel T. E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’, an aide to Faisal, Sherif Hussein’s son. Lawrence was appointed to command the Faisals military forces.
One month before the Arab revolt broke out, Britain and France secretly agreed to divide the Middle East between their zones of influence, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named after their respective foreign ministers.
Lawrence, supposedly the great ‘liberator’ of the Arab world, wrote an intelligence memo in January 1916 stating that the Arab revolt was:
beneficial to us because it marches with our immediate aims, the break up of the Islamic ‘bloc’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states [Sherif Hussein] would set up to succeed the Turks would be . . . harmless to ourselves . . . The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.
After the war, Lawrence wrote a report for the British Cabinet entitled ‘Reconstruction of Arabia’, arguing that it was urgent for the British and their allies to find a Muslim leader who could counter the Ottoman empire’s attempted jihad against them in the name of the caliph:
“When war broke out an urgent need to divide Islam was added, and we became reconciled to seek for allies rather than subjects . . . We hoped by the creation of a ring of client states, themselves insisting on our patronage, to turn the present and future flank of any foreign power with designs on the three rivers [Iraq]. The greatest obstacle, from a war standpoint, to any Arab movement, was its greatest virtue in peace-time – the lack of solidarity between the various Arab movements … The Sherif [Hussein] was ultimately chosen because of the rift he would create in Islam.”
Lawrence of Arabia 2nd from right, middle row. (National Archives)
The benefit of division in the Middle East was also recognised by the foreign department of the British government of India: ‘What we want’, it stated, ‘is not a United Arabia, but a weak and disunited Arabia, split up into little principalities so far as possible under our suzerainty – but incapable of coordinated action against us, forming a buffer against the Powers in the West.’
So there you go guys, this a brief history of the role of T.E Lawrence and how he played a role on behalf of the British Government to divide the Ottoman Caliphate.
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