How Britain Carved Up the Middle East and Helped Create Saudi Arabia

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

by Mark Curtis


The British strategy of colonial divide and rule, and reliance on Muslim forces to promote imperial interests, reached its apogee in the Middle East during and after the First World War. The carving up of the region by British and French officials has been endlessly commented on – though less so as an illustration of the long-standing British ‘use’ of Islam, which then took on a new turn. The Middle East was seen by British planners as critical for both strategic and commercial reasons. Strategically, the Islamic territories were important buffers against Russian expansion into the imperial land route from British India to British-controlled Egypt. But oil had by now also entered the picture, with the founding of the Anglo–Iranian Oil Corporation in Persia in 1908, the discovery of oil in Iraq soon after, and its increasingly important role in powering the military during the First World War. British planners viewed control over Iraqi and Persian oil to be ‘a first class British war aim’, Sir Maurice Hankey, secretary of the War Cabinet, said towards the end of the conflict. By November 1918 the general staff in Baghdad wrote that ‘the future power in the world is oil’.

British foreign policy had, since the sixteenth century, supported the Ottoman empire of the Muslim Turks, the largest and most powerful Muslim entity in the world which, at its height in the seventeenth century, had spanned North Africa, southeast Europe and much of the Middle East. Britain was committed to defending ‘Ottoman integrity’ against Russian and French imperial designs, which involved de facto support for the Turkish Caliphate – the Ottoman sultan’s claim to be the leader of the ummah, the Muslim world community. After Britain captured India, the Ottoman empire was seen as a convenient buffer to keep out rivals along the military and trade route to the jewel in the crown. London often cast itself as the saviour of the Turkish sultan: in the Crimean War of 1854–6, one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern European history, Britain and France fought on behalf of the Ottomans against Russia. The ‘Eastern Question’ – the imperial struggle for control in the lands dominated by the decaying Ottoman empire – was a process in which Britain essentially tried to shore up the last great Muslim empire against its great power rivals. By the time Ottoman Turkey made the fateful choice of siding with Germany in the First World War, it was already a declining power but still controlled much of the Middle East, including present-day Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, which it had ruled for 400 years. After its defeat, the European powers, led by the British, fell upon its carcass and divided it up between them.

During the First World War Britain appealed to the Arabs in the Middle East to join it in overthrowing Ottoman rule of their territories, in exchange for British guarantees of postwar independence. In its 1914 proclamation ‘to the natives of Arabia, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia’, the British government stated that:

‘One of [the government’s] fundamental traditions is to be a friend of Islam and Muslums [sic] and to defend the Islamic Khalifate even if it was a Khalifate of conquest and necessity as the Turkish Khalifate which England had defended with money and men and influence several times … There is no nation amongst Muslums who is now capable of upholding the Islamic Khalifate except the Arab nation and no country is more fitted for its seat than the Arab countries’.

In May 1915, Britain also proclaimed to the ‘people of Arabia’ that ‘the religion of Islam, as history proves, has always been most scrupulously 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’.

A huge amount has been written on the ‘Arab revolt’ against Turkish rule, including the romanticised heroics of Lawrence of Arabia and Britain’s subsequent betrayal of its guarantees of ‘independence’ for the Arabs; these guarantees, to the British, meant not granting Arabs national sovereignty but allowing the presence of exclusively British advisers to administrate Arab countries which would become British ‘protectorates’. One striking aspect of the call to Arabs was Britain’s appeal to Islam in its promises to the then ruler, or sherif, of the holy city of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. Hussein, whose religious authority and position derived from his supposed descent from Muhammad, agreed to lead the 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 [ie, Hussein] … 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. It was Medina, in modern Saudi Arabia, which was the first capital of the Caliphate after the prophet Muhammed died in the seventh century, following which it had been claimed by a variety of dynasties, latterly the Ottomans. London promised to Hussein that Britain ‘will guarantee the Holy Places [at Mecca and Medina] against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability.’ 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.’ The coastline of the Arabian peninsula could be easily controlled by the British navy. By championing an Arabian kingdom under British auspices, Britain was exerting its dominance over the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world. Indeed, Britain was helping Islam to reclaim its roots and return to its origins.

However, some British officials during and after the war also feared that the Caliphate could be used as a rallying point for anti-colonial movements, to undermine British rule in India and Egypt. In particular, they feared the prospect of a Muslim holy war against Britain, something the Turkish sultan had proclaimed on entering the First World War. In his analysis of the Middle East during and after the First World War, David Fromkin notes that British leaders believed that Islam could be manipulated by buying or capturing its religious leadership. They believed, in short, that whoever controlled the person of the caliph controlled Sunni Islam.

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. The writer, Gertrude Bell, who was to become an imperial architect of Iraq, noted that with the fighting at Mecca ‘the revolt of the Holy places is an immense moral and political asset’.

However, Hussein’s revolt achieved only minor victories over the Ottoman army and failed to mobilise people in any part of the Arab world, despite being subsidised by the British to the tune of £11 million (around $400 million in today’s money). 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, who was appointed to command the latter’s 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. This abandonment of the commitment to Ottoman territorial integrity – overturning a mainstay of British foreign policy – was frankly explained by British officials. 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’.

The benefit of division in the Middle East – a key point in all these documents – 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.’

Birth of the British-Saudi alliance

Following the Arab revolt in 1916 and Britain’s defeat of the Turkish armies throughout the region, Hussein bin Ali, the ruler of the holy city of Mecca, proclaimed himself King of all the Arab countries, including the Hijaz in Arabia, but the British government was prepared to recognise only his control of the latter. Confrontation over the future of Arabia ensued between Hussein and another British protégé, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, an emir and rising power in central Arabia whose forces had captured the Nejd region with its capital at Riyadh. British officials had been split on who to champion as the leader of the revolt against the Turks – the British government of India had feared British sponsorship of an Arab caliph who would lead the entire Muslim world, and the effects this might have on Muslims in India, and had therefore favoured Ibn Saud, whose pretensions were limited to Arabia.

In contrast to Hussein’s orthodox Sunnism, the future founder of Saudi Arabia sat at the head of an ultra-conservative Sunni revivalist movement, now known as Wahhabism, which professed a strict adherence to the tenets of Islam, and which had developed in the eighteenth century based on the teaching of the theologian, Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, born in 1703. Ibn Saud’s military forces were the Ikhwani, or Brotherhood, a militia of Bedouin tribesmen instructed by religious teachers who were committed to the purification of Islam and the advancement of government based on strict Islamic law.

Britain had already provided arms and money to Ibn Saud during the First World War, signing a treaty with him in 1915 and recognising him as the ruler of the Nejd province under British protection. By the end of the war, he was receiving a British subsidy of £5,000 a month – considerably less than the £12,000 a month doled out to Hussein, whom the British government at first continued to favour. That some British officials were pinning their strategic hopes on Ibn Saud during the war is evidenced in a memorandum from one British soldier, a Captain Bray, on the ‘Mohammedan question’ in 1917:

‘At the present moment agitation is intense in all Mohammedan countries … The reports of agents and others confirm … the extreme vitality of the movement [pan-Islamism] … It is … essential that the country to whom Mohammedans look should not be Afghanistan. We should therefore create a state more convenient for ourselves, to whom the attention of Islam should be turned. We have an opportunity in Arabia’.

In 1919 London used aircraft in the Hijaz in support of Hussein’s confrontation with Ibn Saud. It was to little avail: after accepting a temporary ceasefire in 1920, Ibn Saud’s 150,000-strong Ikhwani advanced relentlessly, and by the mid-1920s had gained control of Arabia, including the Hijaz and the Holy Places, defeating Hussein for supremacy in the region. Ibn Saud established ‘Saudi’ Arabia in an orgy of murder. In his exposé of the corruption of the Saudi ruling family, Said Aburish describes Ibn Saud as ‘a lecher and a bloodthirsty autocrat … whose savagery wreaked havoc across Arabia’, terrorising and mercilessly slaughtering his enemies. The conquest of Arabia cost the lives of around 400,000 people, since Saud’s forces did not take prisoners; over a million people fled to neighbouring countries. Numerous rebellions against the House of Saud subsequently took place, each put down in ‘mass killings of mostly innocent victims, including women and children’. By the mid-1920s most of Arabia had been subdued, 40,000 people had been publicly executed and some 350,000 had had limbs amputated; the territory was divided into districts under the control of Saud’s relatives, a situation which largely prevails today.

The British recognised Ibn Saud’s control of Arabia, and by 1922 his subsidy was raised to £100,000 a year by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. At the same time, Churchill described Ibn Saud’s Wahhabis as akin to the present-day Taliban, telling the House of Commons in July 1921 that they were ‘austere, intolerant, well-armed and bloodthirsty’ and that ‘they hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette.’ However, Churchill also later wrote that ‘my admiration for him [Ibn Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us’, and the British government set about consolidating its grip on this loyalty.

In 1917 London had dispatched Harry St John Philby – father of Kim, the later Soviet spy – to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until Ibn Saud’s death in 1953. Philby’s role was ‘to consult with the Foreign Office over ways to consolidate the rule and extend the influence’ of Ibn Saud. A 1927 treaty ceded control of the country’s foreign affairs to Britain. When elements of the Ikhwani, opposed to the British presence in the country, rebelled against the regime in 1929, Ibn Saud called for British support. The RAF and troops from the British-controlled army in neighbouring Iraq were dispatched, and the rebellion was put down the following year. Ibn Saud highly appreciated Britain’s support for him, especially during the rebellion, and this paved the way for the development of relations between the Saudi kingdom and the West that became the core of Saudi foreign policy.

Following the consolidation of the Saudi–British alliance, Ibn Saud relegated the Ikhwani’s role to that of educating and monitoring public morality. But the power of Wahhabism had already transformed Bedouins into mujahideen – holy warriors – for whom devotion to the ummah transcended tribal affiliations. In subsequent decades, the Ikhwani’s jihadi conquest of the Arabian peninsula by the sword and the Koran would be constantly invoked in Saudi Arabian teaching. Officially proclaimed in 1932, and to a large extent a British creation, Saudi Arabia would go on to act as the world’s main propagator of fundamentalist Islam, providing the ideological and financial centre of global jihadism. Indeed, Saudi Wahhabism has been described as the ‘founding ideology’ of modern jihad.

The new state of Saudi Arabia, its regional authority underpinned by a religious fundamentalism, gave Britain a foothold in the heart of the Islamic world, in Mecca and Medina. More broadly, Britain had succeeded in achieving its goal of a divided Middle East and a ‘ring of client states’ out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire. The Gulf states ringing Saudi Arabia, in Aden, Bahrain and Oman, were all feudal regimes underpinned by British military protection. Meanwhile, Britain continued to exploit its other potential clients: Faisal, who, with the Allies had captured Damascus in 1918, was made King of Iraq in 1921, and Abdullah, Sherif Hussein’s other son, was dubbed King of Transjordan, which became ‘independent’ under British ‘protection’ in 1923. Finally, there was Palestine, which had also been captured by British forces towards the end of the war. Here, however, Britain was committed to creating what Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour outlined in 1917 as a ‘national home’ for the Jews. In April 1920, at a conference in the Italian resort of San Remo, the newly formed League of Nations formally handed Britain a mandate to govern Palestine.

Balfour had also said that what Britain needed in the Middle East in the early years of the twentieth century was ‘supreme economic and political control to be exercised … in friendly and unostentatious cooperation with the Arabs, but nevertheless, in the last resort, to be exercised.’ The regimes that Britain had created were puppets, essentially law-and-order governments allied mainly with the traditional ruling classes of Islam. In turn, these favoured sultans, emirs or monarchs saw British rule as providing protection against the dangers of instability or emancipatory nationalist movements that had begun to stir, notably in Iraq.


  1. Tony M says:

    This is great another wrinkle might be that somewhere in this, mid-ww1, American influence and money began to be felt directly, backing perhaps Saud over Hussein? A schism, compting interests or a two-fishing line two-faced approach between or from old and emerging new seats of western empire and financial power. Concessions for oil in what became Saudi Arabia on the whole over-whelmingly went to US oil companies with British, even government controlled companies such as Anglo-Persian/BP frozen out.

    1. Martin Boyers says:

      The US was nudging out Britain in the Middle East, as in much of the world, during World War II. As a symbol, Washington took over the annual subsidy to Saudi Arabia at the Cairo Conference in 1943. (London still believed it had a great deal of heft in the region, which was disproven in the Sinai War of 1956, when the US bloodied its’, and France’s, nose.) Oil drilling in Saudi Arabia was begun just before the war. It exploded quickly after the war benefiting, in the large part, US companies. From that point onward, Saudi Arabia needed no annual allowance. The US was its main sponsor — economically, militarily, and diplomatically. In the early 1970s, things got complicated due to the US-Israel alliance and the growth of independent Saudi wealth. However the basic alliance still exists.

  2. nikola says:

    Thank you so much for providing a solid overture and background for understanding the modern Western policy in the Middle East.

  3. Sultan Ahmad says:

    The British empire has very scrupulously left some legacy when they were forced to leave the region. In Indo-Pak subcontinent (Kashmir), In Middle East (Israel). The kingdom of saudis is another example. At present, all these are the hot bed of confrontation between Muslims and other religions.

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