Our Jordanian guide told us about T. E. Lawrence and Jordan being surrounded by Israel and powerful Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. Steve, a person in our tour group, suggested reading Lawrence in Arabia. Knowing little beyond seeing Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole, I took Steve’s advice.
Lawrence in Arabia was an eye-opener and sobering. The Middle East is important, and Lawrence played an outsized role. The British looked down on the Arabs. British diplomats lied to the Arabs to encourage their revolt, without intending to fulfill the Arab self-determination they promised.
Above are dunes of red sand at Wadi Rum, Jordan, where Lawrence passed through and where much of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.
The Middle East is important, and Lawrence played an outsized role
From the introduction,
The modern Middle East was largely created by the British. It was they who carried the Allied war effort in the region during World War I and who, at its close, principally fashioned its peace. It was a peace presaged by the nickname given the region by covetous Allied leaders in wartime: “the Great Loot.” As one of Britain’s most important and influential agents in that arena, Lawrence was intimately connected to all, good and bad, that was to come.
The British looked down on the Arabs
I was struck by gulf between British and Arab views of each other, as shown by these two quotes that open the chapter on Aqaba. Hussein proclaimed “the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire”, and his son Faisal “was briefly King of Syria and later King of Iraq.”
Never doubt Great Britain’s work. She is wise and trustworthy; have no fear.
KING HUSSEIN TO HIS SON FAISAL, MAY 1917
In contrast, Wingate , the British High Commissioner in Egypt, writes to the resident British agent assigned to work with the Arabs.
His Sherifial Majesty [King Hussein] evidently suffers from the defects of character and ignorance of system common to Oriental potentates. … The task of guiding on Oriental ruler or government in the way they should go is no light one–as I know to my cost–and you have my fullest sympathy. It must be heartbreaking at times.
REGINALD WINGATE TO CYRIL WILSON, JULY 20, 1917
This brings to mind Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden“.
British diplomats lied to the Arabs to encourage their revolt
From the chapter Treachery, Britain made promises to the Arabs.
In his crucial October 24 (1915) letter, the British high commissioner to Egypt, Henry McMahon declared that, subject to certain modifications, “Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.”
Despite this, in early January 1916 the British and French wrote the Sykes-Picot Agreement, where “the truly independent Arab nation was now to be largly limited to the desert wastelands of Arabia, with the French taking direct control of greater Syria, and the British taking outright all of Iraq.” Palestine would “fall under the joint administration of France, Great Britain, and Russia.”
The British diplomat Mark Sykes “knew the full details of both the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and the emerging Sykes-Picot compact.”
In February 1917, Lawrence revealed to Faisal ” both the existence and the salient details of Sykes-Picot.” In doing this, Lawrence “technically committed treason”. In October 1918, after being summoned to meet the king at Buckingham Palace, Lawrence “quietly informed the king that he was refusing the honor” (Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire). “The refusal of knighthood was such an extraordinary event that there was no protocol for how to handle it.”
After World War II, Britain and France were forced to give up these lands. The descendants of Hussein’s son Abdullah still rule Jordan.
T. E. Lawrence was an extraordinary person, and the lessons about diplomacy were eye-opening.