/Understanding the Middle East – Part 2: The Formation of Nation-States

Understanding the Middle East – Part 2: The Formation of Nation-States


The Formation of Nation-States in The Middle East

In the mini-series, world politics student Mohammed S. Hadi takes a look at the historical events that have shaped the Middle East and the Arab world the way we know them today.

Text: Mohammed S. Hadi


On the eve of July, the 23rd 1908, the Ottoman army in Macedonia had risen in rebellion which aimed to restore the constitution of 1876. By then Sultan Abdülhamid II (1842–1918) had been filling his position for more than three decades. No one more than him knew what the Young Turk officers were asking for. Thirty-two years ago, when he ascended to the throne, Abdülhamid had inherited a state which had never seen worst days before. Almost a year had passed since the empire’s treasury had declared bankruptcy, which later lead to economic sanctions imposed by the great European powers. Separatist movements within the European region of the empire were growing, in addition to a continuous European intervention in interior Ottoman affairs which had never extended to this range before. On top of all that, Abdülhamid was never meant to be the sultan, but his predecessor Murat V (1840–1904) had mentally collapsed only three months after taking responsibility.

The ambitious thirty-three years old young sultan had many plans on how to restore the empire to its old glorious days. His government urged him to introduce a liberal constitution which would pave the road for a parliamentary life, allowing Muslims, Christians and Jews to participate in shaping the empire’s general policy. Further aim was to prevent European powers from intervening in domestic ottoman affairs under the pretext of protecting minorities.

This era, which would be later known as the first constitutional era, didn’t last long. Only two years after initiating the new liberal policy, the empire faced new threats, both externally and internally. A disastrous war against Russia, followed by a humiliating peace treaty at the congress of Berlin (June–July 1878) where the Ottoman officials were forced to give up two-fifths of their territory and one-fifth of their population, both in the Balkan and eastern Anatolia regions of the empire. This was not only a territorial lost, because economically speaking the empire had just gave up its wealthiest areas (Rogan 2015). Further territory loss occurred when Britain took over Cyprus in 1878, France took over Tunisia in 1881 and when Britain declared Egypt as a colony of its own in 1882. Within this turmoil the parliament did not prove itself as a useful instrument of governing, and continuous nagging accompanied by the lack of creative solutions urged Abdülhamid to dismiss it in 1878 and to rule the empire with an absolute sense. But this short-lived constitutional era would remain in the minds and hearts of those who viewed it as the empire’s sole salvation.

On July 24th 1908, the sultan declared the restoration of the constitutional life. Major Ismail Enver (1881–1922) a leader of the rebellion was highly prised and was regarded by many as the Napoleonic version of the Ottomans, later Enver would lead up the empire’s war effort in the great war. In a rare moment of Ottoman history, patriotism took over ethnic and religious individualities. Arabs, Turks and Armenians, Muslims and non-Muslims saw themselves for the first (and probably last) time as ottoman subjects above anything else. Soon their hopes of a free political life, equal rights and obligations and basic recognition of cultural identity collapsed. To make things even worst, new areas were annexed from the European region of the empire. Nearly a year after the Young Turks’ rebellion had occurred, a counter-revolution which aimed to restore the Islamic law took place in Istanbul. After few weeks of complete chaos, the Ottoman army in Macedonia finally decided to take action, and in April 24th 1909 martial laws were declared after a quick march on Istanbul. This time the Young Turks were determined to remain in power. To assure this, new aggressive policies, regarding ethnic and religious groups, were adopted. Armenians were viewed as a suspicious group whose loyalty was devoted to external powers. On their side, Arabs had to face a harsh Turkification process, which was accompanied by an exclusive policy from administrative ranks. These actions were highly displeased by Arabs, whose ethnic group was the largest within the empire. Feelings of betrayal and abandonment would contribute to the development of next events.

At the same time new nationalistic orientation began to strengthen among Arab officers within the Ottoman army; also well-educated young Arab males were a common target of this ideology. Many of these Arab nationalists began to build up connections with European countries throughout their consulates in the Arab world (Rogan 2009). Final divorce between Arabs and the Ottoman central authority occurred on the eve of August 21st 1915 when many young Arab nationalists were executed in Beirut and Damascus consecutively, by the orders of general Jamal Basha (the governor of Levant). By then the Ottomans had been nearly fighting for over a year in the great war and were doing well at the Gallipoli campaign. While these rapid events were taking place, a plot was being set at one of the most remote areas within the empire.

A Revolt in the desert

While the major European powers were busy fighting each other on and off Europe’s shores, the British consulate in Cairo started to get in touch with a tribal leader called Husayn bin Ali (1854–1931). Husayn was the Sharif of Mecca (the title Sharif was held by those who were presumed to be of a direct descendant to the prophet). Sharifs were mainly appointed by the Ottoman sultan himself and were regarded as the rulers of most of the western coast of current day Saudi Arabia. British aim in contacting Husayn was to convince Arabs to initiate a revolt that would boost the British army’s war effort against the Ottomans in the Asian part of the middle east, an area in which Anglo-Indian troops were already doing well; for example in southern Iraq they had already captured the city of Basra (Iraq’s second largest city and a vital ottoman port to access the Persian Gulf). The British convergence toward the ruler of Hejaz was also aiming to divide Arab loyalties within the Ottoman empire, and in return to his contributions the Sharif was promised the leadership of an Arab kingdom. Achieving this was a crucial goal for the British national interests, since Arabs were a major source of soldiers within the Ottoman military. Indeed, at the beginning of the war, more than 300,000 Arab soldiers were fighting under the ottoman banner, two out of nine generals of the general staff of the armed forces were Arabs, even the prime minister of the whole empire Said Halim Pasha (1865–1921) was of Arab origin.

Since the entrance of the Ottoman empire to the war, Great Britain had been determined to secure a powerful Arab ally with a noble origin. This was due to the British anxiety toward the declaration of jihad against the allied powers, which was issued on November 14th 1914 by the grand sheikh of Islam in Istanbul. British and French officials were well aware of the implications behind this call for a holy war. Indeed, by 1914 there were more than 240 million Muslims living under colonial rule. 100 million of them lived under British authority, while 20 other million lived under French rule, further 20 million lived within the Russian empire and only 24 million were regarded as Ottoman subjects (Rogan 2015). Under French command alone, more than 300,000 Arabs were fighting, but those men would be totally forgotten by the western narratives of the great war. On its side, Germany tended to exploit its alliance with the ottomans by establishing propaganda offices to recruit Muslim war prisoners captured in the war to fight on the German side. The call for a holy war which had not been used for more than three decades was now exploited by external powers for the first time in history.

The grand sheik of Islam Musa Kazim Efendi calling for Jihad and marking the entrance of the Ottoman empire to war.

As I have mentioned before, many Arabs were dissatisfied with the Ottoman policies toward the Arab provinces of the empire. Even a larger number (although it was exaggerated in later history) felt that the war in Europe was none of their business. In order to make a change, many Arab secret societies were established both within and outside the empire. These were the upshot of army officers, students and exiled figures in Europe. Most famous of them was the covenant society, which was formed mainly by Iraqi officers in the Ottoman army and the Arab secret society al-Fatat (Young Arabs), which was active in Damascus and had connections with the Sharifian ruling family of Hejaz. In January 1915, members of al-Fatat started to contact the Sharif and his son emir Faisal (1883–1933) and they urged them to initiate a revolt against the Ottomans (Mulish 1988). Faisal arrived to Damascus in march of the same year and there he had the chance to meet with members of both societies. After discussing the issue of initiating a revolt, Faisal sensed the enthusiastic atmosphere which had fixed his mind quickly in favour of a grand Arab revolution.

When he finally returned to Hejaz, Faisal urged his father to go further with his intentions. On his side Sharif Husayn had no doubt that the government in Istanbul was coming after him as soon as they got their hands freed from the war. Importantly, Husayn knew that an independent Arab revolt was not going to succeed in front of the more advanced and trained Ottoman army, if it did not have a great power as patron. For Husayn, Great Britain was the most reliable ally he could ever gain. Less than two decades ago, Husayn sensed how Great Britain supported the ruler of Kuwait, in his struggle for independence from the Ottoman authority. Therefore, he believed that he could put his family’s fate in the hands of his majesty’s government.

The first interaction between British officials and the rulers of Hejaz occurred on February 1914, when emir Abdullah (another son of Husayn) met in Cairo with Lord Kitchener, the consul general in Egypt and his oriental secretary Ronald Storrs. Back then Husayn’s intentions were met by denial from the British officials. Kitchener made it very clear that any conflict between Husayn and Istanbul was completely regarded as an interior Ottoman issue, and therefore Britain was unwilling to interfere in it (Rogan 2015).

Months later, when the war had already started, Husayn and his sons were quickly remembered by Stross. As the highest Muslim-ranking official in the Arab world, Husayn found himself in a very difficult position, in which he had to choose between securing his title as the Ruler of Hejaz by endorsing the Ottoman call for Jihad and exposing his entity for the rage of great powers or calling for a revolt against the Ottomans and face dangerous consequences. He needed also to decide whether to seek partial independence of Hejaz or to aim for a united Arab Kingdom if he had decided to go further with his alliance with Great Britain.

During his residence in Damascus, Faisal had already discussed and signed an agreement with the secret societies there; this paper would be later known as the Damascus protocol. In the protocol, Arab nationalists defined the borders of the future state they had dreamed of; this state included all of great Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine), Mesopotamia and the whole Arabian Peninsula. It was also planned to have a friendly relationship with the Ottoman empire and to reward Great Britain with an exclusive partnership in exchange for its support of the revolution. With this protocol in hands, Sharif Husayn was authorized by the Arab nationalists to negotiate an agreement with Great Britain to secure Arab independence. In return Husayn will be called as the king of the Arabs as soon as the new state come to existence.

The Famous Husayn-McMahon correspondence started on July 14th 1915, when Sharif Husayn bin Ali sent a letter to Cairo in which for the first time he claimed himself as the speaker on behalf the whole Arab nation. In this letter Husayn proposed what had already been agreed on in the Damascus protocol. At first sir Henry McMahon (1862–1949), the British high commissioner in Egypt, did not take Husayn’s demands seriously. The British war effort at the Gallipoli campaign was still going on and if it was to succeed it would have meant that the doors of Istanbul will be completely open for the British troops to occupy.

Soon after the humiliating defeat in Gallipoli, Britain was forced to reconsider its position. It took them a long hit-and-run session accompanied with continuous ambiguous responses, before closing a deal with Husayn. McMahon made it clear that Britain was willing to keep its treaties with the Trucial States, of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. The same had been said on the relations with Ibn Saud in Najd and on Oman. Also due to the fact that Britain was doing well in Mesopotamia, McMahon made it clear that any future state in Iraq would have special administrative arraignments, without mentioning any intentions for imposing a colonial rule. On the other hand, France had already expressed its intentions on annexing Syria after the end of the war, therefore Britain had no leverage on France and it was not able to force it out of Levant. Following the disastrous British surrender to the ottoman forces in Kut-al-Amara in Iraq, McMahon’s position became even weaker; a thing which was peculiarly ignored by Husayn, who equivocally accepted a compromised version of his first proposal. First, all of Iraq provinces shall be included within the Arab Kingdom, but these territories which have fell under British control by 1916 will remain under British supervision for a short period after the end of the war in an exchange of a compensation paid by Britain to the Arab Kingdom. As for the case of Levant, further discussion had to be made before giving a final answer.

The vogue agreement which established for the alliance between Great Britain and the Arab rebels will be later considered by the latter part as a British commitment for an immediate and Full Arab independence.

During the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, and after the British commitment to Arabs on forging an agreement with France on behalf of them to defy the future of Levant, London started to contact Paris in October 1915. France decided to send the former consul general Charles Francois Georges-Picot to Beirut, to negotiate an agreement with Sir Mark Sykes, the Middle East adviser of Lord Kitchener, on how to shape the Middle East after the end of the war. The agreement which will be reached by those men came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. For more than a century the Arabs would come back again and again to this particular moment of history in an attempt to understand the real intentions behind this agreement; an entire mythology will be based on it, in which Arabs view themselves as the victim of imperial greed that had divided them into weak and inefficient political entities. Indeed, on June 10th 2014 ISIS declared the collapse of the Sykes-Picot borders in an attempt to mobilize Arab public opinion in its favour.

Sykes-Picot vision of the Middle East.

To be historically precise, Sykes-Picot agreement never left the papers which it was drafted on, but what was substantial about it is that it laid the foundations for the division of borders in the way we know them today. Arab opinion was completely marginalized when this agreement was getting drafted; it was a pure product of imperial will, which was planned to be forcefully imposed on the defeated side of the war (the Ottomans), and it was never meant to be a faithful gift for those who had decided to fight on behalf of the allied powers during the war. In this agreement France and Great Britain agreed on dividing both of Mesopotamia and Levant into four zones. First the region was divided into red and blue zones which fell consecutively under direct of French and British control. The British red zone was consisted of Bagdad and Basra, while the blue French zone was consisted of the Syrian and Lebanese coastal cities. Two other zones, A and B, were also added to this agreement. Zone A which included major cities of current day Syria (Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Hama) and the northern part of Iraq including Mosul fell under indirect French control, while Zone B which included the rest of Iraq and Jordan was regarded as British orbit of influence. The question of Palestine remained controversial and was decided to be placed under international administration.

On its side, Russia was meant to be part of this secret agreement, but with its withdrawal from the war in October 1917, Bolsheviks decided to reveal the agreement to public opinion, which ultimately lead to endangering Husayn’s status as a reliable leader in the eyes of his followers. Husayn faced further embracement after the public statement which was issued by the British government on November 2nd 1917. In this declaration, his majesty’s government expressed its full support of establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine; this statement will be known as The Balfour Declaration. But despite all of that, the Arab revolt which had started on June 5th 1916 continued until the end of the war. During the revolt, Husayn and his sons managed to take over both of Mecca and Medina (the two holy cities of Islam), and they also managed to take over the port of Aqaba (Current Day Jordan) in July 1917. But the largest victory was yet to come on August 2nd 1918 when Damascus fell under the hands of prince Faisal bin al-Husayn. Only then, the Sharif of Mecca started to feel comfortable and thought that his plans for a united Arab kingdom were closer than ever.

Paris Peace Conference, 1919

Between January and June 1919, the great powers which had emerged victorious from the great war gathered in Paris to agree on the price which had to be paid by those who had lost the war, and also to lay down the foundations of a new world order and with it a new regional order for the Middle East. The prime ministers of Britain, France and Italy, joined by the president the United State formed what was regarded as the “big four” group of powers which was responsible for making all the major decisions at the conference. In his famous 14-point statement Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) mentioned the former Ottoman territories on his 12th point: “The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.” This was the first interaction between Arabs and the United States; back then the United States were viewed positively by the Arabs who felt that America was an honest supporter for their right to self-determination.

An Arab delegation led by prince Faisal bin al-Husayn was sent to Paris. Faisal’s main purpose was to impose his position as the king of great Syria as a de facto status before the great powers at Versailles. Since the Ottoman withdrawal from Damascus, Faisal had managed to form a government and planned to extend his authority over the whole region of Levant (current day Syria, Jordan and Lebanon). He was also willing to convince the great powers to keep their promises for his father, despite all of the other agreements they had committed themselves to.

In January 1st 1919, Faisal addressed the conference claimimg that “The aim of the Arab nationalist movements (of which my father became the leader in war after combined appeals from the Syrian and Mesopotamian branches) is to unite the Arabs eventually into one nation. As an old member of the Syrian Committee I commanded the Syrian revolt, and had under me Syrians, Mesopotamians, and Arabians. We believe that our ideal of Arab unity in Asia is justified beyond need of argument. If argument is required, we would point to the general principles accepted by the Allies when the United States joined them, to our splendid past, to the tenacity with which our race has for 600 years resisted Turkish attempts to absorb us, and, in a lesser degree, to what we tried our best to do in this war as one of the Allies”.

At Paris conference Faisal met with representatives of the Zionist movement and closed an agreement with them, in which he had agreed on renouncing his claims over Palestine in favour of the Jewish community, if and only if all the other Arab demands were met by the great powers (Rogan 2009). Other historians such as Ali A. Allawi have claimed that Faisal was a victim of a great plot which was drafted by the Zionists and their allies in order to weaken his position during the negotiations, and that his statements with local newspapers were manipulated. Also a letter written by T.E. Lawrence1 (1888–1935) signed by the prince (but never read), was revealed to public. In this letter Faisal was claimed to have had expressed his sympathy toward the Zionist aims to establish a home for the Jewish community in Palestine (Allawi 2014). Furthermore, Allawi claims that Faisal had singed on the Faisal-Weizmann agreement of January 3rd 1919 in which he has endorsed the Zionist claims over Palestine, without being able to read it. The reason behind this was due to the fact that it was written in English, a Language which Faisal couldn’t read. His only translator was T.E. Lawrence, who has been said to have described the content of the agreement in a different way than what had been drafted.

Faisal in Paris. T.E Lawrence (right) and most crucial political figure in monarchic Iraq Nuri al-Said (left). https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/a-measure-of-greatness-1.272411

The presence of Faisal in Paris and his demands for a united Arab kingdom formed a huge burden of the British and French plans in the Middle East. The only exit out of this challenge came from president Wilson, who suggested the formation of a multinational commission to initiate an enquiry in the former Ottoman territories in purpose to shape a well-informed decision based on the opinion of the indigenous peoples of these areas, in order to decide the way in which political arrangements had to be made. Britain and France saw this as an opportunity to win time and go on with their plans, while Faisal saw it as a legal way to gain the independence of his kingdom. Later the King-Crane commission called for a united Syrian entity, which was preferred to remain under Faisal’s control and for a restriction on Jewish migration to Palestine. The final report was presented in August 1919 but was completely ignored by the allies and had been left on the roofs without being revealed until 1922, when the Middle East had already been divided between Britain and France2.

On November 1st 1919 Great Britain declared that it was to withdraw its forces out of Syria which was planned to be filled by French troops. Urgently Faisal was called as king of Syria, Palestine and Lebanon and preparation for war against France began. On July 24th 1920 the two sides met at the battle of Maysalun (a mountainous region in southwestern Syria), the heavily outgunned and outnumbered Arab army quickly collapsed and Damascus fell under French control within a single day. This marked the beginning of the French invasion of Syria, which lasted for nearly 25 years.

On the other hand, Iraq was in a complete turmoil on May 1920. A local uprising led by leaders of Shia, Sunni and Kurd tribesmen forced the British officials to consider the establishment of an Iraqi state which would be led by no one else that the famous prince Faisal himself, who had been recently overthrown from the throne of Syria. The naïve Faisal proved to be a cunning figure and managed to lay down the foundations of what has been regarded as the most successful era of modern Iraqi history, despite all of the divisions which he had inherited from the establishment of a state without considering the opinion of its indigenous people. At the same time a new state was formed in Transjordan, and Faisal’s elder brother Abdullah (1882–1951) was named as the emir of this new entity. Meanwhile ibn Saud started to expand his territory in the Arabian Peninsula, which he finally declared as a kingdom in 1932, after he had managed to drive the Hashemites (Husayn’s clan and house of the prophet) out of Hejaz. On its part, Levant was divided into separate entities and placed under French mandate until the end of the second world war. Palestine remains an unsolved question until this very day. Also, Egypt would have to live under the British mandate for a decade to come. Other parts of the Arab world such as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria remained under unquestioned French control until the second half of the 20th century. All of these conditions combined by the feelings of weakness and inability will later lead to the birth of two of the most crucial ideologies that have overwhelmed the Middle East ever since Arabism and Political Islam.


The genesis of Arab nationalism can be traced back to the early nineteenth century as George Antonius argues, or to the writings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897) and other figures from the Islamic enlightenment era, which took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, as Adeed Dawisha argues. But it was the Turkification policy of the Young Turks, which had contributed the most in transforming the Arab nationalist movement from being an intellectual orientation to become an armed revolt seeking for independence from the state, whose authority they had accepted to live under for more than four centuries. Before 1908 an Arab individual was able to be an Arab, a Muslim and a member of his tribe at the same time; there were no exclusive identities. But with the rise of Young Turks to power and following the defeats of the Ottomans in the Balkan Wars of independence (1912–1913), nationalistic orientations were completely prohibited within the empire. Turks looked to Arabs, Armenians and Kurds as potential enemies and as a threat to the domestic integrity of the empire. Therefore, Young Turks thought that it was important to exclude them from higher ranks in government and to impose harsh policies on them. This Great Arab Revolt will be remembered and romanticised in Arab nationalistic narratives.

To be historically accurate, the size of Arab legion never extended beyond 10,000 men at any stage of the war, so it was a very trivial force in comparison to the war which they were fighting on. Most of Arabs remained faithful to the Ottoman empire until the final moments of the great war, while many argue that the borders which were laid after the war were artificial. Iliyad Harik claims that most of Middle Eastern states had already a sense of national identity, which was different from that of the collective Arab nationalist orientation. Despite all of that, this era marked the rise and fall of traditional Arab nationalism, which would clear the road for a more radicalized version in the decades to come.

As for the Arabs, Eugene Rogan argues in the preface of his book The Fall of the Ottomans, that they seem to have no collective memory of the great war. Despite all of the heavy casualties among Arab civilians, the vast number of Arab young males who fought on both sides and the devastating aftermath of the war, Arabs do not recall anything else from that era of history other than the names of Balfour, Sykes-Picot and Husayn-McMahon. If you ask any Arab (educated or not, young or old) about these names there will be a very high chance that he or she will recognize them. Feelings of bitterness and betrayal are still laying deep within the mental sense of Arab society. The borders which have been drawn by European hands have changed the course of their history forever. These were not only lines drawn on a map, instead these were the destructed fates of many generations that had to fight for the cause of changing these borders – without making any difference. This is not to put the whole blame on Europe, as we have seen both Arabs and Turks have had many choices in which they had to choose between different alternatives. Decisions were made and they are directly related to the circumstances that we are facing today; back then no Ottoman official thought that the course of history would turn toward this direction. Today, while Turks are still celebrating their victories in Gallipoli and Kut-al-Amara, Arabs have no memorial days of their own. The only thing that comes to mind when World War One is mentioned, is a vogue image of a war which had occurred far away from their lives.



  1. T. E. Lawrence was a British archaeologist, military officer and diplomat. He played a major role in convincing Sharif Husayn to initiate the revolt against the ottomans and was one of the most trusted men by the Sharif.
  2. King-Crane Commission Digital Collection



Allawi, Ali A (2014) Faisal I of Iraq

Dawisha, Adeed (2003). Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century.

Antonius, George (1938). The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement

Luciani, Giacomo (1990). The Arab State.

Muslih, Muhammad Y. (1988). The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism.

Rogan, Eugene (2009). The Arabs a History.

Rogan, Eugene (2015). The Fall of the Ottomans.

Juusola, Hannu & Huuhtanen, Heidi (2002). Uskonto ja Politiikka Lähi-Idässä

World War One Through Arab Eyes (2014). A three-episode documentary produced by Aljazeera

Wilson’s fourteen points: http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1324.html

Faisal’s memorandum: https://www.scribd.com/document/72247338/Memorandums-by-the-Emir-Feisal-Jan-1-and-29-1919