I recently posted at great length about the origins of Wahhabism (and Zionism) and its influence on today’s bleak and bloody Middle Eastern crisis; and about the Hashemite Arabs that were sidelined from Arabia after the First World War in favour of the Wahhabist Saudis.
As a brief add-on to that post, it is worth turning our attention to the alternate reality that might have come to pass had the relatively moderate Hashemites and not the Wahhabi-aligned Saudis won the prize of Arabia after the war.
It is an interesting ‘what if’ of history to wonder how Middle Eastern affairs might have unfolded differently these passed hundred years had the Hashemites, beginning with Faisal bin Hussein, been the central Arab royal family and not the the British-installed House of Saud.
Of course, alternate history speculation is an imprecise sport: we can never really know for sure what would’ve unfolded – we can only extrapolate based on known factors.
So consider this a merely a hypothesis. But an interesting one: especially given that the borders and make-up of the Arab world today were precisely formulated by British and French Colonialists and not by Arabs. And that the British decision to install the House of Saud to power in the heart of the Arab/Muslim world was a curiously illogical decision when a more logical alternative was perfectly available already.
Why more logical? Because, as explored in the first article, it was the Hashemites – under Faisal – and NOT the Sauds, who had led the Arab Revolt on the side of the British during the First World War. And it was the Hashemites who had been promised rulership of Arabia after the war by the British – and not the Sauds.
And, crucially, it was the Hashemites who – it was long claimed – were the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
All of which makes the British U-turn to favour the House of Saud something of a historical anomaly: unless, as explored previously, it was all intentional – part of a plan to configure the Middle East and Arab world to suit Colonial interests (via Sykes-Picot, via the Balfour Declaration and via the House of Saud).
The figure most associated with the Arab Revolt (and with T.E Lawrence) was King Hussein’s son Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi (famously immortalised in popular culture by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia, and later by Alexander Siddig in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia).
In 1916-1918, Faisal headed the rebellion against the Turkish Ottoman Empire in what was to become Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. After a 30 month-long siege he and his irregular Arab armies conquered Medina. Working with Britain and the Allies during World War I, Faisal’s forces (along with Lawrence) later conquered Greater Syria and captured the historic and prized city of Damascus.
The British government had promised Faisal kingship of a post-war Arabia: a post-war Arabia that was to encompass not just the land now known as Saudi Arabia, but also Syria, Jordan, Iraq and (according to some) Palestine. It was this dangled carrot of an independent Arab kingdom that had encouraged Faisal and the Arab armies to fight on Britain’s side against the Ottomans.
That promise was not honoured after the war, partly because the British had made separate, contradictory, promises to the French Colonialists in regard to Syria (and to Zionists in regard to Palestine).
Despite the fact that it had been the Arab fighters under Faisal that had captured Damascus, the Colonialist powers failed to recognise the Arab claim to Damascus or Syria: and a great deal of political conflict and manoeuvring occurred after the First World War, with Faisal and his supporters (including Lawrence, who worked to try to make the British honour its agreement with Faisal) trying to hold onto their claim (and territory): and the political elites of France and Britain trying to push through their Sykes-Picot Agreement (a secret agreement made behind closed doors to carve up the Middle East according to British and French interests).
In this period of confusion and chaos, Faisal was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria or Greater Syria in 1920 (despite the long and vicious campaign by the French to hold on to Syria themselves).
However, after the Battle of Maysalun on 24 July 1920, the French expelled Faisal from Syria, regardless of Faisal’s claim. He went to live in the United Kingdom in August that year. In March 1921, at the Cairo Conference, the British decided that Faisal still needed to be honoured somehow: and so he was instead considered a good candidate for ruling the British Mandate of Iraq because of his apparent conciliatory attitude towards Britain (and based on counsel from Faisal’s friend and champion T. E. Lawrence).
Faisal’s destiny wasn’t to be what he envisioned – nor indeed what the British had promised during the war. And even the Iraqi kingdom was short-lived.
In July 1933, right before his death, Faisal went to London where he expressed his alarm at the current situation of Arabs that had resulted from the Arab-Jewish conflict and the increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, as the Arab political, social, and economic situation was declining.
He asked the British to limit Jewish migration and land sales. His counsel fell on deaf ears, however.
Faisal died on 8th September 1933, at the age of 48 (T.E Lawrence, incidentally, died two years later). The official cause of death was a heart attack while he was staying in Bern, Switzerland, for his general medical check-up.
Curious questions emerged about his sudden death, as Swiss doctors claimed that he was healthy and nothing serious was wrong with him. His private nurse also reported signs of arsenic poison before his death. Several of his companions noticed that day that he was suffering from pain in the abdomen (a sign of poisoning) and not the chest (a typical sign of heart attack).
Faisal’s body was quickly mummified before performing a proper autopsy to find the exact cause of death, which would’ve been the normal procedure in such situations.
Rushed autopsies or lack of proper autopsy are a common feature in suspicious deaths (JFK, Princess Diana, etc).
Unlike more ‘dramatic’ deaths such as shootings, car crashes and plane crashes, possible assassinations by poisoning can be more difficult to detect or to speculate on, as expert poisonings can be made to look like simple health issues. Which leads one to wonder how many apparently non-suspect deaths from various illnesses, particularly when involving political figures, might actually have been murders.
A perfect example of this was the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who was considered to have died a natural death; it was only through a chance discovery a few years later, leading to a re-investigation, that revealed Arafat had died from polonium poisoning.
If Faisal was murdered, the question of who did it and why remains completely open.
It’s worth noting that there have been some suspicions over Lawrence’s very young death too (from a motorcycle accident), with two eyewitnesses allegedly claiming to have seen a mystery vehicle following Lawrence’s motorcycle prior to his fatal crash.
What we do know about Lawrence’s final years is that he was a recluse. Some biographers say this was due to his being uncomfortable with the level of fame he had acquired as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Others, however, point to his struggling with feelings of guilt over the situation in the Middle East and the perceived betrayal of the Arabs – an affair in which he had, willingly or unwittingly, played his part.
As for Faisal’s successors in Iraq, their reign was short. The infamous Revolution or Iraqi coup d’état took place on 14th July 1958, resulting in the overthrowing of the Hashemite monarchy. King Faisal II, the regent and Crown Prince and the Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, were all assassinated during this coup, along with the three princesses and other members of the Iraqi Royal Family.
The success of the “Free Officers” in overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy and seizing power there in 1952 made Egypt’s Nassir a source of inspiration for the “Iraqi Free Officers” whose coup was inspired by several events, including the unsuccessful 1948 Pan-Arab War against Israel.
The Hashemites’ relationship with the UK and the US was also a grievance, being seen by the coup as an imperialist alliance.
It has always been evident, however, that this coup wasn’t the work solely of Iraqi nationals, but included significant Egyptian and other foreign involvement/influence. Whether it also may have involved other parties too is unknown. For example, this was around the time that the British and American intelligence communities were conducting their coup against secular Mosedegh government in Iran: so any unholy alliance of interests and plotters is possible.
With the family’s incredibly brutal and violent demise, the Iraqi Hashemite dynasty ended.
The vision of a unified Arab state – which had inspired the Arab Revolt in the first place – was very much dead and buried. And now even the ‘conciliation prizes’ of Syria and Iraq were gone too.
However, the family’s position in the Middle East hadn’t ended entirely: as we will look at in a moment.
The question is: would the Middle East look different today if Faisal had been given the kingdom he had been promised – and if the British/French Sykes-Picot plan had not been enacted in the Arab world?
The two things we need to look at are, firstly, the character and disposition of Faisal himself and, secondly, the character and disposition of modern-day Jordan – which is the sole surviving kingdom of the Hashemite line and the Arab Revolt.
Lawrence had considered Faisal the ideal figure to unite the Arab tribes for various reasons, but two in particular. One, he was seen as religiously moderate, well educated and a forward-thinker. And two, again, his family had the pedigree perceived as necessary – given the claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
When we look at the vicious sectarianism that now characterizes the Middle East, it is worth remembering that Faisal fostered unity between Sunni and Shiite Muslims to encourage common loyalty and promote pan-Arabism: in the goal of creating an Arab state that would include Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Fertile Crescent (ironically an earlier and more peaceful version of what today’s ISIS/Islamic State is currently claiming to try to do violently).
While in power, Faisal tried to diversify his administration by including different ethnic and religious groups in offices. The idea of the Arab nation was far more important than religious or sectarian differences.
One would assume, therefore, that in the unified Arabia that Faisal had originally envisioned there would not have been a legacy of sectarian violence. Contrast this to the legacy of the French/British Sykes-Picot solution, which essentially divided the region into small states – each with long-lasting sectarian problems to this very day.
Faisal’s vision (and Lawrence’s), we can extrapolate, might’ve yielded better results in the future than the Colonial carve-up of the Middle East did.
And again, crucially, Faisal and the Hashemites were adherents of what we might define as ‘moderate’ Sunni Islam: they were not fans of the divisive Wahhabi version of Islam that had been invented fairly recently and was linked to the ruling House of Saud in Saudi Arabia.
The Hashemite Arabs had in fact fought a war against the House of Saud: and would’ve presumably seen the British propping up of the Sauds as a final insult. What this means is that a Hashemite Arabia would not have included the global dissemination of toxic Wahhabist doctrine and literature that has occurred under the Saudis: and has arguably led to the toxification and destabilisation of the Islamic world.
And, in this alternate reality, a Hashemite-centered Arabia would probably have been relatively peaceful and forward-looking. Faisal’s vision for the Arab world appeared to be one desirous of a symbolic return to the Islamic Golden Age of plurality, tolerance, science and philosophy.
We should note that, although Faisal later became unhappy about the Zionist project in Palestine, his attitude towards Jewish activity in the region was initially sympathetic; on 4th January 1919 Faisal signed an agreement with Dr Chaim Weizmann, the President of the World Zionist Organization – the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement for Arab-Jewish Cooperation had Faisal (conditionally) accept the Balfour Declaration. “We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through… I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of the civilised peoples of the world.”
It isn’t clear whether Faisal was particularly pro the Zionist project or whether he was mostly just being politically savvy by endorsing British interests so that his own interests would be accommodated. It’s unlikely Faisal was particularly pro Zionist, particularly as Lawrence appeared not to be: but the impression is that he was desirous of a peaceful and harmonious transition to a new order in the Middle East – one that would include a Jewish state.
His position did appear to change a few years later, by which time it was becoming apparent that the scale and speed of immigration into Palestine was more than expected and that problems were quickly emerging between the Arabs and the newly-arriving Zionists.
But, certainly in the first instance, Faisal’s friendly disposition towards the British-created Jewish state showed his nature as a peacemaker, moderate and bridge-builder.
We have to ask then if a Middle East with the Hashemites ruling a central Arabian state would’ve been far better, far more conducive to peace, than the one in which the House of Saud sits at the center of the Muslim/Arab world.
Perhaps a demonstration of how a Hashemite Dynasty might differ from the Wahhabi-inspired Saudi Dynasty is fittingly provided by the existing Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is the surviving Hashemite child of the Arab Revolt.
On 25 May 1946, the United Nations approved the end of the British Mandate and recognized Transjordan as an independent sovereign kingdom. Almost forty years after the Transjordanian tribes had fought in the Arab Revolt, the Parliament of Transjordan proclaimed King Abdullah I as its first King.
The rulers of Jordan are always chosen from the descendants of Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca (and father of Faisal) before the Saudis were installed into power, and the founder of the Arab Revolt.
Although Islamic in culture, the kingdom of Jordan does not promote a state religion; religious freedom existing in harmony for Jordanian citizens is fully guaranteed by the Jordanian monarchy. Jordan has multi-party politics. Political parties contest fewer than a fifth of the seats; the remainder are assigned to independent politicians.
A new law enacted in July 2012 placed political parties under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior and forbade the establishment of parties based on religion.
Though not fully democratic, Jordan has long been a moderate and relatively progressive society, with very few links to Islamism, terrorism or international conflicts, and a society with a degree of inter-cultural harmony. Curiously, its neighbour Syria, though different in other ways, was also an Arab nation devoid of sectarian violence or divisions; until the Civil War began destroying that country and its society, of course (whatever you believe the cause of that Civil War was).
I rarely have any interest in overly applauding any country or state, especially a non-democratic one, but when you look at the current state of the modern Muslim world across that region, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan tends to stand out like something of an oasis in an otherwise bleak desert.
Even now, the current King Abdullah II seems to be very popular among his people and to genuinely inspire loyalty. Jordan has good relations with the US, Britain and the West, but still also seems to maintain its own integrity, system and culture.
And predictably enough one of the many threats made by Islamic State/ISIS has been to “chop the head off” the King of Jordan, the country presumably being an eventual target for their envisioned nation-spanning medieval “caliphate”.
It is ironic that that the geographical vision of Arabia that Faisal had wanted appears to be the same as what the Islamic State thugs and murderers want now (note the terrorists’ cry of ‘No more Sykes-Picot’): the difference being that Faisal had wanted a peaceful, moderate ‘caliphate’ for all Arabs and not divided into sects, whereas the Islamic State group wants a medieval terror state based on the most violent, intolerant misinterpretation of Islam.
A misinterpretation of Islam, for that matter, that isn’t entirely divorced – ideologically – from the Wahhabism that came from Saudi Arabia.
Which again raises the question of whether the Colonialists deliberately installed an imposter monarchy – with an imposter religious ideology – into the Islamic holy land: and at the expense of the more legitimate claimant.
Again, if it’s true that the Hashemite family (who were the Sharifs of Mecca) is descended from the Prophet Muhammad, this puts the whole equation into a curious context: should not THAT family be the family in custodianship of Islam’s holy cities?
And isn’t it then even more perverse when the criminals, thieves and thugs of the ‘Islamic State’ group threatens to ‘chop of the head’ of the King of Jordan? Are they therefore saying they want to ‘chop off the head’ of the descendants of Muhammad?
It all gets more and more curious, even more perverse, the more you look at it.