How Winston Churchill’s ‘40 thieves’ carved out the modern Middle East

Decisions made 100 years ago at Cairo Conference still create conflict in the region today

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For Winston Churchill they were “40 thieves”, an irreverent comment on the illustrious gathering at Cairo’s Semiramis Hotel on March 12, 1921.

Churchill, later to become Britain’s great wartime prime minister, was one of them, an Ali Baba who led the gang on the banks of the Nile.

At the time, he was head of the Colonial Office charged with resolving the chaos of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, at the end of the First World War.

The “40 thieves”, a reference to the number of delegates at the conference, hoped to resolve three of the region’s most pressing issues: Palestine and its growing Jewish population, the territory east of the Jordan River, known as Transjordan, and control of the land we know today as Iraq.

Who was there?

All but one are men. Most are soldiers and colonial administrators. Churchill, instantly recognisable, is seated in the centre of the front row.

The sole woman is Gertrude Bell, the Baghdad-based explorer, writer and government adviser. Bell was a champion of Jordan and Iraq as independent nations and strongly opposed Zionist expansion in Palestine.

A few feet away is the slight figure of Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, immortalised in history as Lawrence of Arabia, and in real life a good deal shorter than Peter O’Toole in the classic film of his exploits.

Of the Arab population whose futures would be decided by these mostly middle aged, all white Englishmen, and one woman, there are only two.

Sir Sassoon Eskell, born to a wealthy Jewish family in Baghdad, and Jaafar Pasha Al Askari, a general once loyal to the Ottomans but converted to the cause of Arab nationalism.

Eskell, identified in the photo by his fez or tarboosh, would become Iraq’s first finance minister. Al Askari, still wearing his army helmet and uniform, will become the country’s first defence minister and later prime minister.

What was the plan?

These, then, were the players, but what was the script? To resolve the three sets of agreements and promises, largely contradictory, that had previously been issued. Each contained conflicting policies for how the Middle East should be carved up among colonial powers.

The first, from 1915, was the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, in which the British agreed to recognise Arab independence in exchange for Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Makkah, launching the Arab Revolt to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. The unified Arab state would be led by Hussein’s son, Faisal.

Yet at exactly the same time, the Sykes-Picot agreement was secretly carving the region into UK and French spheres of influence.

The agreement gave Britain control of Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq, while France would have south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq. Russia was to be given control over western Armenia and areas of Turkey including the capital, Constantinople. It backtracked on the earlier British pledge to support an independent Arab state.

A year later, in 1917, the Balfour Declaration promised support for Zionist aspirations and declared the establishment of a “national home for Jewish people” in Palestine.

With the First World War over in 1918, the new League of Nations ignored the Arabs to give Britain a mandate for control of Palestine and what is now Iraq. The French were given control over today’s Syria and Lebanon.

Faisal’s response was to declare a Kingdom of Syria in March 1920. It covered modern Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria, and its capital was Damascus.

The new monarchy lasted less than six months after being crushed by French military intervention, prompting Faisal to flee to London.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, then called Mesopotamia, a popular uprising against UK control had already cost the lives of hundreds of occupying forces with calls in the British press for withdrawal.

This was the unfinished business for Cairo.

1921 Cairo Conference and the formation of the Middle East

1921 Cairo Conference and the formation of the Middle East

What did the conference achieve?

Before it even started, Churchill and Lawrence had cooked up a plan that would place Faisal on the throne of Iraq – a Sunni Muslim in a Shiite-majority country with which he had no connection. This would create a new nation for Faisal that would remain under British influence and, crucially, with continuing access to the vital oilfields in the south.

With the support of Bell, Faisal was crowned king of Iraq. The country would remain under Hashemite monarchy rule until 1958, when Faisal’s grandson, King Faisal II, was killed during a coup and Iraq became a republic.

In the second half of the conference, from March 24 to 30, the Palestine section of the “40 thieves” made their way to Jerusalem, where Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, would be given the throne of the land west of the Jordan River, now renamed Jordan. The current king of Jordan, Abdullah II, is his great-grandson.

For Lawrence, this solution ended the guilt he felt after the broken promises of Sykes-Picot and the peace treaties of the First World War. It was “the period of which I am proudest”, he later said.

The six days of meetings in Jerusalem accomplished little else. On arrival, the delegates were greeted by a large Arab crowd chanting what Churchill thought were welcome greetings but were, in fact, anti-Jewish slogans.

Churchill was sympathetic to the Zionist cause.

At a speech to the Hebrew University on March 28, he restated the UK’s support for the Balfour Declaration while noting “the British government is well disposed towards the Arabs in Palestine, and, indeed, cherish a strong friendship and desire for co-operation with the Arab race as a whole”.

In reality, Churchill was less optimistic.

"He confessed to the Cabinet that the situation in Palestine was causing him "perplexity and anxiety", said the historian David Stafford, author of Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill.

“The whole country is in ferment,’ he [Churchill] lamented. ‘Both Arabs and Jews are arming, ready to spring at each other’s throats.’ He could barely conceal his exasperation with the Palestinian demands. ‘I do not think things are going to get better, but rather worse,’ he told the Cabinet.”

Lasting legacy

Churchill scholar Richard Langworth says “Lawrence had great faith in Churchill but soon despaired of the outcome, and liked to call Palestine the ‘Twice-Promised Land’, himself to the Arabs, Balfour to the Jews.”

At the same time, he believes Britain’s plans for the region in creating Jordan and Iraq were far from empire building.

“War-weary, they were trying to come up with stable boundaries acceptable to the Arabs after they’d sent the Ottoman Empire packing.”

This is what happens when you have this awful power and don't see your subjects as being fully human
H A Hellyer

H A Hellyer, a scholar and analyst of the Arab world, says the Cairo Conference was part of a “colonial enterprise”, which left an exploitative legacy that survived after those countries became independent.

“The structures of incredible power stayed in place even if the people in positions of authority changed,” says Dr Hellyer, a senior associate fellow of the Royal Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As a result, even the Arab uprisings in 2011 could be attributed to the “unfinished business of the past century”.

Britain and France did not consider how the people of the region might react to the new countries they were placed in.

“They just drew borders.”

“This is what happens when you have this awful power and don’t see your subjects as being fully human,” Dr Hellyer said.

Only six months after Cairo, Churchill observed: “We are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.”

It is a volcano that continues to erupt with borders drawn 100 years ago causing chaos across the region today. The agreements led directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and indirectly to the suppression of Kurdish nationalism, through its denial of an ethnic state. The breakdown of Arab nation states is also said to have been prompted by a lasting influence of colonial legacy in the region.

Speaking of the Middle East in 2002, Jack Straw, who was then the British foreign secretary, said: “A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past.”

This unstable future was predicted by George Antonius, the Lebanese-Egyptian historian and defender of Arab self-determination and the rights of Palestinians.

In his 1938 book The Arab Awakening, Antonius lamented Britain's breaking of the promise of an Arab state that would include Palestine and predicted what is likely to follow if the situation is left to fester unresolved.

His words still have relevance a century after Cairo. “History shows that a conflict of that kind, if allowed to develop, can only be resolved in blood.”