The British wartime promises during the Great War The commitments that condemned the Arab world and created the modern Middle East

The Arabian Commission to the Paris Peace Conference and its advisors. In front, Prince Faysal of the Hashemites; from left to right, Mohammed Ruston Bey Haider of Baalbek, Brigadier General Nuri Pasha Said, Captain Pisani, Colonel T. E. Lawrence, Captain Hassan Bey Kadri. Fonte: Clio Visualizing History | Source: Wikimedia Commons
The British wartime promises during the Great War 1

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling apart between the great Europeans nations, which were carving up most of its old colonies. The rivalry with the Russian Empire in the Black Sea and the Balkans, and the British and the French ambitions in the Middle East, made an overwhelming pressure against the Ottomans. Although the agonizing bitterly counting days of the so long Great Turkic Empire, their empire still stretched through most of the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent, so most of the Arab World was still in possession of the Turkish Sultan. 

Even so, the Ottoman Empire was dishonorably called as the Sick Man of Europe – by the Tsar Alexander III of Russia – and, likewise, the global prestige was not anymore held in Constantinople, but the decay of the Ottoman body, as time has precisely shown by the loss of so many colonies and provinces by its rivals. Moreover, as Europe was being entangled between complicated alliances, the Ottomans have chosen a logical ally, the Germans. 

Hence, when the Great War broke out in the Balkans, and the most confusing and entangled treaties and alliances brought together old enemies as allies against new enemies, the Ottomans, by the end of 1914, took part in the conflict on the German and Austrian-Hungary side, completing the Central Powers against the Entente – Great Britain, France, and the Russian Empire. And, as the war was being pushed on, it escalated to a fight in numerous fronts, including the Middle East, which would take a fundamental role in the conflict, not a sideshow of a sideshow, but an equally important fight as much as the Western Front in Flanders. 

For the bitter disappointment of the British, the Ottomans were not easy targets and didn’t fall apart as expected by the High Command and Whitehall, on the contrary, the Turks had shown fierce resistance in all fronts. The failure of the Gallipoli campaign and the siege of Kut in Mesopotamia made clear that the Ottomans were prepared to constrain and even counterattack the British forces, which made Whitehall nervous, precisely about the menace the Turks could offer on the Suez Canal, cutting Great Britain from the rest of her empire.

To make matters worse, the German Empire expected that a Muslims rebellion in British and in French colonies would take place with the call for Jihad made by the Sultan, because of his religious position as the protector of the Holy places – Mecca and Medina. Although the Jihad did not result in an all-out rebellion by Muslims in Algeria and India, it did provoke fear among Paris and London. Thus, a counteract swelled in the minds of the British and French decision-makers, therefore, a rebellion inside the Ottoman Empire was the solution and the best way to put an end on the stalemate in the Middle East, to break the empire forces. 

On this wise, it is when starts the incoherent path of Great Britain during the war, when she entangled itself between three different unpractical promises. To this extent, the first commitment was the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. Hussein of Mecca of the Hashemite Dynasty was the King of the Hedjaz Kingdom and the Sharif of Mecca, who was very influential within the Arab community, and who was very discontent with the Turks.

Hence, a correspondence acted between the Hedjaz King and Sir McMahon – British High-Commissioner allocated in Cairo – and the subject of such papers was the initiative of a rebellion in the name of King Hussein himself against the Turks with the support of the British and the French. On the other hand, Hussein demanded the establishment of an Independent United Arab Kingdom to be ruled by himself and his sons, thus, much of the matter of the correspondence was the extent that this newly independent country could and would have.

After all, McMahon agreed with the demands of his counterpart, but not without making ambiguous responses to certain territories – because, as McMahon himself knew, France had their plans for some of these lands that were expected by Sharif, and the last thing Britain wanted was to infuriate her ally. Despite all that, the Hedjaz Kingdom was about to erupt a rebellion inside the Ottoman’s borders. And so, the Arabs fought alongside the British guided by the dream of independence. The first commitment was done. 

The second one was with the French, to whom a colonial dispute was their classical agenda before the war, and their lack of accordance to the future dismemberment of the Ottoman’s lands, precisely the Fertile Crescent, made the two allies to disagree with each other. To this end, as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence was taking place, two diplomats – Monsieur Georges-Picot, representing France, and Sir Mark Sykes, representing Great Britain, – entered in a discussion to divide the Middle East between the two nations although part of this land was being promised to the Hashemites by McMahon.

After long gambles and speeches, the two agreed to divide the Fertile Crescent between north and south. The north, which included now-day Lebanon, Syria and the Kurds’ area of Iraq was to be placed by the hands of the French, and the south, which stretched from now-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the southern area of Iraq (though the entire area of modern-day Iraq would be contemplated as well further on) was to be placed in British domain.

The second commitment was done, and it was called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which would be acknowledged as one of the main causes of the volatility of the modern-day Middle East, a subject that will be further investigated. In consequence, Britain emerged into two commitments that promised the same land to different allies. 

The third and last commitment, but certainly not the least, as was a key factor to the disruption of many wars and conflicts in the region, was the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government and its Majesty recognized the need of the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. This great political victory for the Zionist movement would trigger a clash between the Jews and the inhabitants of the region, and Britain would be condemned to stand in the middle of this conflict for decades to come after the Great War.

Consequently, the third commitment was sealed, and these wartime promises would define the future of the region, the Middle East, which the twentieth century had shown its economic and strategic importance to the world. However, the idiosyncrasy of this region would create many conflicts and instabilities, and many countries would avail of this situation to expand its influence.

To this extent, this article tends to observe the Middle East from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire with a focus on the British entanglement with its wartime promises to her allies. So, this merely intellectual research paper hopes to accomplish the best disclosure of the matter, to make an explanation of the construction of the modern Middle East and why now-days there is too much instability in the region. For this, moreover, the contemplation of the past, especially to the birth of the modern Arab nations, is essential to fully comprehend the Middle East.

The Hussein-McMahon correspondence – Making promises to the arabs

Accordingly, in British Egypt, the High-Commissioner, Sir Henry McMahon, standing upon the prospects of the Gallipoli failure, knew that the Ottomans would counter-attack, and the Suez Canal seemed like it to be the perfect target. Comprehending the imminent Ottoman invasion of Egypt, McMahon and Ronald Storrs, his Oriental Secretary, came with the most baldly idea of contacting the Sharif of Mecca and King of the Hedjaz Kingdom, Ali Hussein of the Hashemites.

Flourishing upon the records that Hussein’s son, Abdullah, requested arms and support from the British to overthrow the Sultan before the Great War – by then, it was rejected, but now it looked like a good alternative –, McMahon started his correspondence with King Hussein, inquiring the Sharif what were the Arabs spirits to launch a revolt.

Nonetheless, the affirmative answer by King Hussein, his claims were high, for he asked the recognition of his future Arabic Kingdom – one that would include all the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent, from Greater Syria and Mesopotamia until the Persian frontier. Such request was far from desirable for Britain, but Whitehall needed an alternative to counter-attack the call of Jihad, to compensate the tremendous loss at Gallipoli and to relieve the pressure in Mesopotamia. (BARR, 2012).

As Hussein wrote it, the boundaries of this new Independent Arab Kingdom would include the areas laying from the Eastern Mediterranean until the Persian frontier. However, McMahon wrote it back expressing his regards of the Coastal area of Syria, exclaiming that such territories were not entirely Arabic and should not be accounted within the proposed new country. Although McMahon’s view was in some way authentic, his intention was not to compromise French claims in Syria, as she long before had an interest in the region.

Moreover, in concern to the Palestine region, McMahon did not address or mention its future status or considered the boundary between British Egypt and the future Arab Kingdom, as he believed that the Arab Kingdom would turn out to be an aligned kingdom as well as the British aligned kingdom of Egypt, perhaps a puppet State or protégé. Nevertheless, Palestine came to be a strategic important area by mid-1917. (PROVENCE, 2018).

Regardless of the dissensus about the exact territory of the future Arab Kingdom, the British government authorized McMahon to concrete the alliance with the Hashemites by confirming their territorial claims, although much of the letter had ambiguous affirmations that could compromise Hussein’s position to his terms, which were thoughtful to the French claims in Greater Syria. One famous extract of that ambiguously manoeuvre by Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Hussein can be seen in, “As for the regions lying within the proposed frontiers, in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally France, I am authorized to give you the following pledges on behalf of the Government of Great Britain, […]” (ANTONIUS, 1939).

Despite this uncertainty that Hussein faced upon the British Government, the Correspondence, which endured from March 1915 until January 1916, came to an end with successful accordance and the beginning of the Arabic-English alliance to expel the Turks from Arabia. On this basis, the Arab Revolt was irrupted and within and out of the Hedjaz territory the Arabs, in the name of Hussein of the Hashemites, raided Ottomans positions and weakened them. With the tutelage of T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), diverges tribes united themselves to create such a spectacular endeavor of guerrilla warfare against the Turks.

Howbeit, this agreement, as would be the first commitment of Great Britain to the Middle Eastern matters, would later be contradicted by another agreement, one that would redraw the Middle East map for decades onwards, and, be seen as treachery engaged against the Arabs. For that, T.E. Lawrence wisely feared that the promises made by the British Government for the Arabs would not be contemplated, but it would be instead mutated to dead papers. Notwithstanding, the Arab Revolt was launched, and the British entanglement to the Arab world has started as well, one that would cost a high price to the empire until the end of the century, but certainly it would be more costly to the Middle East and its inhabitants.

The Skyes-Picot Agreement – Drawing bordes in the sand

To comprehend this arrangement between the English and the French, it is imperative to look after the two-man responsible for such endeavour. Sir Mark Sykes, representing British interests, and Monsieur Georges-Picot, representing the French. As will be seen, although allies during the Great War, earlier colonial tensions between these two Great Powers would be yet again disrupted in the matter of the partition of the Ottoman’s lands, while the war was still in stalemate and inconclusive.

Sir Mark Sykes presented himself as a specialist on Middle Eastern and Ottomans affairs for the British Cabinet, as he was appointed by Prime Minister Asquith. Howbeit his travels, books and claims that he could speak both Arabic and Turkish, it was a lie. He was a stranger to the reality of the Arabs and its territories. Nonetheless, he foresaw that an agreement with the French about the partition of the Middle East was in such importance that it could not wait for the defeat of the Turks and the end of the war for that arrangement. And his concerns were shared and listened carefully by four influential men, Prime Minister Asquith, Lord Kitchener, Lloyd George, and Arthur Balfour.

Asquith was uptight observing the return of old colonial tensions with France, remembering the Fashoda incident in Sudan of 1898 of which almost provoked a war between Great Britain and France, the Prime Minister feared that those colonial disputes could be brought again over the Ottoman’s lands. Putting into account such disagreement and tensions, Asquith stood beside Sykes for a diplomatic approach. Lord Kitchener, who governed Egypt, defended Sykes as well. Lloyd George, a great anti-Turkish politic, saw an opportunity to strangle the Turks even more. And Arthur Balfour, in his turn, saw no particularly good reason to add more land to the Empire, especially such turbulent territory. (BARR, 2012).

At the War Committee meeting held in Downing Street on December 16, 1915, Sir Mark Sykes advocated for such a scheme with the French for his four superiors. As he was being inquired about the Arab Question, the meeting followed as such: “I do not want to make any suggestions, except on very general lines; but I feel we ought to settle with France as soon as possible and get a definite understanding about Syria,” said Sykes. By return, Mr Arthur Balfour questioned him, “What sort of arrangement would you like to have with the French? What would you say to them?” Mark Sykes boldly responded: “I should like to retain for ourselves such country south of Haifa as was not in the Jerusalem enclave, which I gather the French themselves admit. I think it is most important that we should have a belt of English-controlled country between the Sherif of Mecca and the French.”  (CAB 24/1, First War Memoranda)

Still, Balfour verbalized, “We have always regarded these 90 or 100 miles of the desert upon her eastern side as a stronghold of Egypt; now you propose still further east of that to give us a bit of inhabited and cultivated country for which we should be responsible. At first sight, it looks as if that would weaken and not strengthen our position in Egypt.” Lord Kitchener came to answer, defending Sykes view, “I think that what Sir Mark Sykes means is that the line will commence at the sea-cost at Haifa. These Arabs will then come under our control, whereas if we are off the line we lose control over the south.”

Eventually, Mr Balfour questioned for the last time before consent, “What do you mean to give exactly?” And Sir Mark Sykes responded, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ of Kirkuk.” Afterwards, the meeting extended to discuss military strategy, placing Egypt as a stronghold and the next offensive front to invade Syria. However, it seemed certain that they ought to settle diplomatically with the French before any great military action, so things would not agitate itself with Britain’s ally as Prime Minister Asquith feared it could do. (CAB 24/1, First War Memoranda)

For the French part, Monsieur Georges-Picot was a fierce defender of France colonialism over the Middle East, as he came from a dynasty of French expansionism – his father was a founder of the Comité de l’Afrique Française – he followed such family tradition towards the Quai d’Orsay advocating for the inclusion of Syria to the Empire. On the contrary to Sir Mark Sykes, Monsieur Picot had a full understanding of the Arab world. (BARR, 2012)

 Considering his position in Beirut’s Embassy, he maintained several connections with Syrian nationalists carving up French support to help the Arabs for independence. Another endeavour of the French diplomat was his aid to Christians in Lebanon to arm themselves to agitate the country and, thus, justifying France intervention. 

Despite these connections with Syrians and Christians in Mount Lebanon, he failed to achieve his aims. Yet, at the first half of the Great War, he successfully gained support at home, as he warned his superiors, “If we don’t help the Arabs, others will do.” – by others, he meant the British. Appropriately, he would represent France’s interest to her ally, Great Britain. (BARR, 2012)

Shortly before the War Committee meeting led by Sykes in December, Georges-Picot went to London on 23 November 1915, to discuss the prospects of France’s domain over Syria. By that time, Sir Arthur Nicolson was responsible for the British negotiation team, unfortunately, it resolved into a deadlock. By December, the British government delegated Sir Mark Sykes and Lord Kitchener to substitute Arthur Nicolson’s team. (FROMKIN, 2010) Eventually, the talks would navigate to dark waters as the French delegation suspected that the British were siding with the Arabs, fearing that their appeals over Syria could have been compromised.

Consequently, Sykes tried to persuade his Frenchman counterpart disclaiming the British arrangement with Sherif Hussein, as it seemed more important to keep the Entente functioning then defending the Arabs of the Hedjaz. Georges-Picot was firm to assert that France’s interest in Syria should have corresponded considering the great sacrifice of French soldiers on the Western Front. Unluckily for the British, the sacrifices of the war were balancing in favour of France and it could no longer ignore her crucial role against the Germans, as one British general bitterly said, “We have got to keep in with our infernal Allies.” (SAD, 135/6, Wingate Papers)

Though the deadlock that the first meetings followed, mostly because of disagreements over Lebanon, Palestine, and Mosul, it changed afterwards to negotiations and concessions. For Mosul, the Frenchman agreed to leave for the British, Lebanon and Syria were understandably placed within France domain as was desirable by Picot. And Palestine – because was still unresolved for that matter – would be placed under international control, initially the British unamusable agreed for that endeavour, although it would seek to bring Palestine under its control soon after. 

Ultimately, the two parties functionally agreed to the partition of the Ottoman’s territories. As it would be later known, the Sykes-Picot Agreement would contradict the McMahon’s promises to the Arabs of the Hedjaz Kingdom. It divided the Middle East from North to South with a line cutting from Haifa to Mosul, now-days Syria and Lebanon would be controlled by France, the whole of Jordan and Iraq by Great Britain and Palestine would be placed under international control to be resolved after the war, nevertheless, the British would assert such area to itself by consequence of the Balfour Declaration. 

The Balfour Declaration – The fate of Palestine 

Succeeding the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British Cabinet sought to circumvent the inconclusive matter of Palestine, as it was not desirable to such land to be controlled both by France and Great Britain as a condominium and international control. Urging to protect the Suez Canal by extending the British controlled lands, which would link Egypt with the Persian Gulf, Sykes would pursue a policy in favour of the Zionist movement in Britain. 

By supporting the creation of a Zionist State in Palestine, Britain would secure its position in the Middle East. This sentiment of extending the control of Arab lands, separating the French possessions in Syria and the Arabs in the peninsula, was mostly justified by uneasy relations with France, as Herbert Samuel, cabinet minister, said to his colleagues, “We cannot proceed on the supposition that our present happy relations with France will continue always.”

Nevertheless, British decision-makers feared it could leave France to unsettle and apprehensive for this move, suitably, it would be explained that Britain’s will was to bring support to the Allies in the war considering the numerous populations of Jews in the United States. Moreover, it could eventually force the Americans to join the war besides Britain and France, as it happened shortly after. (BARR, 2012)

Therefore, Lloyd George, now Prime Minister since 1916, authorized Mark Sykes to start negotiations with the Zionist Movement regarding Palestine. Hence, the first conference with the Zionists was held on 7th of February 1917, in London. Their intents were precisely to revoke an internationalisation of Palestine even under British and France rule as a condominium, it was obvious that they desired a national home to be constituted by a Jewish Body Government. Although, it would be considerable for them the establishment of such State as a British protectorate, certainly what Sykes and Lloyd George aspired for. (ANTONIUS, 1939)

France eventually started to suspect that Britain would seek Palestine for itself bypassing the Sykes-Picot Agreement, still, Robert de Caix, a French diplomat, subdued Britain’s policy to Palestine to his colleagues, as he exclaimed that, “The question of an English protectorate over a Jewish Palestine scarcely arises… The British government is certainly not dreaming of it”, as he presumed that no one would be stupid enough to pursue such flawed and troubling policy, one that would not provide good profits in return, but instead, more responsibility and conflict. (BARR, 2012) Certainly, he was wrong for the first part, as Britain was indeed looking forward to establishing a protectorate, however, he did not commit a mistake for the consequences he warned. 

Henceforth, after nine months of negotiations between Mark Sykes and the Zionists in London, the Balfour Declaration would be emitted by Arthur James Balfour – earlier seen in the discussion of the Ottoman’s lands partition with Sykes, Lord Kitchener, Lloyd George, and Asquith – to whom he would address such matter to Lord Rothschild. The Balfour Declaration would reverberate across the world and would, at last, help to bring the Americans to the war.

Thus, the conclusion of the third and last commitment would consequently leave the British entangled with its promises, those that did not function altogether, promises to the Arabs, to the French and to the Jews. Without doubt, those promises, though at the time it seen as strategic and beneficial to the British Empire, it did leave the Middle East to future conflicts and destabilisation as well as left Britain interweaved between troubling nationalists’ movements and imperial costs. 


By January of 1919, the Paris Peace Conference broke out, starting the political avail of the end of the war. The Allies wanted lands and compensation for their war efforts against the Central Powers. And so, Britain and France desired to concrete their diplomatic agreement and claims over the Ottoman’s lands in the Middle East.  At the Paris Peace Conference, the Entente excluded their Arabs allies in the negotiations, at least in part, as Prince Faysal (Hussein’s middle son) indeed participated, but he was discredited by France and Britain. 

And so the 1920’s decade for the Middle East would be marked by the reshaping of the Arab nations, France and Britain would establish their puppets States and control them through the ambiguous mechanism of Mandates legitimized by the Charter of the League of Nations, certainly a clever way to administrate a Colony without the full repulsiveness of this dynamic. Even so, the two Europeans Powers took a different approach to for these Mandates. France would constitute Republics in Lebanon and Syria, as it felt more appropriate, and Britain would establish Monarchies in Transjordan and Iraq.

 For the French Mandates, Syria would face the unhappy dynamics of divide and rule by the French, as Syrian’s Provinces were divided, which proved ineffective and costly to France. Lebanon would surfer an even worst fate, France would divide Lebanon’s Parliament between religious sects, between Sunni Muslins, Shia Muslins and Christians, such sociological experiment was unquestionable to protect the Christians of Mount Lebanon. The consequences of this policy were unmeasured, and one of the main causes of the Lebanon Civil War of 1975.

Great Britain for their part, went in a different path, choosing to implement Monarchies instead of Republics as it seemed more manageable. Shortly after the expel of Faysal in Syria, Britain was looking forward to redemption from her betrayal over the Hashemites. On this matter, Winston Churchill came with the Sherifian Solution, one that would try to correct their dissolutions to Hussein and his sons. And so, Britain sought to establish Abdullah as King of Transjordan and Faysal as King of Iraq. However on paper, it seemed appropriate for a refurbishment policy, it was intended to conclude Britain’s foundations over the Mandates, establishing allies as heads of these countries as a tactic to create puppet States. 

In Palestine, on the other hand, the Mandate dynamic was diverse than the other British Mandates territories. Indeed, Palestine was a complicated matter, and the policy that Britain regarded to rule the country was doomed to fail on the outset. Even before the Great War, the local inhabitants of Palestine opposed to the Zionist movement and to the migration of the Jewish population to the area, a quandary that the Ottomans ignored as well. 

Now with Britain governing Palestine and permitting the entering of Jews, local Arabs were unsettled and nervous. Ignoring their inevitable unfortunate fate, Britain immersed itself deep into a sectarian war, between Arabs and Jews. Although some later attempts to calm off the Arabs, the powerful Zionist lobbying movement in Whitehall and in the House of Commons articulated policies in favour of the Jewish national home. 

Therefore, the British Mandate in Palestine would be characterized as a total failure, where Great Britain saw itself in the middle of a war, and eventually, not only the Arabs would revolt, but even radical Jewish groups would fight against Great Britain dominance in Palestine. 

Certainly, French, and British expectations over the Middle East were heavily shattered, as many revolts and agitations were common in the Mandates through the years after the war. However, it is fair to say that ignorance inside the minds of policymakers in London and Paris was the cause of such unpractical and troubling endeavour. 

The British entanglement between promises was an absence of a concrete and workable policy to the Middle East during the war, where Britain sought to preserve or establish its sphere of influence in the region without having the full picture or the knowledge of the Arab reality, drowning through conflicts and crisis which she could not prepare itself. 

Correspondingly, the most despicable and selfish policy of drawing lines and new borders, carving up these lands of sand, created the Middle East as it is known today. The Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of the civilization, it shivers between crises and wars since the end of the Great War. Now-days Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine crumbles through a humanitarian crisis, economic pressure, inequality, religious radicalism, poverty, and war, and this can be traced back to these very moments where imperial schoolboys constructed these nations with the only purpose to serve their empire. 

With no regard to the Arab people and their right of Self-Determination, no regard to their dream of independence, the Middle East was moulded to be another British and French imperial product. No man could predict how things could differ from reality if Hussein and his sons would see in light their promises, but it is acknowledged that abstract countries and borders were created and this was destined to lead to turmoil, unfortunate destiny that it does not seem to be resolve at least in the near future.


ANTONIS, George. The Arab Awakening: the story of the Arab national movement. Beirut: Tannenberg Publishing, 1939.

BARR, James. A line in the sand: Britain, France and the struggle for the mastery of the Middle East. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

FROMKIN, David. A peace to end all peace: the fall of the ottoman empire and the creation of the modern middle east. London: Holt Paperbacks, 2010. 692 p.

PROVENCE, Michael. The last Ottoman generation and the making of the modern Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2018.

The United Kingdom Government, Sudan Archives, Wingate Papers, SAD, 135/6, Parker to Clayton.

The United Kingdom Government, The Cabinet Papers. CAB 24/1. First World War memoranda §. Accessed October 19, 2020.

Sobre o Autor

Mestrando em Relações Internacionais - Estudos da Paz, Segurança e Desenvolvimento, na Faculdade de Economia da Universidade de Coimbra (FEUC). Graduado em Direito pela Universidade de Fortaleza (UNIFOR). Pesquisador independente de Relações Internacionais com foco em Ásia, Japão, Oriente Médio e Mundo Árabe.

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