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WATCH: The Middle East and World War I

The end of the First World War redrew the borders of the Middle East, laying the foundations for many modern nation-states, as well as many of the conflicts that exist in the region today. Before the war, in 1914, the region was mostly divided between the Ottoman and British empires. These two powers found themselves on opposing sides of World War I. As the British looked for allies in the region, they found Sharif Hussein, who hoped to lead an independent Arab state after the war. Yet, the ambitions of British imperialists would frustrate his hopes.

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Video transcript

"We are a people whose character refuses, for honor,  to cause harm to those who do not harm us: white are our deeds, black our battles, green are our fields,  red are our swords." 14th century Arab poet Safi Al-din Al-Hilli Hi, I'm Nate Bowling. Take a look at this  map. This is the modern Middle East today in 2021. I live right here in the United Arab Emirates. The  UAE is one of 22 Arab majority nations across the Middle East and North Africa. Now, look at a map  of the same region from only 100 years earlier. What happened to all those straight lines? How  do we go from this map to this map? The answers to these questions begin in 1914. On the eve  of the First World War, the Middle East was divided between the Ottoman and British empires  and none of these independent Arab states existed. In October 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined  the war on the side of the Central Powers and prepared for war against Britain, France,  and Russia. I knew this decision transformed the political geography of the modern  Middle East, but I wanted to understand how, so I sat down with an expert on the subject,  Dr. Aimee Genell, and asked her about it. Aimee, what did the Middle East look like in 1914?  Who was here? In 1914 on the eve of the war, the Ottoman Empire was a diverse, diverse place.  It was multi-confessional, which means there were peoples of different religions. There are lots of  Christians, lots of Muslims, lots of Jews. It was also a very multi-ethnic place, so there were  Arabs, there were Turks, there were Armenians, there were Bulgarians. It was a very,  very, very diverse place, On the eve of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was in a position  of weakness. So the British Empire was slowly encroaching close to where Mecca, the most holy  city of Islam, is located. So we're looking right now at the Declaration of Jihad on the screen.  Can you tell us about this document? Why is it important? So this document was issued at the  very beginning of World War One. It announced the Ottoman Empire's entry into the great European  war. It called upon Muslims throughout the Allied empires, so Muslims in the British Empire and the  Russian Empire and the French Empire to rise up against their colonial overlords and fight against  them on behalf of the Ottoman sultan caliph in order to win the war for the Central Powers.  The Ottoman sultan was also the caliph, and what is a caliph? It literally means successor.  Successor to whom? Successor to the Prophet Muhammad. So what this means is that the Ottoman  sultan was both the sort of worldly leader of the Ottoman Empire but was also the spiritual leader  of the entire Islamic world. In 1914, the British Empire was actually the largest Muslim empire on  Earth. We might think it was the Ottomans, but in fact Britain had more Muslims in it than the  Ottoman Empire, so this was really a document that was created to send terror or put terror in the  hearts of the British really more than anything. As Dr. Genell told me, the Ottoman sultan  ruled an ethnically diverse empire, and many of these people wanted more independence.  Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, was one of these people. Hussein was one of about 10 million  Arabs living under Ottoman control. In 1916, working with British officers stationed in Asia,  Sharif Hussein and his son Faisal launched what came to be called the Arab Revolt against  Ottoman rule. The rebels adopted this as the flag of their revolt. It was created by a British  officer stationed in Egypt named Mark Sykes. The colors on the flag symbolized the historical  Arab empires and Sharif Hussein's continuation of their legacy. The flag later inspired the  national flags of many Arab nation states. How did Sharif Hussein and his followers get  involved in World War One? How does the Sharif Mecca get involved in World War One? He wants to increase his local powers. He wants autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. He wants to carve out  a space of power for himself, and he thinks the best way to do that is the way that power brokers  across the Ottoman Empire for the last hundred years had done that, appeal to the great powers of  Europe. So this is precisely what he does. Sheriff Hussein starts writing a series of letters to a  British official stationed in Cairo named McMahon, and he says, hey you know I'm interested in maybe  working on a deal with you guys. What do you say   if you recognize me as maybe like an independent  Arab chief, what if we help you with this little war against the Ottomans, and initially the  British were kind of like haha this is this is exciting. We can have a tool to use against the  Ottomans. The British promised that they would recognize an independent Arab kingdom, but what  did this kingdom look like. It was basically the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula going up to the  border of Turkey today, so it included everything in today's modern Middle East, including Abu  Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, even the Levant, so it also included Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and even parts  of Iraq. So this was a large vision of a unified independent Arab state. Looking at the Middle East  today, there are seven different countries alone on the Arabian Peninsula, and there's 22 majority  Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, so it's obvious that the promises that McMahon  made to Hussein weren't fulfilled. What happened? A few different things happened. On one  hand, the British signed a treaty around 1915 with another power broker in the Arabian Peninsula  who might be familiar to you known as Ibn Saud who would go on to establish modern Saudi Arabia.  So Ibn Saud signed an actual treaty. Treaties in the kind of British legal imagination  were far more powerful than agreements, so he signs a treaty. He gets gold and guns  also to fight against the Ottomans, but instead of fighting against the Ottomans, he turns  his attention at the end of World War One against Sharif Hussein. So most importantly, though Sharif  Hussein and his sons were sold out by the British. So Amy, I'm looking at the strange map  here. There's some lines some letters, some colors. What's going on here? Yeah so, this  is the infamous Sykes-Picot map. A lot of people, a lot of historians, also a lot of people imagine  that this is the map that made the modern Middle East. Although if we look closely at it, it doesn't  exactly correspond to the modern Middle East, does it? When people say that Sykes-Picot created  the modern Middle East, the state system in the   Middle East, what they mean is that Britain,  France, and Russia got together in secret, in the middle of World War One and hatched a plan  to divide the Middle East, the Ottoman lands, the Arab provinces between themselves. Okay, so  what is the map itself? It's very confusing, isn't it? So we have like some blue territory,  pink territory, yellow territory, and we have this weird A and B territory. So if we look closely,  the blue zone says direct French occupation, and the zone A just below it is French influence.  Below that is the B zone is British influence. The pink zone, which those of you who are familiar with  the map of the modern Middle East, will say aha   that's Iraq, that looks a lot like Basra, a really  important port, and that was under, according to this map, direct British control. And then we have  this little yellow spot over to the left, and what   is that? That is Jerusalem. So Jerusalem is too hot  to handle, and you'll see that it is supposed to be under British and French condominium, which  we should interpret as no one can decide what to do. When the British say independence and  we think about what that word means today, the two ideas do not match up. So one of the  biggest imperialists in the British foreign office, a guy named Milner, used to say in various  ways, he would say we've always meant for Arabs to be independent, and of course by independent we  mean under British control without any agreements between other powers. So in other words, Britain's  idea of independence was we'll have this state where sure there's a king, sure they're on paper  independent, but in reality we'll control things. I keep looking at these two  maps. The one on the left is what the British promised Sharif Hussein.  On the right is the Sykes-Picot agreement in which the British and the French  divided the region between themselves. In 1917, the British government also issued a  public statement known as the Balfour Declaration in which they offered support for a national  home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The British had, in effect, promised control  of the same land to three different groups. One of the great ironies of history is that the  same man who helped design the flag of the Arab revolt, Mark Sykes, also co-authored the agreement  with France that betrayed Britain's Arab allies. After the war ended, the victorious powers  gathered at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to determine the shape of the world to come. Sharif  Hussein's son Faisal traveled to Paris seeking to cash in on the promises made to his father by the  British. However, the new realities were a far cry from what had been promised in wartime nor could  his father defend his claim. Hussein was defeated by Ibn Saud who incorporated Mecca into what would  become Saudi Arabia. So who are the losers and the winners in the region after World War One?  There's only three truly independent states in the Middle East after World War One: Turkey, the  kind of core of the Ottoman Empire, Saudi Arabia, which on paper I mean it is independent, but the  British do intervene, and also Iran. Those are the only independent states. What happens to those  Arab provinces, some of which rebelled against   the sultan during the war? They all become League  of Nations mandates. What does that mean?  Syria and Lebanon ended up going under the French,  but they were legally guaranteed by the League of Nations, so ostensibly maybe this is empire in  a different way. It's not. Britain took Iraq. They took Palestine and Jordan as well. So those two  powers were in control in the Middle East until really World War Two and a bit thereafter  and exercise influence beyond that point. What identities were important to people in the  Middle East after 1919? In the Arab provinces, you know, these are lines that were drawn on a map by British and French people. They don't correspond to really a logical geography. They certainly don't correspond to the logic of ethnicity or the logic of the languages in which people speak.  So how do you reorganize yourself? One of the ways that some historians have looked at how Arabs have  reorganized themselves after World War One is that we see sort of regional solidarities. So in some  cases, say for instance, in mandate Iraq, Faisal starts to create a sense of Iraqi nationalism.  For others, we see the emergence of what's known as Pan-Arabism. So Pan-Arabism becomes important  for the first time in the midst of World War One but also in the 1920s and 30s, and it's the  idea that, you know, this we've been broken up illegally, unfairly by these imperialist powers  and what we really need is a strong unified Arab state. And a third sort of identity that emerges  at this time is kind of Islamic solidarity, and so we start seeing in the 1920s the emergence  of different kinds of Islamic, kind of political organizations. The most important of which of  course was the Muslim Brotherhood founded by   Hassan Al-Banna in Egypt in the late 1920s. The story  of the modern Middle East might start in 1914, but it doesn't end there. As Dr. Genell tells us, the  European powers continued to will political power over their mandates for decades to come. European  imperialists drew lines on a map promising the same land to different groups. These lines helped  set the contours of many original conflicts still playing out today. The idea of the united  Arab nation did not die with Sharif Hussein. Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, for example, would  later raise the flag of Arab nationalism. Other leaders would raise the flags of  their new nation-states, such as Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab  Emirates. Still others turned to transnational identities like Pan-Islam, as they sought to  counteract foreign interference in the region. The First World War was mostly fought  in the trenches of the western front, but it left a lasting legacy on the  peoples and nations of the Middle East.