By Oren Kessler
April 4, 2014
Syrians and Iraqis, like the citizens of most Arab states, have come to expect little more from their leaders than pettiness and sectarianism. In Syria, a factional bloodbath has left as many as 200,000 dead. In Iraq, an Iran-backed Shiite prime minister grows more autocratic by the year, seemingly determined to marginalize the country's Sunnis.
The plight of these two countries is all the more tragic when one considers the promise of their early history: Both were, however briefly, ruled by a leader dedicated to tolerance, incorruptibility and progress. Reading Ali A. Allawi's “Faisal I of Iraq," the first major biography of the Arab king who helped make the modern Middle East, underscores the profundity of his loss.
Faisal I of Iraq
By Ali A. Allawi
Yale, 634 pages, $40
Faisal I © Bettmann/CORBIS
Faisal was born in 1883 to Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, whose Hashemite dynasty had ruled Islam's heartland for seven centuries. In 1916, two years into World War I, Hussein put his band of desert warriors in the service of the Allies against a crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Sharif was a proponent of Arab nationalism at a time when few outside the intellectual circles of Beirut and Damascus had conceived of it.
Britain, meanwhile, was desperate to turn the Turks' Arabic-speaking subjects against them, and in allying with the British, Hussein sensed an opportunity to expand his dominion at the Turks' expense. The Sharif, however, was already in his 60s, so it fell to his sons to lead what would be known to history as the Great Arab Revolt. Faisal and his two older brothers all held command positions during the rebellion, but Faisal's personal relationship with T.E. Lawrence —then a Cairo-based British intelligence officer—ensured that he got the lion's share of the Crown's assistance in equipment and troops. In him, Lawrence saw a temperate, Anglophile leader whose lineage from the prophet Muhammad could inspire loyalty from Muslims otherwise loath to betray the Ottoman Caliphate. Faisal's gravitas and good looks—he commanded authority whether dressed in a Kaffiyeh or Chesterfield coat—didn't hurt.
With the Hashemites' help, the British took the strategic port of Aqaba in the summer of 1917. By war's end, the combined British-Arab force had captured two of the great symbolic prizes of the Middle Eastern theatre: Damascus and Medina. The Arab contribution to the effort was reasonably small—30,000 men at most—compared with 3.5 million Allied troops in the Middle East. Still, without the Arabs' participation, the Allied victory would have appeared to many of the Muslim faithful as a war against Islam itself.
In March 1920, the British installed the 37-year-old Faisal as king of Syria. Just a month later, however, the Allies divvying up the fallen Ottoman Empire at San Remo gave the Syria Mandate, coveted by the Hashemites, to France. Faisal was incensed. Fearing that the French wouldn't allow him even the partial autonomy Britain had promised, he led a second revolt, this time against the French. The rebellion was quickly squelched, his kingship terminated after just a few months. Faisal's ultimate objective—to head an Arab confederation in the Fertile Crescent and perhaps beyond—appeared cut short as well.
But the British weren't done with Faisal, and in March 1921 they gifted him the newly created kingdom of Iraq. Britain hoped that, just as Faisal's prophetic lineage and aristocratic bearing had united disparate Arab tribes behind him during the Revolt, so too could he hold together Iraq's mixed population of Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, and Jews. On a more practical level, the British expected his cooperation in exploring for the oil they believed lay beneath the country's sand. When Faisal landed in Basra in June 1921, it was his first time in the country.
Ali Allawi, who from 2003 to 2006 served successively as Iraq's minister of trade, defence and finance, recounts Faisal's 12-year reign in glowing terms, and justifiably so. While Britain remained the de facto power, the young king enjoyed considerable autonomy in pursuing his—and Britain's—two core objectives: modernizing Iraq's economy and forging a national identity.
To advance his first objective, the young king expanded the country's roads and encouraged business: "I would rather see a cotton ginning mill than a government building," he declared, "or a glass factory than a royal palace." True to his word, Faisal also oversaw the earliest successful searches for Iraqi oil.
To promote his second goal, he overhauled the country's rudimentary education system, instructing schools to foster each community's particular religious and cultural identity while encouraging loyalty to the new nation. Faisal, a Sunni, funded the maintenance of shrines to mystical Sufi saints; encouraged the Shiite majority to join his army officer corps; and added Shiite holidays to the state religious calendar. The reverence that this book's author, a Shiite, accords Faisal is itself striking. In Mr. Allawi's telling, the monarch "had no feeling of racial or religious intolerance and instinctively respected democratic ideals."
Mr. Allawi struggles, however, to square his adulation of Faisal's leadership with the king's favourable attitude toward Zionism. In 1919, just before he was named king of Syria, Faisal signed an agreement with the British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that endorsed Britain's 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting a Jewish "national home" in Palestine. The agreement also called for large-scale Jewish immigration to the territory, which would be separate from Faisal's future Arab state in the rest of the Fertile Crescent. The same year, at a banquet for the Jewish banker Baron Walter Rothschild, Faisal said: "No true Arab can be suspicious or afraid of Jewish nationalism. . . . We are demanding Arab freedom, and we would show ourselves unworthy of it, if we did not now, as I do, say to the Jews—welcome back home."
Attempting to explain such bold statements, Mr. Allawi concedes only that, "Naturally tolerant of other religions and creeds, Faisal at first was attracted in a fashion to the Zionist idea." He also implies that Weizmann, "an experienced lobbyist," duped the future Arab king into believing that the Jews sought less than full independence. In addition, the author charges that Lawrence, himself a champion of the Jewish national project, fed Weizmann doctored translations of Faisal's letters to paper over the differences between them.
Mr. Allawi's allegations, however, are based largely on unsubstantiated speculation, and a reasonable historical analysis suggests that Faisal had other motivations. Independence for the Arabs was hardly a foregone conclusion (one British official deemed the Arabs no more capable of self-government than the "red Indians"), and Faisal appears to have been more committed to ensuring its realization than he was to territorial maximalism. Ultimately, he hoped to head a confederation of Syria, Iraq, Transjordan and much of the Arabian Peninsula, believing Arabia's conquest by the puritan Saudi dynasty would be a passing nightmare. By comparison, tiny Palestine was of relatively minor importance. In the Zionists, Faisal saw potential allies in his efforts to advance the region's economy and to make the case for Arab independence to Britain and the world.
On Oct. 3, 1932, 12 years after Faisal took the throne, the Kingdom of Iraq gained its independence, the second Arab state after Egypt to shake off colonial rule. Faisal had turned his dream into a partial reality—the broader Arab confederation still eluded him—but had little time to savour it. Less than a year later, while vacationing in Switzerland, he died of an apparent heart attack—though in the conspiracy-prone Middle East, speculation still simmers that he was poisoned. He was just 50 years old.
With Faisal's passing—and his succession by his son, a Nazi sympathizer—Iraq entered a stage of bloody coups, countercoups, violence and disorder that culminated in the singularly sanguinary Saddam Hussein.
As in Iraq, so too in much of the Arab world. As Mr. Allawi writes, a "form of realistic, purposeful and constructive patriotism also died with Faisal, to be replaced with the far more strident, volatile and angry Arab nationalism that swept the Arab world after the end of the Second World War." Today much of the Arab world remains in thrall to that negative nationalism—one opposed to Israel, America and a vaguely defined "imperialism" but unable to articulate what it supports.
As Mr. Allawi puts it in the closing sentence of this vital book: "In the modern history of the Arabs it would be hard to find an equivalent figure who combined the qualities of leadership and statesmanship with the virtues of moderation, wisdom and essential decency." Those longing for a genuine Arab Spring can only hope for more.
Mr. Kessler is a Middle East research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.