Faisal bin Hussein


The ancient lands of the Middle East come under the control of the Ottoman Turks during the 16th Century. Ottoman rule nears its end at the start of the First World War, a time that is also marked by the rise of Arab nationalism.

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Born 20 May 1885 in the Hejaz, the western part of Arabia facing the Red Sea and including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He is the third son of Hussein bin Ali, a prominent member of the Hashemite clan.

The Hashemites trace their ancestry to the great-grandfather of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. They are directly related to Mohammed, through the Prophet's daughter Fatimah, and are the traditional guardians of Islam's holiest sites.

Faisal's older brothers are Ali bin Hussein and Abdullah bin Hussein. He also has three sisters (Fatimah bint Hussein, Saleha bint Hussein and Sarra bint Hussein) and a younger brother (Zeid bin Hussein).

1883 - Faisal's father is ordered to Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Faisal travels with his father to the city. While there he receives a private education.

1905 - Faisal marries his cousin, Huzaima bint Nasser. The couple have one son (Ghazi bin Faisal) and three daughters (Azza bint Faisal, Rajiha bint Faisal and Raifia bint Faisal).

1908 - Faisal's father is chosen as sharif (tribal leader) of Mecca and allowed to return to the Hejaz. Faisal returns with him.

1913 - Faisal is appointed as the representative for Jeddah (a port city in the Hejaz) in the Ottoman Parliament. He takes control of part of the armed forces under his father's command and becomes involved in the germinal Arab nationalist movement.

1914 - When the First World War begins in August the Ottomans side with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and call for a jihad (holy struggle) against the enemy.

Britain immediately moves to secure its interests in the Middle East, including access to oil. In the north, an Anglo-Indian force lands at Al Faw on mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and moves on Basra. Baghdad is captured on 11 March 1917. Mosul, the capital of the oil-rich Kurdish provinces bordering Turkey and Iran, falls in November 1918.

To the west, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force moves from Cairo across the Sinai Desert towards Palestine. However, the force is stalled by the Ottoman defences at Gaza until the end of 1917, when the Ottoman lines are broken and Jerusalem is captured.

Meanwhile, Lord Herbert Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war and former governor general of Egypt and the Sudan, tells the Arabs that if they support the British war effort their bid for independence will be recognised.

"It may be," Kitchener says, "that an Arab of the true race will assume the caliphate at Mecca or Medina and so good may come by the help of God out of all the evil that is now occurring."

Faisal is in Mecca when the war breaks out. The Ottomans draft him to serve under their governor in Syria. Later he abandons the post and returns to the Hejaz to fight with his father for the Arab cause.

1915 - In January a representative of the Arab underground meets with Faisal's father in Mecca to see if he would be prepared to lead a revolt against the Ottomans.

At the end of March, Faisal travels to Damascus, the capital of Syria, for further meetings with the underground. He concludes that a revolt could not succeed without the support of the Central Powers. Nevertheless he joins the underground and is asked to present his father with the so-called Damascus Protocol.

The protocol states that the Arabs will launch a revolt against the Ottomans if the British agree to the creation of an independent Arab caliphate encompassing the southern parts of Turkey and all of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan and the Arabian Peninsula (excluding Aden). It calls on Faisal's father to deliver the Arabs from Ottoman rule and accepts the Hashemites as the official representatives of the Arab cause.

In June, Faisal's father decides to being planning for a revolt.

On 14 July he writes to Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner at Cairo, setting out the terms for an alliance between the Arabs and the British.

McMahon replies on 30 August. "We confirm to you the terms of Lord Kitchener's message ... in which was stated clearly our desire for the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants, together with our approval of the Arab Caliphate when it should be proclaimed," McMahon writes.

"We declare once more that His Majesty's Government would welcome the resumption of the Caliphate by an Arab of true race."

McMahon accepts the "limits and boundaries" of an independent Arab proposed in the Damascus Protocol, excepting "the two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta (in southern Turkey) and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo".

Faisal's father agrees to the omission of the southern Turkey districts, but not to the coastal regions of Syria, saying that although there are many Christians living in the area they are still Arabs and should be recognised as such.

The matter is left hanging as preparations for the so-called Arab Revolt progress.

1916 - The Arab Revolt begins on 5 June. It is led by Faisal and his older brothers Abdullah and Ali.

At first ill-disciplined and unorganised, the Arab forces later coalesce into three divisions - a Northern Army of about 6,000 fighters commanded by Faisal, a 9,000-strong Eastern Army led by Abdullah, and a Southern Army led by Ali and comprising another 9,000 troops. Faisal's division is supported by 2,000 trained soldiers from the Regular Arab Army.

The Ottomans are defeated at Mecca on 13 June. With the city free, Faisal's father proclaims himself the "king of the Arabs".

Jeddah falls on 16 June. Other victories follow and the Arabs appear to be on a role. However, when an attack on Medina is repulsed the Revolt stalls.

In October Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) is sent by the British to the Hejaz. Lawrence becomes a key adviser to the Arabs. He serves with the forces led by Faisal and helps formulate and execute a plan to pin down and stretch the Ottomans by constant attacks on the Hejaz rail system.

The attacks prevent the Ottomans from transferring troops to Palestine, where the British are attempting to capture Jerusalem. By the end of the year the Revolt has again turned in the Arab's favour.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Arabs' hopes for independence are being white-anted by the British.

On 16 May Britain and France sign a secret agreement that carves up the Ottoman Empire and negates the assurances given to Faisal's father by Lord Kitchener and Sir Henry McMahon.

Although the agreement (called the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the chief negotiators), states that "France and Great Britain are prepared to recognise and protect an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States" it makes clear that both countries intend to exert direct or indirect control over the region, the French in Syria and Lebanon and the British in Transjordan and Iraq.

On 2 November 1917 the British Government also makes a commitment to "the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People". The commitment is called the Balfour Declaration.

1917 - The Arab Revolt expands north to Transjordan, Palestine and Syria. The port of Akaba is captured at the start of July. Faisal takes control of Transjordan.

In November the new Bolshevik Government in Russia reveals the existence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Arab concern raised by the revelation is quelled by British reassurances that the commitments made to them will be honoured.

1918 - The remaining Ottoman resistance in Palestine is completely routed by the British at the Battle of Megiddo on 19 September. Faisal's forces play a crucial role in the battle, cutting supply and communication lines and harassing the retreating Turks.

Faisal enters Damascus on 1 October. He names the city as the capital of an Arab state and, with the agreement of the British, sets up a provisional Arab government. He assumes direct control of all Syria, except for coastal areas occupied by French troops.

The Ottomans sign an armistice on 30 October. The First World War ends on 11 November. The Arabs appear to have won their independence. The impression lasts for barely a year.

1919 - On 3 January, Faisal and Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organisation, sign an agreement for Arab-Jewish cooperation.

Under the agreement, Faisal accepts the Balfour Declaration on the "establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People" and pledges to "encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale". In return the rights of Arabs in Palestine will be protected.

Under a final clause written by Faisal, the agreement is only binding if the Arabs obtain their independence according to the terms agreed during the war.

In July, Faisal convenes the General Syrian Congress. The congress calls on the Central Powers to recognise Greater Syria (the land mass comprising Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria) as a sovereign and free Arab state with Faisal as king.

Work on the restructuring of Syria begins. Arabic is made the official language. Schools and universities are reopened. A committee is appointed to draft a new constitution. In the areas held by the French, the Arabs continue the Revolt.

Meanwhile, the forces set in motion by European powers in 1916 begin to conspire against the Arabs.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain holds sway at the Versailles Peace Conference. Though omitted from the official list of delegates, Faisal presents the Arab case.

"The Arabs have long enough suffered under foreign domination," he says. "The hour has at last struck when we are to come into our own again."

His arguments fall on deaf ears.

The carve up of the Arab lands proceeds. The French get control over Lebanon and Syria. The British take Transjordan and Palestine. Provision is made for the establishment of a Jewish state within Palestine. Iraq is placed under British mandate.

1920 - Faisal returns to Damascus in January. He rejects the Versailles outcomes and declares that Syria remains free and independent.

In March the General Syrian Congress unilaterally proclaims Syria as independent and confirms Faisal as king.

Iraqi Arabs also proclaim their independence under a monarchy headed by Faisal's older brother Abdullah.

In April, Europe reacts. The carve up of Greater Syria is made official at a conference of First World War Allies (Britain, France, Italy and Japan) held at San Remo in Italy.

French troops begin marching on Damascus in July. The city falls on 25 July. Faisal is forced into exile in Britain.

Meanwhile in Iraq, resistance to the British mandate grows to bursting point. Rebellion breaks out in Mosul and heads south. It takes months for the British to bring the country back under control. The British are shaken. In response, a provisional Arab government is set up to buffer them from further protest.

1921 - At the Cairo Conference in March the British reach a deal with Faisal which they hope will lead to an ongoing solution to their problems in Iraq.

Under the deal, Faisal will be made king of Iraq, giving the country an Arab head of state, while the British will retain their mandate over the territory.

Faisal is crowned as King of Iraq on 23 August. A referendum later confirms the appointment, with 96% of eligible Iraqis voting in favour.

The Cairo Conference also sees the British agree to the separation of Transjordan from Palestine. Transjordan is to be ruled by Faisal's older brother Abdullah, with administration supervised by the British. It is to be quarantined from any Jewish settlement.

1924 - The Iraqi parliament confirms the British deal in March, formally recognising Faisal as the constitutional monarch of the country.

The parliament also deliberates on the boundaries of the new state, deciding they will encompass the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

Oil-rich Mosul is included, despite the wish of its Kurdish majority for self-government. Kuwait, a small, coastal emirate to the south of Iraq, is excluded, despite having been a province of the ancient state of Mesopotamia from which Iraq has been carved.

Britain retains control over the oil concession in Mosul, along with the rights to the bulk of the oil revenue.

Faisal's oldest brother, Ali bin Hussein, becomes king of the Hejaz in October. However, the Hashemites have fallen from favour in the region and lost British support. Ali is ousted by Abdul Aziz bin Saud, king of Saudi Arabia, the following year.

1930 - Faisal's chief adviser negotiates an agreement with the British that will provide independence to Iraq in return for a continuation of British influence, including the ongoing presence of British troops and a role for Britain in the determination of Iraqi foreign policy.

1932 - On 3 October Iraq is admitted to the League of Nations as an independent state.

1933 - Faisal dies in Bern, Switzerland, on 8 September. His son, Ghazi, succeeds him as King of Iraq.


Ghazi dies in a car accident on 4 April 1939. His infant son, Faisal II, succeeds him. A regent is appointed to rule until Faisal II comes of age.

During the Second World War the Iraqi monarchy is ousted briefly by a coup. It is reinstated following intervention by the British. From this time on the monarchy falls out of favour with most Iraqis.

The monarchy is finally overthrown on 14 July 1958 in a military coup. King Faisal II is executed, along with other members of the royal family. The coup is one in a series that eventually lead to the rise of Saddam Hussein.


"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." So wrote Sir Walter Scott 100 years before the Arab Revolt, though he could have been referring to the machinations of the European politicians in their dealings with their Arab "allies".

It is now over 100 years after the Arab Revolt, and what a web have we weaved in the Middle East. We have weaved a region with a poisonous history, a dangerous present and an unsteady future. We have weaved bombs and bullets and terrorists. We have weaved fundamentalists, envy and hate.

Some commentators argue that none of this really matters, that the Middle East would have descended into chaos no matter what, or that it might have been even worse.

If the British had kept their word and supported the creation of an independent Arab caliphate, the argument goes, tribal rivalries would have ultimately "Balkanised" the region into a patchwork of ungovernable, anarchic fiefdoms. Or so the argument goes.

But that argument strikes me as just a little bit colonial, just a little bit patronising, just a little bit culturally dismissive.

The Hashemite dynasty still exists in the Middle East, in Jordan, where the descendants of Abdullah bin Hussein still rule. It might just be a quirk of history that Jordan is perhaps the most stable, tolerant and liberal Arab country in the neighbourhood, but it certainly can set one thinking of what could have been.

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