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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, 'Reconstruction of Arabia'


4th November, 1918.

The wish of the last generation of British statesmen (expressed in many ways beside the Baghdad Railway Agreements and the Alexandretta negotiations of 1915) to withdraw from their Imperial position in the Middle East made it desirable to find indirect means of keeping intact our 'Monroe' area, the quadrangle of land between Egypt, Alexandretta, Persia and the Indian Ocean. When war broke out an urgent need to divide Islam was added, and we became reconciled to seek for allies rather than subjects. We therefore took advantage of the dissatisfaction felt by the Arabic-speaking peoples (formerly voiced by Abbas Hilmi) with their alien rulers, and of the tendency, each day more visible, of the subject Eastern peoples to demand a share in the dangers of government. We hoped by the creation of a ring of client states, themselves insisting on our patronage, to turn the present and future flank of any foreign power with designs on the three rivers. The greatest obstacle, from the war standpoint, to any Arab movement, was its greatest virtue in peace-time — the lack of solidarity between the various Arab movements. The local jealousies in Syria, in Mesopotamia, in Arabia and in Egypt made it hard to know where or with whom to begin. There were abortive attempts with Sayid Taleb and with Aziz el Masri before we made up our minds to concentrate upon the Sherif of Mecca. The Sherif was ultimately chosen because of the rift he would create in Islam, because his geographical position gave him a fair chance of surviving and because his preeminence amongst Arabs was based upon the arbitrary and empiric, but in the East unassailable, ground of family prestige.

The negotiations began between the Sherif and Sir Henry McMahon, who was given discretion by the British Government to conclude an agreement that would bring him in. Sir Henry was unfortunately not informed of the Sykes-Picot Agreement then in proof. The Sherif had no idea that we wanted him only as a figurehead; throughout the correspondence he spoke as the mandatory of the Arabs - meaning everyone under Turkish rule who spoke Arabic.

His first season as a rebel was not fortunate, and his chances were not improved by the dismissal of Sir Henry McMahon and the substitution of Sir Archibald Murray, Sir Reginald Wingate and Colonel Brémond as his advisers. Nevertheless he was able eventually to carry all Western Arabia with him from Mecca northwards, until the occupation of Akaba by Feisal in August, 1917, closed the Sherifian military movement.

Feisal now undertook for his father (who had aged very fast) the liberation of Syria. His status for so doing was as a sealed member of the Syrian Revolutionary Committee. He remained in constant touch with his fellow-members in Egypt, [those] with him in the field, and in undelivered Syria, treating them as colleagues. For his instrument he formed a regular army of Syrians and Mesopotamians, and returned to the Hejaz all his Arabians. As a detail of interest I may mention that only 8 Hejazis shared in the entry into Damascus.

Feisal's military operations could not be independent: he made himself the handmaid of General Allenby, the allied Commander-in-Chief. I hope that in dividing the common spoils we will not descend to commercial arguments of the exact participating contingents of British, French, Indian, Arab, Jew, or Armenian troops. The Commander-in-Chief's Arab alliance enabled him to throw his cavalry, without lines of communications or the usual precautions, from Jaffa to Aleppo in pursuit of the Turks through country nominally hostile, but really our own. General Allenby reversed the old policy towards the Arabs, and helped them in every way he could in materials, advice and men. Their rapid success is due to him.

The war work of the ruling family of Mecca is now completed. We can hardly question the courage of King Hussein, who joined us, against Feisal's advice, soon after the fall of Kut, with the example of our other small friends before his eyes. It is also easy to see the moral ordeal it has been for the oldest, most holy, and most powerful family of the Arabs (a people who lay more stress on faith and pedigree than others), to cast off the friends and allegiance of a lifetime and to incur, on behalf of their national freedom, the unmeasured abuse of India, Turkey, Afghanistan and Egypt. The physical dangers and sufferings of the four princes in the very difficult campaigns of 1916, 1917, and 1918 must be reckoned to their credit. The loyalty to their word and allies of the old King arid his sons, who have refused from the Turks successive offers of autonomy in Arabia, independence in Arabia with autonomy in Syria, and of the Khalifate, with independence in Arabia and autonomy in all the Arabic provinces, may be recommended as an example to the Power which persuaded him to revolt, but which was ready, without his knowledge, to hand him over, with the people for whom he stood guardian, to the Turks on much worse terms.

The present intention of the Arab Governments

(a) In Arabia, meaning the peninsula proper, the old man of Mecca intends to be the unquestioned head. If he has patience, he will become so by slow processes of time and pilgrimage. As, however, he is foolish, it would be well if one of his sons joined him soon at Mecca. In Yemen the Sherif has no concrete aims. Ibn Rashid and Kuweit are already in touch with him. In Nejd, the situation created by the indirect conflict of India and Egypt over Ibn Saud and the Idrisi presents no real difficulties. Both men are fortunately heretics in Islam, not much better than the Agha Khan in orthodox opinion. Idrisi tried to graft elements of African fetishism on the abstract creeds of Arabia, and is failing. His disappearance is only a question of years. Ibn Saud is now striving to limit the puritan revival becoming too strong for him. If he is carried away by it, and attacks the Holy Places, the orthodox Islam will deal with him, as with his ancestor. If he can control it he will remain Emir of Nejd after military failure has warned him to recognise the Sherif as his overlord. I think Ibn Saud is friendly to us and that he is the only person so minded in his dominions.

I would like to suggest that the experience of the last four years has shown the undesirability of allowing Arabia to be controlled by any or all of the present authorities in Cairo, Bagdad, Damascus or Simla. We have been provincial, if not parochial in view.

(b) In Syria the Arab movement becomes really important since its origin was to prevent the man-power and strategic advantages of that country falling into the hands of any continental power. For this purpose the Arabs require equal rights with any other power in the Gulf of Alexandretta, the coast line from there to Tripoli, the port of Tripoli and its railway to Horns, the Bukaa from Horns to Lake Huleh, access by treaty to Haifa, and all the country East of this line and the Jordan. Further, Feisal requires to be sovereign in his own dominions, with complete liberty to choose any foreign advisers he wants of any nationality he pleases. These advisers will be part of the Arab Government and will draw their executive authority from it and not from their own Government. It may be possible to secure Arab recognition of the Turkish Dette in return for an equitable share of the Beyrout and Haifa customs receipts. Feisal will, however, not consider himself bound by any agreement to which he is not a party.

His assets in Syria are not small. He controls most of the good corn land and the four industrial towns. He has 8o% of the Moslems (including all the fighting men) on his side, all the Ansariya, all the Jews. He has inherited the old Turkish Civil Service, all of whose lower ranks, and many of whose upper ranks, are Arab. He himself is clear-sighted and well-educated, and is capable of satisfying the needs of Syria in local self-government. If he fails the responsibility will lie at the door of the European powers, in whose word he shows an undue simplicity of trust.

(c) In Palestine the Arabs hope that the British will keep what they have conquered. They will not approve Jewish Independence for Palestine but will support as far as they can Jewish infiltration, if it is behind a British, as opposed to an international façade. If any attempt is made to set up the international control proposed in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Feisal will press for self-determination in Palestine, and give the moral support of the Arab Government to the peasantry of Palestine, to resist expropriation.

(d) In Irak the Arabs expect the British to keep control. The Sherif, relying on his Agreement with us, hopes for a nominal Arab administration there.

(e) In Jesireh there are very vivid Arab Nationalists, but they are in an unsatisfactory geographical position, until a proportion of the nomadic and settled Kurds can be persuaded to join hands with the local government required there.

I would suggest that areas (d) and (e) should be kept quite separate, at least administratively. The problems of Irak are those of great public works and of a highly developed agriculture. The problems of Jesireh are those of turbulent mountain villagers and semi-nomadic tribes.

The Kurdish question is likely to be much larger and more difficult than the Armenian one.

If representations of small nations are admitted to the Peace Conference the cry of self-determination is likely to be raised, and agreements made semi-secretly between the Powers previously may be regarded with some suspicion. For this reason I would suggest that no second edition of the Sykes-Picot Treaty be produced. The geographical absurdities of the present Agreement will laugh it out of Court, and it would be perhaps as well if we spared ourselves a second effort on the same lines. If we do not I hope that we will at least recognise our official inclusion of the Arabs among the belligerents, and make them a party to any decisions affecting Arab areas conquered by themselves.

T. E. LAWRENCE
Lieut. Colonel

Source: DG 265-9
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 23 January 2006


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