The break-up of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War saw the Arabian Peninsula become Saudi Arabia in 1926. Further north, in Syria and on either side of the Jordan River, Lawrence of Arabia’ had raised high hopes of further exclusively Arab sovereignty, but Britain had other promises to honour too.
ALTHOUGH the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in the Great War, some Arab royalty in Ottoman-controlled Syria backed the Allies,* and Colonel T.E. Lawrence promised them self-government should Britain win the war.
However, in 1917 details were leaked of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, which proposed carving Ottoman Syria up between Britain and France. Reassurances of self-government for Arab allies flowed, but in 1920 France deposed Lawrence’s friend Faisal as King of Syria after just four months, and soon two ‘Mandates’, one French and one British, had established temporary control, promising self-government by the summer of 1948.*
The British proved more faithful than Lawrence feared. When the Mandate expired, Faisal’s brother Abdullah had ruled the vast and now full-independent Transjordan for twenty-seven years.* In a tiny strip of land west of the Jordan, the British honoured another long-standing promise, the ‘Balfour Declaration’ of 1917, and recognised the State of Israel as ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ at midnight on May 14th, 1948.
* Ottoman Syria was a very large region stretching from modern-day Syria in the north down to what is now Israel, and across to Baghdad in today’s Iraq.
* The British Mandate for Palestine was finally ratified by the League of Nations (the forerunner to the modern-day United Nations) on September 29th, 1923. The area was much larger than what is sometimes called ‘Palestine’ today: about 80% of the Mandate’s region lay east of the Jordan River, and was called the Transjordan by the British (in 1946 it became the Arab Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan). Israel and the Palestinian Authority within it equates to only about 20% of the Mandate. See the Times of Israel for more information.
* Transjordan became the fully-independent Arab Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946. The French Mandate in Syria ended in 1945, and the country became a Republic.