Husein ibn Ali

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Husein ibn Ali

Husein ibn Ali (ca. 1854-1931) was an Arab nationalist and political leader who proclaimed the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and became king of the Hejaz.

Born in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Husein ibn Ali was a member of an important Arab family which claimed descent from the prophet Mohammed and the hereditary position of Meccan leadership. Following the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, the new Ottoman government named Husein to the traditional family position of sharif of Mecca, the governor and protector of the Islamic holy places. When, on the eve of World War I, Arabs and Turks were unable to reach a proper political balance for the multinational Ottoman Empire, Husein developed ambitions of his own for more extensive authority in Arab affairs and for Arab home rule.

His son Abdullah had discretely contacted British officials in Egypt as to Great Britain's attitude toward his father's aspirations in the event of Turkish involvement in war. When the war actually began, Husein found excuses for not sending Arab troops in support of his political and religious overlord, the Ottoman sultan.

During 1915 and 1916 Husein exchanged a famous series of letters with Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, a follow-up to Abdullah's earlier inquiries. In the Husein-McMahon correspondence, the sharif of Mecca thought that the British had promised to support the establishment of an independent Arab state in southwest Asia with himself as the ruler in return for his proclamation of an Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In the meantime his third son, Faisal, had made an unsuccessful attempt to find a compromise with the Ottoman Turks.

Arab Revolt

In the spring of 1916 Turkish repression and execution of Arab leaders in Damascus and Beirut and the movement of Ottoman troops down the Hejaz railway into Arabia forced Husein's hand. Husein proclaimed the Arab Revolt in June 1916 and his own new title of king of the Arabs, which others recognized merely as king of the Hejaz. Husein, now in his mid-60s, remained behind in Mecca during the war, while his sons Abdullah and Faisal led Arab troops against the Ottoman troops in northwest Arabia and in what is present-day Syria. Husein thus lost control of the nationalist movement he had played such an important and symbolic role in starting.

Following World War I, Great Britain found itself enmeshed in several conflicting promises and agreements. Power politics led it to acquiesce in the French occupation of what became Syria and Lebanon, and in the Zionist aspirations for Palestine which had been ambiguously proclaimed in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Britain and France partitioned southwest Asia, including unmistakenly Arab lands, between themselves, formalizing the decision at the San Remo Conference in 1920. It was legitimatized through the awarding of mandates by the League of Nations soon thereafter.

Husein bitterly rejected the peace settlements for greater Syria and scorned the British offer of recognition as king of the Hejaz and of a financial subsidy. He was scarcely assuaged when, in 1921, the British named his sons Abdullah and Faisal as emir of Transjordan and king of Iraq, respectively. Husein quarreled with Egypt over the pilgrimage trade to Mecca and with his increasingly powerful neighbor and rival, Ibn Saud of the Nejd in central Arabia, over religious issues. In 1924 after republican Turkey had abolished the Ottoman caliphate, Husein arrogantly proclaimed himself the new religious leader of Islam, a claim as caliph accepted by almost no one. The enraged Saudis, who considered Husein a sinful Moslem and a Europeanized Arab and who coveted the profits of the pilgrimage trade for themselves, took his self-proclamation as caliph as the last straw, besieged Mecca in 1924, and forced him to abdicate and flee. Husein lived in Cyprus as an embittered and frustrated exile until he had a serious stroke in 1930 and went to live his final year with his son Abdullah in Amman, Transjordan, where he died on June 4, 1931.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Husein, but there is a popular account of his dynasty in James Morris, The Hashemite Kings (1959). The classic Arab account of the rise of Arab nationalism and the Arab Revolt of 1916 is George Antonius, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement (1939), which may be read in conjunction with a recent study by an Arab historian, Zeine N. Zeine, The Emergence of Arab Nationalism (1958; rev. ed. 1966). For Britain's role see Elie Kedourie, England and the Middle East (1956), and Elizabeth Monroe, Britain's Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (1963). □