Mandate Rule

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Mandate Rule

A mandate, defined in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919), was a new form of political supervision created after World War I:

To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the wellbeing and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embodied in this Covenant. The best method of giving practical effect to this principle is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations … [and] should be exercised by them as Mandatories on behalf of the League.

There were three types of mandates: A, B, and C. German colonies in Africa and the Pacific became B or C mandates under Britain, France, Belgium, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or Japan. The southern and largely Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire became A mandates, meaning their transition to self-determination would be faster and more assured than that of the B and C mandates. Britain received the mandates of Iraq and Palestine and Transjordan; France received the mandates of Syria and Lebanon.


The texts of the mandates stated that "the Mandatory Power commands and governs only to educate." But Britain and France sought mandates according to their economic and strategic interests. France had concessions in Syria and Lebanon to build and maintain railroads, roads, port facilities, tramways, and public utilities and hoped to expand production of cotton and silk for its textile industry. A port or two in the eastern Mediterranean would also be welcome. Britain claimed Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan for imperial communications needs and wished to control potential sources of oil in Iraq. Because the assignment of mandates indulged the self-interest of European powers, the mandates turned out to be "a cloak for a good measure of imperialism," as Elizabeth Monroe remarked in Britain's Moment in the Middle East (1963, p. 141).

France and Britain also claimed mandated territories on the basis of special relationships with minorities. France had ties to the Catholics of the Middle East, especially the Maronites in Lebanon. Britain had the 1917 Balfour Declaration that promised to facilitate the creation in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Given that Jews were only about 10 percent of the population, this promise entailed colonization, which made Palestine unique among the mandated states. By patronizing religious minorities, both Britain and France sought to lay the basis for an especially strong and durable presence in the coastal areas; yet, by identifying with minority interests, Britain and France weakened their overall position in the region.

The newly created mandated states were inconvenient, inefficient, and irrational to most of their inhabitants. Trade barriers, separate administrative, legal, and security structures, and different currency zones, educational systems, and public works and transportation networks made the movement of goods, capital, and labor within the region more difficult than during the late Ottoman Empire. The imposition and replication of institutions, functions, and personnel in each new state was costly, not only in itself but in diminishing what might have been invested in the "well-being and development" of the peoples under mandate. Boundaries also created the basis for water diversion projects to benefit the users of one state at the expense of users in another. For example, the headwaters of the Quwayk River that fed Aleppo were across the border in Turkey, which in 1926 diverted much of the flow for its own use.

State boundaries were not the only divisions imposed by France and Britain. Within each new state, France and Britain mined veins of social diversity to strengthen their position overall. France divided Syria into a number of ministates on the basis, according to the French, of separatist feelings and different levels of development among various segments of the population: the State of the Alawis in the northwest, the State of Jebel Druz in the southeast, and direct French administration in the so-called Tribal Territory beyond the Euphrates. This multistate structure did not add up to an administration that met the needs or aspirations of the majority or allow for much local participation in governing. On similar grounds of ethnic separatism, France ceded the district (Sanjak) of Alexandretta to Turkey in 1939, contrary to its mandatory responsibility "that no part of the territory of Syria and the Lebanon [be] ceded or leased or in any way placed under the control of a foreign Power."

Britain divided Iraq and Transjordan into two jurisdictions each, one under so-called tribal administration and one under the central government. Cities and peasants within the orbit of cities were subject to one legal system; the transhumant countryside was subject to another. King Faisal (1885–1933) of Iraq complained that the small army allowed him by Britain would be no match for any combination of tribal forces against him; thus he was reminded of his ultimate dependence on British protection. Designated tribal areas were subject to different voting laws, which worked against the election to parliament of nationalists who were generally from urban areas.


Mandatory rule was meant to accommodate the principle of self-determination, but it required force to be carried out. Major rebellions occurred in Iraq in 1920, in Syria from 1925 to 1927, and in Palestine from 1936 to 1939. These rebellions had a profound effect on the shape of mandatory rule.

The 1920 rebellion in Iraq caused Britain to adopt a model of indirect rule. Britain chose its wartime ally Faisal ibn Husayn to be king in 1921, deported his chief local rival for the throne, and conducted a referendum that legitimized his elevation by a suspiciously high 96 percent approval rating. On the Iraqi side, the rebellion brought together tribesmen and townsmen, Sunni and Shi'i, and provided the foundational myth for an Iraqi nationalism. King Faisal, poised uncomfortably between Britain and the population of Iraq, sought to gain as much freedom of action from Britain as was possible and to knit together the varied communities within the awkward British-drawn borders. Yet, he lamented in 1932 that "there is still … no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea … and ready to rise against any government whatever" (Batatu 1978, p. 25).

The 1925 to 1927 Syrian revolt began in Jebel Druz, crossed the borders of the ministates set up in Syria, and brought together townsmen and tribesmen, peasants and pastoralists, Muslim, Christian, and Druze, in Syria and parts of Lebanon. Like the Iraqi rebellion, it became a central event in a nationalist narrative. In its course, France bombarded Damascus and revealed for all to see, including the League of Nations, the hard edge of mandatory tutelage. Of course, the British had bombed Iraqi tribes during the rebellion in Iraq, but the bombing of a capital city familiar to Europeans through biblical references had a much more negative impact. The revolt caused both French and nationalists to moderate their positions. France saw the wisdom of indirect rule and of trying to co-opt nationalist leaders; the nationalist leaders saw that armed confrontation would not end the French mandate and began a strategy of "honorable cooperation."

Owing to the growth of a settler community in Palestine under British protection, there were more frequent and more obvious upheavals there than in the other mandated states. Important manifestations of strife between Jewish settlers and Arab inhabitants occurred in 1920, 1921, and 1929. From 1936 to 1939 there was a major Arab rebellion against British rule. As a result, Britain acknowledged in 1937 that "we cannot—in Palestine as it now is—both concede the Arab claim to self-government and secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home" (Palestine Royal Commission Report, 1937, reproduced in Smith 2004, p. 155). Another result was that Britain trained and armed Jewish auxiliaries while it disarmed the Arab community and killed or exiled its leadership.


In 1932 Iraq was the first mandated state to gain formal independence. Britain maintained its interests by a treaty that allowed Britain to have military bases in Iraq, to be the sole supplier of arms and training to the Iraqi army, and to maintain its controlling interest in the Iraq Petroleum Company. Thus Iraq's independence caused little immediate change in the politics of the country. Oil revenues paid in the form of rent started to accrue in significant amounts in 1932 and gave the state more resources to shore up support. In 1958 a revolution destroyed the monarchy and Britain's privileged position.

Syria, Lebanon, and Transjordan received independence after World War II. All the ministates that France had created in Syria were absorbed into the Syrian Republic. In Lebanon the 1943 National Pact cemented a system of power-sharing along sectarian lines, which gave Christians a slight edge. Owing to France's weak postwar status, it was unable to secure treaties with either Syria or Lebanon to guard its privileged position. A treaty maintained Britain's influence in Transjordan, renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan after the war. The British resident became the British ambassador to Jordan, but his influence and his duties changed little.

Palestine was a different story. Britain handed its mandate for Palestine to the United Nations in 1947, and the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states: one Jewish, the other Arab. Since the terms of the mandate had provided that a "Jewish agency shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish National Home," there was a governing structure ready to step in as a Jewish state. The Arab community in Palestine had no such structure. When Britain withdrew its forces from Palestine in May 1948, the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine proclaimed the independent state of Israel, which was immediately recognized by the Soviet Union and the United States. The Arab state that was to be created in Palestine was neither supported nor enforced by the United Nations.


In a sense, mandatory rule achieved its goal everywhere but in Palestine. France and Britain created republics and constitutional monarchies respectively, which eventually gained independence. Syria, however, did not last long as a republic, nor did Iraq as a constitutional monarchy. And by tolerating election fraud and the opportunistic suspension of elections and parliamentary rule to get the sorts of administrations Britain and France could most easily work with, they set an example for the authoritarian governments that came after independence.

Jordan is still a constitutional monarchy, though for most of the period from 1957 to 1984, the king ruled without parliament and martial law was in force. Patterns of French patronage in Lebanon deepened sectarian divisions. Although the 1943 National Pact allowed sectarian leaders to work together for independence, by 1975 there was civil war in Lebanon fueled by sectarian identities. In Palestine, Britain failed to create a governing structure that represented the interests of the whole population. Many regard the creation of a Jewish state, Israel, as a triumph; but Palestinians are still striving to have their losses recognized and to create a Palestinian state.

The economic and developmental impact of mandatory rule is debatable, but is largely seen as negative. The bulk of mandate budgets was spent on administration and security, leaving less for infrastructure, health, and education. After independence each former mandate acted to rectify such neglect. Iraq was most successful thanks to oil revenues beginning in 1934. In both Iraq and Syria, the mandate-period ruling elites were mainly large landowners. Thus land reform was not attempted until these elites, and the mandatory structures of government that supported them, were overthrown.

During the mandate period, public education was limited, especially in Lebanon and Palestine, where large private school or nonstate school sectors catered to special groups—Christians in Lebanon and Jews in Palestine—and taught in languages, French and Hebrew, that further estranged them from the regional majority. The generation educated in such schools under the mandate brought exclusivist outlooks to the independent states that came afterward. Finally, each mandate had its own army and security forces. In the postindependence period, armies have served as the central institution of state formation in all states except Lebanon, with deleterious effects on economic development and social support networks, on internal political processes, and on the conduct of regional affairs.

see also British Colonialism, Middle East; French Colonialism, Middle East; Iraq; Trusteeship.


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Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba'thists, and Free Officers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Hourani, Albert. Syria and Lebanon: A Political Essay. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

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