Arab Revolt (1916)

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Uprising of Arab nationalists against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Although many Arabs had reached the highest positions in the Ottoman government by the end of the nineteenth century, opposition to Turkish authority was spreading through the empire's Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire. A separatist nationalist movement had followers in many Arab towns and cities, including Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, and Jerusalem by the early 1900s. Members formed secret cultural and political organizations, including groups of Arab officers in the Ottoman military. Prominent secret societies were al-Qahtaniya and al-Fatat; the former sought to establish a dual ArabTurkish monarchy similar to the AustroHungarian Empire. Al-Fatat wanted to establish Arabic as the official language in the Arab provinces, where it would be taught in all schools.

Efforts by the Young Turk regime that seized power in 1908 to repress Arab nationalism intensified opposition to the government and increased demands for separation from the empire. The arrest for treason in 1914 of Major Aziz Ali al-Masri, an Ottoman staff officer of Arab origin, brought opposition to the regime among Arab officers to a head.

Among the ardent nationalists was the sharif of Mecca, Husayn ibn Ali, a Hashimite descendant of the prophet Muhammad, and his four sons, Ali, Abdullah, Faisal, and Zayd. Because the authorities suspected their loyalty, they were forced to live in Constantinople (now Istanbul) from 1893 until 1908. After they returned to Mecca, Husayn began to rally surrounding tribes against attempts to conscript Arabs into the Ottoman armed forces. Although the Turkish governor-general of Mecca backed down from the conscription order, Husayn sought an alliance with an outside power against further Ottoman attempts to undermine his authority.

In February 1914, Husayn sent one of his sons to negotiate with the British agent and consul general in Cairo, Lord Kitchener, but Great Britain was not yet ready to support an Arab uprising against the Ottomans. With Turkey's entry into World War I on the side of Germany (October 1914), the British authorities reconsidered the sharif's offer to revolt in return for guarantees of Arab independence after defeating the Turks.

Ottoman efforts to rally support among Muslims throughout Asia for a jihad against the Allies failed to win over many Arab subjects. Rather, most Arab notables were sympathetic to the growing demands for independence, and many looked to Husayn for leadership. As relations between the Arab provinces and Constantinople continued to deteriorate due to poor economic conditions, mass arrests of suspected Arab nationalists, and resentment of conscription, Husayn attempted to reestablish contact with the British.

In 1915 he reopened negotiations through Lord Kitchener's successor in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon. In an exchange of ten letters known as the HusaynMcMahon Correspondence, the sharif offered assistance to Great Britain against the Turks in return for a British promise to recognize the independence of what was to become Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and most of the Arabian Peninsula, and to endorse proclamation of an Islamic Arab caliphate. The British, however, refused to accept so precise a definition of the area for Arab independence because of conflicting promises and obligations regarding the territory. McMahon eventually replied that Britain would recognize the territory demanded by the sharif except for certain areas "not purely Arab." The imprecision of British promises was the cause of postwar quarrels between Great Britain and Arab nationalists, particularly with regard to Palestine.

Following the exchange of correspondence with McMahon, Ottoman authorities initiated a massive crackdown on Arab nationalists. In May 1916, twenty-one leading Arab citizens of Damascus and Beirut were arrested and executed by public hanging. These events undermined what little loyalty remained among Arab subjects of the sultan, and sparked widespread support for open revolt against the Ottomans. Opposition to the government was further intensified by famine resulting from destruction of crops by a locust plague in 1916. In retaliation for Arab opposition, the Turkish authorities refused to permit outside relief supplies into the region; as a result, some 300,000 people died of starvation.

Sharif Husayn gave the order to tribes in the Hijaz to strike at Ottoman garrisons and proclaimed Arab independence in May 1916. After three weeks the Ottoman garrison in Mecca fell, followed shortly thereafter by most others in the main towns of the peninsula. Arab forces were supplied by Britain, and British officers served as military advisers. The most prominent was Colonel T. E. Lawrence, an adviser to Faisal.

The Arab revolt against the Turks ended in October 1919 when Faisal's armies captured Damascus, and an Arab regime was established with Faisal as king. At the end of the war, Husayn alienated many of his Arab neighbors when he proclaimed himself "king of the Arab countries." Although the British government refused to recognize him as more than "king of Hijaz," he persisted in the grander title, leading to confrontation with Ibn Saʿud and eventual defeat by the latter, followed by the annexation of the Hijaz into the Saudi kingdom.

The Arab revolt played an important and controversial role in postwar negotiations, and in the decisions taken by Great Britain and France about the territorial divisions of the former Arab provinces in the Ottoman Empire.

see also abd al-aziz ibn saʿud al saʿud; abdullah i ibn hussein; faisal i ibn hussein; fatat, al-; husayn ibn ali; husaynmcmahon correspondence (19151916); kitchener, horatio herbert; lawrence, t. e.; mcmahon, henry; young turks.


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Don Peretz

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Arab Revolt (1916)

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Arab Revolt (1916)