Faisal I

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Faisal I

Faisal I (1883-1933) was an Arab nationalist and political leader during and following World War I. He led Arab troops in the revolt against Turkish rule and became king of newly created Iraq.

On May 20, 1883, Faisal was born in Taif near the Islamic holy city of Mecca in western Arabia, the third son of Husein ibn Ali and a member of one of Mecca's leading families, which claimed descent from the prophet Mohammed. In 1891 Faisal moved to Constantinople (Istanbul) with his father and brothers because the suspicious Sultan wished to keep Husein under political surveillance. Faisal was raised and educated in the imperial capital. A year after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, Husein was appointed by the new Ottoman government sharif of Mecca, or protector of the holy places, a position his family had often held before. Faisal returned to Mecca and became a member of the Ottoman Parliament for western Arabia in 1913.

Faisal began working toward an accommodation with the Turks for Arab home rule. While his father was negotiating with the British in Egypt in 1915-1916 through the Husein-McMahon correspondence, Faisal had unsuccessfully sought to reach an agreement in Istanbul. En route back to Arabia in 1915, he met with Arab nationalist leaders in Syria, joined their organization, and participated in drafting the secret Damascus Protocol. This supported his father's negotiations for an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in return for British aid for a postwar independent Arab state for Arabia and the Fertile Crescent.

Arab Revolt

After Husein's proclamation of the Arab Revolt in Mecca in June 1916, Faisal and his older brother Abdullah led Arab troops against the Ottomans, assisted the British invasion of Palestine from Egypt, harassed Ottoman supply lines, and occupied the Syrian interior, reaching Damascus in October 1918.

Following the war the British, who had promised territorial and political gains to the French, the Zionists, and the Arabs, found themselves unable to harmonize their conflicting wartime agreements. They encouraged Faisal to come to terms with the French over Syria, which both claimed, but France rejected him as a tool of the British who sought to deny France its just colonial rewards.

Faisal did conclude an agreement in 1919 with Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization, in which he accepted large-scale Jewish immigration into Palestine, provided that the rights of Arab farmers were protected and that the promised Arab state in the Fertile Crescent was actually established. In March 1920 an Arab National Congress in Damascus proclaimed Faisal king of Syria.

The British hope to establish Faisal as ruler of an interior Arab kingdom collapsed when France determined to maintain control of all of northern Syria. Despite the British commitment to Husein and Faisal, Britain took no action in July 1920, when France ousted Faisal from his newly proclaimed Syrian kingdom. Following a costly revolt in British-occupied Mesopotamia, Britain secured Faisal's selection as king of newly created Iraq in 1921.

King of Iraq

The British reasoned that Faisal had lost one kingdom and would take care about any actions that might threaten the loss of another. Faisal was a popular choice in the new state of Iraq because of his nationalist and military reputation, his personal charm and integrity, and his noble birth in the Prophet's Hashemite clan. The several hundred officers of Iraqi origin who had served with Faisal during the war strongly supported his selection. They backed Faisal with the experience and strength to rule capably and responsibly as he shrewdly balanced among the British authorities, tribal sheiks, and nationalist politicians. Iraq became the first Arab state in south-west Asia to eliminate the mandatory status and to join the League of Nations in 1932, but Faisal's death on Sept. 8, 1933, introduced a decade of confusion and instability in Iraq under his inexperienced young son, Ghazi.

Further Reading

There is an old biography of Faisal by Beatrice Erskine, King Faisal of Iraq (1933), and a more recent and popular treatment of Husein and his sons in James Morris, The Hashemite Kings (1959). World War I and its aftermath are well covered in Jukka Nevakivi, Britain, France, and the Arab Middle East,1914-1920 (1969), and in Zeine N. Zeine, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Western Diplomacy and the Rise and Fall of Feisal's Kingdom in Syria (1960). See Henry A. Foster, The Making of Modern Iraq (1935), and Stephen H. Longrigg, Iraq 1900 to 1950 (1953), for a discussion of Iraq under Faisal's rule. Elizabeth Monroe provides good background in Britain's Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (1963).

Additional Sources

Sheean, Vincent, Faisal: the king and his kingdom, Tavistock, Eng.: University Press of Arabia, 1975. □

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