Faisal I of Iraq, by Ali Allawi, Yale, RRP£30/$40, 672 pages
The Hashemites are the Bourbons of the Middle East; history could not be written without them. Descended from the Prophet Mohammed, hereditary rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, in 1916 they were persuaded by the British – notably by a resourceful British liaison officer, TE Lawrence “of Arabia” – to rebel against Ottoman Turkey in return for promises of a Hashemite monarchy over much of the Arab Middle East in the event of victory. In October 1918, after a campaign described by Lawrence in his account of events, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), Faisal, third son of Hussein, Emir of Mecca, entered Damascus in triumph.
It was the Hashemite high-water mark. Faisal’s claim to the throne of an independent Syria was contested by the French, who threw him out in 1920. The British put him at the head of another new nation, Iraq, but Hashemite rule there only lasted until 1958, when his grandson, Faisal II, was murdered in a republican coup. Long before then, the Emir Hussein had been chased from Mecca by another British client, King Ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Nowadays, the last vestige of Hashemite power lingers in the fragile kingdom of Jordan, cobbled together between the wars by Faisal’s elder brother Abdullah – even that gain spoiled, in Arab eyes, by Abdullah’s complicity in the founding of Israel.
Years after these events, the Hashemites’ involvement in imperialist map-drawing and the birth of a Jewish state still guaranteed them a bad press among fellow Arabs. To the nationalist republicans inspired by Egypt’s General Gamal Abdel Nasser (including Iraq’s regicides), who gained control of much of the Middle East in the 1950s, they were stooges of imperialism. But dreams of Arab unity quickly fell victim to narrower rivalries, and more recent spasms of Islamic extremism and sectarian violence, in addition to a more generalised ideological confusion in the aftermath of the Arab spring, suggest that the Arabs are little closer to solving the riddles of their existence than they were in 1918. It may be time for a fresh look at the dynasty.
Ali Allawi, an Iraqi historian and politician – he served as defence minister in the shortlived government of his cousin, Ayad Allawi – certainly thinks so. His new biography of Faisal, the most accomplished of the Hashemite pretenders, is a rebuke to Lawrence’s proprietorial, romantic accounts – the Englishman prided himself on having “discovered” Faisal, whom he depicted as a paragon of Arab martial vigour – and to anti-Hashemite Arab polemicists alike. Faisal I of Iraq is a sympathetic but by no means uncritical portrait, drawing on all the available sources, in English and Arabic. It is unlikely to be dislodged as the standard treatment for some time to come.
Inevitably, Allawi dwells at length on the agonising paradoxes of Faisal’s relations with Britain. His aim was independence without obligation, while the British favoured an inverse arrangement – as shown by the ease with which they reneged on wartime promises. France duly seized Syria and Lebanon, while the Zionist movement, whose aims the Balfour Declaration (declaring Britain’s support for a Jewish national home) had accepted in 1917, muscled in on Palestine.
At the postwar conferences to decide the fate of the former Ottoman territories, the unworldly Faisal proved no match for the Zionists and their British backers. In 1919 he bowed to Lawrence and signed a text recognising the Jewish claim to a home in Palestine; a disclamatory codicil he appended to the same document carried all the weight of a little boy crossing his fingers behind his back. Thus, not for the last time, the Hashemites gave Arab cover to Zionism in the hope that it would help their own territorial ambitions.
Faisal’s second kingly incarnation, in British-dominated Iraq, was scarcely less stressful than the first. Much improved in the kingly arts of endurance, guile and subterfuge – the British were particularly annoyed by what they saw as his double-dealing – he took up his duties in 1921 and spent the next 12 years trying to transform a relationship of subservience to the colonial power into one of equals. Finally, in October 1932, the League of Nations admitted the newly independent kingdom of Iraq as its latest member. The achievement was substantially Faisal’s, even if his country was committed to a long-term military partnership with Britain. But the cares of office had exhausted him and within a year he was dead, aged just 50.
It is hard to read any part of Allawi’s book without projecting forward to later events but a sense of gathering clouds is perhaps strongest in the chapters about Iraq itself – now cursed by sectarian disunity. Faisal wanted Iraq to work, for its people as well as for himself, but he foresaw the difficulty of running a country with a Sunni ruling class, a Shia majority and significant Kurdish, Assyrian and Jewish minorities.
A scion of Sunni royalty, a sincere but far from strait-laced Muslim – he womanised and gambled, and annoyed his wife by kissing the British imperialist Gertrude Bell on both cheeks – Faisal adopted an admirably inclusive approach to his subjects, assiduously promoting the under-represented Shias and paying attention to their top sheikhs. Sectarianism did not stop, however – as in 1927, for example, over a Sunni-authored textbook that was unkind to the memory of the Imam Hussein, much revered by Shias. Disgruntlement led to violence; there were Shia deaths. The king himself stepped in to assuage the feelings of the minority community.
Few thanked him for his broad vision. His greatest advantage as a ruler, his detachment from the visceral emotions that divided the communities, was also his weakness, for anyone could accuse him of not really being Iraqi at all. He died shortly after another tangle with communal extremism, following the savage suppression of an uprising launched by the Assyrians, which the king may not have wished for and which led to a storm of reaction across Europe.
With the accession of his son Ghazi, it looked as though his line would be perpetuated on the banks of Tigris – and some Iraqis may wish it had, for while Faisal I may not quite deserve the epithet “Faisal the Great” (which is the title of Allawi’s epilogue), comparisons with Saddam Hussein and any of the country’s post-2003 leaders suggest that he was better than most.
Christopher de Bellaigue is author of ‘Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup’ (Vintage)