Sharif Hussein and the Arab Revolt that Created the Modern Middle East


From birth Hussein bin Ali boasted an impeccable pedigree.  As a child of the Banu Qatadah tribe, which ruled Mecca in the name of the Ottoman Sultan in the late 19th century, he could trace his lineage back over twelve hundred years to Muhammad himself.  It would be his destiny, it seemed, to one day take up the position as Sharif of Mecca – a title conferred to the leading noble in the most holy city in the religion of Islam.

Hussein bin Ali.

Still, Hussein clashed with the Ottoman Sultan when this destiny seemed to be threatened.  In 1880 Hussein’s uncle, the current Sharif of Mecca, was assassinated and the Sultan replaced him with a man from a different tribe.  Hussein thereafter became a vocal opponent of the Sultan, and as punishment for this opposition he would be placed under house arrest for sixteen years.  He might well have died there, an unknown, had it not been for a revolution in the Ottoman Empire, led by the Young Turks, who unseated the Sultan and installed a constitution for the empire in 1908.

As a reward for his opposition to the disgraced Sultan, Hussein was finally appointed the Sharif of Mecca, the position that he had sought for so long.  By all accounts he was content there, but his two sons Abdullah and Faisal were still not happy with the place of their people in the Ottoman Empire.  Both had begun to embrace the cause of Arab nationalism, and hoped that one day they might help to create a state for the Arab people independent from the Turks in Istanbul.

The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war the following September would provide Hussein and his sons an opportunity to realize this dream.  Because of his high standing, his links to Arab nationalism, and his previous disputes with the central government, the British saw him as a potential ally once the war began.  In 1915 the British High Commissioner for Egypt, Henry McMahon, began corresponding with Hussein in an effort to convince him to rebel against the Ottoman government.

Hussein and McMahon exchanged letters during the course of 1915 and 1916 in an attempt to establish terms under which Hussein would lead a rebellion.  In exchange for helping the British against the Ottomans, Husein asked that the British support him during the war and help him to create an independent Arab state once the fighting was over.  McMahon agreed in part, but refused to promise that this hypothetical Arab state would include Palestine.

Because of this exclusion Hussein initially rejected the deal, but then in May 1916 the Ottoman government made a critical mistake.  They seized twenty-one leading Arabs in Damascus, accused them of treason, and had them executed.  Hussein’s son Faisal was in Damascus that day and witnessed the execution.  Afterwards Faisal would return to his father and tell him what had happened, winning Hussein over to the cause of rebellion.  The following month Hussein declared the Arabs to be independent, and unfurled the standard of his revolt against the Turks.