I recently posted at great length about the origins of Wahhabism (and Zionism) and its influence on today’s bleak and bloody Middle Eastern crisis; and about the Hashemite Arabs that were sidelined from Arabia after the First World War in favour of the Wahhabist Saudis.
As a brief add-on to that post, it is worth turning our attention to the alternate reality that might have come to pass had the relatively moderate Hashemites and not the Wahhabi-spreading Saudis won the prize of Arabia after the war. It is an interesting ‘what if’ of history to wonder how Middle Eastern affairs might have unfolded differently these passed hundred years had the Wahhabits’ jilted elder brothers the Hashemites, beginning with Faisal bin Hussein, been the central Arab royal family and not the Wahhabi-inspired Saudis that we have today.
The figure most associated with the Arab Revolt (and with T.E Lawrence) was King Hussein’s son Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi (famously immortalised by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia, and later by Alexander Siddig in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia).
In 1916-1918, Faisal headed the rebellion against the Turkish Ottoman Empire in what was to become Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. After a 30 month-long siege he and his irregular Arab armies conquered Medina. Working with Britain and the Allies during World War I, Faisal’s forces (along with Lawrence) later conquered Greater Syria and captured the historic and prized city of Damascus. He was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria or Greater Syria in 1920 (despite a long and vicious campaign by the French to hold on to Syria themselves).
However, after the Battle of Maysalun on 24 July 1920, the Imperialist French expelled Faisal from Syria, regardless of Faisal’s wholly legitimate claim. He went to live in the United Kingdom in August that year. In March 1921, at the Cairo Conference, the British decided that Faisal was instead a good candidate for ruling the British Mandate of Iraq because of his apparent conciliatory attitude towards Britain and based on counsel from Faisal’s friend and champion T. E. Lawrence.
An anti-Wahhabist, curiously Faisal’s attitude towards Jewish Zionist activity, unlike the Saudis’ attitude, appeared more temperate; on 4th January 1919 Faisal signed an agreement with Dr Chaim Weizmann, the President of the World Zionist Organization – the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement for Arab-Jewish Cooperation had Faisal (conditionally) accep tthe Balfour Declaration. “We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through; we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home… I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of the civilised peoples of the world.”
Those were Faisal’s own sentiments. It’s difficult to imagine a Wahhabist leader speaking similar sentiments towards the Jewish cause. This was an attitude aimed toward amenability and cooperation for the sake of peace, rather than following personal views or cultural prejudices; Faisal wasn’t fond of Zionists, but he was a realist and willing to make compromises. Curiously, on the other hand, at the state level the Saudis traditionally refrain from speaking overtly about Israel in the way that say the Iranian, Lebanese or Syrian leaderships have been known to do (along with Gadaffi in Libya), yet on the covert level fund the propagation of Wahhabi-inspired Islamist doctrines that have anti-Zionist sentiments at their core.
There remains an ardent belief in much of the Middle East that the Saudis and the ‘Zionists’ work in accord with each other, servicing a shared agenda.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that the idealogies of Zionism and Wahhabism share a similar origin and are both regarded with great suspicion by many non-Wahhabists and non-Zionists in the region. What someone like Faisal did or didn’t know about the Zionists is unclear, but he certainly knew about the Wahhabists, rejected their doctrines and considered the Sauds enemies of the Hashemites.
When we look at the vicious sectarianism that now characterizes the Middle East, it is worth remembering that Faisal fostered unity between Sunni and Shiite Muslims to encourage common loyalty and promote pan-Arabism in the goal of creating an Arab state that would include Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Fertile Crescent (ironically an earlier and more peaceful, legitimate version of what ISIS/Islamic State is currently claiming to try to do). While in power, Faisal tried to diversify his administration by including different ethnic and religious groups in offices.
In July 1933, right before his death, Faisal went to London where he expressed his alarm at the current situation of Arabs that resulted from the Arab-Jewish conflict and the increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, as the Arab political, social, and economic situation was declining. He asked the British to limit Jewish migration and land sales. His counsel fell on deaf ears, however.
Faisal died on 8 September 1933, at the age of 48 (T.E Lawrence, incidentally, died two years later). The official cause of death was a heart attack while he was staying in Bern, Switzerland, for his general medical check-up. Curious questions emerged about his sudden death, as Swiss doctors claimed that he was healthy and nothing serious was wrong with him. His private nurse also reported signs of arsenic poison before his death. Several of his companions noticed that day that he was suffering from pain in the abdomen (a sign of poisoning) and not the chest (a typical sign of heart attack).
Faisal’s body was quickly mummified before performing a proper autopsy to find the exact cause of death, which would’ve been the normal procedure in such situations. Rushed autopsies or lack of proper autopsy are a common feature in suspicious deaths (JFK, Princess Diana, etc).
Unlike more ‘dramatic’ deaths such as shootings, car crashes and plane crashes, possible assassinations by poisoning can be more difficult to detect or to speculate on, as expert poisonings can be made to look like simple ill health issues. Which leads one to wonder how many apparently non-suspect deaths from various illnesses, particularly when involving political figures, might actually have been murders. A perfect example of this was the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who was considered to have died a natural death; it was only through a chance discovery a few years later, leading to a re-investigation, that revealed Arafat had died from polonium poisoning.
As for Faisal’s successors in Iraq, their reign was short. The infamous Revolution or Iraqi coup d’état took place on 14th July 1958, resulting in the overthrowing of the Hashemite monarchy. King Faisal II, the regent and Crown Prince and the Prime Minister Nuri al-Said were all assassinated during this coup, along with the three princesses and other members of the Iraqi Royal Family.
The success of the “Free Officers” in overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy and seizing power there in 1952 made Egypt’s Nassir a source of inspiration for the “Iraqi Free Officers” whose coup was inspired by several events, including the unsuccessful 1948 Pan-Arab War against Israel. The Hashemites’ relationship with the UK and the US was also a grievence, being seen by the coup as an imperialist alliance. It has always been evident, however, that this coup wasn’t the work solely of Iraqi nationals, but included significant Egyptian and other foreign involvement/influence.
With the family’s violent demise, the Iraqi Hashemite dynasty ended.
The family’s position in the Middle East hadn’t ended entirely, however. Perhaps a demonstration of how a Hashemite Dynasty might differ from the Wahhabi-inspired Saudi Dynasty is fittingly provided by the existing Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is the surviving Hashemite child of the Arab Revolt.
On 25 May 1946, the United Nations approved the end of the British Mandate and recognized Transjordan as an independent sovereign kingdom. Almost forty years after the Transjordanian tribes had fought in the Arab Revolt, the Parliament of Transjordan proclaimed King Abdullah I as its first King.
The rulers of Jordan are always chosen from the descendants of Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca before the Saudis were installed into power, and the founder of the Arab Revolt. Although Islamic in culture, the kingdom of Jordan does not promote a state religion; religious freedom existing in harmony for Jordanian citizens is fully guaranteed by the Jordanian monarchy. Jordan has multi-party politics. Political parties contest fewer than a fifth of the seats; the remainder are assigned to independent politicians. A new law enacted in July 2012 placed political parties under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior and forbade the establishment of parties based on religion.
Though not fully democratic, Jordan has long been a moderate and relatively open and progressive society, with very few links to Islamism, terrorism or international conflicts, and a society with a degree of inter-cultural harmony. Curiously, its neighbour Syria, though different in other ways, was also an Arab nation devoid of sectarian violence or divisions; until the Civil War began destroying that country and its society, of course (whatever you believe the cause of that Civil War was).
I rarely have any interest in overly applauding any country or state, especially a non-democratic one, but when you look at the current state of the modern Muslim world across that region, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan tends to stand out like something of an oasis in an otherwise bleak desert.
And predictably enough one of the many threats made by Islamic State/ISIS has been to “chop the head off” the King of Jordan, the country presumably being an eventual target for their envisioned nation-spanning “caliphate”.
The two other once-Hashemite kingdoms are already devastated; Iraq has been systematically destroyed, first by the West and now by Islamic State, and Syria has already been laid to ruin and Bashar Assad’s government may yet fall; if some day Jordan falls victim to the Islamists too, the idealogical descendents (or acolytes) of the original Wahhabists may have their final, conclusive victory in the Muslim world.