Britain & Arabs

Print edition : May 27, 2016
This book is a fair account of the roots of the tragedy that has overtaken the Arab world.

AT a time when the entire Arab world presents a tragic spectacle of sheer ravage, it is instructive to read this erudite “documentary study” as its author calls it. Dr Younan Labib Rizk was Professor of History at Ain Shams University in Cairo and a regular columnist in Al-Ahram, a highly respected daily. The book falls into two parts: one is the author’s analyses, with full citation of sources, while the other contains whole texts of documents, almost all of which are published for the first time. He has consulted, in the archives in London, documents of the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the India Office and the (Second World) War Cabinet. This should put New Delhi to shame. Even the records of the Simla Conference in 1914, in which British India, China and Tibet participated, are kept under lock and key, including the papers on the India-Tibet accord on the McMahon Line.

Perfidious Briton

The book fully establishes the truth of Shakespeare’s taunt on le perfide Albion—the perfidious Briton. At Mansion House in London, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who spoke Arabic fluently, declared on May 29, 1941, that Britain should adopt a positive view on Arab unity. Ironically, he ruined his career a decade later in a foolish attempt to bring down the most articulate champion of Arab unity in the last century, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The author writes: “British documents reveal that in the four years intervening between Eden’s declaration at Mansion House and the establishment of the Arab League, the British did their best to obstruct efforts to forge Arab unity. They used all possible methods at their disposal, from issuing warnings to Arab governments, to actually threatening them, to attempting to actively incite conflict between them. Finally, it worked arduously to confine efforts towards Arab unity to the cultural and economic domains.… This overwhelming reliance on British official documents, and the minute details they contain, helped bring the full picture of Britain’s attitude towards Arab unity to light.”

Dr Rizk sheds much light on Britain’s parallel moves on behalf of the Zionists, which culminated in the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917 promising “a national home for the Jewish people”. Included in the volume are the texts of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, the “Arrangement of May 1916” between Britain and France on the division of the territorial spoils of war in Arab lands between them after the First World War. It violated the solemn pledges which Britain gave to Emir Faysal bin al-Husayn to secure Arab support against the Ottomans during the war. The Arabs revolted against the Ottomans and kept their part of the bargain. Britain reneged.

‘Judaisation of Palestine’

Dr Rizk meticulously records “the Judaisation of Palestine”, Arab efforts at unity and British obstruction. One of the most revealing documents in the book is the full text of a memorandum on “Arab Unity” prepared by the research department of the Foreign Office dated June 4, 1943. It traces “the Arab movement for liberation” which began in the latter half of the 19th century. Secret societies were formed to avert notice by their Ottoman overlords. It recalled that “throughout negotiations the Sharif Hussain envisaged a single Arab State, covering the whole of that territory of Western Asia inhabited by people of Arabic speech, namely Greater Syria (including Palestine and Transjordan), Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. Throughout the war too the claim to set up a single Arab state was maintained, and in November 1916 the Sherif was actually acclaimed ‘King of the Arab countries’. This title, however, was never officially accorded him, and in January 1917 he was recognised by the Allies as King of the Hejaz.”

Abdul-Aziz Al Saud ousted him in 1926 to become the King of Saudi Arabia. His descendants are in a tacit alliance with Israel now to checkmate Iran. This book is a fair account of the roots of the tragedy that has overtaken the Arab world.

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