Best portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness in David Lean's award-winning epic film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Faisal Bin Hussain Bin Ali Al Hashemi was the Hijazi prince who fought France and Britain, espoused Arab nationalism in Syria, led the Arab Revolt, faced defeat and reluctantly accepted a throne that was specifically created by Britain to permanently isolate him in Iraq. In many ways, Faisal I, as he eventually came to be known, was the quintessential Arab who trusted predators even when key advisers warned him not to get carried away by Anglo-French charms.

Early years

Faisal I hailed from the Hashemite dynasty that traced its lineage to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and ruled over the Hijaz for centuries. A tragic but impeccable figure who awakened Arab nationalism and nurtured love of land, Faisal I fell victim to the machinations of the First World War, and the diabolical Anglo-French 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that redrew the map of the Middle East as we know it today.

Still, his complex record notwithstanding, Faisal I's decisions created rare opportunities for Arab leaders who resented nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule. At a time when several Arabs looked to Sharif Hussain for leadership, ostensibly because he was not under full Ottoman control, it fell on his third son, Faisal, to lead secret Arab nationalist societies that mushroomed in Syria.

Men such as Fouad Al Khateeb, Rustum Haider and Awni Abdul Hadi, for example, were the educated young men who established the illegal, and therefore secret, organisation Fatat Al Arabi [Arab Youth Society]. Faisal I was drawn to men such as Haider and Ebrahim Al Yazigi, a Syrian Christian philosopher who called on Arabs to "recover their lost ancient vitality and throw off the yoke of the Turks" as early as 1868. In fact, when Ottoman authorities found out about the secret societies that promoted anti-Ottoman uprisings, they promptly arrested and hanged their members in public — hence "Martyrs' Square" in Beirut. Faisal I's more astute allies, Haider and Abdul Hadi in particular, were more careful, as they favoured Arabism within a Greater Syria, whose borders encompassed Syria, Lebanon, Palestine along with today's Jordan and Iraq.

What the young and energetic leader managed to do in Damascus was key to his future undertakings, so he insisted on overcoming age-old cleavages between Sunnis and Shiites and motivated Christians who led in Lebanon to foster a new common loyalty that would elevate Arabism as an engine for the nascent state that would stretch from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates. Both in the Levant and later in Iraq, Faisal I set aside ethnicity and religiosity, as he sought capable men to build a nation. Needless to say, someone such as Faisal I was a hindrance to the Anglo-French condominium over the region. Regrettably, other Arab leaders at the time were hostile to his ideas, as they pursued separate avenues to cement political aspirations.

Arab nationalism

While it may be difficult to pinpoint when and where Faisal I gained his nationalist credentials, few ought to be surprised that he honed his pro-Arab views in Constantinople, where the young man studied. His service in the Ottoman army was neither unique nor voluntary. In fact, as the Turkish historian Gursel Goncu noted, "Arab recruits constituted about 300,000 soldiers, a third of the Ottoman force in 1914 — [which was] far more than the number of soldiers who followed the banner of the Arab Revolt." Coming after nearly six centuries of Ottoman control, the First World War was the proverbial hair that broke the camel's back, and Faisal I was ready to lead.

On October 23, 1916, Faisal I met Captain T.E. Lawrence, then a junior British intelligence officer from Cairo, at Hamrah in the Wadi Safrah (Jordan). Lawrence, who had studied the Arab world at Jesus College in Oxford and travelled throughout the area, harboured a vision of an independent postwar "Arab" state with the right leader at the helm. The encounter was magical even if not as romanticised as in Lean's film. Whatever understanding the two men reached, it was a determining accord, since Faisal defected from the Ottoman army and sided with Britain to organise a "revolt".

Inasmuch as Lawrence and the British were Christians and carried the legacies of the "Crusaders" (1095-1272) who spread havoc in the region, Faisal I's critics never forgave him this association, although the emir was not as obtuse as his detractors. Unlike ideologically constrained opponents, he understood that nationalism and independence, not religion, were the main motivations that ought to unite all Arabs, Muslims and Christians, to free captive populations from the yoke of a moribund empire that created little or no wealth for them.

The Arab Revolt

When the Arab Revolt was declared in 1917-18, Faisal I played the key part in the military campaigns against Ottoman troops led by Cemal Pasha. It was Faisal I's Arab military force that occupied Damascus in September 1918, confronting the wrath of colonial powers. What Britain and France actually did on the ground was truly mind-boggling. As clearly delineated in the famous Hussain-McMahon Correspondence — an exchange of letters between July 14, 1915, and January 30, 1916, between Faisal I's father and Sir Henry McMahon, then the British High Commissioner in Egypt, to determine the future political status of occupied Arab lands — Faisal I expected British political support after the earned and shared victory.

To say that Britain and France reneged on the original deal and cavalierly divided up the area through the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement would be an understatement. Though Faisal I suspected foul play, he trusted London to abide by specific accords, oblivious to side deals made by Lord Balfour in 1917 with Jewish leaders to guarantee them a "national home" in Palestine and to prepare the terrain for the eventual accession to power of the Al Saud in the Hijaz. Sadly, Faisal I's pact with London, that Arab backing of British military ambitions in the Middle East would be rewarded by support for the creation of an independent Arab state, came to naught.

The Versailles Peace Conference

In 1919, Faisal I led the Arab delegation to the peace conference, seconded by the woman who created modern Iraq, Gertrude Bell, one of Britain's original Arabists. The prince forcefully argued for the establishment of an independent Arab state in territories that previously fell under Ottoman control. Neither Paris nor London favoured such an outcome, as both were busy dividing the area into spheres of influence. Facing a dilemma and aware that he needed to make concessions to more powerful forces, Faisal I negotiated a new agreement that accepted French military occupation of Lebanon and the Syrian coastal regions as far north as Alexandretta (today's Iskenderun in Turkey). The die was cast as a dejected Faisal I left his advisers to complete negotiations in January 1920 when he returned to Damascus.

Though British and French forces helped Faisal free Damascus from the Ottoman army in October 1918, it was the prince who set up an Arab government in what was then, albeit briefly, an Arab-controlled Greater Syria. Even the May 1919 elections, which established the Syrian National Congress in 1920, was an outgrowth of Faisal's doings. Still, the emir could not gain the political upper hand once massive anti-French protests degenerated into violence, which was futile given the superior French military power that Paris seldom hesitated to use.

Battle of Maysalun Pass

The Battle of Maysalun Pass occurred on July 23, 1920, when General Henri Gouraud's troops moved to topple the newly proclaimed nationalist government under Faisal I. Paris rejected the independent "Kingdom of Syria" as it pursued a defence of its League of Nations mandate, which Faisal naturally refused to acknowledge. Against superior French forces, Faisal I's first defence minister, General Yousuf Al Azmah led a modest unit composed of a few hundred regular soldiers, along with some volunteers with little or no military training, to Maysalun. It was a suicide mission — more to defend the nascent kingdom's honour than to defeat the French — which resulted in a full occupation starting in July 1920 until independence on April 17, 1946. Faisal I was forced into exile. Eventually, at the invitation of the British, he went to London where he stayed until March 1921.

Invoking various clauses from the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain secured its sphere of influence in the Gulf region, especially in Iraq, as designed by Bell, the original iron lady. Needless to say, most "Iraqis" resented British colonialism, and London concluded that the only way to ease resistance was to cede direct administration to an Arab leader.

It was then decided to create a modern Kingdom of Iraq, under British mandate, which would enter into a long-term (25-year) military alliance with the Crown. Britain would retain its strategic bases and exert a strong political influence in the country, ensure newly discovered oilfields were exploited by the (British) Iraq Petroleum Company and give advice to the "lucky" monarch as necessary.

Whether the vacancy in Baghdad was appropriate for Faisal I will always be debated, but Britain decided to sponsor him as king of Iraq, which would eventually gain independence from the mandate power. Through a fabricated plebiscite, it was claimed that a very large majority of "Iraqis" favoured this concoction. Faisal I became king of a country he did not know, to rule over a people that had never heard of him, in a place that was far away from both the Hijaz and the Levant. It was a marriage made in London, certainly not in heaven, one that set the course of history until the monarchy was toppled on July 14, 1958.

In the end, while some "Iraqis" welcomed and supported Faisal I's pan-Arab nationalistic feelings, most fell back on tribal, ethnic and religious preferences. Several Syrian advisers, forced into exile by French rule, joined him in Baghdad that, in a roundabout way, facilitated Iraqi-Syrian ties when the Baath Party was created and functioned in both spots.

Although Faisal I contributed to Iraq's economic development — a series of desert roads were built, along with a full expansion of the Mosul oilfields — he was never accepted as a genuine "Iraqi". No matter how hard he tried, even when he imposed universal military service to create a strong army, Faisal I was a victim of the British mandate that, mercifully, ended in 1932, a year before his death in Switzerland.


One of the Arab world's most tragic figures, Faisal I was a victim of his friendship with colonial powers who failed to understand — and seldom accepted — the power of nationalism. Undoubtedly, Faisal I was a true Arab leader who thought that he was negotiating from a position of strength during the Arab Revolt, even when Hashemite power was on the wane. Though a reluctant monarch, he accepted French and eventually British control. He did, however, oppose the 1930 treaty between Britain and Iraq, after he concluded that it would divide the Arabs even further. Faisal I repeatedly fought to prevent divisions, arguing that Arab unity ought to be the only pan-Arab objective of those who believed in the political Ummah everyone contemplated but seldom defended. While this was possible when the very idea of the nation-state system was not as entrenched as it became in the second part of the 20th century, Faisal I defended core pan-Arab interests that — it is worth reiterating — centred on political emancipation, not ethnic or religious values.


Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Faysal: Saudi Arabia's King for All Seasons (2008).

Published on the third Friday of each month, this article is part of a series on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.


From Makkah to Baghdad to Berne

Faisal Bin Hussain Bin Ali Al Hashemi was born in Makkah on May 20, 1885. The third son of the Emir Hussain Bin Ali and grandson of the Sharif of Makkah, Faisal I received court education in the Hijaz before attending preparatory and secondary schools in Constantinople. Trained to become an officer, Faisal I sat in the vocal Ottoman Parliament as a representative from Jeddah, and served in the Ottoman army — which recruited an estimated 300,000 Arabs to its ranks — during the First World War. Dejected by the Ottoman army's lacklustre record, he defected in 1916 to work closely with T.E. Lawrence, of "Lawrence of Arabia" fame, whose ambitions matched an unbridled ego. Faisal I displayed military prowess as a commander and led his "Arab Army" into Damascus on October 3, 1918.

Invited by Allied powers to attend the Versailles Peace Conference, Faisal I spoke on behalf of his nation, negotiated with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizman during a brief stop in London, but was ultimately disappointed by European negligence. He declared himself King of Syria and Palestine on March 10, 1920, but was deposed four months later after the bloody battle of Maysalun. Faisal was granted refuge in London, where he stayed for several months before British authorities recommended him for— and he accepted — the newly created Iraqi throne. He thus became king of Iraq on August 23, 1921, even if local populations, especially indigenous Kurds, hardly knew him. Eager to gain their own independence from British occupation, Kurds revolted against Faisal I who, nevertheless, successfully ushered Iraq into the League of Nations in October 1932. Inasmuch as the 1930s were distinguished by seven known military coup attempts, the reluctant king's rule — and that of his successor Ghazi — was mired in obsessive security that limited what was achieved in terms of economic development.

King Faisal died of a heart attack in Berne, Switzerland, on September 8, 1933. He was married to Hazimah Bint Nasser, with whom he had a son and three daughters: Ghazi, Azza', Rajihah and Raifiyyah. Ghazi, his successor, born in 1912, ruled over Iraq until April 4, 1939, when he died in a car accident.