Faisal II of Iraq, aged 18, taking his oath of office before parliament in 1953. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Why Britain created monarchies in the Middle East

When was the most stable time in recent Iraqi history? Most likely it was during the British-sponsored Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq from 1921 to 1958.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year welcomed former British colonies, but absent were those Middle Eastern states where Britain had exercised imperial soft power in the twentieth century. From around the time of the First World War protectorates and mandates were used to control these territories. In Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and later Libya, the British set up kings to help their rule.

Back in 1921 two brothers, Faisal and Abdullah (the sons of Hussein ibn Ali who lead the Arab Revolt), were rewarded by the British and made rulers of Mesopotamia and Transjordan respectively. These were territories captured by the British from the Ottoman Empire 1917-1918 (with not inconsiderable help from the Arab Revolt), and were awarded by the League of Nations to Britain as mandates. This territory was supposedly to be held in trust for eventual independence, while the mandatory power built up the administration and infrastructure. To help the British, Faisal became ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, while Abdullah was Emir and then King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The Hashemite family trace their descent from the Prophet Mohammed and were governors, or Sharifs, of Mecca for hundreds of years. Sharif Hussein ibn Ali launched the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in 1916 in response to British promises of independence. He made himself King of the Hejaz, the strip of Arabia along the Red Sea, but lost it in the mid-1920s to the fundamentalist Saudis. Hussein ibn Ali and his eldest son Ali – who had tried to fight a rear guard action against Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud as King of the Hejaz (1924-1925) – each found ready-made exile in the British sponsored realms of Jordan and Iraq.

Although outsiders to Mesopotamia, the Hashemites arguably developed the administration and infrastructure in a country that had become a backwater in the former Ottoman Empire, and three generations ruled as Kings of Iraq for 37 years. The urbane Faisal I (1921-1933) had been a member of the Ottoman parliament but while participating in his father’s Arab revolt became a friend of T E Lawrence. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1920 he had tried to establish himself as King of Greater Syria in Damascus, but was blocked by the French.

Faisal I was an inspired candidate as King of Iraq, since he was unencumbered by French notions of secular republicanism. His rule meant that the British relinquished their mandate in 1932 and Iraq gained independence, although the British retained military bases. Faisal I died suddenly the next year, aged 48, while having a health check-up in Switzerland. His son Ghazi (1933-1939) was something of a playboy and more antipathetic to the continuing British influence (as well as being sympathetic to the strong nationalism of Nazi Germany). A lover of fast cars, he died in April 1939 at the wheel of his Buick after an evening of drinking. Some have even suggested that British intelligence services engineered the car accident.

The final king Faisal II (1939-1958) succeeded as a four year old. The regent was his uncle (actually second cousin) Abdulilah, the son of Faisal I’s brother, Ali (who had been defeated and thrown out of Arabia by the Saudis in 1925). The regent was active in government, although he was also fond of shopping in Bond Street shops and smart young men. He was briefly removed by pro-Nazi officers, an event that lead to the short Anglo-Iraqi War in May 1941, after which Britain restored him. Faisal II came of age in 1953 but his sole rule was hampered because Abdulilah remained the heir-apparent to this young and as yet unmarried monarch. Faisal II’s reputation was also harmed by being pro-British. He made a state visit to the young Queen Elizabeth II, but he could not defend Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis. In 1958 Faisal II, Abdulilah and most of the royal family were murdered on Bastille Day.

The British also promoted a royal family in Egypt: the dynasty of Mehmet Ali. An Albanian soldier, Mehmet Ali, had gone to Egypt to help the Ottomans restore control after Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition 1798-1801. But Mehmet Ali instead established himself and his successors as independent rulers, using the title Khedive (for which the best translation is viceroy). The British had first established bases to protect the Suez Canal in 1882. When war broke out in 1914, the Khedive Abbas Hilmi was visiting the Ottoman capital Constantinople. The British, now at war with the Turks, could not accept this and deposed him.

Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt and set up the last Khedive’s uncle as Sultan Hussein Kamil (1914-1917). He was succeeded by his brother Fuad I (1917-1936) who took the western title King when Egypt nominally became independent in 1922 (as in Iraq, Britain retained military bases and a strong influence on ministerial appointments). Fuad I worked with the Egyptian parliament and promoted education, establishing a secular university in Cairo. His son King Farouk (1936-1952) came to the throne as a popular, intelligent and handsome young man. Egypt’s prestige soured – being the centre of Arab film, newspapers and education.

When the Arab League was formed in 1945, Cairo was the natural choice for its headquarters. But Farouk’s power was curtailed when the British, wary of his antagonism during the Second World War, imposed a new government in 1942. Farouk became more licentious and his weight ballooned. Cairo was known for its parties – at one event the Kings of Egypt, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Yugoslavia were reportedly present. The Free Officers movement deposed Farouk in 1952; he died overweight, choking on his meal at a restaurant table in Rome in 1965, aged only 45. The Egyptian monarchy was not quite finished, though. Farouk’s infant son was proclaimed King Fuad II (1952-1953) but a baby in exile with his deposed father was not a sustainable head of state, and a republic was declared within a year. Fuad II, now in his early 60s, has not attempted to reclaim the Egyptian throne.

The British were also behind Libya’s brief monarchy. The Italians seized the north African coast adjacent to Sicily from the Ottomans in 1912, taking advantage of the Turk’s defeat in the First Balkan War. In 1920, to aid their control the leader of the Sufi Senussi religious-tribal order, Sidi Mohammed Idris al-Senussi had become their vassal as Emir of Cyrenaica in the east around Benghazi, but he soon went into exile in British-occupied Egypt. He got his reward for ardently supporting the British against the Italians and Germans in the Western Desert during the Second World War when, at the end of Allied military occupation, the British installed him as King Idris (1951-1969). Idris consolidated his power with the help of the old elite Ottoman-Libyan families and multinational oil companies. Into the 1960s Idris allowed his nephew and heir Hassan al-Senuusi, to exercise increasing power. In 1969 Idris announced that he would formally abdicate in favour of his nephew. However, despite the presence of USAF and RAF airbases, Idris was deposed by Colonel Gaddafi while on an overseas medical trip.

The British-sponsored monarchies in Iraq, Egypt and Libya did not last. However, the Hashemites continue to reign in Jordan, with Abdullah I (1921-1951), Talal (1951-1952), the well-respected Hussein (1951-1999) and Abdullah II (1999 onwards). The Jordanian kings, cousins of Iraq’s monarchs, have successfully introduced modern concepts of the nation-state, administration and education. But this could have been said of the other monarchies. They fell to ideas of pan-Arab nationalism and are now beset by Islamism.

History judges the old kingdoms harshly. From the outside we may favour democratic secular republics, but at present the remaining monarchy in Jordan endures, while the deposed monarchies in Libya, Egypt and Iraq are beset by tragedy. When was the most stable time in recent Iraqi history? Most likely it was during the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq from 1921 to 1958. Abdulilah, the Regent of Iraq, reportedly said that monarchy was best for the east. Should the reasonableness of this view be judged by his and his nephew King Faisal II’s fate, or by the fate of Iraq since their murders?

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.