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.

Faisal II of Iraq, aged 18, taking his oath of office before parliament in 1953. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Faisal II of Iraq, aged 18, taking his oath of office before parliament in 1953. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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?