24 October 1915
Source: George Antonius,The Arab Awakening. New York: Capricorn Books, 1965. 413-27. Print.
Sir Henry McMahon (1862-1949), British High Commissioner in Cairo, negotiated in
1915-16 with Husayn Ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca. The British government promised to support
Sherif Husayn’s bid for the restoration of the Caliphate (and leadership in the Arab world) if Husatn supported the British war effort against Turkey. Palestine was not mentioned by name in this exchange.
During WWI, Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, allies in the war against Germany and the Ottoman Empire, established understandings with each other and with various Arab and Zionist leaders about how the Middle East would look after the war. These included the Sykes-Picot Agreement. However, these agreements — some secret, some public — were vague and seemingly conflicted with one another. A major controversy centered around whether the area of Palestine — not yet defined in specific geographic terms — was to be reserved for the Zionists to create a national home, or to be included in an area under Arab control. Arab historians, Arab political leaders including Palestinian writers and those emphatically opposed to a Jewish national home in Palestine, later Israel nonetheless subsequently claimed that the area of Palestine had been included in the promise to create an independent Arab state. An Arab claim evolved in Palestinian historiography of the conflict that the British willfully engaged in perfidy. After World War I, no independent Arab State emerge out of negotiation at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference or at San Remo in 1920, were the post-war British and French Mandates for Syria, Iraq and Palestine were established (Lebanon emerged out of the Syrian Mandate as did Transjordan out of the Palestine Mandate)
In practical terms for determining the post war geographic boundaries of the Middle East, it would have been impossible to create one Arab state, given Arab family and tribal rivalries that existed in the Middle East from Egypt to Iraq and south into the Arabian Peninsula. Britain made additional promises to Arab leaders much before the War, and certainly during and after the war to secure her influence and presence in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Jordan. In 1917 until the early 1920s, the Rashidis, the Saudis, and Hussein families fought bitterly for control of the Arabian Peninsula. Britain stood back for the most part from physical interference.
The controversy of whether Palestine was excluded from the MacMahon pledge to Hussein spilled into the public domain with the publication of the 1937 Peel Commission Report and then with discussion of the controversy of who promised what to whom in George Antonius’s, Arab Awakening (1938). Before then, all the secret elements of the controversy were unknown to the public. The British concluded that after WWI, that their strategic interests in Egypt and later in Haifa, their working but not so friendly relationship with the French, and their Balfour Declaration promise to the Zionists, included in the Articles of the Palestine Mandate (1922) proved conclusively that their intentions were to exclude Palestine from any commitment to any Arab leader. Issued in March 1939, the British issued an investigatory report after hearing Arab claims to the contrary; the British reviewed the relevant documents. They said, in the context of the May 1939 White Paper on Palestine, which truncated the Jewish national home’s growth and offered the prospects of a federal state to the Palestinian Arabs in ten years (which the Mufti of Jerusalem rejected), London firmly asserted that it had both the right in 1917 to foster the establishment of a Jewish national home, and include the contents of the Declaration in the Mandate’s governing articles. Sir Henry MacMahon said to an official inquiry commission in 1937, “I feel it my duty to state, and I do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving that pledge to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised.”
See Report of a Committee Set Up To Consider Certain Correspondence Between Sir Henry McMahon [His Majesty’s High Commissioner in Egypt]And The Sharif of Mecca In 1915 And 1916, March 16, 1939, Cmd 5974; for this original report see:
Ken Stein, June 2023
I have received your letter of the 29th of Shawal 1333 with much pleasure, and your expression of friendliness and sincerity have given me the greatest satisfaction.
I regret that you should have received from my last letter the impression that I regarded the question of limits and boundaries with coldness and hesitation, such was not the case; but it appeared to me that the time had not yet come when that question could be discussed in a conclusive manner.
I have realised, however, from your last letter that you regard this question as one of vital and urgent importance. I have, therefore, lost no time in informing the Government of Great Britain of the contents of your letter, and it is with great pleasure that I communicate to you on their behalf the following statement, which I am confident you will receive with satisfaction.
The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.
With the above modification, and without prejudice to our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits.
As for the region lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter:
- Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.
- Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability.
- When the situation admits, Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable form of government in those various territories.
- On the other hand, it is understood that the Arabs have decided to seek the advice and guidance of Great Britain only, and that such European advisers and officials as may be required for the formation of a sound form of administration will be British.
- With regard to the vilayets of Bagdad and Basra, the Arabs will recognise that the established position and interests of Great Britain necessitate special administrative arrangements in order to secure these territories from foreign aggression to promote the welfare of the local populations and to safeguard our mutual economic interests.
I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends, the Arabs, and will result in a firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries and the freeing of the Arab peoples from the Turkish yoke, which for so many years has pressed heavily upon them.
I have confined myself in this letter to the more vital and important questions, and if there are any other matters dealt with in your letters which I have omitted to mention, we may discuss them at some convenient date in the future.
It was with very great relief and satisfaction that I heard of the safe arrival of the Holy Carpet and the accompanying offerings which, thanks to the clearness of your directions and the excellence of your arrangements, were landed without trouble or mishap in spite of the dangers and difficulties occasioned by the present sad war. May God soon bring a lasting peace and freedom for all peoples.
I am sending this letter by the hand of your trusted and excellent messenger, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Arif ibn Uraifan, and he will inform you of the various matters of interest, but of less vital importance, which I have not mentioned in this letter.
(Signed): A. Henry McMahon