AMENA HAYAT explores the significance of the Balfour Declaration, which was signed on November 2, 1917 and the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which preceded it, and how they continue to impact on the Middle East over a century later.
HISTORICALLY, the First World War witnessed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which had reigned over a vast territory at its peak, encompassing much of what constitutes the Middle East today.
The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war in 1914 was the result of much deliberation.
While the Prime Minister, Mehmet Sait Halim, argued that continued neutrality was the best option, the opportunism of the Minister of War, Enver Pasha, led the Empire into war and, arguably, to its imminent end.
Due to their strategic interest in the Empire, the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and Russia) failed to establish a more coherent defence policy.
As a result, the Ottomans were compelled to ally with Germany (the Central Powers) in 1914. Germany’s primary concern was to counteract the growing British encroachment on the region.
An essential component of British strategy was to encourage the Arabs to rise up against their overlords.
With this objective in mind, an agreement was pursued with the disgruntled Amir of Makkah, Sharif Hussein, in 1916. Sharif Hussein aspired to become the ruler of the Hijaz, if not the King of all Arabs.
With the expertise of a British army officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence (popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia), who enticed the Hashemites with the prospects of self-determination, victory was achieved between 1916 and 1918.
This marked a watershed point in the future development of the modern-day Middle East.
As World War 1 raged, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was concluded behind closed doors on May 16, 1916.
This agreement outlined the partitioning of the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire, assigning them to British and French spheres of influence.
It is important to note that there was no intention of honouring the promise made to Sharif Hussein.
The consequences of the Sykes-Picot Agreement were extensive. Following World War 1, the Allied powers (Britain and France) reneged on their promise to grant independence to the Arabs in exchange for their support against the Ottomans.
With the stroke of a colonial pen on May 16, 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was created, ultimately determining the fate of the Arab people and the Middle East.
The British had never envisioned self-determination for the Arabs, and they had no desire to align themselves with those who sought national freedom.
Following the Allied victory, arbitrary lines were drawn across the Sykes-Picot map, disregarding ethnic and religious distinctions, which were the underlying causes of regional hostilities.
The architects of this map, the Briton Colonel Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, a Conservative Party member, a diplomatic advisor and a key negotiator of the Balfour Declaration that followed a year later, and French diplomat and lawyer, François Marie Denis Georges-Picot, chose to ignore these distinctions.
On the issue of Palestine, there was initially a plan to internationalise it. However, on November 2, 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring their support for establishing a Jewish ‘national home’ in Palestine. This was in the form of a letter by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community.
To facilitate this endeavour, the Zionist Organisation promoted a policy of mass Jewish immigration. Interestingly, at present, Israel is home to 46% of the world’s Jewish population.
The declaration had far-reaching consequences, resulting in the creation of Israel on Palestinian land. This has been the primary cause of the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Jews.
Despite the increasing number of casualties in the current war and Israel’s support from its chief ally, America, the spirit of resistance among Palestinians remains unwavering.
The profound historical changes resulting from the colonial map have had significant political implications.
History bears witness to the eventual triumph of the oppressed, while only time will unveil the fate of the oppressor.