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Games With Frontiers

 
With a red pencil and an empty map of Arabia, an exasperated Sir Percy Cox drew some lines and produced the new Middle East borders. The West was after oil and said it knew best but nobody was happy ... sound familiar?
By Trevor Royle

 
KOKKUS was not best pleased with the way things were going. It was hot and would get even stickier in the claustrophobic confines of a British Army tent pitched at Uqair, near the port of al-Hasa on the Persian Gulf. Lunch was approaching with the promise of cold drinks and, after five days of desultory discussions to settle the borders of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Sir Percy Cox -- 'Kokkus' to the Arabs -- decided to enter the lists.
It was late November 1922 and the map of the Middle East was about to be redrawn by a middle-aged British colonial servant who was determined to put an end to the impasse. Otherwise, he told his aide, Major Harold Dickson, 'at the rate they were going, nothing would be settled for a year'.
Sitting with Cox were the representatives of the territories whose future was being determined. Ibn Saud was the ruler of the Nejd (soon to become Saudi Arabia) and a British client, thanks to his support against the Turks in the first world war. Sabih Beg was the representative of King Feisal of Iraq, formerly the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia but now a British mandate. As for Kuwait, a British protectorate, its ruler Sheikh Ahmad Al Sabah, was not allowed to be present but was represented by Major JC More, the British political agent, who did all the talking. Both the Saudis and the Iraqis had made extravagant claims.
Sabih Beg declared that Iraqi authority ran south to a point 12 miles south of the city of Riyadh and that the southern frontier should be drawn from Yanbu on the Red Sea to Qatar on the Persian Gulf. Ibn Saud replied by claiming that his kingdom should have the Euphrates as its northern border, deep in Iraqi territory. What followed next was captured by Dickson, who kept a record of this astonishing moment in Arab affairs.
Fearing that neither side would give ground, an exasperated Cox produced a red pencil and an empty map of what was known as Arabia. Telling the delegates 'gentlemen, there are your borders,' Cox drew the angular lines which are today's frontiers of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Nobody got what they wanted: Ibn Saud felt cheated of his desert inheritance, Iraq was denied access to the Gulf, its outlet being almost blocked by two adjoining Kuwaiti islands, Warba and Bubiyan, and Kuwait was sandwiched between two potential enemies.
'It was astonishing to see the Sultan of Nejd being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy, and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would himself decide on the type and general line of the frontier,' noted Dickson who had done most of the translating. 'Ibn Saud almost broke down, and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and brother, who had made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held, and that he would surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered.'
As for the nominal ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Ahmad simply had the verdict handed down to him with the thought that 'on this unfortunate occasion, the sword had been mightier than the pen, and that had he not conceded the territory, Ibn Saud would certainly have soon picked a quarrel and taken it, if not more, by force of arms.'
Faced by the unyielding lines on the map, all three parties had no option but to accept the boundaries forced on them by the all-powerful Kokkus. The signatories went their different ways and it was left to Major More to demarcate the border between Iraq and Kuwait. This he did by marching out an unknown number of paces from the oasis of Safwan and placing a notice in the middle of the desert. His efforts, though admirable, were in vain: passing Bedouin caravans frequently moved the notice north or south depending on their allegiance to Iraq or Kuwait and the exact location of More's noticeboard remains a matter for debate.
At a time when the West is once more on the verge of redrawing the map of Iraq and deciding its future, that long-forgotten episode at Uqair seems strangely familiar. Then, as now, oil played a big role in determining Western interests in the Middle East. Then, as now, a superpower was playing fast and loose with the destiny of a region without listening to the people concerned. Then as now the decisions were being made by powerful political personalities, each one of whom thought they knew what was best for the Middle East.
We see them over a year earlier, in the spring of 1921, staring out from a group photograph taken outside the Mena House in Cairo following the conference which agreed the demarcation of the post-war Middle East. In the centre is the British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, who spent most of his time painting amid the pyramids. With him is his special adviser Colonel TE Lawrence, in his ill-fitting three-piece suit looking more like a bank clerk than a war-time hero.
Cox is there too, the eminence gris of Middle East affairs who was fond of sheikhs and sultans but not so sure about the Arabs themselves. One of his first recommendations as the new British high commissioner in Baghdad was to remove to the British Museum the excavations from Samara on the Tigris, before the Iraqis could get their hands on them.
A former Home Secretary, Sir Herbert Samuel, is there to represent 'Zionist interests' in the new mandate of Palestine and, standing near him, is the incongruous figure of Gertrude Bell, the only woman present, fashionably dressed in a fox-collared coat and a flowered hat made for the occasion by a Sloane Street milliner.
Tall, angular, almost pretty, she was one of the best known Arabists of her day, a doughty explorer and archaeologist who had managed to enter the forbidden desert city of Hail. If anyone mattered, it was Bell who had espoused the cause of Arab nationhood. Despite being told by avuncular Colonial Office advisers that she was 'flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity' it was largely through her prompting that King Feisal's state was called into being. The presence in Cairo of these latter-day Lords of Arabia owed everything to a secret war-time deal produced by Britain and France in 1916 to divvy up the Middle East.
Drawn up by Sir Mark Sykes, a British MP who had travelled extensively in the Middle East, and by Francois Georges Picot, the scion of a French colonial family, the agreement allowed each country to gain spheres of influence and exploitation -- Syria and Lebanon would go to France, Iraq and Trans-Jordan to Britain. At the same time the decision was taken to offer Zionist leaders a stake for a Jewish National Home in what would become Palestine, even though the territory concerned was 93% Arab.
It was a neat solution and, for a while, it worked. In Iraq the Hashemite leader Feisal was created king, but not before steps had been taken to make it appear the offer had come from the people, while to the west his brother was installed as emir of Trans- Jordan. Despite the objections of the Colonial Office who regarded him as 'an untrustworthy scallywag' Abdullah became king of Jordan, supported by British advisers such as H St John Philby (father of the spy Kim Philby) and Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Arab Legion.
On the other side of the River Jordan was the mandated territory of Palestine, soon to become the battleground for Jews and Arabs as British forces attempted to hold an impossible peace. The emirates in the Persian Gulf were also included in the agreement -- they became 'protected states' in treaty with Britain, a handy arrangement when oil was discovered in their territory in the following decade.
Everyone was happy with the results, or at least accepted them as a fait accompli, except perhaps the growing number of pan-Arabic nationalists and intellectuals whose meetings in the coffee shops of Cairo and Damascus were becoming increasingly bad-tempered. But they were on the outside looking in, having been invited neither to Churchill's Cairo conference nor to the meeting in a khaki-coloured tent in Uqair when Kokkus reached for his red pencil.
Trevor Royle is the author of Glubb Pasha (Abacus)
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