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The Hashemite saga and the tragedies of Arab history

Matein Khalid
Filed on June 1, 2005

THE twentieth century was not kind to the Sharifian branch of the Hashemite clan, descendants of the Prophet of Islam and hereditary amirs of Makkah in unbroken succession for a thousand years.


After Sharif Hussain bin Ali fell out with the Young Turks who deposed Sultan Abdel Hamid in Constantinople, he began negotiations with the British and the French. When the Turks joined World War I on Kaiser Willhelm’s side, the Hashemites used their ancient tribal networks and blood ties to the Bedouin tribes of the Hijaz to spark the Arab revolt that was to liberate Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula from Turkish rule.

The Arab revolt was a strategic sideshow while the mass slaughter continued in Somme and Gallipoli. Yet its emergence was to result in the Arab world’s bitterest betrayal since the fall of the Abbasid caliphate. Sharif Hussein hoped the victorious French and British would make him the king of a united Arab state from Aleppo to Yemen, from Jerusalem to the Arabian Gulf.

But the Royal Navy had just switched from coal to oil, black gold had just gushed out of the ancient soil of Mosul and Basra and Lord Balfour had issued his fateful declaration to the Jews. Besides, France had no intention to abandon its fabled "reve du Orient" on the Levant. So two men, Picot and Sykes, literally drew lines in the sand and destroyed the Hashemite dream of a united Arab kingdom forever. Britain placed Palestine under a League Mandate, the Quai d’ Orsay sent French troops to drive the Hashemite prince, Amir Faisal bin Hussein out of Damascus. The King of the Arabs was demoted to the King of the Hijaz. The British betrayal of the Arabs was so deep that even Lawrence, the MI6 agent who masterminded the destruction of the Hijaz Railway, left the service of the Crown in disgust.

Yet fate and British gold continued to conspire against Sharif Hussein. The King of the Hijaz was defeated and driven out of the Holy Cities where the clan of Bani Hashem (great-grandfather of the Prophet) had had a continuous presence for two thousand years since the Quraish tribe first emerged in history on the ancient frankincense trade routes from Yemen to Byblos. There was a new power in Arabia, the Nejdi desert warrior Abdel Aziz Al Saud, the then Sultan of the Nejd. Ibn Saud’s fighters drove Sharif Hussein out of the Hijaz and the father of the Arab revolt died in bitter exile in British Cyprus.

Tragedy and betrayal continued to haunt the Hashemite, as it did in the first century Hijrah when the Ummayed caliphs assassinated dozens of Sharifs (descendants of Imam Hassan bin Ali) in order to protect their empire. King Faisal’s son Ghazi died in a car accident after he voiced anti-British sentiments, in his palace radio station, succeeded by his young son Faisal II, who was butchered along with his uncle the Regent Prince in the 1958 Iraqi military coup. The Hashemite kingdom of Iraq vanished into history amid a hail of bullets and the massacre of the king.

Tragedy also stalked the Hashemites in Jordan. In April 1948, the British mandate ended, the Jews hoisted the Star of David over Jerusalem, five Arab armies entered Palestine and the Middle East was plunged into war. Yet even though Jordan’s Arab Legion held East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the war ended with the Nakba, the epic disaster in Palestine and the expulsion of 750,000 Arabs.

Three years later, Abdullah was murdered by a gunman in Al-Aqsa mosque whose bullet would have killed his teenage grandson had it not ricocheted off young Prince Hussein bin Talal’s chest medal.

That young boy, later King Hussein, was the father of modern Jordan. He inherited a near bankrupt monarchy, filled with Palestinian refugees, an Arab legion run by an Englishman. The young king, barely out of Sandhurst enraged London when he fired Glubb Pasha. A bitter realist, he abandoned the Hashemite claims to the Hijaz. He created Jordanian nationalism in a poor desert kingdom without either history or oil whose capital Amman rivalled Jerusalem as the world’s most populous Palestinian city.

He survived numerous assassination attempts, the Six Day War, the fratricide with the PLO, threats of invasion by Iraq and Syria, hostility of the West after the Kuwait crisis, subversion by both Mossad and the Arab radicals. Yet he died in 1999 without peace in Palestine, yet another Hashemite king who could not recover Jerusalem for the Arabs. Almost sixty years after 1948, the holy land is still a simmering geopolitical volcano in the Middle East.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker




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