Meeting of King Faysal with Ibn Sa’ud on H.M.S. Lupin

[Webshaykh’s Note: In his fascinating book Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq (2005), historian Magnus Bernhardsson provides an overview of the intersection of politics and archaeology in Iraq during the British mandate. The following is an excerpt about the installation of Faysal as the new Iraqi king.]

When Faysal ascended to the throne in 1921, many details were yet to be hammered out, and laws and regulations had to be written. As [Gertrude] Bell stated, “It’s an immense business setting up a court and power.” Yet in establishing Faysal as the king of Iraq, the British engineered one of the more bizarre episodes in modern Middle Eastern history. A native of the Hijaz, a Sunni who had been educated in Istanbul and spoke with a distinct Hijazi accent, was brought to a predominantly shi’i country that he had never visited. He was unfamiliar with its dialects, geography, and history and had few immediate visions and plans for this new nation, which was as unfamiliar to him as his subjects were to him. The irony and perhaps artificiality were not lost on Bell, who remarked in her now famous words, “I’ll never engage in creating kings again, it’s too great a strain.” These words also reflect her sense of empowerment and authority in the Iraqi context, indicative of her later actions in archaeology.

At his enthronement speech in august of 1921, a careful and ambivalent Faysal stated that ‘what we need for establishing this state ids assistance from another nation which will supply us with capital and manpower. The British are anxious to foster our interests. Therefore we should rely on them to assist us in achieving our national goals.” Since Faysal had previously learned the hard way in Syria not to be too demanding towards a Great Power, he was cautious in his initial dealings with the British. Yet he was also in a certain predicament, since he sincerely wanted to present himself as an independent ruler – a ruler that would have Iraqi interests at heart. Consequently, he attempted in his speech to appeal to the patriotic spirit of the Iraqis by stating, “Oh, noble Iraqis, this land has been in past generations the cradle of civilization and prosperity, and the center of science and knowledge,” hinting that equally glorious times would face the country’s present and future generations. He was, therefore, in the lonely, and somewhat contradictory, role of trying to be two things at once: unabashedly loyal to the British, while also being sensitive to Iraqi nationalistic aspirations. As Bell acknowledged, “Faysal has got a difficult task before him – what amazes me is that he should want to be king of Iraq. However, it’s a mercy that he does.”

Placing Faysal as king was ideal for the British, since they could be viewed as presenting a leader who had a level of legitimacy. Furthermore, given his lack of ties to the Iraqi population and power groups, he would initially lean on the British for support and advice, which they were quite willing to give and offer. Yet Faysal was not the complete puppet who relied solely on the British. Much to the surprise of the British, Faysal actually adjusted quicker into Iraq than they anticipated and started to implement policies that were in direct contradiction to British wishes. For example, Faysal decided to build up a national army through universal conscription, whereas the British had preferred to rely on “martial races” such as the Assyrian levies. Furthermore, instead of appointing leading tribal shaykhs into key governmental positions, Faysal appointed his own friends, many of whom were not familiar with the Iraqi political and cultural landscape…

For all intents and purposes, Iraq was designed to be a compliant country that would honor faithfully Britain’s local strategic and economic interests. One of Britain’s primary concerns was that its main oil supplier, Iran, might fall under hostile control, whether it was German or Bolshevik. Therefore, the British were interested in gaining exclusive control over potential alternative oil supplies, particularly int he north, in areas that were predominantly Kurdish, and ensuring that the oil could easily be exported out fo the Persian Gulf. A unified, stable political structure that could guarantee ample and easily accessible oil was an important concern for the British that influenced the political and administrative boundaries of the country.

Excerpt from Magnus Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), pp. 108-109.