Cairo Conference (1921)

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The 1921 Cairo Conference was convened in order to establish a unified British policy for the Middle East, in particular to resolve the conflicting policies defined in the McMahon letters (1915), the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) and the Balfour Declaration (1917). Winston Churchill, the newly appointed Colonial Secretary, called all the British Military Leaders and civil administrators in the Middle East to a conference at the Semiramis hotel in Cairo to discuss these issues.

At the conference, it was agreed that Lebanon and Syria should remain under French control and that Britain should maintain the mandate over Palestine and continue to support the establishment of a Jewish Homeland there. A decision about the issue of the land East of the River Jordan was postponed until Churchill could proceed to Jerusalem for further discussions. It was decided to end the unpopular Mandate over Mesopotamia and that Feisal should become king of a newly created Kingdom of Iraq. Husain, the Sharif of Mecca, was to be recognized as King of the Hejaz and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud left in control of the Nejd in the heart of the Arabian Desert. Both were to continue to receive financial support from Great Britain.

The "Forty Thieves" with lion cubs[1]


During 1920 a full scale insurgency had broken out in the new British Mandate territory in Mesopotamia. The British army was sustaining hundreds of casualties and sections of the British press were calling for the ending of the Mandate. T.E. Lawrence, whose wartime activities were beginning to capture the public imagination and who had strong attachments to the Husain dynasty based in the Hejaz, was lobbying the British Government on behalf of Emir Feisal. The Emir's attempt to establish a kingdom centered on Damascus had been thwarted by the French army. In November 1920 Feisal's older brother Abdullah appeared with several hundred followers in the town of Ma'an and announced his intention of attacking the French in Syria and restoring his brother to power there.

Churchill's task as the new Colonial Secretary with special responsibility for the Middle East was to find a solution to the unrest in Iraq and satisfy the aspirations of the Husains. He appointed Lawrence as his special advisor. They held a series of meetings with Feisal in London prior to the conference.[2][3]


On 12 March 1921 the conference was convened at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo and was attended by all the senior Military and Civil figures from Palestine and Mesopotamia.[4] The two Arabs present were members of the Mesopotanian Mandate administration. Churchill described the gathering, which lasted two weeks, as one of "Forty Thieves" and spent his leisure time practicing his new hobby of oil painting and working on the manuscript of his history of the First World War, The World Crisis.[5][6]

Seated: from right: Winston Churchill, Herbert Samuel
Standing first row: from left: Gertrude Bell, Sir Sassoon Eskell, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, Jafar Pasha al-Askari

The agenda consisted of three sections: Iraq, Palestine (including Transjordan), Aden and the Persian Gulf.[7]

Most of the decisions about the future of Iraq had been already decided in London. It had been decided to end the Mandate over Mesopotamia and that Feisal should become king of a newly created Kingdom of Iraq. This would be approved by a plebiscite of the local population. Once installed the King would sign a friendship treaty or Alliance with Great Britain. In a major policy change, with Lawrence arguing strongly in favour, it was decided that security in the area should be transferred from the army to the Royal Air Force. By the time the conference started the British Army had managed to crush the revolt in Mesopotamia, at the cost of £40-£50 million with over 400 British soldiers and over 10,000 Iraqis killed. It was anticipated that the new policy would make significant financial savings.[8]

Palestine and Transjordan dominated the discussions. The details of the administration were discussed in detail: the Judiciary, Finance, the size of the British Army garrison and the proposed Legislative Council were all on the agenda.[9] An Arab delegation from Palestine met Churchill in Cairo briefly on 22 March at which he refused to discuss anything political but agreed to meet them in Jerusalem.[10] The issue of Trans-Jordania was complicated by the arrival of Abdullah's army in Amman, with an influx of rebels and refugees from Syria and that the Zionists regarded it as part of the promised Jewish Homeland. Churchill held a series of meetings with Abdullah in Jerusalem on his way back to London.

The only public announcement on the decisions made during the conference was a statement made by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on 14 June 1921. It drew little comment from the press. The conference is barely mentioned in the published letters and autobiographies of the major participants.[11]


On 24 March Churchill began his journey back to London by way of Jerusalem. In Gaza his train was met by a large demonstration against the British Mandate over Palestine. In the town he met the mayor and other leaders and was presented with a list of demands which had been put forward by the Third Arab Congress in Haifa. On 28 March he held a meeting in Jerusalem with a delegation of Palestinian leaders from the Muslim-Christian Associations led by Musa al-Husayni. They called for the rescinding of the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of an elected Parliament. He refused to make any changes to British policy.[12][13]

Whilst in Jerusalem Churchill had several meetings with Abdullah who argued that he should be given control of the entire area of Mandated Palestine, alternatively he advocated a union with the territory promised to his brother; Churchill refused both demands. Abdullah had already established himself in Amman and was threatening to proceed further northwards. In the end he agreed to halting his advance towards the French and to administer the territory East of the Jordan for a six-month trial period during which he would be given a British subsidy of £5,000 per month. The territory, which the British had been happy to include in Feisal's Damascus Kingdom, was to remain part of mandated Palestine. It was suggested that if he was able to control Syrian Nationalists there was a possibility that the French might offer him the throne in Damascus. In September 1921 Lawrence was sent Amman to set in motion the establishment of an independent Arab state, separate from Mandate Palestine and led by Abdullah with St John Philby as the first Chief British Representative. Transjordan became formally independent in May 1923.[14][15][16]

Feisal meanwhile was travelling by boat to Basra, where he received a cold reception from the local Shia population. The British authorities had taken the precaution of deporting some of the local leaders to Ceylon. Following his arrival in Baghdad a referendum was held to approve the termination of the Mandate and Feisal's crowning as King of Iraq. 96% of those polled were in favour of the changes and Feisal was crowned King of Iraq on 11 July 1922.[17][18]

Ibn Saud's reaction was negative: "They have surrounded me with enemies, ... the grey haired one in Mecca...his son Abdullah in Transjordania, his other son in al Iraq." In November 1921 he took the initiative and conquered the large area North East of Riyadh that had been controlled by the Ibn Rashids. This set the boundaries of territory under his control with those of the new state of Iraq and the Emirate of Transjordan.[19]

On 1 May a series of Arab attacks against Jews began in Jaffa, leading to a week of riots in which 47 Jews and 48 Arabs were killed, and hundreds more were injured.[20][21]

Lawrence concluded that Churchill had "made straight all the tangle" and that Britain had fulfilled "our promises in letter and spirit ... without sacrificing any interest of our Empire or any interest of the people concerned." One of Lawrence's biographers comments that the conference "heralded a period of unrest in the Middle East which had scarcely been surpassed even under Ottoman rule."[22][23]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ The cubs were being taken to London zoo by G.F.Archer
  2. ^ Garnett, David (1938) Letters of T.E.Lawrence 1942 edition. pp. 124,125. Summary by Garnett: "Evacuate Mesopotamia".
  3. ^ Antonius, George (1938) The Arab Awakening. The Story of The Arab National Movement Hamish Hamilton 1945 edition. p.316.
  4. ^ David Fromkin (1989). A Peace to End all Peace. New York: Henry Holt. pp. 502–503. 
  5. ^ Lacey, Robert (1981) The Kingdom, Fontana edition, 1982, ISBN 0-00-636509-4. p.160
  6. ^ Sykes, Christopher (1965) Cross Roads to Israel: Palestine from Balfour to Bevin. New English Library Edition August 1967. p.66.
  7. ^ Sykes, p.54
  8. ^ Asher, Michael (1998) Lawrence. The uncrowned King of Arabia. Penguin edition 1999. ISBN 0-780140-258547. p.356.
  9. ^ Sykes, p.55.
  10. ^ Huneidi, Sahar (2001) A Broken Trust. Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 1-86064-172-5. p.125.
  11. ^ Sykes. pp.66,67.
  12. ^ Huneidi. pp. 124-127. "The colonial secretary's visit was the chief event in Palestine in March 1921 and can be regarded as the real starting point of Arab opposition to the British administration."
  13. ^ Sykes. pp.55,56: reports Churchill and Samuel waving to the crowds unaware that they were chanting anti-Jewish slogans. pp.58,59.
  14. ^ Lunt, James (1989) Hussein of Jordan 1990 Fontana edition. ISBN 0-00-637569-3. pp. xxxii,xxxiii.
  15. ^ Monroe, Elizabeth (1973) Philby of Arabia, Quartet edition, 1980. ISBN 0-7043-3346-5. pp.114-117.
  16. ^ Graves, Philip P. (Editor) (1950) Memoirs of King Abdullah of Transjordan, Jonathan Cape, Dewey Classification 923.1569. Footnotes pp.204,205.
  17. ^ Fisk, Robert (2005) The Great War for Civilisation. The Conquest of the Middle East. Fourth Estate, ISBN 1-84115-007-x. p.180.
  18. ^ Sykes. p.54: "(the) result of elections which could be harshly but not inaccurately described as "rigged", and were believed then and later to constitute a grave blot on Britain's reputation in the East."
  19. ^ Lacey p.160.
  20. ^ O'Brien, Conor Cruise (1986) The Siege. The story of Israel and Zionism. Paladin edition 1988. ISBN 0-586-08645-5. p.160.
  21. ^ Segev, Tom (1999). One Palestine, Complete. Metropolitan Books. pp. 173–190. ISBN 0-8050-4848-0. 
  22. ^ Asher. p.357. Lawrence quote from Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935) footnote p.276.
  23. ^ Antonius. pp. 316-319.
  24. ^ Boyle, Andrew (1962). Trenchard Man of Vision. Collins. p. 381. 
  25. ^ Baker, Anne (2003). From Biplane to Spitfire: The Life of Air Chief Marshal Sir Geoffrey Salmond. Leo Cooper. p. 168. ISBN 0 85052 980 8.