Sykes-Picot Agreement: 100 years on

It seems incredible that resonance from a century-old event can continue to create mistrust, humiliation and anger across an entire region. One would think that 100 years was time enough to rewrite history. But the sad truth is that, despite the passage of time, with new conflicts, the rise and fall of various regimes, and the establishment of new countries, the impact of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 continues to reverberate across the Arab world well into the 21st century.

“The legacy of the agreement still lives in the political consciousness of more than 300 million Arabs, reminding them that there are those out there who have always conspired against the Arab world,” AbdulKhaleq Abdulla, political commentator and professor of political science at UAE University, told TRENDS.

A little more than a hundred years ago, even as various nations were in the throes of World War I, the imperial powers of Britain and France set about carving the Arab Middle East – a region that then extended loosely from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, and included the Arab Peninsula and the Nile Valley. Colonel Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, an English traveler, politician and diplomat, and François Marie Denis Georges-Picot, a French diplomat and lawyer, were the architects of this division – men whose names would become synonymous with the notorious Agreement. As empire builders in competition with each other, Sykes and Picot focused on creating ‘spheres of influence’ for Britain and France respectively, sparing no thought for the interests, hopes or ambitions of the nations concerned.

Undermining Arab nationalism

More importantly, the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement – made without the knowledge or support of Arab leaders – was in direct contravention of the promise made by Britain (via the McMahon-Hussein correspondence), to the Emir of Makkah, Sharif Hussein Bin Ali, to recognize Arab independence post World War I, in exchange for Arab help in fighting the Ottomans.

“Having sent Arab forces into battle against the Ottomans at the behest of Britain, Sharif Hussein expected that a free Arab nation state would emerge as the price for Arab intervention,” Michael Jansen, a veteran Middle East analyst, told TRENDS. “He was betrayed not only by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, but also by the Balfour Declaration and British support for Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud. Sharif Hussein was the early model of an Arab nationalist and stood against division and the Balfour Declaration, which called for a Jewish national home in Arab Palestine. This made him inconvenient.”

Kamal Al-Qintar, Syrian author, historian and expert on Arab social affairs, said: “The Sykes-Picot Agreement came when the region was undergoing the disintegration of the old feudal system and the rise of the money-based market economy. It was also the beginnings of the Arab Nationalist movement in a whole generation of Arabs, who dreamed of being united under one country. Dividing the region into enforced separate states prevented the development of one cohesive regional market, which in turn hindered the economic integration and the establishment of an ‘Arab nation’ in the modern sense.”

Arab nationalism was the nightmare of the colonial powers, because it sought to exclude their influence. Both Jansen and Prof. Abdulla hail Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser as the personification of Arab nationalism and a part of a liberation movement that eventually achieved freedom from colonial powers.

Syrian and Iraqi Baathist governments attempted, but failed to continue from Nasser in the latter half of the 20th century. And, in the absence of an Arab drive for unity of purpose – if not unity within an Arab state – the Arabs today are more divided than ever.

Rise of militarism

After World War I, when the promised independence did not happen, “the thrust of Arab politics gradually but decisively shifted from building liberal constitutional governance systems to assertive nationalism, whose main objective was getting rid of the colonialists and their ruling systems. This was a key factor behind the rise of the militarist regimes that had come to dominate many Arab countries from the 1950s until the 2011 Arab uprisings,” writes Tarek Osman, the presenter of BBC’s
The Making of the Modern Arab World.

Al-Qintar also underlines the Sykes-Picot Agreement’s role in curtailing the growth of democracy. “It was not an easy feat for a region divided by force and put under the control of colonial powers to develop real democracy that allows citizens to practice their legal and human rights in a healthy environment,” he told TRENDS.

Arab unity: a pipe dream?

Analysts agree that the most damaging outcomes of the Sykes-Picot Agreement have been the establishment of Israel within Palestine via the Balfour Declaration and the stoking of the ‘Kurdish issue’ to create future ethnic problems. The fallout from the failed Arab Spring of 2011 has also highlighted the religious and sectarian aspect, in the form of the Daesh Caliphate and the ethnic aspect, with Kurdish ethnicity as its pivot.

In the face of these inherent divisive forces, it seems relevant to wonder if Sharif Hussein’s dream of a unified Arab nation could ever have become a reality, even if there had been no Sykes-Picot Agreement. While most of the Middle East is united by language, the region is hardly cohesive, being home to three major religions of the world, in addition to various schismatic and ethnic groups that make up the largely Muslim population.

Khaled Almaeena, a veteran Saudi journalist and former editor-in-chief of Arab News and Saudi Gazette newspapers, asserted that, in the absence of a Sykes Picot agreement, there could have been a loose Arab Federation, giving each region its autonomy, something along the lines of Europe. “Arabs too had the same aspirations to live in dignity and peace, and have always wanted one entity – although perhaps not one country,” he told TRENDS.

The colonial powers made matters worse, he says, by “planting a country that was not there and inciting people against one another.” He agrees that Israel may still have happened, “but the best way for Israel to thrive is to be part of a greater Middle East.”

Without a Sykes-Picot Agreement, Prof. Abdulla said, “Many Arabs believe we may not have had the Palestinian issue, you would probably not have Israel; Arab nations probably wouldn’t be so divided and we would probably be more developed and better able to utilize our resources.”

But could unity be achieved in the face of already existent inherent differences? “Differences are a fact of life. Europe managed to integrate despite differences. Even the GCC countries have managed to move towards integration, despite differences,” Prof. Abdulla opined. “In contrast, the Arabs have failed; even the minimum regional integration has not been achieved over the past 70 years. And this fuels the idea that this is probably because of one bad experience – the Sykes-Picot slicing of the Levant.”

Some politicians use the agreement to excuse Arab failings, admitted Jansen. “However, the Sykes-Picot agreement only laid the ground for continuous Western (and eventually Russian) intervention and involvement in the region. External intervention and support for authoritarian Arab rulers doomed Arab attempts to achieve democracy.“

Prof. Abdulla refuted the notion that all of the Arab world’s problems can be traced to the agreement. “We have had bad governments, corrupt rulers, dictatorships, made our own mistakes, did not get our own house in order – these are all contributing factors to the current crises and violence.”

Almaeena believed that the total failure of the Arab League is a leading cause of the current situation in the region. “The Arab League failed because the Arab leaders have failed and the Arab people have failed,” he said.

What next?

Is it too late for present-day Arab governments to shrug off the debilitating mantle of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and re-explore the concept of a unified Arab Nation? Are the ethnic and sectarian divisions that came to the fore in the wake of the Arab Spring too wide to be bridged? Rumors are rife that there could be further fragmentation in a post-ISIS world, with plans to divide Iraq and Syria into even smaller states based on ethnic and sectarian grounds.

Prof. Abdulla feels the horrendous security and political costs will deter the Arab world and international community from attempting further divisions of the region. However, Al-Qintar is concerned that, if proven true, such a divisive split up will have even more catastrophic implications than Sykes-Picot. “More than before, Arab countries today need to unite their forces to retain their autonomy and regain their strong standing in the region,” he told TRENDS.

Almaeena views the Arab Spring as opportunity lost by Arab governments to implement reforms. The result, he says, was like opening a Pandora’s box and he fears that differences have been driven too deep for a fully unified Arab integration.

Despite the growing darkness, there is optimism and agreement that the European Union is a suitable model to base the new political architecture in the Middle East. Citing the example of the GCC, which has made inroads toward a more evolved form of unification, Al-Qintar said the same “can be achieved by forming regional cooperation councils that include neighboring Arab countries, which can be developed later into some form of federal system.”

Almaeena visualizes a secular Arab world where societal development will ensure that people are given their rights. He endorses the concept of loose federations for the Levant, the Arab Maghreb and the GCC, where member states are bound by shared, common interests, rather than a unified geographic entity. They could still have several common interests, including a desire to defend the area from external incursions and intrusions, the mutual issues of rising population, unemployment, lack of water resources, quality of education and inclusion of everyone. He also calls for a united fight against the forces of extremism.

Idealistic as the vision is, the ground realities cannot be ignored, given that the Arab world is facing a serious dearth of leadership. While Jansen believed that the Gulf states presently do not have leaders credible or popular enough to gain the backing and trust of Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians and others, Prof. Abdulla said this is “the Arab Gulf states’ moment in contemporary Arab history.”

He believed the GCC states, led by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, have an opportunity to shoulder historical responsibilities. He said: “I think the political agenda for the Arab Gulf states is very simple: restoring stability and bringing back the forces of moderation to the Arab world. At this stage, it is moderation that is needed more than anything else, because sectarianism and forces of extremism have been unleashed in the strongest possible way.”