‘King of Iraq’ has an odd ring even to those who know that Iraq was called Mesopotamia and was part of the Ottoman empire before falling into and out of the clutches of the British. Many people, including Iraqis, seem unaware that it was a monarchy until 1958. Some 45 years after its overthrow, members of Iraqi families that flourished in those royal days launched ambitious plans to restore the monarchy after Saddam Hussein’s demise. One of them was Ali A. Allawi, the author of this first major biography of Iraq’s founding father, King Faisal (r. 1921–1933).
Formerly a merchant banker in London, Allawi moved to Baghdad in 2003 where he headed the trade and defence ministries and the ministry of finance under the auspices of his controversial American-backed uncle, Ahmed Chalabi. Three years later he left Iraq, chastened, and became a writer and academic. Given this background, one would have expected him to glamorise King Faisal. In fact his presentation is professionally objective. If Faisal emerges looking rather wonderful, it’s because all the evidence shows that’s more or less what he was.
After covering Faisal’s mysterious death in Switzerland in 1933 (officially from a heart attack, though it was rumoured he had been poisoned), Allawi whisks us back to the early years in Mecca and Constantinople (as Istanbul then was) and to Faisal’s all-too-familiar adventures with T.E. Lawrence in the Arab revolt and at the Paris Peace Conference (1919). The story then picks up as Allawi takes us through the nightmare period when Faisal dashed frantically between Europe and the fragile throne set up for him in Damascus by Syrian nationalists in March 1920 with Allenby’s blessing. Soon after the French threw Faisal out of Syria, T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell persuaded Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, to plan a new throne for him in Baghdad.
Faisal’s Iraqi reign proved as fraught as the Syrian one. Besides juggling Iraq’s overall interests with those of Shia clerics, landowners and great tribal leaders, he faced the determination of British officials to bend him to their will. The acting high commissioner Bernard Bourdillon — condemned by a colleague as ‘so Daily Mail’ — applied pressure by considering back-door requests for a republic. Notwithstanding, Faisal’s agile manoeuvres and ever courteous yet relentless insistence finally proved successful. Realising it could not manage without him and fearing he might abdicate, the British government finally yielded. Full independence — albeit largely theoretical — was achieved in 1932.
Finding himself fully ‘kingified’ — as Lawrence put it — Faisal was tempted to rid himself of bothersome politicians and become a dictator like Kemal Ataturk, Reza Shah and Mussolini. When this became known, ambitious politicians encouraged army officers to cut him down to size. After members of Iraq’s much hated Christian and British-protected Assyrian community attacked an Iraqi army position in northern Iraq in August 1933, the army struck back, slaughtering Assyrians indiscriminately. In Baghdad, adoring crowds embraced the troops when they returned from the killing fields. Hoping to avert this crisis, Faisal had already rushed back from Switzerland where he had been consulting doctors. But he was in no position either to condemn or to enter the festive spirit.
As anticipated, many noticed this and turned against him, wrongly concluding that he preferred Assyrians and Christians to themselves. Dismayed by their sullen hostility, he returned to Switzerland, famously describing Iraq’s canaille as
devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil and prone to anarchy.
Exhausted and depressed, he died on 8 September, aged only 50, in Berne’s luxurious Bellevue Palace Hotel.
News of his death and the return of his body from Europe effected an instant transformation, as Arabs throughout the world acknowledged his devotion to Arab rights, independence and unity. Allawi is right to call Faisal’s death a tragic milestone in Iraq’s history. Had he gone on ruling until the 1950s he could have achieved so much more. Instead, the throne passed to his immature son King Ghazi (r. 1933–39), who allowed the army to enter further into the political arena. Faisal’s grandson and namesake, Faisal II (r. 1939–1958), who succeeded Ghazi, was only four years old when he became king, so power passed to Iraq’s toughest political fixer, Nuri Said, and to the regent, Prince Abd al-Ilah.
Their relationship was always tense. Yet their leadership, exercised mainly under martial law and aided by rocketing oil revenues, delivered amazing results. By 1957, despite severe setbacks, Iraq had become, at least in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s opinion, a ‘Levantine Switzerland’. But then, at the last minute, their achievement collapsed. In July 1958, provoked by the regime’s pro-British bias and inspired by Egyptian propaganda, a small group of army officers besieged the palace and gunned down the whole royal family. In one day Iraq became a blood-stained, army-dominated republic, opening a straight path to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
Fortunately Allawi supplies a lighter side to all this. Just as Iraq is a vibrant land of talented musicians, artists and poets, where people celebrate life against all the odds, so Faisal could also enjoy himself. He loved his horses and experimenting with the latest techniques to boost the cotton crop on his farm. He also enjoyed his travels abroad. At Buckingham Palace he was much amused by the strange uniforms and cocked hats and George V’s tactless remarks. Though not intellectual or artistic, he delighted in lunching with Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster and going to the theatre. In Scotland the Duke of Atholl took him grouse-shooting; and he even tried a round of golf at Gleneagles. At the Paris Peace Conference, his ‘dark, liquid’ eyes, distinguished bearing and Nubian guards caused a sensation. When beautiful women chased him, he took advantage discreetly, but too often to avoid charges of womanising.
Regarding Islam, he was easy-going and prone to ordering champagne on special occasions. But he was strongly opposed to secularism. ‘If we teach our children only natural sciences,’ he warned, ‘they will turn to atheism and materialism.’ Though he never bragged about his family, he was proud of his descent from the Prophet Muhammad and the thousand years in which his ancestors ruled Mecca. As a champion of tolerance he worked hard to reconcile Sunni and Shia Muslims and encouraged respect for Christians, Jews and all faiths. Like educated Muslims today, he believed that Islam badly needs ‘a modern-minded religious class’.
Allawi writes well about Faisal’s relationship with his strict father, Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca (later King of the Hijaz), and his ebullient brother, Amir Abdullah (later King) of Jordan. Faisal and Abdullah competed for years over a hoped-for restored throne of Syria. Abdullah also berated Faisal for coming to terms with the Saudi monarch, King Abd al-Aziz, who conquered their family’s ancestral land in 1925. Faisal, for his part, was outraged when Abdullah profited from Palestinian land sales to Jews — whose treatment of the Palestinians upset Faisal more and more deeply as time passed, even though he had been cautiously accommodating to Zionism in earlier years.
Faisal was unpretentious and frugal. Unlike Saddam Hussein, he built no grandiose palaces, even after oil rights were first conceded in 1925; and he once wrote that he ‘would rather see a textile factory instead of a government building and a glass factory instead of a royal palace’. Court protocol was minimal and his private office spartan. The single picture on the wall was a painting of himself with his old admirer, Anatole France. Ever generous personally, he died in debt.
Allawi has used excellent Arabic sources, including the National Library of Iraq and the diaries and memoirs of friends and colleagues like Awni Abd al-Hadi, Rustum Haidar and Ahmad Qadri. But exciting scoops could have been his if he had explored the many rich but neglected archives in Cairo, Istanbul, Rome, Berne, Geneva, Moscow, Copenhagen and Berlin.
Instead we must make do with an excellent account of Faisal’s duplicitous dealings with the ambitious Young Turk leader, Ahmed Djemal Pasha, and with mere glimpses of similar contacts with Kemal Ataturk, Mehmet VI, Egyptian nationalists and Bolshevik emissaries in and around 1920. In that annus horribilis Faisal was asked to lead a proposed common front of ‘oppressed nations’ designed to smash the treacherous French and British ‘imperialists’. What would have happened if action had been taken? As Margaret MacMillan has pointed out, Britain’s military authorities warned Lloyd George that they could not contain a Syrian uprising led by Faisal. So it’s no wonder that Britain backed down and fed him to the French.
Albeit a hefty, magisterial affair of 600-odd pages, Allawi’s book is loosely written and less comprehensive than it looks. It does not penetrate Faisal’s inner character or tell us enough about his relationship with his son, Ghazi, of whom Gerald de Gaury reveals quite a lot in his elegant book, Three Kings in Baghdad. Also, despite its superb index, it lacks a bibliography and contains many typos. But it is undoubtedly an important achievement and fully confirms claims that King Faisal was an outstanding Arab leader. Given how much ‘less bad’ things used to be in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and the Yemen before they lost their royal families, should we blame people for wishing they could return?