Reading this massive volume is rather like entering a dilapidated mansion, cluttered with faded but eminently recognizable furniture, through and around which a sere wind blows. Ali Allawi, author of The Crisis of Islamic Civilization (Yale University Press, 2009) and The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (Yale University Press, 2007), has now written the first full biography of King Faisal I of Iraq. Allawi's portrayal focuses on Iraq and the Fertile Crescent in the early decades of the twentieth century and gives careful attention to the European and international politics of the time. The horrors of the Great War aside, Faisal I of Iraq evokes memory of a vastly more civilized age. However, this is no exercise in nostalgia. Much of this book speaks directly to issues that Iraq (and the world) confront in our own day. What Allawi has to say should be attended to carefully, especially since he has held important political responsibilities in Iraq in the past and may well assume such again in the future.
A secular Shiite from a distinguished Iraqi family and a polymath who has had a star-studded career, Allawi received his undergraduate degree in civil engineering from MIT, a professional degree in regional planning from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Harvard. His connection with Harvard has been close; he was a fellow at the Carr Center of the Kennedy School of Government during the 2009-10 academic year. Allawi worked as an investment banker before opting for a more academic career path through association with the Center for Middle East Studies at St. Antony's College, Oxford. Since 2010, he has been a research professor at the National University of Singapore.
Academics and authorship have not precluded Allawi's active involvement in Iraqi politics. The cousin of Ayad Allawi, head of the Iraqi National Accord party who in late 2014 became a vice president in the Haider al-Abadi administration, Ali Allawi is eminently qualified to re-enter government. In 2003-04, he served variously as the first post-Saddam civilian minister of defense on the Interim Governing Council as well as minister of trade and minister of finance. One rather imagines that if Allawi were to return to government service, he would attempt to inform his policies with some of the moderation, realism, flexibility and tolerance that he argues characterized the reign of Faisal I so many decades ago. And one suspects that Allawi might prove especially responsive to Faisal's admonition in 1918 that "[a]nyone who sows discord between Muslim, Christian, and Jew is not an Arab" (p. 167).
The author is not an uncritical admirer of King Faisal I (1883-1933). Much of this book is a discussion of the various positions of geostrategic weakness in which Faisal found himself and his consummate skill at extracting what could be obtained under the circumstances. In the end, Faisal accomplished far more, on the battlefield and as king of Iraq, than any other Arab in the past several centuries. He survived his defeats, notably at Versailles and in Damascus, and learned hard lessons from them. "In the modern history of the Arabs," Allawi writes, "it would be hard to find an equivalent figure who combined the qualities of leadership and statesmanship with the virtues of moderation, wisdom and decency." In the author's opinion, Faisal I well deserves recognition as "Faisal the Great" (pp. 561-62).
Only a native speaker of Arabic could have plumbed the Arabic sources pertaining to Faisal and the early twentieth century with the thoroughness that Allawi clearly has. For that matter, he has evidently read everything in English and French relevant to the topic. In his acknowledgements, the author speaks movingly of how, in 1998, his own father and two of his father's closest friends inspired him to undertake this mammoth project. In the end, it proved a task that required 15 years. One hopes that there soon will be an Arabic translation, to enhance its accessibility to the people of Iraq most of all.
This volume's strikingly low price makes it almost a must buy, and its 45 rare photographs add to its attractiveness. This is the sort of book that invites a reader to pick it up and put it down, savoring the tale in bits as it unfolds. This strategy is recommended particularly for those not already familiar with modern Arab history, given the enormous amount of detail packed between these covers.
Leaders matter, biography counts, and Allawi is not embarrassed to remind us of that fact. Human agency shapes history, he emphasizes, fully as much as geography, climate, economics and other impersonal forces. "[T]his biography is an attempt to understand the interplay between leaders and events," he writes, "and how the elusive quality of leadership can often make the difference between success and failure" (p. xxxiv).
Of course, this book does not narrate a happy story. As Allawi notes, the debacle in Palestine in 1948 helped bring to power — especially in Egypt, Syria and, most dramatically, in Iraq — a new generation of angry young military officers who had no respect for the sort of incremental and moderate nationalist politics that Faisal represented. During the 1950s, "any recognition of the diversity of populations and the complexity of loyalties in the Arab Middle East," Allawi observes, was "swept away by a stultifying and hollow [Arab] nationalism" (p. xxix). The accomplishments of Faisal and the old Iraqi elite were dismissed. In particular, Faisal I and his circle were judged guilty of collusion with colonialism and held responsible for the partition of Palestine. Soon enough, the new military radicals were exposed as far greater failures, achieving neither democracy nor development nor the defeat of Israel after decades of effort. Today, in an epoch whose foundations were laid by that failure and whose manifestations are far grimmer than even the worst of what preceded it, Ali Allawi has done a signal service in resuscitating King Faisal I and offering a reminder that there was once a style of Arab politics very different from the sort represented by Gamal Abdul Nasser, Adib Shishakli, Abd al-Salam Arif and Saddam Hussein.
Allawi's account of Faisal's early years goes far to explain the man he became and why he was so well equipped to deal with Arab tribes, on the one hand, and Turks, on the other. The large lacuna that Faisal himself had to fill during and after World War I was how to deal with Europeans. The pretentious and self-interested tutoring of T.E. Lawrence aside, Allawi notes that Faisal was required to rely on his own innate capabilities to salvage what could be salvaged for the Arabs from a world in the throes of war and revolution. More than once, his own bad judgment complicated that effort. But good judgment comes from experience, and experience, more often than not, comes from bad judgment. Fortunately, by the time he had become king of Iraq, most of Faisal's worst judgments were behind him.
Tribal custom in the Hejaz, where Faisal I was born in 1883, decreed that children of urbanites of good family be sent to surrogate parents in desert tribes to spend most of the first seven years of their lives. Only occasional and brief visits to their true parents in Mecca, Medina or elsewhere interrupted this exposure. Throughout his book, Allawi suggests how this early education in tribal mores, which endowed Faisal with perfect Bedouin Arabic, assisted him politically, not only in leading the Arab Revolt but in governing Syria and (especially) Iraq. In particular, those early years made Faisal adept at engaging with Shiite tribesman in south Iraq, which facilitated the building of the new Iraqi state. Allawi also notes that young Faisal's subsequent education in Istanbul rendered him fluent in Turkish and fully cognizant of the perspectives of those who ruled the Arab world from the Bosporus. This, too, later proved to be of enormous value.
Allawi adds much to one's appreciation of just how unlikely Faisal I's stunning military successes were, given the parlous state of his own health. Faisal suffered from repeated attacks of malaria and in his youth fell victim to cholera. He exacerbated his infirmities by chain smoking, a habit that probably contributed directly to his early and somewhat mysterious death in 1933. Faisal's constitutional weakness was revealed at least as early as 1910-12, when he waged a prolonged campaign in Yemen against the redoubtable Idrisi rebels, who enjoyed Italian backing. Allawi notes that Faisal's men often carried him off the battlefield "unconscious from the physical effort" (p. 29). Faisal's enormous personal charisma and the absolute loyalty of the troops under his command, then and later, may in some way have been directly related to his physical infirmities and his ability, through sheer strength of will, to overcome them.
Faysal I's relations with his father, Sherif (later king) Hussein of Mecca and the Hejaz, were always problematic. According to Allawi, Hussein frequently admonished his son to place absolute trust in British fair-dealing and not concern himself with any evidence to the contrary. Allawi notes that at some points during his career Faisal found himself simultaneously fighting a three-front war, militarily or diplomatically, against the Turks, the Europeans and his own father. Sherif Hussein increasingly came to resent the independence, autonomy and fame of his third son. At Versailles, Hussein refused even to share key parts of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence with Faisal until it was too late. Faisal's relations with his older brother Abdallah were little better, reaching back to Abdallah's lethargic performance during the Arab Revolt and extending through Faisal's selection by Britain as king of Iraq, an appointment Abdallah had long coveted for himself. Once again, this dysfunctional family dynamic illustrates just how important individuals are to historical outcomes.
This definitive biography of Faisal is also a detailed portrait of an age: the lies, the partitions, the betrayals, the heroism and the colossal misjudgments. Necessarily, the Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 1915-16, sparked by the disinformation provided by Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi, an Arab officer in the Ottoman army who deserted to the British in Gallipoli, and also the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, weave in and out of the story. In line with other recent scholarship, Allawi portrays T.E. Lawrence as an extraordinarily gifted but arrogant manipulator whose commitment to Arab independence was no more than skin-deep and whose Arabic was substantially more limited than many have long believed. In particular, Allawi notes that Lawrence never ceased to regard all of Faisal's extraordinary accomplishments as due to the guidance he had received from Lawrence himself. The commentary on Lawrence in the memoirs of participants in the Arab Revolt enables Allawi to make that argument with great persuasiveness.
Faisal's interactions with Djamal Pasha, governor of Syria before and during the Arab Revolt, and with the burgeoning Arabist movement in the Levant make for compelling reading. Allawi makes clear that, despite Faisal's initial opposition to any Arab uprising, his experiences in Damascus with the nascent Arabist movement that pledged him its support led him to change his mind. Faisal himself joined al-Fatat, the underground proto-nationalist Arabist group, and finally joined his brother Abdallah in persuading his father to opt for war. None of this is new, but Allawi describes the give and take between Faisal and the Arabists, and his simultaneous, but totally independent, interactions with Djamal Pasha, in considerably greater detail than have others. Faisal played a double game in Damascus and Istanbul during the early years of World War I, and he played it very well. As Allawi observes more than once, Faisal had to learn diplomacy, war and statecraft in a crash course; against all odds, he proved equal to the task. But then, thanks to events far removed from Arabia, he never had a chance to achieve what his father was convinced the British had promised: comprehensive Arab independence stretching from the Taurus Mountains south to the Indian Ocean, with special provisions established for the Lebanon and the province of Basra.
Allawi is correct that the emergence of Arab nationalism was a "hesitant and uncertain affair" and did not assume major political significance until the end of World War I (p. 32). Nevertheless, he is firm in the belief that, by 1915, the Arabism of the First Arab Congress in Paris in 1913, which had called only for Arab autonomy in a decentralized Ottoman Empire, had been transformed into something that can be called Arab nationalism, a demand for complete independence of the Arabic-speaking lands. When Faisal formally joined al-Fatat in 1915, activists inside this civilian underground movement introduced him to Arab officers in the Ottoman army who were members of the secret al-Ahd organization and professed readiness to revolt, should an Arab uprising occur. According to Allawi, Faisal "chose Arab nationalism as a satisfactory political program and tool to gain support outside...the Hejaz" (p. 162). This was not an easy decision, as Allawi points out: Faisal presciently recognized that if the Turks were expelled from the Arab region, the Europeans were only too likely to move in. In retrospect, one may wonder why Faisal chose to ignore the geostrategic likelihood of a new European imperialism.
Faisal's nationalism, then and later, Allawi explains, was "moderate and pragmatic" (p. 163), very different from the Arab nationalism of such ideologues as Sati al-Husri or Naji al-Suwaydi. It was cosmopolitan, tolerant and ecumenical, an inclination or disposition rather than any specific political program. Allawi does well to emphasize how extraordinary Faisal's ecumenism was for the age and area in which he lived or perhaps for any age.
Faisal, as Allawi makes clear, was a natural leader of men. He mines well and with discretion T.E. Lawrence's postwar literary classic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), in addition to Arabic sources, that together provide a wealth of data from Faisal's camp during the Arab Revolt, ranging from the mundane (food) to the crucial (negotiations with recalcitrant tribes to get them to commit to his campaign). Great Bedouin tribes such as the Howeitat (commanded by the redoubtable warrior Aowda Abu Tayy) and the Ruwala (under the shrewd and temporizing Nuri al-Shalan) were never comfortable bedfellows. Arab fighters ranged in age from 12 to 60, and managing such an army was an enormous challenge. The number of tribesmen in the field at any one time varied from a few hundred to some 10,000, the latter figure being attained only in the last weeks of the war. Allawi notes that men "came and went," and that there was no such thing as a chain of command (p. 79). Somehow Faisal pulled it off, to an extent not seen in Arabia since the Prophet Muhammad. Keeping his fighters and their families fed and paying them for each prisoner captured alive (thereby discouraging the throat-slitting that Faisal deplored) facilitated but does not explain the stunning success of his military campaign.
Above all, Allawi highlights Faisal's unique charisma. "He was a past master at wit and banter," Allawi notes, "which he used effectively to defuse tensions and anger, and he was loved, even idolized, by his followers" (p. 29). Faisal's "knowledge of the affairs of men and the world were gained at breakneck speed," Allawi writes. "The wisdom and foresight of his later days came from bitter experience" (p. 30). Faisal's repute was such that fighters flooded into his forces from widely separated parts of the Arab world. Many would go on to help write the history of their times. Some later became political leaders in their own right: Aziz Ali al-Misri, Mawlud Mukhlis, Nuri al-Said, Jamil al-Midfai, Jaafar al-Askari, Yasin al-Hashimi and Rustum Haider are only the most prominent. It was an enormous collection of talent, however compromised by ambition, self-seeking and political gamesmanship it may have been. The reader will find it difficult to resist a comparison with the assorted Lilliputians in charge of Iraq today.
Perhaps the most problematic part of Faisal I's legacy was his openness to negotiations and accommodation with Zionists. Often these were undertaken or concluded without consultation with his advisers, Allawi notes, and provided opportunities for Zionists to interpret agreements in ways that Faisal himself most surely did not. His easy acceptance of denials by Zionists of any desire to establish an independent Jewish polity in Palestine is a chapter of his career that many wish had never occurred. His meetings with Chaim Weizmann, Allawi observes, stemmed from a misplaced hope that Jews might bolster international support for the Arab Revolt and undermine the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Otherwise, Allawi makes clear the treachery of T.E. Lawrence, whom Faisal trusted and on whom he depended completely. Lawrence counseled Faisal to accept Weizmann's denial of national ambitions, though Lawrence knew this denial was nonsense. As Lawrence observed in 1918: "Dr. Weizmann hopes for a completely Jewish government in 50 years and a Jewish Palestine, under a British façade, for the moment" (p. 116). All of this constitutes manipulation and betrayal by Lawrence, who always considered Faisal as no more than an instrument of British policy. Allawi does an excellent job of putting all of this on the public record.
As for Syria, Allawi recounts the unhappy story of Faisal's arrival in Damascus, the attempted coup by the pro-French al-Jazahiri brothers and Lawrence's countercoup, Faisal's brief accommodation with radical Arab nationalism — an accommodation he would ever afterwards regret — his expulsion from the country by the French after a rule of only four months, and finally his installation by the British as king of Iraq (over vociferous French objections), as the best available mechanism for the UK to secure its interests on the road to India. Allawi's itemizing of those who debarked with Faisal in Basra in 1921 is a useful guide to the ruling elite in Iraq in the early years of the British mandate: Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr, Yusuf al-Suwaydi, Abd al-Muhsin Abu Tabikh, Alwan al-Yasiri, Rayih al-Atiyeh, Ali Jawdat, Rustum Haider and Jaafar al-Askari. The moment was pregnant with symbolism, given that they debarked from a British ship and were met by St. John Philby, then British adviser to the Iraqi minister of the interior. The real constellation of forces, then and for many years to come, could not have been clearer.
During the 12 years that Faisal ruled Iraq he was compelled, Allawi makes clear, to perform the most difficult of balancing acts. He could not permit himself to be perceived as merely a tool of the British, for that would destroy all credibility with the Iraqi masses. On the other hand, he could not push the British too hard, and certainly could not demand immediate independence. His brief stint in Syria had proven a hard but invaluable seminar; Faisal emerged a far better judge of what was realistically obtainable, and when. Gradualism, accommodation, and the constant search for political openings were always his preferred modus operandi. In the end, it resulted in Iraq's winning independence and acceptance into the League of Nations in 1932. The UK, of course, retained military bases in Iraq and reoccupied the country during World War II. But those later developments lie beyond the bounds of the story Allawi relates here.
Allawi, not surprisingly, gives full consideration to Shiite grievances. The fruits of office had "gone overwhelmingly to the Sunni Arab officer and notable classes," he writes, "and Shiite resentment of the new order was never far below the surface" (p. 479). At the same time, he notes that during the early years of the monarchy there were very few qualified Shiites available for high government positions. Nevertheless, Allawi makes the point that Faisal did try to "increase the presence of Shiites throughout his administration" (p. 386) and frequently visited Najaf and Karbala to meet with the Shiite tribes. Allawi illustrates what he regards as longstanding Sunni indifference to Shiite sensitivities by a detailed recounting of the Anis Nsouli affair of 1927, focusing on Nsouli's strongly pro-Sunni description of the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty in a textbook intended for use by Iraqi students. The outrage and resultant uproar among Shiites, Faisal feared, might well produce a stronger alliance between them and the British, both of whom were opposed to Faisal's major project of increasing the size of the army through conscription. Above all, Allawi notes, Faisal had been working zealously to reduce sectarianism, and Anis Nsouli had made his task substantially more difficult. Faisal's real anger, however, was directed against the arch-nationalist Sati al-Husri, Nsouli's patron. The upheaval effectively ended al-Husri's access to the palace. The fact that Rustum Haider, a Shiite originally from Lebanon, was known to be Faisal's most important adviser helped the king to weather the storm.
Allawi makes an important contribution to posterity's understanding of both Faisal I and Iraq through close analysis of an eight-page memorandum Faisal composed in 1932, a year before his death, and distributed to the Iraqi political elite. Faisal's valedictory was sadly ignored at the time and is almost totally forgotten today. The memorandum is of great historical and contemporary relevance and should be assigned reading for those governing Iraq today. In Allawi's words: "There is no more important document in modern Arab history" (p. 536). No one has highlighted the major points of the memorandum as Allawi has done here.
Faisal engaged all of the salient issues: rectifying Shiite disadvantages, fostering Iraqi patriotism and forging national solidarity, obtaining a monopoly on force for the central government, augmenting the size and capabilities of the army, creating a nonsectarian educational system, and encouraging administrative decentralization. Few of the leaders to whom the memorandum was sent provided substantive responses. "It was a curious, even sinister, conspiracy of silence," Allawi observes, "regarding one of the most important political documents of modern Iraqi history" (p. 542). That silence lies heavy on Iraq even today.
Allawi provides arresting vignettes of Faisal I at work. For example, the king set aside two days each week for audiences with ordinary Iraqis. They flocked to him with requests, which Faisal duly referred to his ministers for investigation. He allowed foreign missionaries to operate in Iraq and permitted the Jesuits to establish Baghdad College, which quickly became the country's elite high school and graduated an impressive number of future leaders of the state. Allawi notes that Faisal personally made financial contributions to the schools of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Jews alike, and liberally supported the widows of exiled Hejazis and those who had fought in the Arab Revolt or served in his government in Syria. Faisal was a conservationist; he devoted himself to agricultural improvement and planted trees throughout Iraq. He also founded the Iraqi Agricultural College in 1926 and the Ministry of Agriculture in 1929. He was a lover of poetry, too, and regularly consulted with intellectuals and leading literary figures.
The enormous detail of this lengthy volume is also a weakness. More rigorous editing would have made the reader's path easier. In particular, there is too much quoting, even if often from primary sources in Arabic ignored by other scholars. Notably, for a book of this size, this volume is remarkably free of errors of fact. One exception is Allawi's statement on p. 594, f. 6, that Tawfiq al-Suwaydi, a scion of one of Iraq's leading families, first became prime minister of Iraq in 1946. It was actually in 1929, and Tawfiq was the youngest prime minister the new state had had. He served twice more, in 1946 and 1950.
Ali Allawi compares past and present, highlighting what seems to be the cyclical nature of tragedy in Iraq. He notes the "inept and incoherent U.S. and UK invasion and occupation" in 2003 and its similarity to events decades earlier, when the UK alone was in charge (p. xxxiv). However, Allawi does point out an important difference: the "obvious disparity in the quality of leadership between those earlier times and now" (p. xxxiv). The book also addresses the importance of "coming to terms with the poor hand that is often dealt peoples and nations by history...and making do with what is available" (p. xxxiv). Alas, that lesson, otherwise often described as a policy of "accept and demand," was adopted by far too few of Faisal's contemporaries and rarely by his successors. In the end, Allawi's is a tale of substantial triumph over impossibly long odds and a paean to political realism as the leitmotif of all statesmanship. Faisal I of Iraq will long stand as the definitive biography of a great king and an exhaustive description of the once-promising country over which he ruled.