Cairo Conference (1921)

Cairo Conference (1921)
Cairo Conference (1921)

The Cairo Conference was convened by the British to decide how to govern their newly gained Arab territories after World War I. Opening in March 1921, the conference represented a virtual who's who of British experts on the Middle East from the foreign office and the military.

Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence), champion of the Arab revolt; Gertrude Bell, an expert on Iraqi tribes and politics; as well as Sir Percy Cox, high commissioner for Iraq, and Sir Herbert Samuel, high commissioner for Palestine, all participated. The conference was chaired by Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for the colonies.

The San Remo Treaty in 1920 had formalized British control over Iraq and Palestine, formerly territories of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. However, the British had been caught off guard by the 1920 violent revolt against their occupation of Iraq. If possible, they wanted to avoid future confrontations that necessitated the deployment of British or imperial troops and that placed heavy financial burdens on the British treasury.


At the conference it was agreed that a plebiscite should be held in Iraq to elect a king who would rule in close conjunction with British advisers. Faysal, Sherif Husayn's son and a favorite of the British, was proposed as the British nominee. After some hesitation he accepted the position. Faysal won subsequent elections that were held under British supervision, and he duly became the king of Iraq.

His heirs continued to rule Iraq until they were overthrown in a violent militaryled revolution in 1958. The installation of an Arabled government made Iraq ostensibly independent, and it was ultimately granted entry into the League of Nations. But Iraq remained linked with Britain by a treaty that granted Britain extensive control over its foreign affairs and allowed the British military access whenever it chose.

Faysal's older brother Abdullah was selected to become amir (prince) and ultimately king of the land east of the River Jordan. Churchill coined this new entity, Transjordan, meaning on the other side of the Jordan.

Cairo Conference map
Cairo Conference map

Abdullah was dependent on Britain for economic and military support, and his main military force, the Arab Legion, was led by a British military officer. This territory ultimately became the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan under the rule of Abdullah and his heirs.

His great grandson, Abdullah II, ruled Jordan in the early 21st century. The creation of allegedly independent countries was meant to assuage Sherif Husayn and Arab demands that the promises regarding Arab independence after the war seemingly made by the British in the Sherif Husayn–McMahon correspondence be met.

In Palestine the British retained direct political and military control and assured their security concerns in the region, especially the protection of the vital Suez Canal. During the interwar years the British retained their preeminent position while attempting, with various degrees of success, to balance the conflicting national demands of the Palestinian Arabs for an independent Arab state and the Zionists for an independent Jewish state.

The British mandate in Palestine lasted until after World War II, when the British could no longer economically or militarily afford to maintain order in Palestine, and they consequently turned over the entire issue of who should rule Palestine to the newly formed United Nations.

The decisions made at the Cairo Conference failed to satisfy either Arab or Zionist demands for self-determination. They also formalized the division of the Arab territories into separate nations ruled by regimes established and in large part maintained by the British. The nationalist hostility and resentment fostered throughout the Arab world by the actions taken at the Cairo Conference lasted throughout the 20th century.