Cairo Conference 1921

The Cairo conference opened on 12 March 1921. Winston Churchill called together forty experts on the Middle East such as Colonel Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and Gertrude Bell with officials from Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Persian Gulf, Somaliland and Aden. It was divided into two committees firstly the political and secondly the military and financial committee.

Following World War 1 which ended on 11 November 1918 Britain and France had agreed to separate the Middle East into two principal areas which prior to the First World War had been part of the Ottoman empire. The British mandate covered modern day Israel, Jordan formerly Transjordan, as well as Iraq. It began to link up other areas of British influence such as Cyprus and Egypt, with India, and Australia and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere. The French Mandate was to the North of the British one covering largely modern‑day Lebanon and Syria.

General Allenby had been spearheading the war against the Ottoman empire and was able to liberate Jerusalem from Ottoman control late in 1917. The population there had changed from New Testament times when the majority populace was Jewish. In 1914 only 14% was Jewish, with 10% Christian and 76% Muslim and the British were newly in control of this area after the First World War. There were some issues such as the refugees in the region, the large number of troops which stretched from Sinai to the Persian Gulf and high financial burden for the taxpayer. Britain and her allies had fought a costly war in finance and manpower as well as suffering the problems of the Spanish flu.

Balfour Declaration

During the First World War in June 1917 Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour asked Chaim Weizmann and Lord Rothschild to draft a Zionist declaration to put before the war cabinet. This was done on 4 October 1917. Prime Minister Lloyd George among others was in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and did his best to move this endeavour forward. British churches were very aware of the importance of the Old Testament at a time that most Britons were still churchgoers. The main objection came from the Foreign office who had regard to the reaction of the Arabs. So it was that the Balfour Declaration came about in the form of a letter dated 2 November to Lord Rothschild: "His Majesty’s (George V) Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non‑Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

Sir Herbert Samuel was High Commissioner of Palestine from 1920 to 1925 and therefore invited to Cairo. He was a practicing Jew in the British war cabinet, which was rare and he had much to do with the Balfour Declaration. As such he was keen to keep that promise for a Jewish homeland, but this led the Arab population to question his impartiality. The mandate for Palestine included both what is now Israel and Jordan including Gaza. There were issues. How many British troops would be needed in the area? Could a gendarmerie or local defence force be constituted by the Arab and Zionist communities? And what hopes there were for setting up independent Arab or Zionist states and how much finance would be needed in the years ahead?

The Sharifian Policy

The essence of this was that through one family the British would co‑operate in the new land that they controlled, having liberated so much area from Turkish rule in response to Arab aspirations for freedom and independence. It was headed by Husayn. He had three sons Abdullah, Faysal and Zayd.

Mesopotamia (Iraq)

The other mandate alongside the Palestinian Mandate was the Mesopotamian Mandate. Who would run it and how could the people of Iraq be approached? It would have been unwise to force a British decision upon the people of Iraq; a choice that they would be unhappy about. Faysal ibn Husayn {Transliteration of Arab names from original documentary sources} (1885‑1933) had fought with the allies at the head of the Hijazi army and was Head of the British administration in Syria, an area that was now under the French Mandate. It was hoped that he could lead Iraq and would be favourably looked upon in Iraq if it appeared to be a local choice rather than a British one.

Transjordan (Jordan)

Abdullah ibn Husayn (1882‑1951) the brother of Faysal was another possible candidate for ruler for any of these places but was thought to be weaker than his brother. However matters moved on when in early March 1921 he entered Amman, now the capital of modern‑day Jordan. The matter now was largely whether Britain would endorse this and whether Transjordan was large enough to sustain an independent Arab state.


The Kurds were predominant in and around Kirkuk, Salaimaniya and north of Mosul. Some like Sir Percy Cox and Miss Gertrude Bell felt that it was an integral part of Iraq. Others that it would be a good buffer zone. Churchill leant toward a Kurdish state to avoid them being oppressed.


Plans were being made to reduce British troops to 15,000 having reduced troops in Palestine from 25,000 to 7,000. But how many local forces of Kurds, Mesopotamians as well as Arab and Zionist ones in Palestine included could be formed to take over was the question. Times were changing so the RAF could be used to make flights over the mandated areas and Churchill calculated Britain could reduce expenditure from £31m to £27m per annum.

Subsidies had been paid to prominent local leaders. King Husayn (1856‑1931) was to receive £100,000 per year and it was suggested that Ibn Saud (1880‑1953), who would later be proclaimed King of Saudi Arabia in 1932 would have his increased from £60,000 to £100,000. This was seen to deal with them equally.

The economy of the region was considered. It was apparent oil was increasing in significance and there could be a pipeline from the Persian Gulf to Haifa on the Mediterranean coast as well as a railway. Britain had already built a railway from Basra to Baghdad. It was thought wealth would be diffused outward from Jewish immigration that had taken place and more such migration could take place which would come with further investment and activity.

France was a consideration as they had the mandate to the North including Syria. Syria to some was thought as part of the Arab area and some of those being involved in Iraq and Transjordan had had influence in Syria.

Palestine was a special concern given the fact that a large minority of the residents west of the Jordan were Jewish. It was not for certain that the countries we now know as Israel and Jordan should be one state with possibly an Arab ruler like Abdullah as suggested to Churchill. There was a deputation by the Haifa congress stating the position of the Arabs west of the Jordan wishing to abolish the principle of a Jewish homeland in the Balfour declaration, a cessation to Jewish immigration and for a national government not separate from sister Arab states. They felt Samuel had not treated them fairly compared to the Zionist Congress. The Zionist Congress deputation was grateful for the British government’s Balfour Declaration and were optimistic that there could be a "Jewish renaissance" that "would have an invigorating influence" for the Arabs there too. Churchill went on to support the role of Samuel as High Commissioner, refused to repudiate the Balfour Declaration, wanting to promote goodwill in the Arab and Zionist communities. He felt it was down to the Jewish community to forbear with the Arabs and try and dispel alarm in the Arab community. It became clear that the British Mandate west of the Jordan would not move to self‑government like east of the Jordan and more military support would need to be continued this side of the Jordan river.

Within weeks though there were riots in Jaffa on 1 May arising from a Jewish labour meeting. It was unclear how the local Arabs got involved. Forty Arabs or Jews were killed, and Sir Herbert Samuel had to declare martial law on 3 May 1921 after local Arab and Jewish police lost control of the affray. He had to request from the army that no more troops should leave the region for the moment. By 6 May 96 people were dead and on 14 May Samuel called a temporary halt to Jewish immigration. Also he ceased to pursue a plan for any Arab and Jewish defence force. Instead he ordered 500 British troops to police in Palestine. Jewish immigration roughly halved from the period before the riots to the months after. On 2 November there was another outbreak of violence and 8 died. The hopes of Churchill and Samuel early in the year in Cairo subsided.

Churchill produced a White Paper in 1922. It reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration with a right for a Jewish homeland that the Arab population must not be subordinated, but with citizen rights for both and a gradual move to self‑government but that the Zionist executive would not share in the government. Also immigration would be limited by economic capacity and any religious community could appeal to the League of Nations if the terms of the mandate were not fulfilled.

The Cairo Conference coming so close to the end of the First World War continued the work of progressing the region from Ottoman control to British and French Control. In the British Mandate plans were made through one family under the "Sharifian policy" for the Mesopotamian Mandate and the Palestinian Mandate west of Jordan. It reduced the administration of the region, cut the cost to the Colonial office of the region and aided troop reduction. However west of the Jordan was more complicated and a policy of drift ensued by the British and plans for self‑government had to be put on hold which would be different from East of the Jordan river.

See – Foundations of British Policy in the Arab World: The Cairo Conference of 1921 by Aaron S. Kleiman