What’s behind the famous photograph of the 1921 Cairo Conference, when British decisions shaped the Middle East a century ago?

Aaron Ackerley's picture

Myriam Yakoubi,

University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès

Clothilde Houot,

Université Paris 1 - Panthéon-Sorbonne


"Everybody Middle East is here".[1] This is how, in a letter to his brother Bob, T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” described the large gathering which met a century ago, from 12 to 30 March 1921. Organized by the British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, its purpose was to reshape Britain’s policy in the Middle East in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in the First World War.

               The Cairo Conference and its legacies will be the subject of a one-day conference organized in Toulouse, France, on 22 April by the CAS research team of Toulouse Jean Jaurès University, in partnership with the Académie des Sciences, Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres: https://cas.univ-tlse2.fr/accueil-cas/empire-and-after/la-conference-du-caire-de-mars-1921-ou-comment-les-britanniques-remodelerent-le-moyen-orient-il-y-a-100-ans

What the British first called the “Middle East Conference”, with its meetings in Cairo and Jerusalem, later became exclusively known as the “Cairo Conference”. Itremains associated with the Semiramis Hotel, which Lawrence described in the same letter as "a marble and bronze hotel, very expensive and luxurious. Horrible place: makes me a Bolshevik.”[2]

The British had actually hesitated about organising the conference in Cairo because of the nationalist agitation which had taken place since the end of the war. They eventually stuck to their initial decision, perhaps in an attempt to reaffirm British authority, but so did the Egyptians, who continued to protest the presence of Churchill before and during the conference. Security concerns thus also dictated the location of the event, as Churchill himself explained to Sir Warren Fischer, the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury: “We are lodged in Semiramis Hotel which Lord Allenby considered the only suitable from the point of the public order as it is protected on the two sides by the Residency guards and barracks of British battalion and on the other by the Nile.”[3]

The place where the conference was to be held therefore had to be both practical as far as security was concerned and prestigious, as it gathered what Churchill called his “forty thieves” – political officers, military figures –all men (andone woman) on the spot or London officials, all considered as Middle East “experts”, some of whom can be seen posing on the famous group photograph of the conference.

And yet, not everybody “Middle East” was actually there – some people wereeven conspicuously absent. The photo actually epitomises the end of a political transition which had led to a redefinition of the Middle East and of Britain’srole in that part of the world.

Before the war, what the British did not yet unanimously call the Middle East – they sometimes referred to this region as “Asiatic Turkey” or “Turkey in Asia” – was not really a specific geographical area but rather a loosely-definedgeopolitical space. It also seemed to be split between two poles, a Mediterranean one centered on Egypt, dealt with by the Foreign office since Britain had occupied it in 1882, and another one in the Persian Gulf, which was considered as the Arabian frontier of the Raj.[4] The Middle East was part of Britain’s informal empire – it was not coloured red on the map, the Crown Colony of Aden excepted – but the British had substantial political, strategic and economic interests in the region. The aftermath of the war, however, led to a much more formal British domination of the new Middle Eastern countries which emerged out of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.

After the 1919 Paris Peace Conference which created the League of Nations, the 1920 San Remo Conference assigned class A Mandates to France and Britain. The latter had to turn the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into modern nation-states, an undertaking described in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations as a “sacred trust of civilisation”. This new, Wilsonian post-war world no longer tolerated old-fashioned land grabbing but still accommodated the interests of imperial powers. The 1921 Cairo Conference was the last stage in the process which reshaped the British presence in the Middle East, a period which historian John Darwin called “…not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning".[5]

Britain was now responsible for Palestine and Transjordan – sometimes referred to as “Transjordania” or even “Eastern Palestine” as well as for Iraq, also called “Mesopotamia”, “Mespot” or even “Turkish Arabia”, as before the war. The diversity and evolution of place names and spelling thus reveals the shifting nature of this geographical space – it was not until the mid-1920’s that “Iraq” or “Irak” superseded “Mesopotamia” without a definite standardization of the Arabic transliteration.[6] During the conference, the discussions were focused on defining new spheres of influence and finding reliable allies so as to secure Britain’s political and strategic priorities while reducing costs.As ever, empire on the cheap was the watchword.

The photograph first illustrates the victory of Cairo over Delhi, two imperial centres which had competed for the definition of Britain’s Middle Eastern policy. The Cairo network had long historical roots,having been gathered by Herbert Horatio Kitchener when he was Consul General of Egypt (1911-14). He had trained a group of intelligence officers whose role was to watch the efforts of the Ottomans to tighten their control on the Hedjaz, which Kitchener feared might have paved the way for an Ottoman attack against Egypt. After he became Secretary of State for War in 1914, Kitchener’s men remained involved in intelligence gathering and ended up forming the Cairo Arab Bureau.

These men, like Gilbert Clayton, had planned the Arab Revolt, the rebellion of Hussein, the Amir of Mecca, and his sons against the Ottomans, with attacks on the Hedjaz railway led by the tribes of the Hedjaz and Transjordan which were loyal to Hussein. Such guerilla operations at the heart of Islam’s Holy Places had worried the British authorities in India, which dreaded the reaction of Indian Muslims. Moreover, British officials in India had long had close relationships with Arab rulers in the Persian Gulf and Arabia and they favored an alliance with Ibn Saud, the ruler of Nejd in central Arabia rather than with the Hashemites, Amir Hussein’s dynasty, based in the Hedjaz.

The photograph thus features some of the key members of the former Arab Bureau, like T.E. Lawrence (second row, fourth from left) and Hubert Young (second row, first from right), who were now members of the Middle East Department, which Churchill had created the previous year.The Colonial Secretary had thus managed to centralise and monopolise Middle Eastern affairs.This superseded George Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, who, when he was Viceroy of India (1899-1905), had endeavoured to turn the Persian Gulfinto a glacis – or buffer zone – to protect the Raj.[7] Curzon had seen the creation of the Middle East Department with some suspicion, describing it as an attempt on the part of Churchill to become what he called “...a sort of Asiatic Foreign Secretary”.[8]

Cairo, rather than Delhi, now held centre stage and was thecentre of Britain’s Middle Eastern empire, with imperial margins of its own.The photo, which features Sir Geoffrey Archer, the Governor of Somaliland (second row, first from left), Malcolm Stevenson,the High Commissioner for Cyprus(first row, first from left), General Scott, the Governor of Aden (third row, fourth from left) and Major General Edmund Ironside, G.O.C. Persia (first row, second from left), also illustrates the full integration of the Middle East into a wider imperial network.

               The photo also seems to illustrate Britain’s attempt to adapt to the new Wilsonian ethos of peoples’ right to self-determination. While the official picture of the conference has its fair share of British, Oxbridge-educated men, it does include two Iraqis who already had significant political functions bythe Spring of 1921. One was Jafaar al-Askari (second row, right behind Churchill) and the other, who stands between Gertrude Bell and Major-General Atkinson of the Mesopotamia mission, was Sassoon Effendi, later called Sassoon Eskell or Heskail. Both men had been nominated forthe provisional government of Mesopotamia in late 1920 and were respectively Minister of Defence and Finance. While in the Middle East Conference report, SassonHeskail was still addressed and described as an effendi – a notable in Ottoman times. Surprisingly, Jafaar al-Askari’s military rank of general/feriq was not mentioned, whereas the ranks of his British counterparts were, even thosewearing civilian uniforms.

The presence of the Finance and Defence Ministers of the provisional Mesopotamian government illustrates two major and intertwined challenges and problems faced by Britain: how to pay for the administration and defence of these newly-acquired territories and how to defend the land corridor linking Egypt to the Far East. The presence inthe photo of these two members of the Mesopotamian provisional government demonstrated publicly that Britain abided by the spirit of the mandates by encouraging the birth of native institutions, thus paving the way for the establishment of independent nation-states. In fact, however, the two men attended the conference as consultative members and were not included in the Mesopotamia mission. Moreover, they were present with their British counterparts in the Mesopotamian government, S. H. Slater, the Financial Adviser, Pierce Charles Joyce, the Defence Adviser, and Major John Inglis Eadie, the Acting Defence Adviser. Those British advisers were to have a key political role behind the scenes during – and even after – the British mandate in Iraq, which ended in 1932.

Yet for the time being, their presence enabled Britain to present the imagethat they had given up the idea of ruling Iraq directly as if it was an Indian province, a project which had been supported by Arnold T. Wilson and vigorously opposed by T.E. Lawrence, who had insisted on the need to create an Arab government in Iraq.Wilson, who is listed among the participants of the conference as a consultative member due to his role in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, had recently been discharged from Mesopotamia, where he had been Civil Commissioner from 1918 to 1920. The absence of Wilson fromthe photo thus illustrates the victory of the so-called “Lawrentian school”.[9] This debate between two major figures of British imperialism in the Middle East also exemplifies the different and sometimes conflicting wartime experiences of the British in the Middle East, which find themselves temporarily reconciled in the picture. People like Hubert Young, T.E. Lawrence or Gertrude Bell had been involved in both Mesopotamia and the Hedjaz, thus illustrating the circulation of imperial agents between various theaters of war and imperial centres.

               The presence of the only female participant on the photo also signalled that times were changing indeed. Before the war, Gertrude Bell had travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and her writings about the nomadic tribes’ customs and political loyalties had been used by people like David George Hogarth, an archaeologist and keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford who acted as Director of the Arab Bureau in the absence of Mark Sykes. The expertise of Hogarth, Sykes and Bell was based on their scholarly knowledge and travels, but only Bell managed to secure an official political function after the war.

In 1916, she had been invited by Hogarth to be a member of the Arab Bureau and was then sent to India to try and reconcile the authorities of the Raj to the Arab Revolt in the Hedjaz. In Delhi, it was thought that her pre-war travels in Mesopotamia might be of use to the Anglo-Indian Expeditionary Force which had occupied the country in 1914. Bell became a Political Officer the following year, thus receiving a salary for the first time, as she wrote to her friend Valentine Chirol: “I’m officially attached to Sir Percy’s H.Q. And do you know I earn a handsome salary – Rs. 300 a month – which is a great deal more than I ever expected to earn in the course of my life and times.”[10]

After the war, Hogarth went back to the Ashmolean while Sykes died from the Spanish flu. Bell remained in Bagdad and went on to become Oriental Secretary, an important function in the British administration in Iraq – second only to that of High Commissioner. The latter, Percy Cox (first row on Churchill’s right), trusted Bell to keep close relations with the representatives of the different Iraqi communities and reconcile them to the British Mandate. During the Cairo Conference, Bell strongly supported an alliance with the Hashemites – Amir Hussein’s family –and after Faisal was crowned King of Iraq, she became his close adviser. As for Sykes, his name remains associated with the infamous 1916 agreement negotiated with the French and agreed to by the Russians.

Soon after the agreement had been concluded, British men on the spot had reckoned that granting the French a presence in Palestine through its international status was a mistake, as Palestine was dangerously close to Egypt and its sacrosanct Suez Canal. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which pledged British support to the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, was a way of keeping the French at bay. It became the role of Herbert Samuel (first row, left of Churchill) to define Britain’s role towards Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

               Ultimately, the photo also shows that the British were determined to reasserttheir power at this difficult moment and it announces Britain’s domination of the Arab Middle East for the years to come.

               Despite the fact that British rule had been seriously challenged since the end of the war – in Ireland, India, Egypt, Somaliland and in Iraq – the British ignored the notion of popular sovereignty, and in the Middle East they reneged on their 1918 Declaration in which they and the French had promised to help set up governments“deriving their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous populations". In 1919, the conclusions of the American King-Crane Commission, which had noted the desire for Arab unity and independence among the Muslims of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, were also ignored as the USA refused to be further involved in European affairs.

The British did consult some Arab figures, especially Faisal and Abdullah, the sons of sharif Hussein, who was now King of the Hedjaz. Faisal and Abdullah embodied the "sharifian solution"[11] to Britain’s political problems in Iraq and Transjordan. It was during the Cairo Conference that the choice of Faisal as the future King of Iraq was discussed and eventually decided upon. Faisal could count on the support of Lawrence, who had campaigned in his favour since the French had ousted him from Syria, where he had established a short-lived Arab Kingdom (1918-1920). As for Abdullah, whom Churchill met in Jerusalem, he was awarded the lesser prize of Transjordan, where the power vacuum since the end of Faisal’s Syrian kingdom worried the British. The latter were to turn Palestine’s eastern frontier into a buffer state protecting it from the attacks of Ibn Saud’s warriors, the Ikhwan. Thanks to these Arab administrations with two Hashemite rulers at their heads, the British could claim that they respected the spirit of the mandates. Many political dealings thus took place behind the scenes and what was at stake politically is perhaps less directly visible inthe photo than the military aspect of the conference.

               With more than half the men in military uniforms (20 out of 39), including the man with the lion cubs – which were offered to Churchill and ended up in the London Zoo –who is wearing what seems to be the fez and khaki drill of the King’s African Rifles, the picture of the conference confirms the military nature of the discussions and especially the question of air power.[12] To a considerable extent, the conference in Cairo and Jerusalem was convened to solve a major issue: “The arrangements to be made for carrying out British military policy in the Middle East, and the relations between the Colonial Office, and the War Office and Air Ministry.”[13]

The previous interdepartmental discussions in London had been tense, especially because of the aerial control scheme devised for the Middle East by Churchill and Sir Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of Air Staff. The latter’s absence thus stands in sharp contrast with the growing importance of the Royal Air Force as an independent corps, even if the presence of General Ironside (first row, second from right) illustrates the transition that was taking place for military responsibility in the Middle East from the War Office to the Air Ministry. Henry Wilson, the Chief of Imperial General Staff, had mockingly described the plans of Churchill and Trenchard as “Black & Tans, Arabs and aeroplanes” and a few months after the conference as “Hot air, aeroplanes and Arabs”.[14]

These “wild-cat schemes” also reveal that air control relied on ground forces, including native forces. While former Royal Irish Constabulary members were enrolled in the various Palestine Police services after the end of the Irish War of Independence, the Cairo Conference also reasserted the importance of local native paramilitary forces. In order to defend Britain’s lines of communication in the Middle East, internal order and security had to be maintained through local police and gendarmerie forces.

Inthe picture, the then Inspector-General of Darak (gendarmerie) in Transjordan, F. G. Peake, is wearing the lambswool kalpak used byPalestinian local forces and among Circassian soldiers in Transjordan. Jaafar al-Askari on the other hand is wearing the spiked helmet – with the spike off – with flaps and the agal, the same headdress Faisal wore during his coronation a few months later. In Mesopotamia, the air control scheme depended on the maintenance not only of local paramilitary forces but also on the formation of a national army. This choice, which had already been contemplated during the war by the occupying authorities was not applied to Palestine or Transjordan – nor in Syria or Lebanon, which makes Iraq a unique case.

               The year 1921 thus witnessed the creation of two sharifian regimes in Iraq and Transjordan and is still considered as a landmark event in Middle Eastern and imperial history.

               If the Cairo Conference did mobilize key figures of the British political and military circles involved in Middle Eastern policy, not “everybody Middle East” was actually inthe picture. The case of Ronald Storrs, who had been so instrumental in securing the wartime alliance with sharif Hussein and who went on to play a key role in Palestine, comes to mind. So does the example of the Kirkbride brothers in Transjordan, or that of Gilbert Clayton, also a former member of the Arab Bureau who later became involved in the administration of Palestine and Iraq, where he was ambassador for a short time just before his death in 1929. In the same way, Kinahan “Ken” Cornwallis played a decisive role as British ambassador in Iraq during the Second World War.

Even those present inthe picture are sometimes little-known military officers, like Frederick Gerard Peake, the commander-in-chief of the Transjordanian Arab Legion, or John Inglis Eadie of the British staff of the Iraq Army. Less famous than Lawrence, those men remained in the Middle Eastfor more than ten years, just like Gertrude Bell, who remained in Iraq until her death in 1926. They embodied an old imperial lineage and were able to perpetuate and transform old imperial networks in order to shape what Elizabeth Monroe called Britain’s moment in the Middle East.[15]


A one-day conference will take place in Toulouse, France, on 22 April, to reflect on the Cairo Conference and its legacies, more than a century after those momentous decisions were taken. It is organized by the CAS research team of Toulouse Jean Jaurès University, in partnership with the Académie des Sciences, Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. More information is available here: https://cas.univ-tlse2.fr/accueil-cas/empire-and-after/la-conference-du-caire-de-mars-1921-ou-comment-les-britanniques-remodelerent-le-moyen-orient-il-y-a-100-ans  






[1] Quoted in Christopher Catherwood, Churchill’s Folly, Imperialism and the Creation of Modern Iraq, London, Constable, 2004, p. 127.


[3]Churchill papers: 17/19, W. Churchill’s telegram to Sir Warren Fisher, Cairo, 18/03/1921 in GILBERT Martin, Winston S. Churchill Companion Volume IV Part 2 July 1919-March 1921, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978, p. 1400.

[4] See James Onley, The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj, Merchants, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf, Oxford, OUP, 2007.

[5] John Darwin, "An undeclared empire: the British in the Middle East, 1918-1939", The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 27:2, p. 165.

[6] See Jeffery A. Rudd, “Irak or Iraq? The Problem of Geographical Nomenclature in British Official Use” in Asher Susser and Aryeh  Shmuelevitz (ed.), The Hashemites in the Modern Arab World. Essays in Honour of the late Professor Uriel Dann, London, Franck Cass, 2005 (1st ed. 1995), pp. 111-138.

[7]See Robert Blyth, The Empire of the Raj: India, Eastern Africa and the Middle East, 1858-1947, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 15-37 and Guillemette Crouzet, Genèses du Moyen-Orient: le golfepersique à l’âge des imperialismes (vers 1800-vers 1914), Paris, Champ Vallon, 2015.

[8] Quoted in Richard Toye, Churchill’s Empire. The World That Made Him and the World He Made, London, Macmillan, 2010, p. 143. 

[9]Timothy Paris, Britain, the Hashemites and Arab Rule 1920-1925, London, Franck Cass, 2003, pp. 82-102.

[10] Letter from Gertrude Bell to Valentine Chirol, 13 September 1917, Francis Balfour private papers, Sudan Archive, Durham University, 303/4/195-198.

[11] Timothy Paris, Britain, the Hashemites and Arab Rule, 1920-1925: The Sherifian Solution (London: Frank Cass, 2003). 

[12] See David Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control. The Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990).

[13] TNA, CO 935/1/1 : “Report of the Interdepartmental Committee Appointed by the Prime Minister to Make Recommendations as to the Formation of a New Department under the Colonial Office to deal with Mandated and other Territories in the Middle East”, Middle East Conference Report, p. 19.

[14] The last version “Hot air, aeroplanes and Arabs” seems to be the most popular in the historiography but it is difficult to trace back its first appearance under the hand of H. Wilson. It seems that he used it on several occasions in his correspondence or diaries and remolded it depending on whether it referred to Palestine or Mesopotamia.

[15] Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (London: Chatto &Windus, 1963). 

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