Thursday, February 06, 2014

Faisal and the Making of Iraq

In a new biography of Iraq's King Faisal I, Ali Allawi argues that monarch has been underrated as a statesman:
History has not been kind to King Faisal I of Iraq. The received view is that he was a failure, since the British-backed monarchy he helped to establish was swept away by a military coup in 1958. Some Arab nationalists have gone further, branding him a traitor to their cause and a slave to the imperialists...
But Mr Allawi sees him as a statesman and a nation-builder. He argues that Faisal (not Cox nor his colleague Gertrude Bell) was the real maker of modern Iraq. Through his skilful use of Arabic as well as British sources, he portrays Faisal as a convincing multi-dimensional figure. He was a man of charm and intelligence, but highly strung and subject to abrupt mood swings. To his doctors’ frustration, he was a workaholic and a compulsive chain-smoker. As Mr Allawi concedes, he became more autocratic as he remained in power.
Yet Faisal had a humane vision for a modern and tolerant Iraq. He abhorred sectarianism—to this day, the poison in the Iraqi bloodstream—and did his utmost to reach out to the country’s Shia majority, which resented rule by a Sunni Arab elite. He championed a more measured and pragmatic nationalism than the “strident, volatile and angry” kind exemplified by those who came after him.
It wouldn't surprise me if there were a lot more to Faisal than the conventional narrative would have it.  I'm not a specialist, but these early 20th-century Arab leaders always seemed more to be using connections with European powers as one tool in their own political strategies, and not just acting as compliant puppets.  In Faisal's case, however, there is still the "original sin" of having been chosen for Iraq by the British, which means even his own actions as king in some manner stem from their interference in Iraqi politics.

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