How World War I Made the Modern Middle East

Reviewing four recent histories of the Ottoman empire during World War I, Donald Yerxa argues that the Middle Eastern theater was far more than a sideshow to the conflict, and that the war was the region’s formative event—although in ways that are often misunderstood. He writes:

Rob Johnson [in The Great War and the Middle East], . . . focuses less on tactics and operations than on the strategic calculations of decision-makers struggling to secure their respective empires. He accomplishes his goal admirably. At the same time, however, he cautions us to avoid the temptation to view the conflict in the Middle East as purely a Western imperial affair. Local actors played significant roles. This is an important point, one that is especially pertinent in the face of the often-heard refrain that Westerners are the primary cause for the Middle East’s troubles down to the present. . . .

Four days [after formally joining the Central Powers on November 10, 1914], the Ottoman sultan Mehmed V declared an Islamic holy war against the Entente powers. . . . [T]he sultan held the religious office of caliph, which theoretically made him the leader of the global Muslim community. The call to jihad was something that the German Kaiser had hoped would create major problems for [Britain and France]. The British especially worried about its impact in India (one-third of the Indian Army was Muslim) and Egypt. . . . Muslims, however, remained largely unresponsive to the sultan’s appeal. . . .

[For its part], Britain courted rival claimants for power in Arabia: Sharif Hussein, head of the Hashemite dynasty and protector of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Hejaz on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, whose family held sway in much of central Arabia (Najd). London- and Cairo-based diplomats centered their attention on Hussein and seemed to offer him Arab independence (with the exception of Basra and Baghdad) as a reward for leading a revolt against the Ottomans. But Delhi-oriented representatives based in Bahrain made similar promises to Abdul-Aziz. The contest for control over Arabia between the Hashemite and Saudi families would continue well beyond the end of the war.

In the midst of these conflicting understandings, Sharif Hussein launched the so-called Arab Revolt in June 1916, in an effort to gain British support for his claim to control all of Arabia. Despite the impression given in T. E. Lawrence’s account and the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, the Arab Revolt was a relatively small-scale affair of basically uncoordinated attacks on Ottoman forces that had very little military impact. Though Hussein’s forces were able to capture a number of Arabian Red Sea ports—most notably Aqaba in July 1917—they did so against very weak Ottoman opposition and with a very substantial British subvention.

Read more at Books and Culture

More about: History & Ideas, Middle East, Ottoman Empire, Saudi Arabia, T. E. Lawrence

The ICJ’s Vice-President Explains What’s Wrong with Its Recent Ruling against Israel

It should be obvious to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Gaza war that Israel is not committing genocide there, or anything even remotely akin to it. In response to such spurious accusations, it’s often best to focus on the mockery they make of international law itself, or on how Israel can most effectively combat them. Still, it is also worth stopping to consider the legal case on its own terms. No one has done this quite so effectively, to my knowledge, as the Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde, who is the vice-president of the ICJ and the only one of its judges to rule unequivocally in Israel’s favor both in this case and in the previous one where it found accusations of genocide “plausible.”

Sebutinde begins by questioning the appropriateness of the court ruling on this issue at all:

Once again, South Africa has invited the Court to micromanage the conduct of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Such hostilities are exclusively governed by the laws of war (international humanitarian law) and international human-rights law, areas where the Court lacks jurisdiction in this case.

The Court should also avoid trying to enforce its own orders. . . . Is the Court going to reaffirm its earlier provisional measures every time a party runs to it with allegations of a breach of its provisional measures? I should think not.

Sebutinde also emphasizes the absurdity of hearing this case after Israel has taken “multiple concrete actions” to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians since the ICJ’s last ruling. In fact, she points out, “the evidence actually shows a gradual improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the Court’s order.” She brings much evidence in support of these points.

She concludes her dissent by highlighting the procedural irregularities of the case, including a complete failure to respect the basic rights of the accused:

I find it necessary to note my serious concerns regarding the manner in which South Africa’s request and incidental oral hearings were managed by the Court, resulting in Israel not having sufficient time to file its written observations on the request. In my view, the Court should have consented to Israel’s request to postpone the oral hearings to the following week to allow for Israel to have sufficient time to fully respond to South Africa’s request and engage counsel. Regrettably, as a result of the exceptionally abbreviated timeframe for the hearings, Israel could not be represented by its chosen counsel, who were unavailable on the dates scheduled by the Court.

It is also regrettable that Israel was required to respond to a question posed by a member of the Court over the Jewish Sabbath. The Court’s decisions in this respect bear upon the procedural equality between the parties and the good administration of justice by the Court.

Read more at International Court of Justice

More about: Gaza War 2023, ICC, International Law