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.