The Ottoman Empire

Page 7 – Rise of Arab nationalism

The Ottoman Empire had exercised formal sovereignty over the lands of Arabia since the early 16th century. For much of that time it had ruled with a comparatively light touch, garrisoning key trading ports and maintaining an official presence in the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but otherwise leaving the region and its nomadic tribal clans to their own devices.

By comparison, the rural Arab populations of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt were much more settled than their counterparts in Arabia and were subject to direct control by the Ottoman imperial administration. The inhabitants of these regions largely accepted this arrangement: Arab (Sunni) Muslims faced little, if any, discrimination for most of the empire’s history and in fact came to dominate the local Ottoman imperial administration.

Through these different approaches the Ottoman Turks maintained the loyalty of their diverse Muslim Arab subjects.

But as the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War in 1914 this loyalty could no longer be taken for granted, for two reasons. The first was the growth of a nascent Arab nationalism that drew inspiration from 19th-century Western ideas. Some Arabs looked to the nationalist movements of the Slavic (and mostly Christian) minorities of the Ottoman Balkan territories, which had, by the end of 1912, all won their independence. This Arab nationalism was largely fostered by educated urban elites – intellectuals, civil servants and former or serving officers in the Ottoman Army – living in great Arab cities like Damascus and Baghdad. A number of secret societies were formed, although none of these succeeded in spreading their ideas to the wider Arab population before the outbreak of the First World War.

The second unsettling factor was the completion in 1908 of the Hejaz railway, which provided a direct link between Medina and Damascus, greatly facilitating Ottoman access to the Arabian interior. When it opened, Ottoman authorities emphasised the benefits to Muslims undertaking the religious obligation of the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

But traditional Arab clan leaders in the Hejaz region were quick to realise that a train that could deliver 1000 devout pilgrims overnight from Damascus could also swiftly deliver 1000 imperial tax collectors, customs inspectors and other bureaucrats – or 1000 heavily armed Ottoman soldiers. This intrusion was especially resented by the Hashemite clan, who ruled the region and could claim descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammed. The clan’s leader in 1914 was 61-year-old Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, a regional figure of considerable standing and political acumen.

By 1914 unrest had already broken out among the tribes of the central Arabian interior, where Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, in alliance with the Wahabi Islamist movement, openly condemned the Ottoman government of the Young Turks as anti-Islamic. At the same time the implementation of the government’s pan-Turkic nationalist agenda alienated many of the empire's previously loyal Arab subjects in Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. The city-based Arab nationalist groups were quick to exploit the seeds of a popular Arab backlash against Enver Pasha and the Young Turks for their own ends.

The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War in November 1914 provided the final spark for outright revolt. The British, through their control of Egypt and the port of Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea, were reasonably well informed about the unrest brewing in Ottoman Arabia. In fact, just before the war broke out, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali sent one of his sons, Emir Abdullah ibn Hussein, on a secret mission to Egypt to contact the British military commander-in-chief there, Lord Kitchener. What support, if any, could he expect from the British if he rebelled against his Ottoman overlords? The response was cautious and qualified, but not discouraging. When war came the British quickly positioned themselves as the principal backers of the Hashemite cause.

Covert British shipments of weapons and money from Egypt to Arabia continued throughout 1915, allowing Sharif Hussein ibn Ali to expand his tribal alliances and build up his forces while waiting for the most opportune moment to strike. He also made contact with the main Arab nationalist movement in Syria, the urban-based al-Fatat group, which greatly expanded the potential of the rebellion. By combining the nomadic Arabian clans’ ability to field large numbers of fighting men with the pan-Arab nationalist agenda of al-Fatat, Hussein ibn Ali ensured that the revolt he started would have far-reaching consequences.

How to cite this page

'Rise of Arab nationalism', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Jul-2014