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  • Ammar Ahmad

Churchill's Drunken Hand

In June 1921, Winston Churchill, then serving as Britain's Colonial Secretary, found himself tasked with drawing the borders of the newly created states of Iraq and Jordan (quite a hefty task!) [1]. The process of creating these borders would have significant implications for the region, shaping its political and social landscape for generations to come, and it was up to little Churchill.


Although he’s often remembered as a wartime leader and a stalwart defender of British values (by the West, of course…), he’s also had a “legacy” in the Middle East for essentially creating the borders of modern-day Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Far from being a visionary statesman, Churchill was a product of his time: a representative of a British imperial power that sought to shape the world according to its own interests, often at the expense of the people who lived there.


Over the course of his political career, he supervised the British Empire's expansion and maintenance in various capacities, from his time as a young officer in India to his tenure as Colonial Secretary [2]. This experience left its mark on Churchill, shaping his worldview and contributing to his reputation as a fierce defender of British interests worldwide. He was basically the hot, new face of neo-colonialism!


In the years following World War I, the British Empire sought to redraw the map of the Middle East, in part to secure its strategic interests in the region and in part to “fulfill” its obligations to Arab leaders who had helped it defeat the Ottoman Empire. What political leaders in the Middle East didn’t know about was the fact that following the Ottoman partition, France and Britain signed a secret treaty (called the Sykes-Picot Agreement) that would delegate how the two Western powers would maintain influence in the Middle East [3]. That way, the British would control modern-day Iraq and Jordan while maintaining influence in parts of Kuwait. Meanwhile, the French would control Syria while maintaining influence in modern-day northern Syria and Turkey. They basically saw the land as a fat piece of cake that they could divide up between themselves. And the worst part? They didn’t inform major Arab leaders about any of this morally bankrupt plan. Sneaky, huh?

Map from the Sykes-Picot Agreement, delineating areas of influence agreed upon between the British and French


The location of the Ottoman Empire offered the possibility of becoming a formidable naval force in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and Red Sea. However, following their involvement in the war with Germany, the Ottoman Empire's dominion over these key regions was viewed as a realpolitik threat to Britain's policymakers moving forward. That’s why the British were keen on helping the Arabs gain independence from the Ottomans. They didn’t care about the independence; they had another horse in the race.

So, once the Ottoman Empire collapsed on November 1st, 1922, the British (and French) were all set on how the land was to be divided. And this was part of a bigger (and more sinister plan) to defeat and crush any collective pan-Arabian movement (no more Mediterranean threat!). A movement like this (which reached peak support around the 1950s) encouraged the economic and political cooperation of Middle Eastern and North African countries and the riddance of Western imperialism (basically, something like the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization today) [4]. But what was the threat of such a union? Why was the West so deliberately involved in the Middle East? Well, it’s because such a collective threatens the exploitative influence that the West has over the Middle East. A unified force jeopardizes the unipolar dominance the West had over the world, and that’s precisely why Britain and France were calculated in their orchestration of these borders.


The British drew arbitrary borders that cut across ethnic and religious lines, creating new states that were often unstable and riven by conflict. Churchill's goal was to create a series of weak and divided states that would be dependent on British power and would not endanger British interests in the region.


So, what do these borders even look like? Let’s look at the “hiccup” part of the border.

Although the Jordan-Saudi Arabia border was re-delimited in 1965, "Churchill's hiccup" is still visible in the triangular section of border to the north.


The border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, beginning at the Gulf of Aqaba, displays an unusual geography (to say the least). The border consists of six short, straight lines that are connected in a manner reminiscent of a chain gang struggling to determine a common direction. Suddenly, however, the border takes an astonishing 90-mile turn northwest toward the southern Lebanese coast, only to regain its bearings and proceed nearly 130 miles northeast in a near-straight line toward the Iraqi border, as if desperate to escape the confusion and convolution of its earlier trajectory. Churchill's hazy border has one major problem: its triangular shape has no basis in geography or politics.


While the geopolitical implications of these facts may be relevant even today, the origin story behind the Jordanian-Saudi border's odd shape is attributed to a relatively trivial cause — Winston Churchill's fondness for alcohol, specifically champagne, brandy, and whisky. It’s rumored that he enjoyed a libation-laden lunch on the day in question [5]. This was perhaps not the most advisable course of action when, you know, dealing with the complex web of interests represented by local governments, nomadic groups, and other political stakeholders in an area as politically volatile as this. As a result of this indulgence, the stretch of border in question has been given the moniker of "Winston's Hiccup" or, in more delicate terms, "Churchill's Sneeze." After sketching out the boundaries of the region then known as Trans-Jordan, Churchill is said to have boasted that he had created an entire country "with a stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon in Cairo” [6]. Sounds like something an egotistical maniac would say, right?


Churchill publicly stated that the creation of new states was a means of spreading British influence and culture throughout the region while also bringing modernity and progress to the people who lived there. Despite this being a bunch of nonsense, it’s also worth noting that with even the best moral hyper-rationalization, Churchill still came off in an orientalist and demeaning way. It’s just that classic British white savior complex that sabotaged so many cultures!


Anyway, the reality of creating new states in the Middle East was far more complex than Churchill's neo-colonial rhetoric suggested. The region was home to a multitude of ethnic and religious groups, each with its own interests and desires. Thus, in pursuing this goal, Churchill ignored the wishes of the people who lived there. He paid little attention to the ethnic and religious divisions that existed in the Middle East and instead drew borders that reflected British interests rather than local realities. In doing so, he set the stage for decades of instability and conflict in the region as different groups vied for power and influence within these new states. It was also about the exercise of power and the ways in which imperial interests shaped the region's political and economic landscape [7]. The creation of Iraq and Jordan was not just a matter of technical expertise; it was a political act, one that reflected the self-serving priorities and interests of the British Empire.


We’ve already established that Britain's history as a colonial power has left a lasting legacy. But we should emphasize that the effects of imperialism are still visible today. Sure, Britain no longer holds the same level of direct control over its former colonies. But it continues to maintain imperialist structures in various ways. Let’s explore that.


British imperialism in Jordan officially ended in 1946 when Jordan gained independence from Britain. However, the legacy of British colonialism can still be seen in various aspects of Jordanian society and politics today. One notable example is the influence of the British-educated Jordanian elite in the country's political and economic spheres. Many of Jordan's political and business leaders were educated in British institutions, and the country's political culture and institutions still reflect some of the values and practices of British colonialism. Take today’s Jordanian king, Abdullah II. He received his secondary education at St. Edmund's School in Surrey, England, as well as Eaglebrook School and Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, United States. In 1980, he pursued his military education at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the United Kingdom. From that, I think it’s safe to say that by virtue of his Western higher education, the king’s ideology was destined to be a Eurocentric one.


So, besides its literal king receiving a formal education in Britain, the British have had other influences on the region. For instance, Jordan's legal system has roots in English common law, and its parliamentary system is modeled after the British system. Also, Jordan has maintained ongoing military and intelligence cooperation with Britain. The two countries have collaborated on a range of military initiatives, and in recent years, the British have provided training and equipment to the Jordanian military and intelligence services [8]. Overall, while the formal era of British imperialism in Jordan ended decades ago, the legacy of colonialism can still be seen in various aspects of Jordanian society and politics.


This colonial history didn’t just hurt regions such as the Middle East. Britain's colonial history has also left a lasting impact on its domestic institutions. Institutions such as the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the legal system have all been shaped by Britain's imperial past. These institutions continue to be seen as symbols of British power and influence and are often used to justify continued British dominance in global affairs. One instance of this imperialist legacy is Britain's immigration policies and treatment of minority communities [9]. The Windrush scandal, in which members of the Windrush generation were wrongly detained and deported, is a clear example of how Britain's immigration policies continue to reflect a colonial mentality [10]. The ongoing discrimination and marginalization of Black and minority ethnic communities in Britain also reflect the country's legacy of racism and imperialism. So, it’s not like the imperialist structures of Britain have harmed the world or anything…


Anyways, Churchill's small blunder serves as a lighthearted anecdote, potentially factual, undoubtedly absurd, and evidently revealing of the arbitrary influences that can affect the creation of borders.


And this reality was not lost on the people of the Middle East! The creation of new states was met with skepticism and resistance, as people across the region saw it as a continuation of the imperial project that had dominated their lives for generations. Ultimately, Winston’s Hiccup serves as an important tale of how strong of a grip the British had on the Middle East. With such a careless means of exercising power, the borders that Churchill drew in 1921 would go on to shape the region's political and social landscape for decades to come. This would create the conditions for the conflicts and tensions that continue to define the region to this day.


Notes

[1] Frank Jacobs, “Winston’s Hiccup”, Journal Article, 2012.


[2] Robert Blake and William Robert Louis, Churchill, Biography, 1993.


[3] Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, “Sykes-Picot Agreement”, Treaty, 1916.


[4] Barry Rubin, “Pan-Arab Nationalism: The Ideological Dream as Compelling Force”, Journal Article, 1991.


[5] Emily Bell, “Winston’s Hiccup: Blame Jordan’s Odd Border On A Very Liquid Lunch”, Journal Article, 2016.


[6] Con Coughlin, “The West cannot afford a revolution in Jordan”, Journal Article, 2021.


[7] Lawrence Tal, “Britain and the Jordan Crisis of 1958”, Journal Article, 1995.


[8] Yoav Alon, The Making of Jordan Tribes, Colonialism, and the Modern State, Book, 2007.


[9] Edwin Rios, “Queen’s death intensifies criticism of British empire’s violent atrocities”, Journal Article, 2022.


[10] Amelia Gentleman, “Windrush scandal caused by ‘30 years of racist immigration laws’”, News Report, 2021.


References

Alon, Yoav. The Making of Jordan: Tribes, Colonialism and the Modern State. London, United Kingdom: I.B. Tauris, 2007.


Bell, Emily. “Winston's Hiccup: Blame Jordan's Odd Border on a Very Liquid Lunch.” VinePair. VinePair, May 7, 2021. https://vinepair.com/articles/winston-churchill-hiccup-jordan-border/.


Blake, Robert Blake, and William Roger Louis. Churchill. Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon, 1996.


Coughlin, Con. “The West Cannot Afford a Revolution in Jordan.” The Telegraph, April 7, 2021. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/04/07/west-cannot-afford-revolution-jordan/.


Gentleman, Amelia. “Windrush Scandal Caused by '30 Years of Racist Immigration Laws' – Report.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, May 29, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/may/29/windrush-scandal-caused-by-30-years-of-racist-immigration-laws-report.


Jacobs, Frank. “Winston's Hiccup.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 6, 2012. https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/winstons-hiccup/.


Rios, Edwin. “Queen's Death Intensifies Criticism of British Empire's Violent Atrocities.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 10, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/sep/10/queen-death-colonies-atrocities-british-empire.


Rubin, Barry. “Pan-Arab Nationalism: The Ideological Dream as Compelling Force - JSTOR.” JSTOR, September 1991. https://www.jstor.org/stable/260659.

Sykes, Mark, and François Georges Picot. “The Sykes-Picot Agreement : 1916.” The Avalon Project : The sykes-picot agreement : 1916, 2008. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/sykes.asp.


Tal, Lawrence. “Britain and the Jordan Crisis of 1958 - JSTOR.” JSTOR, January 1995. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4283698.pdf.

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