Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)

Contrary to general perception, the century-old Sykes-Picot Agreement should not be held responsible for the failure of many Arab states. Those failures are caused mainly by poor governance, poor utilization of natural resources, social inequality, weak education system and unnecessarily protracted conflicts.

Was the Sykes-Picot Agreement a conspiracy? If we assume for a moment that it really was a conspiracy then why is this issue being raised after a century.

The agreement was named after Mark Sykes of the British War Office and French Consul in Beirut Francois Picot. It was formulated and supervised by two superpowers of that time i.e. Great Britain and France. Ironically, not many people know much about a third party that was involved in this agreement. Not even historians mention that party in books, which are famous for conspiracy theories in the region.

Tsarist Russia was the third signatory to the agreement. Russia was promised control of Istanbul, all Turkish Straits and parts of eastern Anatolia.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement wasn’t the only agreement that was secretly signed during that period. In 1916 World War I was underway. During major wars, many such deals are signed in public or behind closed doors. Many of them are temporary strategic deals that are meant to change the course of a war. During wars, you try to win as many friends to your side as possible.

More ironic is the fact that when the French and British were planning for an agreement that would increase their influence and expand their control in the Middle East, there was another agreement taking place and not much different from the Sykes-Picot Agreement. That agreement was signed between Turkey and Germany. According to that deal, in case the central powers won the war, Turkey would regain control of three provinces relinquished to Russia in 1878. The central powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

It is clear that the Sykes-Picot Agreement and/ or any other agreement were not only aimed at dividing the Arab world but was the eventual outcome of a world war. So, why, this 100-year-old agreement is still talked about and blamed for all the events in the Middle East? The answer is easy. We just love and enjoy conspiracy theory because it is the easiest way to pass the buck to others without taking the responsibility of our own actions. What if it were true that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was a well-crafted conspiracy to divide the Arab world and keep it divided?

If Sykes-Picot was really a conspiracy, why it took the Arab world to realize this after more than 100 years and why is the Arab world unable to the change the course of events?

The agreement didn’t materialize two years after the end of the WWI, which ended in 1918. At that time air supremacy was distant dream and countries relied on their maritime or naval power. So, all superpowers at the time had their eyes on coastal territories. And both France and Britain were after the Mediterranean coastal areas. Britain wanted to be close to its territories in the area and France wanted proximity to its colonial territories in Northern Africa, mainly Algiers. At the end of the day, Arab countries were divided. But, again, this was 100 years ago. They could have reunited again if they had a genuine will to do so. As a matter of fact, it is the opposite. The Arab countries were not only divided, but there are internal divisions among people of the same country.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed at a time when there was no Soviet Union. Europe’s map was different and even the world’s new industrial superpower the United States of America comprised only 48 states.

After a century, many in the Arab world are still stuck in the past. One should look at the past only to learn from it but unnecessary obsession of the past is unhealthy and obstructs growth. After WWI and WWII, many countries rose from the ashes. Many countries were divided and many others were united. In 100 years, the world saw new powers rise and dominate the globe and the world also saw old world powers disintegrate. The world changes at a faster pace than in the past and countries continue to switch alliances according to their interests. Until the mid 1970s a war was raging between the US and Vietnam, which was backed by China. Today, it is the Vietnamese seeking US military intervention to stop the Chinese from its military expansion in the South China Sea. Is this an American- Vietnamese conspiracy against the Chinese or is it just a geopolitical fact?

Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. Moving Forward from Sykes-Picot reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.