The Hijaz on the Eve of War
On 15 January 1914 İstanbul appointed Vehib Pasha to the dual post of governor and commander of the forces in the Hijaz. While the Unionists valued the services of Sharif Husayn in restoring relative order to the region and in furthering government influence in Arabia, the appointment of a high-ranking general to the combined post signified the intention of İstanbul to strengthen its direct authority in the Hijaz. This decision was motivated, on the one hand, by the revival of rumors of an alliance of Arabian tribal chiefs under an Arab caliph, and, on the other hand, by the intensifying competition between the Ottoman and British governments for the allegiance of local Arabian potentates.
The notion of an “Arab caliphate” had persisted not as a well-conceived program, which it never had become, but as an expression of defiance to the Ottoman government in view of its political instability and foreign complications. Rumors of a meeting of Arab leaders to discuss the issue of the Arab caliphate, that had circulated as early as the end of 1912, became rife at the beginning of 1914. The scheme, which never came to fruition, had to do with the activities of a secret organization called Al-jami‘a al-‘arabiyya (Arab League) established by Rashid Rida in Cairo with the aim of creating “a union between the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.” Rida corresponded with Ibn Sa‘ud and sent a representative, ‘Izzat al-Jundi, to Imam Yahya and Idrisi.
The idea of an Arab caliphate and a conference among Arab chiefs (none of whom would wish to be left out of such a scheme) may have been encouraged by the British, who, in view of the impending German presence in the Persian Gulf by way of the Baghdad Railway, had intensified their efforts to bring Arabian chiefs to the British fold. This British desire was best exemplified by the pressure that London exerted on the Ottoman government in 1913 to conclude an agreement that would extend British influence in Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. There were also renewed contacts between Sharif ‘Abdullah and the British authorities in Egypt at the beginning of 1914. According to Tauber, Rashid Rida presented ‘Abdullah during the latter’s stay in Cairo with a “programme for a pact among the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula” and proposed Sharif Husayn as the president of the council of the pact at meetings to be held in Mecca.
In reference to Sharif Husayn’s alleged contacts with the principal chiefs of Arabia, the French consul ascribed the strain between İstanbul and the emirate to the sharif’s unsuccessful bid to have a third son, ‘Ali, elected deputy in the 1914 elections. Medina, where Sharif ‘Ali was alleged to have stood as candidate, was by 1914 under the irreversible direct control of İstanbul. The consul attributed the Ottoman government’s more energetic policy in the Hijaz to Husayn’s contacts with British agents in Egypt and suggested that a possible replacement of Husayn with Haydar was under consideration in İstanbul.
Having resolved the reformist agitation in the Fertile Crescent, İstanbul could now turn to Arabia. Escalating neoimperialist rivalries around the Peninsula and the logic of centralist and Islamist policies warranted the new attention to the holy cities and beyond. The intention was not to revamp the established power relations, but rather to preserve them. The government’s decision to appoint Vehib to his dual role was not meant to supersede the grand sharif’s power but to remind him of the limits of his authority, though Vehib himself took a different view of the situation in the province of the Hijaz.
Upon his arrival in Mecca in January, Vehib set out to address the irregularities in the government of the Hijaz. At the same time, the sharif demonstrated his local authority by inciting tribes to insubordination. One of Vehib’s first acts was to deprive the sharif’s personal Beduin guards of the arms previously given to them by the government, prompting Husayn to issue a diatribe against the new governor. Judging by Husayn’s communications with İstanbul, Vehib interfered in the illegal practice of slave owning by trying to draft black slaves to the army and censored postal communication between the Hijaz and the outside. Husayn argued that the governor would obliterate his own efforts to maintain the peace and security in the province. He enumerated his many services to the government. At the Ministry of the Interior Talat dismissed Husayn’s remarks as impressionistic, emotional, and devoid of any specific and concrete grievances. However, aware of the sharif’s son’s connections with the British, İstanbul wanted to preempt an agreement between Sharif Husayn and Britain.
In March 1914 Vehib, doubtless upon the urging of İstanbul, drafted with the sharif a joint letter recommending the continuation of the status quo in the Hijaz. Grand Vizier Sa‘id Halim’s reply affirmed the status quo: the Medina-Mecca railway idea was abandoned; there would be no conscription in the Hijaz; and religious law would be in full effect in the courts, except in cases involving foreigners. The British agent described the terms endorsed by the government as “compliance with all of Sharif Husayn’s requests except the recall of the vali.” While a formal official pledge on these matters was symbolically significant for the sharif, it had little practical value. İstanbul had been at best ambivalent about any extension of the railway; conscription had been attempted by Vehib but already abandoned in the face of Beduin resistance; and the concession to religious law in the holy places had a political rationale from local, imperial, and international viewpoints.
Indeed, to the governor, the understanding with the sharif was as much a formal delimitation of prerogatives as a concession. It was followed by Vehib’s unrelenting attack on misgovernment, arbitrary practices, and self-assumed privileges in the Hijaz. From April to August 1914 Vehib dispatched a string of reports to İstanbul to justify his conviction that the administration of the province should be revamped and the sharif be replaced. İstanbul closely monitored Vehib’s reports, but consistently urged conciliation and the maintenance of the status quo.
The governor persistently and eloquently related to İstanbul what he perceived as the deliberate attempts of the sharif to diminish state authority by arrogating privileges to himself, by assuming ceremonial trappings, and by dispensing with patronage and justice to the discredit of government authority. According to the governor, the grand sharif used the military police assigned to the emirate for his personal affairs. Always eager to exploit state authority for his personal benefit, he made these soldiers collect the taxes that went to his own account. The governor saw a more insidious motive beyond this practice: by employing uniformed men for the much feared and hated task of tax collection, the sharif ensured popular hatred of state authority while filling his own pocket. Vehib recommended that either these men be stripped of their uniforms or taken away from the sharif. He also pointed to Husayn’s practice of registering large tracts of state land in his own name and dispensing some of it to others, contrary to all established laws and practices.
Further, the governor attacked the sharif’s ceremonial suite of attendants, who received government salaries even though they provided no worthwhile services. Similarly, he regarded the emirate’s jails (upon which the sharif had independent jurisdiction) with their arbitrary practices and wretched conditions as serving no other purpose than embarrassing the government, and in particular called for the demolition of the prison in Taif. Vehib lamented the desolate condition of the tomb of Midhat Pasha in the same town and asked for the transfer of Midhat’s tomb to İstanbul alongside the graves of the heroes of the revolution.
The governor and the grand sharif disagreed over priorities and jurisdiction. Vehib took issue with the sharif’s demand to accord top priority in construction projects to those related to the pilgrimage. He wanted to reimpose the controversial sanitation tax, to which Husayn would consent only if the proceeds entered the emirate’s treasury. The governor accused Sharif Husayn of spreading slanderous rumors in order to have certain government officials removed in favor of his own men and of inciting rebellious acts against government forces.
İstanbul continued to respond to Vehib’s reports by urging conciliation, advising that on matters such as the sharif’s usurpation of state lands measures would be taken at the suitable time. The Ministry of the Interior prevented Vehib from provoking the sharif when, for instance, it denied Vehib permission to make an investigative tour up the coast and returning along the eastern route through tribal regions where Husayn’s authority was paramount. The governor, however, continued to argue against the government’s conciliatory policies, insisting that they would fail. Finally, in July 1914 he advised “for the sake of Ottomanism” that Sharif Husayn should be dismissed and replaced by his frail predecessor, ‘Ali, for Husayn desired the downfall of the state. Vehib urged that Husayn’s two sons serving in Parliament should not be allowed to leave the capital. Both Vehib and the authorities in İstanbul were certainly aware of Sharif ‘Abdullah’s contacts in Cairo, if not their precise nature. As İstanbul once again exhorted Vehib to get along with the sharif, Vehib concluded that either he should be transferred to another post or Sharif Husayn be dismissed, as friendly relations with the sharif were no longer possible. He added that he was convinced that Sharif Husayn would not forego the smallest opportunity to cooperate with the enemy should there be a hostile attack against the Red Sea coast.