A century after the Ottomans — (II) The Hashemites

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Hashemite rule has been among the most enduring political structures in the Levant in the century since the fall of the Ottomans, writes Tarek Osman


As highlighted in the first article in this series, the army of Sultan (later King) Abdel-Aziz Al Saud advanced from Najd in the centre of the Arabian Peninsula towards the Hashemites’ centuries-old homeland of Al-Hijaz in the 1920s and drove them out of the Peninsula.  

On his way into exile, Sharif Hussein, the leader of the Hashemites who had cooperated with the British against the Ottomans during World War I in the hope of establishing a pan-Arab kingdom, stopped in Ismailia in Egypt where members of the Egyptian monarchy held a banquet in his honour. As some of those who had attended the dinner later commented, the Sharif (a title designating descent from the Prophet Mohamed) was in a melancholy mood, reflecting on the kingdom that never came to pass.

History vindicated the Sharif, however. Two of his sons came to rule kingdoms in the Levant. Faisal was declared King of Syria, until the French army quashed the nascent monarchy in its infancy. Several British military intelligence officers had held Faisal in high regard, however, and he went on to establish a Hashemite Kingdom in Iraq. His older brother, Abdullah, became King of Jordan, a country that was created in the period immediately after the end of World War I.

Although Faisal’s grandson, King Faisal II, was brutally murdered in the coup that later ended the Hashemite Kingdom in Iraq, the Jordanian Kingdom has endured and managed to entrench itself in the Levant.

Hashemite rule in the Levant was a unique political project with three distinct features.

First, the Hashemites anchored their rule on Islamic legitimacy, given their descent from the Prophet Mohamed. Hashemite power has always had a religious hue, and Islamic jurisprudence has always been at the centre of legislation and the kingdom. The official name of Jordan is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with the ruling family tracing its origin to the clan of which the Prophet Mohamed was a scion.

Yet, Hashemite rule was also by design inclusive. The Hashemites understood that the Levant is vastly different from the Arabian Peninsula, even from Al-Hijaz, traditionally the most culturally open region in Arabia. Throughout its history, the Levant has been a crucible of cultures, traditions, and religions. A successful Levantine society must be culturally inclusive and socially open to different peoples, ideas, and ways of life.

As a result, Hashemite Iraq and Jordan were Arab in orientation but highly inclusive of Armenians, Caucasians, and non-Arab Levantines. Along with their religious legitimacy and milieu, the Hashemite Kingdoms welcomed non-Muslims who have not only prospered but also become truly integrated in the upper echelons of society under Hashemite rule.

This inclusivity reflected the Hashemites’ internalisation of the soul of the Levant, to which they came as political entrepreneurs and over time became part and parcel of its post-Ottoman composition.

Hashemite rule was also anchored on a moderate, open form of Islam, which is the second key feature of their political project. As I have argued in my book “Islamism,” this term encompasses much more than just the Political Islamist groups or militant Islamist militias. At heart, Islamism anchors political legitimacy, legislation, and a social frame of reference on understandings and interpretations of Islam. It is the application of understandings of religion in the state’s relationship with society. Hashemite legitimacy is Islamic by definition, and Hashemite power is steeped in the Arabic facet of Islamic civilisation.

Since the fall of the Ottomans, the Hashemites have managed to sustain their form of Islamism as open and accepting, not only of non-Muslims in their kingdoms, but also of non-Islamic worldviews. The Hashemites’ success at internalising the soul of the Levant in their governing system has helped with this, and it positioned the Hashemites as one of the brightest faces of the Islamic civilisation after the Ottoman Caliphate vanished in the 1920s.

This success gave rise to the third feature of Hashemite rule in the Levant: a unique place in the region’s geopolitics. Over the past century, the Hashemites have tried to position themselves as a bridge between the Western world and the regional powers. Britain was the global power that enabled the creation of the Hashemite Kingdoms in the Levant, and after the sun had set on the British Empire, the US became a strategic supporter of the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan.

Despite that, Hashemite Jordan managed to sustain working relationships with most Arab regimes, including ardent Arab nationalists who opposed Western influence in Middle Eastern geopolitics. In effect, the Hashemites have excelled at a sort of cultural mediation based on the success of their internal governing model and their external Islamic civilisational aspect.

Nevertheless, these features of the Hashemite project have recently been facing serious challenges. First, the Levant, the geographical and cultural milieu in which the Hashemites have entrenched their project, is now increasingly mired in acute geopolitical problems that keep the entire region on the brink of a serious flare-up. In such an environment, the Hashemites’ socio-political project, one anchored on openness and stability, faces frequent problems.

Regional problems create demographic concerns. Hashemite Jordan has tried for decades to attract some of the brightest minds in the region in various fields from medicine to engineering to economics, hoping that they will establish businesses in the country and use it as a regional hub. But as the Levant continues to be mired in geopolitical confrontations, many of the best and brightest opt to leave the region altogether, either to classic destinations for Arab migration in the West such as London and Paris, or, increasingly, to glamorous cities in the Gulf, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Now that Saudi Arabia is undergoing one of the fastest transformations the Arab world has witnessed over the last century, many of them will also likely be attracted to the vast opportunities that this transformation is giving rise to.

The Gulf’s success also poses a subtle challenge to Jordan’s positioning in the world as one of the most visible facets of Islam in modern society. The states of the Arabian Peninsula, especially Saudi Arabia, have always placed interpretations of Islam at the core of their social and cultural landscapes. As these states become the most prominent socioeconomic models in the wider Middle East, the way Islam is present in their societies might become the one that receives the most global attention. With time, Islam in the Arabian Peninsula might emerge as the facet of the religion that many in the world invoke the most.

The next article in this series will look at the project behind the Lebanese state that was created at the end of World War I, arguably the most fraught sociopolitical project to have emerged in the Levant after the fall of the Ottomans.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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