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Winston’s Hiccup

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“I think I’ll write a book today,” the writer Georges Simenon was said to tell his wife at breakfast. “Fine,” she would reply, “but what will you do in the afternoon?” Winston Churchill was similarly prolific, and not just in the field of letters [1]. In his later years, he liked to boast that in 1921 he created the British mandate of Trans-Jordan, the first incarnation of what still is the Kingdom of Jordan, “with the stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon in Cairo” [2].

Also like Simenon, Churchill wasn’t averse to the odd tipple, and according to some, that Sunday afternoon in Cairo followed a particularly liquid lunch. As a consequence, the then colonial secretary’s [3] penmanship proved a bit unsteady, allegedly producing a particularly erratic borderline. The result is still visible on today’s maps: the curious zigzag of the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Starting at the Gulf of Aqaba, the Jordanian-Saudi border drifts northeastward as six relatively short, straight lines, manacled together into an unsteady chain gang that doesn’t quite know which direction to take. Then, in a single, 90-mile stretch, the border suddenly and spectacularly lurches northwest, aiming for the southern Lebanese coast. But finally, it seems to regain its footing, continuing the 130 miles northeast toward the Iraqi border in a near-straight line, as if running away from all those twists and turns.

The resultant Saudi triangle sticking into Jordan’s side is one of the more remarkable features on the map of the Middle East. Its northern tip [4] is less than 70 miles removed from the Jordanian capital of Amman. At just over 100 miles, it also represents the shortest distance between Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem.

Those facts might have geopolitical resonance today, but according to the legend of its creation, the border owes its strange shape to nothing more significant than Churchill’s propensity for champagne, brandy and whisky. This stretch of border is still, and in retrospect rather euphemistically, referred to as Winston’s Hiccup, or Churchill’s Sneeze. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Saudi Arabia, the nation that puts the “total” in teetotal, owed part of its external border to the inebriated scribblings of a British boozehound [5]?

Unfortunately, even though Churchill was sufficiently involved in redrawing the map of the Middle East to boast that Jordan was his creation, and even though he was fond of a tipple, the hiccup part of the story is entirely apocryphal.

That the anecdote can even be believed owes much to Churchill’s well-earned but overemphasized reputation as a bon vivant [6]. But it owes perhaps equally much to the recent, arbitrary and foreign-imposed nature of borders in that part of the world.

National borders in the modern sense came very late to the Arabian Peninsula. The Ottoman Empire dominated the more settled parts of the Middle East, including the Red Sea and gulf coasts of the Arabian [7] Peninsula. Ottoman writ frayed toward Arabia’s desert heart, which was ruled by tribal chiefs, of doubtful allegiance to the Sublime Porte. The boundary between the Turkish-held coasts and the Arab core of the peninsula was vague, and perhaps that was for the best.

In sparsely populated regions crisscrossed by nomadic tribes, well-defined borders were good for nothing, and required by no one. Maps of the Ottoman Empire solve the problem of showing borders where there really aren’t any by choosing a steady, oscillating line as a divisor: surely, a border that looks this aquatic, and in a desert, must be a fata morgana.

What’s interesting about this approximate border, apart from the inevitable variation of the “thickness” of the Ottoman pincer depending on which map you look at, is the extent of non-Ottoman Arabia. In most maps, the non-centrally governed “tribal areas” [8] reach much further north than Saudi Arabia does today. These areas generally culminate at a point northeast of Damascus, meaning that “Free Arabia” includes large parts of present-day Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Large, but empty parts: the Arid Gibbous [9] of the Middle East, a.k.a. the Syrian Desert.

And if the linguist William Shakespear had lived beyond 1915, this might also be how far north the modern Saudi state stretched. The improbably named Shakespear [10], Anglo-Indian by birth [11], explorer by nature, used his posting as political agent in Kuwait, from 1909, to befriend Ibn Saud. The future Saudi king was then still emir of the Nejd, a region in the peninsula’s interior. Shakespear was the first British official to liaise with Ibn Saud, and the first Westerner to map the Wadi Sirhan, a water-rich depression that serves as a caravan route, just east of Winston’s Hiccup. It was Shakespear who, in 1914, urged Ibn Saud to aid the British in their campaign against the Ottomans, allies of the Germans in the march toward World War I.

Then, in early 1915, in a battle with the Ottoman-allied al-Rashidi clan, Shakespear was killed and decapitated, his helmet taken to Medina as a trophy for the Ottomans. His death cleared the scene for T.E. Lawrence and inaugurated a switch in British policy: favoring Sharif Hussein bin Ali’s Hashemite dynasty in Hejaz [12] over Ibn Saud’s as the leader of the Arab Revolt, and a prevised Arab state thereafter.

Although with Lawrence’s help they were ultimately successful in defeating the Ottomans [13], the Arabs would not get their Promised Land, a unified Arab state from Aleppo to Oman. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in secret in 1916, saw to that. It divided the Levant into mandates for France (Lebanon and Syria) and Britain (Palestine [14] and Iraq); Hashemite dynasties were implanted in Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The French chased off Faisal bin Hussein, son of Sharif Hussein of Hejaz, from Syria in 1921. The British installed him a year later as king of Iraq, where the Hashemite monarchy succumbed to a military coup in 1958.

The only surviving Hashemite dynasty still rules Jordan, a state created almost by accident. Faisal bin Hussein was on his way to help his brother Abdullah in Syria when Winston Churchill implored him to renege, using the prospect of a crushing defeat by the French as stick, and the promise of Abdullah’s own dynasty as carrot. The British saw Trans-Jordan’s value mainly as a transit zone[15] between Palestine and Iraq, but also as part of an air corridor (back when flights were relatively short and refuelings many) between Britain and India.

Britain was forced to seek a border arrangement with Ibn Saud because of continuous encroachment and incursions of his Wahhabi forces, which had occupied Jauf on the southern end of the Wadi Sirhan. While the British insisted on a proper, fixed-line border, Ibn Saud proposed a flexible one that could move with the seasonal and generational movements of the tribes. An interesting concept, but not one the British were keen to adopt. The best they could come up with was a buffer state covering the Wadi Sirhan, with Trans-Jordanian influence in the north and Wahhabi influence in the south [16].

In the end, Wadi Sirhan was offered to Ibn Saud as part of a complex deal that essentially meant compensation for British annexation of Aqaba. In November 1925, the Hadda Agreement stipulated a border not that different from the present one: Wadi Sirhan became part of Nejd, Aqaba became Trans-Jordanian. Ibn Saud had to relinquish his demand for a corridor to Syria, but gained free right of passage. Britain lost Hejaz, but retained a sea port for Trans-Jordan – and blocked off Wahhabi expansion into Palestine and Egypt. As for Aqaba, Ibn Saud merely accepted the status quo, not its annexation.

The last chapter in the arcane Saudi-Jordanian genesis story was written in 1965, when both countries resolved all outstanding issues with a swap of territory. The Saudis transferred 2,300 square miles to Jordan, while 2,700 square miles went the other way. Seems like a bad deal for the Jordanians – but they did gain 11 extra miles of shoreline south of Aqaba.

Churchill can rest assured: his Hiccup is still intact (even if he never drew it). And who needs 400 square miles of desert anyway?

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.

[1] The Simenon anecdote is a joke of course, but not an exaggeration by much: Simenon wrote 192 novels and 158 novellas under his own name, and 176 novels under various pseudonyms. By comparison, Churchill published a pittance, just 38 books. But unlike Simenon, Churchill could claim the distractions of soldiery and statecraft. And unlike Simenon, Churchill won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, mainly based on his six-volume magnum opus, “The Second World War.”

[2] As quoted on p. 189 of “Borderlines and Borderlands,” edited by Alexander C. Diener and Joshua Hagen, the delightful examination of “Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation-State” cited earlier in this series.

[3] Churchill was state secretary for the colonies from February 1921 until October 1922.

[4] The tiny Saudi border station, called Mujamma al-Haditha, lies almost exactly in the sharpest tip of the border with Jordan.

[5] When lunching with Ibn Saud, Churchill commented on Islam’s prohibition of drinking and smoking – though possibly not to the Saudi King’s face: “[M]y rule of life prescribes as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

[6] Researchers have postulated the existence of a “Churchill gene” that helps some to turn excessive intake of alcohol into impressive careers while allowing them to reach a ripe old age. Yet the fact that Churchill lived to be 90 years old owes more to the fact that he drank with surprising moderation, preferring to be a sober man imitating a drunk one rather than the other way round. His morning drink was what his daughter called a ‘Papa Cocktail: “a smidgen of Johnnie Walker covering the bottom of a tumbler, which was then filled with water and sipped throughout the morning.”

[7] The most generic and widely used adjective is “Arab” (i.e. the Arab Street), while “Arabian” is its antiquated pendant (thus Arabian Nights); it is also used in a modern sense when pertaining to Arabia proper (Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian Sea, Arabian horses and Saudi Arabians). “Arabic” applies to the language and literature (and the numerals).

[8] Yeah, I thought of Pakistan, too.

[9] As opposed to the Fertile Crescent: the half-moon-shaped zone formed by Mesopotamia, the coastal regions of Phoenicia and Palestine, and Lower Egypt; “gibbous” refers to the non-crescent part of the moon.

[10] Although perhaps it was inevitable. If your last name was Simpson, wouldn’t you be tempted to name your son Bart? Or your daughter Wallis?

[11] Referring in this case to the once numerous “caste” of white British settlers born and raised in India. Nowadays, the term more often refers to Indians of mixed British and Indian heritage.

[12] The coastal strip of the Arabian Peninsula including Mecca and Medina, ruled as an independent kingdom by Sharif Hussein bin Ali between the collapse of the Ottomans in 1917 and the takeover by the Saudis in 1924.

[13] Hence Lawrence of Arabia. Which is too bad: Shakespear of Arabia also has a certain ring to it.

[14] The original British mandate of Palestine included present-day Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, then called Trans-Jordan, which was administratively detached in 1922.

[15] That’s not why it was called Trans-Jordan. The name indicates its position on the other side of the River Jordan (from the Palestinian/Israeli point of view); see also Transvaal, Transylvania, trans-Atlantic. King Abdullah dropped the Trans- when he annexed the West Bank in 1948. Even though Jordan in 1988 renounced its claim to the West Bank in favor of the Palestine Liberation Organization, it has not re-assumed its original name.

[16] For more on the intricacies of the negotiations, including the shouting matches, see “Grenser i det grenselause – Opprettinga av Transjordan sine ørkengrenser,” Magnus Halsnes’s master’s thesis on the genesis of the Jordanian-Saudi border. A pdf is downloadable from his Web site, My Brain Hurts – which is exactly what happens when you try to read a master’s thesis in Norwegian.


By Frank Jacobs


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