Churchill's Hiccup, and the Modern Nation State

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, at the heart of the modern Middle East, occupies what has been called "a strategic nexus connecting Asia, Africa and Europe." Its neighbors are Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine, and so it plays a central role in the politics of the region. It remains one of only two countries in the region to have a peace treaty with Israel (the other being Egypt).

The nation of Jordan, as we know it today, officially came into being in 1946, but between 1921 and 1946, it was a British mandate. Following World War I, the imperial powers of Britain and France divided land in the Middle East (which had been previously administered by the ailing Ottoman Empire) and created the nations we now as Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

This mandate system was organized by the League of Nations, the intergovernmental organization founded at the Versailles Peace Conference which ended World War I. Under its auspices, "advanced nations" were to guide and administer "those colonies and territories" which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Why? Because those colonies and territories "are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world," according to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

(If all that sounds like a thinly-veiled retelling of The White Man's Burden and the mandate system sounds suspiciously like colonialism, well, I wouldn't say you're wrong. In reality, mandates legitimized —legalized, even— the blatant usurping of sovereignty.)

Britain and France, then, created states and borders which had not previously existed. The historian James Gelvin points to Jordan as an example of how the borders of these new states were sometimes lacking in rationale.

"If you look at a map of Jordan, for example," he writes, "you will see a strange indentation in its eastern border with Saudi Arabia. There is no reasonable explanation for that indentation. No river runs through the area, no mountain range forms a natural division between the two states."

Serving as British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill drew Jordan's borders at the 1921 Cairo Conference. Years afterwards, he is said to have bragged that he "created Jordan with the stroke of the pen one Sunday afternoon." (1) This much is known, but here's the piece de resistance — the robust colonial secretary, known for large lunches, is reputed to have been drawing Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia when he hiccuped, and his pen moved off the straight line he was drawing, creating the deviation. Some Jordanians refer to the line as "Churchill's Hiccup" to this day.

The contrived nature of the state of Jordan's borders has several impacts.

"Jordan can be seen as among the most artificial states in the modern Middle East, with a highly contested national identity," writes Curtis R. Ryan, author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah, although he goes on to acknowledge that the adjective "Jordanian" is meaningful to many Jordanians. (2)

But more generally, it's significant that the region doesn't really have a history of nation states. The region was organized into longstanding authoritarian regimes, of empires Ottoman, Abbasid, and Qajar. These empires were often distant, not playing a large role in the everyday lives of their citizens.

As I mentioned last week, identities based on religious or ethnic lines were often more important. Syria and Palestine are, according to Bernard Lewis, names from antiquity which "hadn’t been used in the region for a thousand years or more before they were revived and imposed—again with new and often different boundaries—by European imperialists in the twentieth century.”

He goes on to point out that, in the Arabic language, there is no phrase for Saudi Arabia. Rather, "present-day Saudi Arabia is spoken of as 'the Saudi Arab kingdom' or 'the peninsula of the Arabs,' depending on the context." (3)

In short, the Middle East before 1900 was a region of empires rather than nations, where multiple identities were more important than nationalities as we understand them today. When officials and pundits talk about the Middle East, they neglect to mention that many of the region's borders are artificial. When Western pundits question why "they" can't be more like "us", or why they can't all "get along," absolves us from the responsibility the West had in creating some of the problems in the region today. Our action's their reaction, our cause is their effect, to some extent. In the same way that ISIS is a direct result of Iraq's instability following the 2003 invasion, we have to examine how many of the region's longstanding problems can be attributed, in part or in whole, to the artificial borders bestowed on them following World War I.


Some of the ideas in this essay come from lecture notes from Arang Keshavarzian's Fall 2015 class, MEIS-UA 750, “Politics of the Middle East," at New York University. 

(1) Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. Fourth ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2015, pp 202.

(2) Ryan, Curtis R., “Jordan” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East. ed. Angrist, Michele. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 2013. Print, pp 336.

(3) Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004. pp 16.