How Winston Churchill ’s « 40 thieves » carved out the modern Middle East

How Winston Churchill’s ‘40 thieves’ carved out the modern Middle East
Members of the Mesopotamia Commission pose for a group photo at the Cairo Conference in 1921 in Egypt, where they discussed the future of the Middle East and divided up the countries. General Photographic Agency / Getty

For Winston Churchill they were “40 thieves”, an irreverent comment on the illustrious gathering at Cairo’s Semiramis Hotel on March 12, 1921.

Churchill, later to become Britain’s great wartime prime minister, was one of them, an Ali Baba who led the gang on the banks of the Nile.

At the time, he was head of the Colonial Office charged with resolving the chaos of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, at the end of the First World War.

The “40 thieves”, a reference to the number of delegates at the conference, hoped to resolve three of the region’s most pressing issues: Palestine and its growing Jewish population, the territory east of the Jordan River, known as Transjordan, and control of the land we know today as Iraq.

All but one are men. Most are soldiers and colonial administrators. Churchill, instantly recognisable, is seated in the centre of the front row.

The sole woman is Gertrude Bell, the Baghdad-based explorer, writer and government adviser. Bell was a champion of Jordan and Iraq as independent nations and strongly opposed Zionist expansion in Palestine.

A few feet away is the slight figure of Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, immortalised in history as Lawrence of Arabia, and in real life a good deal shorter than Peter O’Toole in the classic film of his exploits.

Of the Arab population whose futures would be decided by these mostly middle aged, all white Englishmen, and one woman, there are only two.