Michael Bracy: From Practical to Potential: Arab Pilots in the RAF

On April 1, 1918 the British Royal Air Force (RAF) came into formal existence with the combination of the British Royal Flying Corps and the British Royal Naval Air Service. Two days later, Sir Mark Sykes, acting as an advisor on Eastern affairs to the British government and a former architect of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, recommended to the Director of Military Intelligence that two Arab officer graduates of the Arab Legion, Lieutenant ‘Abidin Hushaymi and Lieutenant Ibrahim ‘Abduh be allowed entry in basic aviation courses within the framework of the newly constituted RAF. The resulting collaboration and correspondence between Sykes and the two Arab pilots, particularly Hushaymi, represented a powerful shift in post-war envisioning of the Middle East on the part of Sykes. An examination of this dialogue and the editorializing of the Arab officers offer an intriguing space of discourse in which Arabs, dissatisfied with the decaying Ottoman system, actively sought out Western policy makers to forge a new view of a post-war Arab World. Rather than simply reacting to Great Power dictates, some Arabs, such has Hushaymi and Abduh, sought to alter the perceptions of the region in the minds of their confidants.

The Arab Legion, itself, had been an early project of Sykes in which he sought to establish an Arab military force, which would be made up of former prisoners of war and allowed to operate independently of the command of the Sharif of Mecca. The basic concept was that instead of shipping war prisoners to the Hijaz to participate in the Arab Revolt, they should be assembled in a training camp under Anglo-French supervision, where they would become a consolidated force, trained and disciplined, from which real military benefit could be derived. The Legion was official approved in July 1917, yet the first officers and men started training only in mid-September. Within three months, however, the plan was over. Unsuitable selection of recruits, incompetent or unwilling officers, and an unfulfilled promise that recruits would retain their equivalent Ottoman ranks within the British military led to the Legion’s failure. Yet, it was through this failed project that Lieutenant ‘Abidin Hushaymi and Lieutenant Ibrahim ‘Abduh became acquainted with Sykes and began their paths to become the first two Arab pilots in the RAF.

‘Abdin Hushaymi had served in the Ottoman Air Corps since 1912, moving through the ranks from a background in mechanical work to piloting reconnaissance aircraft before being captured by British forces in the Sinai after being forced to the ground outside of ‘Arish following engine failure in his Aviatik B.I biplane. Aside from his military background, Hushaymi had participated in a number of Arab nationalist organizations before being recruited into the Arab Legion. In late 1917, Hushaymi had begun limited work with the secret society al-Fatat, while maintaining a prominent public political face within the Syria Welfare Committee, which sought to work with Zionist groups in Palestine and the growing number of Armenians in the Levant to organize an independent post-war state outside of the collapsing Ottoman framework. During the same time period, Sykes had attempted to establish a Syrian-Armenian-Zionist committee to provide a platform for dialogue for post-war political arrangements. While Sharif Husayn had refused to send delegates to such a committee, Hushaymi did participate in early discussion as a representative from the Syrian Welfare Committee. Once the opportunity arose for Hushaymi to become a member of the RAF, he eagerly accepted, noting to Sykes that despite ten years in Ottoman government schools and wartime service in the Ottoman Air Corps, the last of which he served as an acting Captain, held no future place for him since, “being Arab, promotion was withheld from us.”[1]

Hushaymi’s and ‘Abduh’s training began in late May 1918 after the Air Ministry accepted Sykes’ request and summoned the two Arab officers to report to the Northern Training Brigade of the 8th Wing at Tadcaster. Hushaymi and ‘Abduh remained at the Tadcaster base for three and a half months flying a Maurice Farman in dual instruction, attending wireless and machine gun courses, and undertaking training in motor driving, basic machinery, and repair work.[2] In the latter half of June, however, both officers contracted influenza along with the majority of their fellow flyers in the 8th Wing. Sykes frequently wrote to the commanding officer of the 8th Wing, Lieutenant-Colonel Butler to track Hushaymi’s and ‘Abduh’s progress and began to express a need to end the two officers’ training due to the disappointing advancement linked to their illness. Sykes requested Butler terminate their participation in the aviation course on July 15, though Butler, acting the part of the war-minded solider, protested claiming that the two Arab officers could finish the training once enough “flyers and mechanics left their sick beds and were able to return to work.”[3] Sykes, most certainly affected by his correspondence with Hushaymi during the training period, had become less interested in the practical matter of Arab officers flying RAF missions than the political potential the two officers might offer. Sykes indicated to Butler that “what we wanted was not flying officers, but men with some knowledge of flying, organization, machinery etc., etc.” before going on to express hopes that the two might be dispatched to Cairo for further service under his personal direction.[4]

During the course of his training at Tadcaster, Hushaymi had actively written to Sykes as well as becoming a prolific editorial writer through his articles that began appearing the al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo. Hushaymi’s initial interest stemmed from the promise to obtain an equal ranking in the British RAF with his former Ottoman rank. Hushaymi pointed out to Sykes that neither he, nor ‘Abduh had received their rank of Captain, pointing out that the two Arab officers ought to “take our proper rank before our British colleagues and have British authority for the rank we shall claim in our native army.” Hushaymi ended a number of his letters by paralleling himself with any potential post-war settlement in the Middle East saying, “by being promoted by the British they would prove the justice of our claim and the injustice of the Turk.”[5] Indeed, Hushaymi frequently pressed Sykes to consider the method of emancipation of local peoples in the collapsing Ottoman Empire. In one letter Hushaymi asked Sykes if he considered it enough to simply drive the Turks out of the Arab lands without granting the Arabs freedom of government and self-determination before going on to rebuke Sykes by maintaining that “you have not acted in the best way for the Arabs.”[6] Later, Hushamyi asked Sykes of he was “one of those who are taking steps to place the future of Syria in the hands of France” and, if so, that he “might kindly give us permission to get into touch with the people in France on this question – under your guidance.”[7]

Hushaymi’s editorial letters to al-Ahram in Cairo were no less direct in pointing to the responsibility that British officialdom had towards the Arabs following the tumultuous upheaval of war. Hushaymi claimed that “we are a group whose doctrine is democracy. For us, all people in Syria are equal in terms of their rights and duties. And who can better provide this equality and justice than our British [war-time] allies? We have no hope with the Turks, but we should have hope with the future.”[8] Hushaymi, however, went on to warn of the need to carefully scrutinize British intentions and the possibility of neo-imperial ambitions in the region that might completely disregard local desires claiming, the “great emphasis in Syria facing the arrival of Zionists from Europe and Armenians from the Caucasus. Are they to be foreigners taking our land, or neighbors sharing our land? Those who demand from us the former accuse us of bad intentions, duplicity, and uncooperativeness. We say once and for all in this respect that our opinion can no longer remain silent.”[9] Yet, despite a deepening distrust of British intentions, Hushaymi retained his strong ties to Sykes and maintained that Sykes would be best suited to lead British intensions of social and political justice in a post-war Middle East.

Traditionally, Arab leaders both during and after World War I have been depicted as reacting to the dictates of Western designs on the region. Whether considering European imperial models or Zionist state building, most regional actors have been viewed through a passive, almost Orientalist lens. The activities of Abidin Hushaymi and, to a less degree, his colleague Ibrahim ‘Abduh represent an intriguing alternative, namely one in which Arab leaders and intellectuals sought to actively negotiate with the prime movers of British policy in the region.

[1] FO800/221: letter, ‘Abidin Hushaymi and Ibrahim ‘Abduh to Mark Sykes, Feb. 11, 1918.

[2] FO 800/221: letter, Officer Commanding, No. 14 Training Squadron, Royal Air Force (Tadcaster) to Sykes, July 14, 1918; memo, O.C. 8th Wing, RAF (York) to Sykes, July 15, 1918, enclosing certificates on the achievements of Hushaymi and ‘Abduh

[3] FO 800/221: memo, O.C. 8th Wing to Sykes, July 3, 1918

[4] FO 800/221: letter, Mark Sykes (FO) to Colonel Butler, July 5, 1918

[5] FO 800/221: letter, ‘Abidin Hushaymi to Mark Sykes, n.d. [late March 1918]

[6] FO 800/221: letter, Abidin Hushaymi to Mark Sykes, February 18, 1918

[7] FO 800/221: letter, Abidin Hushaymi to Mark Sykes, February 27, 1918

[8] Abidin Hushaymi, “Britaniyya fi Misr,” al-Ahram, March 2, 1918

[9] Abidin Hushaymi, “Hurriyya fi Surriyya,” al-Ahram, June 1, 1918

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