Philip S. Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

This is the latest in a growing number of studies which discuss the social origins of political ideologies in the Arab East. Philip Khoury sets himself the task of explaining the development of Arab nationalism in Damascus through an analysis of the class-conditioned political behavior of the city’s landowner-bureaucrats.

Khoury poses two historical problems. First, if the Ottoman political system worked to the advantage of the landowner-bureaucrats, why were many of them working against it by the first two decades of the twentieth century? Second, why did Arab nationalism, which had few adherents before 1908, become the dominant ideology of the Damascene notables by 1918? Khoury draws on the insights of Hanna Batatu and Albert Hourani regarding class in modern Arab society and the politics of Arab notables, respectively. He argues that after the sectarian riots of 1860, an economically-based and socially distinct ruling class of landowner-bureaucrats emerged in Damascus. No longer semi-independent mediators between state and society (Hourani), these late nineteenth-century notables were employees and direct agents of the state. At a time when Western Europe’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion were disrupting or undermining certain branches of the Syrian economy, land ownership was enhanced as a guarantor of wealth and political influence. As officials, the landowner-bureaucrats were in a uniquely favorable position to register land in their names and enforce recognition of their title. Thus a hegemonic ruling class, closely identified with the newly centralized Ottoman state, was consolidated in Damascus during this period.

Khoury provides sketches of the principal notable families and their leading lights, and discusses the notables’ factional politics and political alliances (consolidated by intermarriage). Khoury argues convincingly that the origins of Arab nationalism can be found in the intersection of these factional politics with the new conditions of the early twentieth century. Prominent among these conditions was the Young Turk revolution of 1908, which brought to power in Istanbul a Turkish nationalist regime, whose policies differed from the stress of the former Hamidian regime on Islamic unity and Ottomanism. Consequently, some members (particularly younger sons) of Damascene notable families found their opportunities for advancement in government blocked. Having been trained to serve a state in which Arabs could rise to prominent positions, they felt thwarted and discriminated against under the Young Turks. Although the majority of Damascene notables remained loyal to the empire, a minority embraced Arabism and began arguing for political decentralization and Arab autonomy. (Until World War I, few advocated outright secession.)

With the collapse of the Ottoman state and the entry of Prince Faysal into Damascus in 1918, Ottomanism became obsolete. The notables embraced Arabism en masse, believing it to be the most appropriate ideological vehicle for sustaining their rule. In a persuasive analysis of the Faysal regime’s weaknesses, Khoury argues that it was internally divided between the pre-1914 Arab nationalists and the notables who had faithfully served the Ottoman state till 1918. The nationalists dominated many key organs of the fledgling Syrian Arab state, but the notables, who retained their social importance and economic dominance, were suspicious of them and willing to cut a deal with the French.

Khoury suggests that the formation of a new and distinct bureaucratic-landholding class created the general conditions for the rise of Arab nationalism. (C. Ernest Dawn, in contrast, argued that Syria’s class structure did not change significantly in the 1860-1920 period.) On the other hand, Khoury’s book reinforces Dawn’s point that early Arab nationalism cannot be interpreted merely, or mainly, as an expression of the interests of an “emerging middle class.” Rather, the ideology grew out of the grievances of a portion of the dominant landed class.

The reader may be frustrated by this book’s brevity, reflecting its origin as an introduction to a doctoral dissertation on Mandate-era politics. Those acquainted with Batatu’s work on Iraq&#rsquo;s “old social classes” will wish for more information about the notable families, their economic interests, political activities and marriage alliances. Social historians may wish that the bureaucrat-landowners’ relationship to other classes had been discussed at greater length. Inter-class tensions formed part of the background to the 1860 riots, as Khoury indicates, but after that the other classes fade from his account, and the notables at times seem to operate in a social vacuum.

Urban Notables is an important and welcome work. It takes its place with those of Batatu and Wajih Kawtharani in helping us understand the social origins of Arab nationalism and other ideologies in the modern Middle East. We eagerly await the sequel on the politics of the Mandate.

How to cite this article:

James A. Reilly "Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism," Middle East Report 134 (July/ August 1985).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This