The Arab Bulletin

By Roger Davies / 15 May 2012 / History

The Arab Bulletin was a remarkable intelligence periodical that recorded and analysed a broad range of intelligence during the upheavals of the Arab world from 1916 – 1919.   Given the ongoing upheavals in the region today it is interesting to review this singularly unusual intelligence entity.

The Arab Bulletin was the periodical intelligence product of the “Arab Bureau” a British intelligence entity established in 1915 in Cairo during the First World War.  The Bureau was ostensibly a section of the British Cairo Intelligence Department. It was established to “harmonise British political activity in the Near East[and] keep the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Committee of Defence, the War Office, the Admiralty, and Government of India simultaneously informed of the general tendency of Germano-Turkish Policy.  In truth it never sat comfortably and the strains between it and the India Office in particular turned very hostile at times.  The Bureau was manned by an unusual bunch of diplomats, spies, soldiers and intellectuals, including TE Lawrence, Herbert Garland and Gertrude Bell (never has a woman been so influential on Arabic politics)

T E Lawrence claimed perhaps somewhat ambitiously to have been the instigator of the Bulletin. But he is known to have perhaps embellished his role in such matters.  It was intended to be a secret bulletin of intelligence matters relating to the Arab world.  Only thirty copies of each edition where ever printed, and circulated very carefully amongst policy makers and military officials.  There was an unusual rider associated with the Bulletin that instructed that its contents could never be quoted from, even in secret communications.  In the three years of its production it analysed the range of political and military developments and indeed the British perception of the emerging Arab nations.

This interesting summation of its editorial policy from an early editor is worthy or repeating in full”

 “Since it was as easy to write it in decent English as in bad, and much more agreeable, the Arab Bulletin had from the first a literary tinge not always present in Intelligence Summaries. Firstly, it aims at giving reasoned, and as far as possible definitive summaries of intelligence, primarily about the Hejaz and the area of the Arab Revolt. Secondly, the Arab Bulletin aims at giving authoritative appreciations of political situations and questions in the area with which it deals at first hand. Thirdly, it aims at recording and so preserving all fresh historical data concerning Arabs and Arabic-speaking lands, and incidentally rescuing from oblivion any older facts which might help to explain the actual situation: likewise, any data of geographical or other scientific interest, which may be brought to light by our penetration of the Arab Countries during the present war. It is part of the Editor´s purpose that a complete file on the Bulletin since its beginning should be indispensable to anyone who hereafter may have to compile for official use a history of the Arabs during the last three years, an Intelligence Handbook of any Arab district or even a map of Arabia.”

What I find intriguing was the range of sources which the Bulletin utilized. These include:

  • Published and unpublished enemy statements: extracts from newspapers, communiqués.
  • Information obtained by standard methods such as the capture of letters, interrogation of prisoners and of neutral travellers. Captured documents included the Turkish account of events leading up to the Arab Revolt.
  • Topographical intelligence was supplemented by the use of aerial reconnaissance.
  • As early as October 1916 the British were intercepting wireless signals between the Turkish HQ, in Damascus and the beleaguered garrison in Medina.
  • Extensive information was derived through systems of local friendly contacts. An excellent espionage network had been established in Syria before the war, partly through the consular offices but equally through the efforts of less formal agents. A particular station-master, for example, kept a record for the British of every man and parcel transported into Damascus by the Hejaz railway. From the start of fighting the mobile Bedouins in Sinai were particularly valuable as spies, as were some agents in Hauran and Jabal Druze who after 1917 were able to send reports by carrier pigeon to an army loft in Bethlehem.
  • Regular campaign reports were submitted by the Bureau´s officers in the field.

The Bulletin also received a variety of essays and articles on special topics from its contributors, many of whom wrote at length and with scholarly exactness. Hogarth, an eminent historian wrote on the history of Turco-Arab relations, while Lawrence set forth his prescriptions for British relations with the Arabs. Unsigned articles dealt with diverse matters such as the prospects for trade in the Persian Gulf. Lengthy articles are also found from Philby (father of Kim Philby) describing his first crossing of Arabia.

Here’s an extract from a Bulletin of a piece by Lawrence in 1917, giving pithy and hard earned ‘commandments” based on his experience. Many of his rules would apply today.

It is also fair to say that the Bureau was not averse to attacking other allied intelligence agencies with whom it disagreed.  Here’s a Lawrence critique of the British Intelligence Department in Basra, under the control of the British Indian political sphere – it’s quite devastating. Lawrence described the head of the intelligence department in Basra as:

“very excellent but he has never been to Turkey, or read about it, and he knows no Arabic. This would not necessarily matter, but unfortunately his staff do not supply the necessary knowledge”

In summary the story of the Arab Bureau and its intelligence product provides a useful example of a  maverick and unorthodox irregular warfare intelligence operation, with very real lessons for today’s Arab spring revolutions. There’s a good book on it here.


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