The British in the Gulf

This 1704 picture show Dutch and English ships at anchor outside of the port of Bandar Abbas. You can also clearly see the Dutch and English factories (which are trading forts and warehouses to all intents and purposes) side by side ashore. The English East India Company had been granted trading rights since 1619. The English actually referred to the port as Gombroon.

The Portuguese experience in the sixteenth century demonstrates the importance of maritime power in securing paramountcy in the Gulf. Apart from Portugal the only other modern state that succeeded in imposing “hegemony upon the waters” was another maritime nation, Great Britain. Whereas Portuguese domination in the Gulf was part of a grand plan to capture the trade of the Indies by seizing its traditional outlets, British control of the Gulf was achieved “in a more haphazard fashion.” As J. B. Kelly pointed out over forty years ago now, in his study Britain and the Persian Gulf:

Whereas the Portuguese came to the Gulf as soldiers and conquerors, to impose their will upon the Gulf states, the English came initially as merchant adventurers, seeking trade and fortune. Two centuries were to elapse before the attainment of territorial dominion in India compelled them to obtain and hold command of the Gulf. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century their position there was unassailable, and from that time forward the guardianship of the Gulf rested in British hands.

First, how did the British establish their guardianship of the Gulf, what did it comprise, and how did it work? Second, what were the challenges to it? And third, how did it end? But there is a fourth question that must be addressed as well: Why is the British experience, like the Portuguese before it, still relevant to our task of understanding the dynamics of security in the Gulf? It is the main contention of this article that by studying the example of Britain in the Gulf, we begin to understand how a hegemonic power has operated there in the past, and how the demise of its power, like the Portuguese, creates an anarchy that the major littoral states avail themselves of in their contest for primacy over the Gulf. It is no accident of history, that Britain’s departure from the Gulf in 1971, in particular the manner of her going, resulted in a power vacuum that the larger littoral states tried and failed to fill. Since 1971 we have seen three major wars and the downfall of two regimes, the tottering of others, and the reassertion of authority by outside powers, and especially by the United States. The genie of insecurity is out of the bottle in the Gulf. Can it be put back or is that an impossible task? What does the British experience tell us?

There is a symmetry between the British exit from and entrance to the Gulf, and this lies in the mercenary spirit. The English East India Company (EIC) established trading factories at Shiraz, Isfahan, and Jask in the second decade of the seventeenth century in order to foster trade with Persia. It was ships of the EIC that took Shah Abbas I’s army from the mainland to the Portuguese citadel on Hormuz Island in 1622. It was those same ships that engaged and defeated the Portuguese fleet and then blockaded the island. The eventual fall of Hormuz gave the English what they sought: a factory at Bandar Abbas and lucrative commercial links with Persia. It was the same mercenary spirit that presided over Britain’s retreat from the Gulf in 1971, as we shall see.

For the British, as for the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French, Hormuz, along with Muscat and later Aden, represented the keys to command of the Arabian Sea and control of the maritime trade of Arabia, Persia, and India. It was the British authorities in India that secured all these keys by the nineteenth century. The paramountcy, or Pax Britannica, that Britain eventually established in the Gulf and around the shores of Arabia had its start in the agreement concluded with the Al Bu Said Sultan of Oman in 1798 in response to Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt. It continued in the nineteenth century with the trucial system and the special treaty relationship with Bahrain and the seven sheikhdoms of the Trucial Coast. The trucial system rested on a duty by Britain not only to maintain the maritime peace of the Gulf against outbreaks of piracy and maritime warfare, but also to protect the independence and territorial integrity of the sheikhdoms that had signed the truce. It fitted in with the eastern Arabian tradition of protection-seeking. It was only upon this reciprocal basis that the British managed to conclude the restrictive agreements with the sheikhdoms over the slave trade, the arms trade, foreign relations, and oil concessions. Britain’s duty was made explicit in the case of Bahrain (1861) because the latter’s frontiers were defined by the sea and could be defended by naval power. A similar commitment was made to Qatar over its maritime frontiers in 1916, but not its land frontiers, which were then undetermined. For a similar reason no such commitment was made to the Trucial sheikhdoms. There was the added consideration that it would have transgressed the abiding principle of British Gulf policy not to become involved in the internal affairs of the Arabian Peninsula. There was no doubt, however, that Britain was obliged, by the trucial system and the subsequent agreements, to defend the sheikhdoms against external aggression.

Kuwait was the only sheikhdom whose internationally agreed land frontiers Britain was obliged, under the November 1914 agreement, to defend. Although, as a result of the oil boom, Kuwait achieved independence in 1961, there remained a stipulation in the instrument abrogating the 1899 and 1914 protectorate agreements for Britain to extend a friendly helping hand if necessary. This soon came to pass when the Iraqi dictator, Brigadier Abdul Karim Qassim, made aggressive noises toward Kuwait in 1961 and was only silenced after Britain deployed a joint force to the territory in Operation Vantage, the success of which should have been borne in mind by policy makers in Arabia and the West in 1990.

Challenges to British Guardianship of the Gulf

The ending of the British protectorate over Kuwait in 1961 marked the start of the unravelling of the treaty relationship binding Britain to the minor Gulf states, which culminated in Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971. Moreover the states “system,” which regulated relations between states and had guaranteed law and order in the Gulf for over one hundred years, was swept away and not really replaced by the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. The precarious peace of the Gulf, and the security of shipping transiting its waters, relied on the self-interest of the larger littoral powers, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and their various great-power backers, the Soviet Union and the United States, to keep a tight rein on their rivalry. That they patently failed to do so soon became apparent after 1971.

Iraq. Iraq’s very narrow coastline (a few dozen kilometers) and lack of maritime power has, historically, deprived her of the ability to establish a political supremacy in the Gulf. Even when the Turks, following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, projected naval power into the Gulf and established control over Hasa and a loose suzerainty over Kuwait and Qatar, they did not pose any real threat to the British position in the Gulf. With the British seizure of Iraq from the Turks during World War I, the establishment of the mandate, and the drawing of the new country’s frontiers by the British, the Iraqis had little opportunity to intervene in the Gulf. It was Britain again who thwarted the attempts in the late 1930s and in 1961 by a now independent Iraq to press its claim to Kuwait. That successive Iraqi regimes should do so was due to the dictates of geography. Kuwait had the best harbor in the upper Gulf and Iraq’s only real outlet was the Shatt al-Arab. Even here Iraq’s control, under the 1937 treaty with Iran, was increasingly challenged by Iran until it was renounced in 1969. Alarmed by this, and by the Iranian seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971, Iraq’s response was to revive her claim on Kuwait and to seek Soviet support. The Soviet Union showed a growing interest in the Gulf after Britain’s announcement in 1968 of her intention to withdraw.

Iran. In contrast to Iraq, Iran has a long coastline stretching from Khuzestan in the west to Mekran and Baluchistan in the east. But from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century successive shahs had no sustained control over it. This was due in part to the administrative weaknesses of Persian government, but also to the fact that Persia’s rulers did not have the sea power to patrol Gulf waters. This did not prevent them from advancing dubious territorial claims to the delta of the Shatt al-Arab, Kuwait, Bahrain and other islands, the Trucial sheikhdoms, Oman, Mekran, Baluchistan, and Seistan—wherever, in fact, a Persian foot had trod. Frustrated by the gap between their insistence on their inalienable rights to these territories and their inability to secure them, successive Iranian governments did their best to thwart Britain in her suppression of piracy, the slave and arms trades, the survey of Gulf waters, the laying of telegraph cables, the installation of aids to navigation, and the setting up of a quarantine system. The pinprick policy followed by the Qajar and then the Pahlevi dynasties was, after the aggressive expansion of the Saudi emirate of Nejd, the largest source of disruption and disorder in the Gulf. And it is to the Saudis that we must now turn.

Saudi Arabia. Even that great Western propagandist for the Saudis, Harry St. John Philby, father of the more infamous Kim, admitted that Wahhabism, as harnessed by the Al-Saud clan of Nejd, was driven by “constant aggression at the expense of those who did not share the great idea.” After conquering most of central and eastern Arabia by 1800, the Wahhabis took the al-Buraimi oasis, the key to inner Oman and the adjacent Gulf sheikhdoms. Winning over the Qawasim, the strongest pirate tribe on the Arabian shore, they launched a seaborne jihad against Indian and European shipping that took two British punitive expeditions (in 1809–10 and 1819–20) to put down before the Qawasim and other seafaring tribes were forced to sign a treaty agreeing to end piracy. It became a governing principle of British policy to watch and prevent the growth of Wahhabi influence over the Gulf sheikhdoms in case it undermined the maritime truce. By guaranteeing the sheikhdoms’ independence, Britain set herself in opposition to the expansion of Wahhabi dominion in eastern Arabia beyond Nejd and Hasa. For some eighty-three years after the expulsion of the Wahhabis from al-Buraimi in 1869, they made no attempt to venture there again, nor were they in a position to do so. It was not until after the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 that Abdul Aziz ibn Saud felt able to direct Saudi eyes again toward the Gulf sheikhdoms. His award of an oil concession to Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) in 1933 raised the question of the eastern boundaries of the new Saudi kingdom and he was quick to lay claim to large tracts of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. The British Foreign Office, in line with the prevailing spirit of appeasement in British foreign policy at the time, was prepared to give away part of the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi in the hope of winning over Ibn Saud as an ally in the Middle East, and especially in Palestine. The Foreign Office was only prevented from doing so by the British Government of India, and its representative department in Whitehall, the India Office, on the grounds of principle and policy.

However, the spirit of appeasement lingered on in the Foreign Office and, after inheriting responsibility for the Gulf from the India Office after the demise of British power in India in 1947, it manifested itself in the mistaken British response to a renewed frontier claim made by the Saudis in 1949. The latter now demanded four-fifths of the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi, where Petroleum Concessions Limited (a subsidiary of British-run Iraq Petroleum Company, IPC) had the concession to prospect for oil. In order to placate the Saudis, and particularly the foreign minister, Emir Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz, the Foreign Office in August 1951 accepted the Saudi proposal for a ban on all oil-prospecting activities while a commission determined the frontiers. This was tantamount to admitting that California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC) and Saudi Arabia had concessionary and territorial rights in the area, which in the minds of British officials they did not, and that IPC’s rights were invalid. The Foreign Office compounded this error by also agreeing to Faisal’s demand that the British-officered Trucial Oman Levies (later Scouts) should not operate in the disputed areas. In turn the Saudis agreed not to engage in activities that might prejudice the work of the frontier commission. Whereas the British honored their side of the standstill agreements, the Saudis engaged in wholesale bribery of tribal leaders in and around the al-Buraimi oasis in order to have them declare their allegiance to Saudi Arabia. It culminated in the illegal, in the minds of the British, Saudi occupation of the al-Buraimi oasis in August 1952. The Foreign Office then acceded to a Saudi and American request that the sultan of Oman, who governed three villages in the oasis, should not eject the interlopers by force and disband his tribal levies. This allowed the Saudi force to remain in al-Buraimi for nearly two years and to continue its subversive activities. By staying in the oasis the Saudis hoped to bolster their claim to the western areas of Abu Dhabi and to penetrate inner Oman. The final mistake by the Foreign Office, in July 1954, was to agree to the continuance of the limitations on British activities under the 1951 agreement, while the dispute went to arbitration by an international tribunal, in exchange for the withdrawal of the Saudi occupying force from al-Buraimi. This simply allowed another smaller Saudi force, intended along with a comparable British unit to police the oasis, to continue Saudi subversive activities at al-Buraimi. It was only when the Saudis tried to ensure a sympathetic finding by the international tribunal sitting in Geneva through bribery that even the Foreign Office decided it had had enough. It not only ended the arbitration but led to the ejection of the Saudi force from al-Buraimi by the Trucial Oman Scouts in October 1955, much to the disquiet of the Saudis, ARAMCO (Arabian-American Oil Company), and the U.S. government. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, and the severing of diplomatic relations by the Saudis, the Foreign Office returned to its former defensive and apologetic approach to such an extent that by 1970 it was prepared, as will be seen, to facilitate Saudi claims on Abu Dhabi territory in order to ease Britain’s passage out of the Gulf.

End of British Guardianship in the Gulf

The Pax Britannica in the Gulf had been maintained for one hundred and fifty years, and it was swept away in ten, from Kuwaiti independence in 1961 to the final British withdrawal in 1971. The latter had been announced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968 and carried out by Edward Heath’s Conservative government three years later. An end to the formal British presence in the Gulf had to come in the postcolonial age, and the treaty system needed revision. But it was in the manner of Britain’s going from the Gulf that it managed to betray all that it had stood for and achieved during its long guardianship of the Gulf. Britain simply abandoned the small Gulf sheikhdoms to their fate. There was no attempt to reformulate the treaty system in order to retain its implicit defense obligations, thus providing for a continued British military presence that would have maintained stability in an area that had become increasingly vital to not just British but Western interests. It was argued at the time by politicians, diplomats, and their apologists in the media, and has been repeated since by some historians, that the British government could no longer afford the £12–14 million cost of continuing a military presence in the Gulf because of the parlous state of Britain’s finances and her military commitments elsewhere, especially in Northern Ireland. Twelve to 14 million pounds sterling seems cheap given that it was the cost of protecting hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of Gulf oil for Britain and the West. Moreover, the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai offered to pay it in full, since they, like the sheikh of Bahrain and the sultan of Oman, did not want to see Britain leave the Gulf. The boorish reply of the British defense secretary, Denis Healey, spoke volumes about his lack of strategic vision, his engrained political prejudices, and the rank hypocrisy of the British government. He proclaimed that he was not “a sort of white slaver for Arab sheikhs,” and that “it would be a very great mistake if we allowed ourselves to become mercenaries for people who like to have British troops around.”18 Strangely enough he did not object to the West German government contributing to the cost of maintaining the British army on the Rhine, nor did it prevent him, and his successors, from selling large quantities of sophisticated military equipment to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two local powers, whose conduct and ambitions had for one hundred and fifty years posed the main threat to Gulf security. It was no excuse that other powers, principally the United States, were engaged in such a lucrative trade, for no other power had carried the responsibility for maintaining the peace of the Gulf, nor had they, like Britain, suppressed maritime warfare, piracy, and the slave and arms trades. Any chance that the mistakes of the Labour government would be rectified by their Conservative successors was dashed when the Heath government tried to pressurize the sheikh of Abu Dhabi into surrendering a large chunk of his oil-rich territory to Saudi Arabia, and then connived at the Iranian seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs. In its unseemly scramble to get out of the Gulf by 1971, Britain had reverted to the same mercenary spirit that had marked its entry three hundred and fifty years before.

What lessons can be drawn from the British experience in the Gulf?

First, if a great maritime power is drawn into the Gulf, for mercenary or other motives, and it is to stay there to guarantee its interests, it eventually has to deal with the threats to the stability of the area posed by warfare or piracy. The use of force to coerce reluctant actors will be necessary, and diplomatic tools will have to be employed to build alliances that will work in keeping the peace in the Gulf. Such a system, and its infrastructure, must be guaranteed in the last resort by the paramount maritime power.

Second, the British position in the Gulf had always been based on the lower Gulf, on the trucial system and the long relationship with Oman, and not on Britain’s relations with Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, or even Kuwait. The major Gulf states had always resented Britain’s role in the Gulf, had attempted to negate it, and had welcomed Britain’s exit.

Third, withdrawal from the Gulf was yet another step in Europe’s withdrawal from Asia and Africa after World War II. It has been represented, usually by way of excuse, as the inevitable response to the rise of Afro-Asian nationalism, though increasingly historical research reveals it to have been due to the collapse of the Europeans’ will to defend their interests in the wider world. This failure of will led Britain and Europe increasingly to consign the defense of these interests in the Middle East and elsewhere to the United States, which had always been as much a rival as an ally in these areas. Eschewing Britain’s former gamekeeper role, the U.S. government pursued a pointless “twin-pillars” policy in the 1970s of handing over the security of the Gulf to two of the main poachers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the Iranian pillar, with the fall of the shah in 1979, raised serious questions about the stability of the remaining Saudi one and, indeed, the continued viability of U.S. policy. It took the third poacher, or the thief of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, to reveal, in three large-scale and bloody wars, the consequences of the collapse of the states system in the Gulf following Britain’s withdrawal, and the dangers of appeasing local aggressors.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 there has been a renewal of the religious division in the Gulf, between Sunni Arabia and Shia Iran, and this has reached fever pitch since 2003 and the events in Iraq. It is symbolized by the February 2006 Sunni Arab bombing of the Askariya shrine at Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites (where lie the tombs of the Tenth and the Eleventh Imams and where lies a shrine to the Twelfth or Hidden Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi). In the long history of Sunni-Shia antagonism it bears comparison with the Wahhabi devastation of Karbala in 1801 and desecration of the shrine of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet. It is a factor that outside powers in the Gulf will increasingly have to bear in mind, especially as it intersects with, and is complicated by, a general rise in tension between the Islamic world and the rest of the world.

And finally, since 1987 the United States has played the reluctant policeman in the Gulf. With the bitter experience of Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, there may well be a waning appetite for continuing such a role. But in reappraising the role of the United States, U.S. opinion formers and policy makers need to keep in mind what happened when, in a similar mood in the early 1970s, at the end of the Vietnam War and in consequence of Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf, they handed over the security of this most vital waterway to the two main poachers in the area. To continue this metaphor, the Gulf needs gamekeepers, headed by the United States, as much today as in the past, assisted by those powers who have a vital economic and financial stake in the area, whether European, South Asian, or East Asian. We cannot afford, in this globalized world, to allow the destabilization of one of the key areas on the planet. Let the gamekeeper rather than the mercenary spirit inform our attitudes and policies toward the challenges in this area.