BRITAIN’S ARABIAN OIL EMPIRE
For 300 years Arabia and the Persian Gulf served as a vital link between Britain and imperial India. But from 1908, when the first major oil strike was made in Persia, Britain had an additional and growing interest to protect in the region. It was to bring her into bitter conflict with Arab nationalism and involve her in bloodshed as well as profit.
On the morning of November 30, 1971, Iranian gunboats landed two companies of soldiers on three tiny Arab islands in the Persian Gulf of the Trucial Coast of Oman. They met a mixed reception. On the biggest island called Abu Musa , where a few hundred transient fisherfolk scraped a precarious living, the soldiers were officially welcomed by the local Arab police commander,. On the smallest island, a rocky protuberance called the Lesser Tumb, their island was neither welcomed nor opposed, for the reason that there was no one there. On the third island however, called the Greater Tumb, where 80 to 100 people lived in the utmost indigence, a crackle of rifle fire sounded from the local police post, and before the Iranian soldiers could raise their flag in safety, three of their own number and the one Arab policeman were shot dead.
Intrinsically, there was nothing in these tiny islands to justify any international incident, even on such a petty scale as this; but for many months before the Iranian landings. The islands had been the focus of a complex wrangle about historic rights and sovereignty between their ruling Arab sheiks, the Shah of Iran, and Her Britannic Majesty’s Government, which, for reasons by them obscure to most people, had once undertaken to protect the Arab claim. By 1971, that protection had been withdrawn and the Shah,had exercised the right of force majeure against the sheiks without fear of British opposition.
The Red Sea and Gulf of Persia from satellite
On the day after the Iranian landings, Britain’ senior diplomatic representative in the Gulf was threatened by a hostile Arab crowd, and in protest against what they said was a British betrayal of the Arab cause, Iraq broke off diplomatic relations with Britain and Libya nationalised the local assets of the British Petroleum Company. With those small episodes 150 years of the Pax Britainnica in the Gulf were ended and the remaining relics of Britain’s empire in the Middle East slid into history. Almost without knowing it,the world had said goodbye to the last, scattered outposts of the Raj.
The story of Britain’s involvement in the Middle East falls into two main parts, broken by the First World War. The 300 years preceding 1914, were ones of rising British power, when the colonial administration in India, concerned to defend its trading route to Britain, was brought gradually to exercise more and more influence in Arabia and the Persian Gulf. After 1914, British investment in Middle Eastern oil led the British government into conflict with the awakened Arab nationalism of the 20th Century.
The first part of the story goes back to the early 17th Century, when Iran under its older name of Persia,was the mistress of the Gulf and her emperors claimed control of several parts of the Arab shore. In 1916, one of those emperors, the great Shah Abbas granted the British East India Company a monopoly of his country’s silk trade and allowed its factors to settle in the Persian port of Bandar Abbas. For 150 years the Company survived there, a sturdy offshoot of its Bombay headquarters, gradually squeezing out its French, Dutch and Portuguese rivals and extending its commercial tentacles northwards towards Basra to dominate the entire Persian coast.
But while the Company prospered the empire of the Shahs declined. By the second half of the 18th Century, Persia was inking into chaos, and threats to the East India Company’s supremacy in the Gulf was appearing from all directions. From the East the Afghans had invaded Persia and disrupted its internal trade. Cross the Gulf the costal Arabs had destroyed the last Persian footholds, and an upsurge of Arabian fanaticism inspired by the Wahhabi Muslims of the interior was beginning to strengthen their tribal organisation and reinvigorate their traditional piracy of the sea.
In the north, the expanding empire o Russia was pressing upon the fragile barrier of the Ottoman Turks, as well as upon the decayed administration of the Shahs, in a first intimation of that Tsarist threat to India which so obsessed the 19th Century Raj. Further west in the Mediterranean, the French were also active, probing the Ottoman hold on the Levant in the hope of reopening the old overland route from Europe to India.
The British response to these activities was cautious but consistent. In the late 18th Century and throughout the 19th, Britain’s primary imperial concern was to protect her trade-routes to the East, especially to India. So over 150 years she was led to a steady and, as she believed, defensive extension to imperial control form the Persian mainland to the Arabian shore, of the Gulf, and thence, by degrees, round the whole Arabian coast until, by 1914, a cordon sanitaire covered the approaches to India all the way from Teheran to Suez.
The first British move was inspired by the local threats of Persian instability and Arab pirate raids. In 1763, the East India Company transferred its Gulf headquarters from Bandar Abbas to the more secure port of Bushire, further up the Gulf. There a British official, called the Resident, as installed with an Indian guard. The East India Company was guaranteed a monopoly on the export of woolens into Persia and the Persian ruler promised that no other European nation would be allowed to establish a competing trading station. Here was the origin of Britain’s presence throughout the region. The next British moves were a response to foreign intervention - Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign to force a way through the Muslim barrier between East and West and outflank the British sea-route to India. Even before Nelson had destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir in 1799, forcing Napoleon to withdraw from Egypt, the British officials in India had acted on their own account, without instructions from London, to seal off the French roads to the East.
In 1798 naval units from the Bombay Marine seized the little island of Perim at the mouth of the Red Sea, the fist British occupation of any Middle Eastern territory. In the same year, at the exit from the Persian Gulf, representatives of the East India Company signed a treaty of friendship with the powerful Sultan of Muscat, the first British treaty with an Arabian ruler.
The pattern of #British activity in this region thus established in the closing years of the 18th Century, was to persist virtually up to the time of Britain’s withdrawal.
The pattern had two main features. In the first place the “British” presence was Indian in origin, control and style. On the Western side of the Muslim barrier the British government in London assumed the responsibilities of Empire, juggling with the intricacies of the Eastern Question to ensure British supremacy in Cairo and Constantinople and reaching its diplomatic arm far into Central Asia. But east of Suez the British in India were in command: and before the Indian empire vanished, they had spread the influences, priorities and titles of the Raj everywhere from Baghdad to Aden. When the activities of the British government and Indian administration overlapped, as they did in Persia and Mesopotamia there was ill-disguised rivalry between them. For a time in the 19th Century, indeed, there were rival British and Indian legations in Teheran, until it was agreed to split Persia in half and for their respective consuls to share a diplomatic compound in the capital.
In the second place, British control was maritime not territorial - a girdle of sea power around the eastern extremities of the Arab world. Where territorial control of some kind was deemed essential, it was achieved by the traditional British method of indirect influence, rather than direct rule. In the West, the British government secured the same result by supporting the Ottoman Empire against Britain’s European rivals and by making the Royal Navy the mistress of the Mediterranean.
In the east, the Indian and=ministration simply extended its system of protective overlord-ships from the native states of the sub-continent itself to the petty costal rulers of Arabia and the Gulf. Apart from the maintenance of a territorial sphere of influence in southern Persia, nothing more was required so long as the defence of India and Britain’s sea borne trade remained the centre of imperial policy.
It was not the function of the Raj to seek entanglement in such unrewarding regions, nor to extend the Pax Britannica to its warring tribes. As long as the surrounding seas were free and other powers were kept at arms length from India, the imperial duty was done. Only in one place, around the port of Aden, a paltry 75 square miles did the British assume the responsibility of colonial rule in these Middle Eastern extension of the Raj. Elsewhere they took some 40 or 50 independent principalities into a variety of treaty relationships that made them what Lord Curzon called “feudatories.”
Lesser Arabian rulers accepted some degree of vassalage. In the Gulf this merely took the form, at first, of undertakings to desist from piracy. By the end of the 18th Century under the growing influence of the Wahababis, Arab piracy had become the scourge of the Persian shore and for the next 50 years its suppression was the main preoccupation of the Bushire Residency.
Repeated punitive raids on what came to be known as the “pirate coast” of Oman had no effect and the bold operations of the Qawasim tribe, in particular, mounted from the little port of Ras-al-Khaima, remained a tiresome irritant to British traders. Then, in 1835, a new Bushire Resident, Captain Samuel Hennell, replaced the iron hand with the velvet glove. Apart from piracy and fishing, he noted, the only resources the Arabs had were the Gulf’s ancient pearling grounds. If pearling were more profitable, he reasoned, the Arabs might be less inclined to plunder.
Captain Hennell therefore induced the Arab sheiks to accept a maritime truce among themselves for the duration of each annual pearling season. As the years went by and profits rose, the truces were extended - from a season to a year, from a year to 10 years, and finally in 1853, to perpetuity. By the Treaty of Maritime Peace signed in that year, the sheiks accepted “ a peaceful maritime truce ... Between ourselves and between our successors respectively for evermore.”
The Pax Britannica had arrived, but it was at the invidious cost of making Britain arbiter in all local disputes. To maintain the peace Britain had to defend each sheik from attack by his neighbours, and to make the peace palatable to the sheiks in the first place, she had to acknowledge their sovereignty in places around the Gulf where a century or two before, the Persians had claimed control. In these concessions lay the seeds of trouble when the Empire bowed out of the Gulf 120 years later.
The truce was strictly maritime. Inland, the Arabs continued to squabble with what a British political agent of the day described as “that mania for fighting that possesses the Arab mind.” British agents held by the rule that events on the mainland were not their concern. Anti-slavery agreements for example, were imposed along with the truce at sea as part of the world-wide campaign against the slave-trade; but it was the traffic in slaves, not the institution of slavery, that Britain and the Royal Navy sought to end.
True, British agents secured the right to manumit any slaves who applied to them for freedom. As late as the 1960’s they were still occasionally called upon to do so. But to attack the problem frontally by requiring the release of all Arabian slaves would have involved the Raj in a degree of territorial control that it was unwilling and probably unable, to exercise at that time.
Even the defence of India required no more than a negative British influence on the Arabian shore. In the final quarter of the 19th Century, when the possibility of Russian invasion seemed increasingly strong, and successive Vice-regal governments in Delhi trembled for their estate, the British response was to sign another series of agreements with Gulf rulers giving Britain control of their foreign relations. Rival powers were thus formally barred from the Gulf, from Kuwait to Muscat, without Britain’s being committed to any greater physical presence.
By the start of the 20th Century, with the use of threats of establishing a naval base in the Gulf, Britain had established itself as the overlord of the Gulf of Persia. In the rest of Arabia, meanwhile, the British presence had grown in similar fashion.At the mouth of the Red Sea the waterless inhospitality of Perim island soon forced the British to look to the nearby mainland for a base. Their choice fell naturally on the superb anchorage at Aden, one of the finest harbours between London and Bombay, and perfectly endowed, therefore, to serve in addition as a coaling station for the East India company’s first 19th Century steamships.
Aden had once been known as the prosperous “eye of the Yemen,” a natural port of call on the Red Sea route to the East and the outlet for the fertile Yemen mountains, 100 miles to the north. But after the Turks had conquered the interior in the 16th Century and Europe's merchants had discovered the Cape route to India, Aden had declined into nothing more than a pirate village preying on Indian Ocean traffic.
Then, in the 1830’s an army from Muhammed Ali’s Egypt had invaded the Yemen and threatened to capture Aden. The British decided to act. Local pirates provide a pretext by holding the passengers and crew of a British ship to ransom, and in 1839, Captain Stafford Haines of the Indian Navy landed from Bombay with 700 men and a couple Royal Navy sloops in support. At a cost of only 15 casualties, he annexed Aden to the Bombay Presidency, the first imperial acquisition of Queen Victoria’s reign and one destined to carry some flavour of the Victorian Age far into the 20th Century.
Haines who was appointed political agent in the territory, had a vision of restoring Aden to its former commercial glory. After the Red Sea route to Europe was reopened in 1869, with the inauguration of the Suez Canal, Aden’s trade did, indeed increase. Indian merchants moved in to exploit the new commerce, Indian clerks manned the offices of the new shipping agents, and behind the headland known as Steamer Point, where the P & O vessels took on coal, a whole new Anglo-Indian town arose, full of the characteristic wooden bungalows and box-wallahs of the Raj.
But to the Indian officials Aden was primarily a military outpost, as Perim island had been. They therefore rejected the possibilities of commercial co-operation with the Yemen and chose instead to strengthen the barriers between and the interior by extending exclusive treaties of British protection to all the principal rulers of the South Arabian coast.
Not all the sheiks received the British overtures and many lesser tribal rulers were ignored (a fact that was to cause trouble for the British in later years, when favours offered to the treaty sheiks stirred the others to rebellion). But, one way or another, by the end of the century, some 30 ill-defined tribal states between the Red Sea and the Sultan of Muscat’s territory in Dhofar had been recognised by Britain, thus creating that curious strip of pink on the map of Empire known as the Aden Protectorate.
What little more was needed to complete the British cordon round the approaches to India was accomplished in the First World War, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The sheikdom of Qatar, in the Gulf, was brought under British Protection when the last Turkish garrison withdrew in 1916. Serif Hussain of Mecca, the leader of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, became Britain’s ally and his rival, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, ruler of the eastern Arabian province of Nejd and descendant of the Wahhabis, secured a treaty of British protection in return for his help against the Turks. When the Mesopotamian Valley was formally included in the British sphere of interest in a post-war League of Nations Mandate, the Empire appeared supreme from the Caspian to Cairo.
Yet it was an Empire, not of occupation or administration, but of influence and custom - and these remained respectively as maritime and Indian as ever. For all the proliferation of treaties, the internal life of Arab sheikdoms and sultanates remained untouched. Frontiers were unmarked and tribes were still at war, much as they had been since the days of Abraham. In Persia, neither the eclipse of the Shahs nor the menace of Russia had induced the British to change their indirect authority for direst rule. They had stuck to their principles implicit in the terms of the East India Company’s early settlement at Bushire: the protection of British trade and the extension of India’s imperial defences.
The Anglo-Indian curry lunch was an accepted Sunday ritual. Every laundryman was a dhobi, every watchman a chowkidar, and every household servant answered to the Anglo-Indian cry of “Bearer!” Three or four thousand miles of middle-eastern territory - a crescent around the heart of Arabia - lay securely under the shadow of the Raj.
Yet in that post-war moment of apparently unchallenged supremacy, the Raj, in truth, had already passed its peak and in both its Arab and its Persian outposts new revolutionary forces were emerging that would eventually destroy the whole imperial structure. They were those 20th Century twins of middle-eastern politics - nationalism and oil.
In all the long history of Britain’s special connection with the Middle East there was never a more momentous document than that to which the Shah of Persia put his name on May 21, 1901, at the request of an Englishman called William Knox D’Arcy. It was the first oil concession agreement of the 20th Century, bestowing upon D’Arcy “a special and exclusive privilege to search for, obtain, exploit, render suitable for trade, carry away and sell natural gas, petroleum, asphalt and ozerite throughout the whole extent of the Persian Empire for a term of sixty years.”
Although its terms were to be revised, denounced, broken and restored many times by many different signatories long before its sixty years were up, it was the foundation of one of the biggest economic operations the world has ever seen and its results inspired political changes more radical than any the Middle East had known for centuries.
At first, the deal seemed unrewarding. Seven years elapsed before D‘Arcy got any returns, and his directors had actually sent a cable cancelling further exploration when the news arrived in London in 1908 of an oil strike at Masjid I-Suleiman in southern Persia. In the next year the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed with a capital of £2 million supplied by a group of British and Dutch financiers. D’Arcy was bought out and work began on the first middle-eastern oil refinery at Abadan in the Gulf.
The strike could not have come at a better time. On the eve of the First World War the Royal Navy was just completing its conversion from coal to oil-fired ships and Winston Churchill at the Admiralty persuaded the government to safeguard the Navy’s future by acquiring a majority holding in the new oil company. Sixty years later, when Anglo-Persian had become the British Petroleum Company, that holding provided a revolutionary Arab government in Libya with the excuse to confiscate B.P.’s assets in response to Britain’s final alleged “betrayal” of the Arabs in the Gulf. But at the time, the government’s purchase seemed to be a matter of common prudence, on a par with Disraeli’s shrewd purchase in 1875 of shares in the Suez Canal.
The discovery prompted other countries to seek oil concessions in the area; and in 1914 Anglo-Persian joined with Royal Dutch Shell and a German company to prospect for oil in northern Mesopotamia - the origins of the modern Iraq Petroleum Company. At the same time, the British hurried to plug possible gaps in their screen around the Gulf by signing yet another series of agreements with all the Arab states, from Bahrain and Kuwait to the Trucial Coast and Muscat, giving Britain the exclusive right to oil concessions in their territories. They were the first indications that Britain would soon switch her policy from maritime containment in the interests of India to territorial engagement for economic gain.
The Empire as forced to come to terms with another new and challenging phenomenon encouraged by the First World War - nationalism. In India itself when the war was over, the independence movement began to shake the superb confidence of the Raj, and in the Middle East the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the success of the Arab Revolt had started the same fires burning. In Persia, the military coup d’etat of Reza Shah, a former Colonel in the Russian Cossack Regiment, suggested as early as 1921 that the days of simple acquiescence in British policy were ending.
In Arabia, five years later, ibn Saud asserted his independence by overrunning his old Hashemite rival, Sherif Hussein, and proclaiming himself King of the Nejd, Hejaz and its Dependencies. In the Yemen, too, a new Arab ruler the Imam Yahya, emerged in the wake of Turkish withdrawal to try to subjugate or suborn the sheikhs of the Aden Protectorate in the hope of restoring the medieval unity of his kingdom. Like the search for oil, these new rumblings from the Arabian interior forced the British to look to the land in earnest.
From Iraq to Aden diplomatic negotiations with new Arab leaders went hand-in-hand with the pacification of unruly tribesmen and the first attempts at frontier-making. The bumbling biplanes of the Royal Air Force dropped bombs on rebellious villagers in Kurdestan, while Indian officials trekked into the Yemeni mountains to talk to the new Imam. Soldiers, surveyors and administrators followed them and and a new wave of explorers penetrated parts of Arabia rarely if ever seen before by Europeans. St. John Philby went to the unknown interior of the new Saudi kingdom, Bertram Thomas traversed the fearsome desert in the south, known as the empty quarter, and Freya Stark entered the secret valley of the Hadhramaut.
By the mid 1930’s the modern map of Arabia was taking shape and a fitful sort of peace was falling upon some of its ancient tribal squabbles. In the Hadhramuat, where Freya Stark was marooned among warring factions in 1935, a young political officer, Harold Ingrams, was able, only a year or two later,to settle 1000 years of quarrels almost single-handed. In three years of lonely travel and tribal negotiation between 1936 and 1939,, Ingrams obtained the signatures of over 1300 tribal chiefs to a general truce that became known, deservedly, as “Ingram’s Peace.”
At the same time, he signed a new series of treaties with the five major rulers of the area, promising them further British help and protection if they, in return, would accept the advice of the Governor of Aden in matters concerning the welfare and development of their territories. His achievement was significant in two respects. First because the new treaties were the first to give Britain any right to interfere in the purely internal affairs of Arabia and, secondly, because they marked a transfer from the Indian administration’s influence to the authority of Whitehall.
Shah Mozzafar al-din-Shah-Qajar
In 1937, the Colonial Office in London assumed responsibility for the Aden Protectorate and made Aden itself a fully-fledged Crown Colony, with the intention of pursuing a “forward policy” of colonial development and defence to safeguard Britain’s interests.
But the time was already later than it seemed. The ink was scarcely dry on the last of Ingram’s treaties when the Second World War began. Most of Arabia’s frontiers were still uncharted or disputed, many of its biggest oil-fields were still undiscovered or unexploited, and most of its tribal life was unaffected by the demands and opportunities of the modern world. For the next ten years the war and its aftermath prevented any rapid change, and when the post-war demand for oil and the renewed challenge of Arab nationalism forced Britain to intervene more decisively in Arabian affair, it was too late for any so-called “forward policy” to be effective. The rest of the Empire by then was crumbling and British power was in eclipse.
Imperial development in the Gulf was even more tardy. Not until the Raj withdrew from India in 1947 was the Resident’s post transferred from the Viceroy’s staff to that of the Foreign Office in Whitehall and his headquarters moved from the decaying little town of Bushire, on the Persian shore, to the thriving oil sheikdom of Bahrain on the Arab side of the Gulf. On the Trucial Coast the neighbouring sheikdoms of Abu Dhabi and Dubai were still at war as late as 194, firing antique cannon balls at each other across the sands quite unhindered by the maritime truce their ancestors had signed 100 years before.
Not for another three years after that did the British manage to extend the truce from the sea to the land and establish the Trucial States of Oman in something like their final form, when the recognised the little sheikdom of Fujairah as the seventh and last of the states in the Trucial system and at the same time created the Trucial Oman Scouts to keep the peace along the coast. Once again the motive forces were oil and nationalism. For by then the oil prospectors had arrived in Trucial Oman requiring both protection for their lives against the local tribesmen and defence of their concessions against the threat of external Arab conquest The scouts provided both. What they lacked in military weight they made good by the symbolic fact that of their presence. With their British officers , romantically wrapped in the flowing headgear of the desert as they led their camel trains across the great Arabian sand dunes, they served notice that the frontier which Britain as ready to defend had moved from the Gulf coast into the Arabian interior. They were in short, the last agents of Pax Brittanica.
Thus in a consistent pattern of challenge and response, the Empire began to assert itself all around Arabia in the first decade after the war. The demands of oil and strategy, the provision of advice and social welfare, the need for economic development and the extension of law and order, in one combination or another all these drew the British on towards new horizons and new responsibilities. Yet in spite of it all, these territories in which Britain now sank the last of her imperial energies , remained in limbo. At heart, the Arabian sheikdoms which the British were trying to protect were still the same lawless places whose “mania for fighting” had been so striking a century before.
Few of their inhabitants were ever seen without a rifle, a dagger and a bandolier full of bullets. Slavery was still endemic to most of them; poverty and isolation seemed inbred. Even in those states where oil discoveries had begun to confer vast riches , the follies of the local ruling families, unused to such wealth, were legendary. Girls were imported en masse from Beirut for their harems and gold watches and jewelled bracelets were showered upon casual visitors while their own people looked on in mingled wonder and resentment.
In May 1951, the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, nationalised the £400,000,000 Anglo-Iranian oil Company. The company, financially controlled by the British government, had enjoyed a monopoly for 40 years and Mossadeq described it as “a dragon lying on the Persian peoples hidden treasure.” Protesting that the Iranian action was illegal, the British government ostentatiously alerted military units in Cyprus, Egypt and Iraq and a Royal Navy cruiser anchored in sight of the vast company-owned refinery at Abadan. But Mossadeq refused to be brow-beaten or persuaded. A demagogue prone to public trances and extravagant displays of weeping and fainting, he rejected all suggestions for compromise and ordered British oil-workers to quit the country. While mobs of Iranians roamed the streets chanting “kill the British!” the oil-workers filled the days before their departure by staging a musical revue. Three years later Mossadeq was arrested and Iran signed a new oil agreement with Britain who had to be content with a small shareholding in an international consortium.
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