ARAB NATIONALISM AND THE
END OF PAX BRITAINNICA
In Qatar the ruler was reputed to throw away his Cadillacs when the ash-trays were full, and in Abu-Dhabi, where the sheik was paid a handsome sum just for the prospecting rights in his territory, the ruler’s bizarre behaviour was a permanent headache to his British protectors. His money was paid at his own request in brand new Indian rupee notes - still the official currency of the Gulf at that time - which he carries off in one of his capacious underskirts to a strong-room at his little mud-walled palace. His people grumbled, his officials went unpaid, and once, when his police were on the verge of rebellion, he opened a tea chest to get money to pay them only to discover that weevils had eaten half his concession allowance.
In vain did the British Resident in Bahrain send his agents to remonstrate with such men. The new world was not their world and the treaties which their ancestors had signed with the Raj had never required them to listen to British reproaches about the way they should run their own affairs.
In the years of imperial withdrawal which followed the Second World War, few men so nettled the pride of Britain as Dr. Mohammed Mossadeq, Prime Minister of Iran. Tearful, hysterical and stubborn, he seemed pre-eminently the sort of man to whom the Empire of old would have given short shrift; and when he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, it was widely assumed that the dispatch of a gunboat, in the good old-fashioned way, would soon bring him to heel.
But though the cruiser H.M.S. Mauritius stood off Abadan with orders to land marines if necessary, Anglo-Iranian stayed nationalised and Dr. Mossadeq remained in office. The marines were never landed, the cruiser was withdrawn, and three years later, when the crisis was resolved, Britain’s exclusive interest in Persian oil had been reduced to a small joint shareholding with a number of American companies and Iran had set up its own national oil company, pointing the way eventually to greater independence for all the Middle East oil countries. The Mossadeq affair was a blow from which British prestige in the region never recovered. Iran, it is true, suffered a commercial blockade of her oil exports and Dr. Mossadeq ultimately lost his job. But he had called the British bluff in the Gulf, and what had once been an imposing structure of power, was only a rickety facade.
In Saudi Arabia the Americans had secured an oil monopoly before the war, and ibn Saud had slid from the protection of the Raj into the more capacious arms of Washington. American oil advisers and the American State Department gave open support to the Saudis and discretely penetrated all Britain’s commercial strongholds around the Gulf. American companies shared the vast new fields of Kuwait equally with the British and participated, through the Iraq Petroleum Company and its subsidiaries, in all other Arab oil operations from Mosul to the Trucial States.
During the war, the United States had taken over Britain’s traditional military and political influence in Iran, as a result of the great American drive to get war supplies into Russia through the Persian back door. When Mossadeq destroyed the British monopoly there, the Americans moved in to take over the commercial leadership as well.
The Soviet Union was equally active. At the end of the war it had sought to perpetuate its wartime administration of Northern Iran by setting up a satellite People’s Republic in Azerbaijan. When American pressure frustrated that intention the Russians turned to the subtler and more rewarding tactic of encouraging incipient nationalism throughout the Middle East . Mossadeq himself was spurred on by Russians communist allies in Iran; and growing Arab bitterness over the creation of Israel, accompanied by accusations of British and American betrayal, offered Moscow many new revolutionary friends.
In the aftermath of the Mossadeq affair, these new rivalries and alliances of the cold war became increasingly entangled with ancient tribal jealousies and national resentments in Arabia and the Gulf. By then the proven oil deposits around the Gulf amounted to two thirds of the Free World’s oil resources and, although Britain’s share of them had dwindled to only half that of the United States, the profits from British operations there had become vital to Britain’s balance of payments and the preservation of the world-wide sterling area. Strategy and finance, therefore, prompted a hard line.
As Sir Anthony Eden wrote of a meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in April 1956, “I thought we must be absolutely blunt about oil, because we would “fight for it.” Six months later he did just that, after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. One of the justifications for the Anglo-French attack on Egypt, Eden said was the fear that, if Nasser “got away” with nationalising the Canal, he might thereafter get his hands on Arab oil and, with Russian approval, strangle Britain’s livelihood.
Still the British government were unwilling to reverse its imperial policies altogether. The protection of Gulf oil was now as much an obsession in Whitehall as the defence of India had been in Delhi a century earlier, and the troops and aircraft that pulled out of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, were concentrated afresh upon the last remaining British strongholds in the Arabian peninsula.
Aden, for so long little more than India’s further outpost, became Britain’s largest overseas military base. The naval units in the Gulf were strengthened, troops were trained in the Oman Desert, and the belated “forward policy” of the 1930’s became an urgent drive for military security, economic development and political reform. But the British were running further than ever behind the clock and, paradoxically, the more they tried to catch up, the more they caused events to accelerate out of their control.
In its new role Aden Colony grew wealthy and the Indian shopkeepers and Arab landlords of Steamer Point gladly joined the treaty sheiks of the Protectorate in planning a Federation of South Arabia that would unite the town and the tribes to secure the British base- and British patronage - indefinitely. But the same wealth encouraged a new influx of Arab workers, who made a natural seedbed for revolutionary anti-British sentiment.
By 1957, as a result of Yemeni agreements signed in Moscow and Peking, Russian rifles were in use against the British on the Protectorate border and Russian and Chinese technicians had arrived to build new ports and roads for the Yemeni kingdom. As a result, the ancient tribal skirmishes of the Protectorate soon engaged more British troops and acquired ominous international overtones.
Further east the pace of change also quickened. When Wilfred Thesiger last of the great British explorers of Arabia, arrived on foot in 1948, at the gates of Nizwa, in Central Oman, he was the first European to see the place since Lieutenant Wellsted of the Bombay Marines more than a century before, and he was promptly sent packing by the local chieftains who feared that he might have come on behalf of the oil companies to steal their land, their wealth and their women.
But within a year or two the oil-men were there, anyway, rumbling down from Buraimi to set up permanent camp on the edge of the Empty Quarter. The local chieftains scented money and and with Saudi and Egyptian help they tried to throw off the Sultan’s rule and make their own deal with the oil companies. Once more the British went in, to protect their oil interests and to honour old obligations to the Sultan.
Three times between 1955 and 1959 small British forces joined the Sultan’s men in subduing the Oman rebellion. Like the Aden skirmishes and the Buraimi affair these minuscule sorties were added to the growing catalogue of imperialist crimes in the folk-lore of Arab nationalism and became annual features on the anti-colonialist agenda at the United Nations.
By now it was a nice question whether the British presence did not create more trouble than it suppressed. Had the British actually ruled the territories they protected and brought the full weight of enlightened colonial policy to bear upon them, their military actions might have appeared more defensible. But, stuck with the 19th Century treaty system, they seemed more and more to be defending the indefensible.
British efforts to change the old tribal ways were restricted largely to diplomatic persuasion and were often rejected with contempt. The Sultan of Muscat for example, a proud and penny-pinching little man who conceived of practically any change as the devil’s work, turned his back on what he considered Britain’s half-baked notions of political and social reform.
Even where the British were able to induce the local rulers to adapt their style of government to new circumstances, their success sometimes inspired another sort of trouble . In Kuwait, a wise ruler, Sheikh Abdullah as-Sabah was persuaded to create a model welfare state for all his citizens and to negotiate his independence from Britain by 1961. No sooner had he done so, than a new revolutionary government in Iraq, under General Abdul Karim Kassem, claimed Kuwait as part of Iraq territory and advanced its tanks and soldiers towards the sheikhdom . As-Sabah turned to the British for aid and reluctantly the threadbare forces of a vanishing Empire were dragged into yet another gunboat action.
It as in Aden that the British presence seemed most obviously self-defeating. Ostensibly established to defend the Gulf oil fields, the post-Suez base in Aden had to devote most of its energies to protecting itself from unrest in the Colony and tribal dissidence in the Protectorate, conditions inspired partly by the very existence of the base. By 1962 it seemed that only desperate measures could succeed; and in September of that year they were duly taken when the colonial government bulldozed through the Aden legislature a Bill to unite Colony and Protectorate in the mutually protective Federation of South Arabia.
But once again the British were too late. The next day a group of military rebels in the Yemen overthrew the Imam’s regime, proclaimed the birth of the Yemen Arab Republic, and begged for Egyptian help. Within weeks, tens of thousands of Egyptian troops had arrived and both the Yemen and South Arabia were plunged into a multi--sided civil war, involving Egyptians, Republicans, Russian and Chinese support ranged against the old Imam ate assisted by the Saudis.
In the south, the British and the Protectorate sheikhs sought alliance with the Saudis and the Yemen royalists, while the Republicans and their allies helped the Aden nationalists and the dissident tribes to close the British base and destroy the Federation.
In the end,practically every party to the conflict was a loser. The Saudi regime was shaken and the Yemeni royal family was eclipsed. The Egyptians suffered five years of humiliation and exhaustion in vain attempts to subdue the hardy mountain tribes; and after Egypt’s catastrophic defeat in the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, Nasser was compelled to withdraw all his forces from the Yemen and abandon his republican protégés to the perils of compromise with their enemies. The South Arabian Federation too, was destroyed and the British were forces to evacuate Aden.
By the end of 1967 it was all over. The British forces had suffered some 60 killed and 700 wounded in the hardest anti-terrorist campaign since Malaya and the indignity of their final departure ranked with the retreat from Palestine There were no friendly ceremonies of independence here, only bitterness and the taste of failure. The last British High Commissioner had to be lifted out by helicopter under armed guard. He left behind the first avowed Marxist state to take the place of Empire, the Peoples Democratic Republic of South Yemen and a city racked with by fear and poverty that had come to resemble a ghost -town.
THE PORT OF ADEN, annexed by Britain in 1839, was the first territorial gain of the Victorian Empire. Dominated by the arid red cliffs of an extinct volcano, its sparse population was reported to be in “a condition of most indigent poverty and neglect.” Aden had neither wealth nor beauty, but it did possess a fine harbour which provided anchorage for ships en route to imperial India.
The Raj ended in 1947, but Aden’s value as a military base increased as the turbulent tide of Arab nationalism swept British forces out of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. By the 1950’s the same tide was stirring Aden. An attempt was made to stem the upsurge - and secure the military base - by merging the colony with the tribalistic and British protected states of the Southern Arabic Federation. But this provoked worse trouble: by 1964 Britain faced a bloody terrorist campaign waged with lavish supplies of Soviet arms and strident encouragement and support from President Nasser of Egypt. Britain left with no ceremony on November 2, 1967.
THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE. The terrorist campaign against the British rule in Aden and the 16 sheikhdoms of its hinterland - grouped together in the South Arabia Federation - began in December 1963. After two years of mounting violence, the British government announced that it would grant impendence to the Federation no later than 1968 and that it would then abandon its military base in Aden for good. Meanwhile it appealed to all sides for restraint.
Determined to achieve independence immediately and on their own terms, the two main terrorist groups reacted by plunging into further bloodshed against the British and each other. On one side stood the Egyptian backed Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (F.L.O.S.Y.). On the other was ranged the fanatically Marxist National Liberation Front (N.L.F.). In between was the British soldier - and his family. Women and children were fair game for terrorist bullets and bombs no less than troops. Senior government officials were also warned in a F.L.O.S.Y. Broadcast that they would be shot “one by one like dog.” Rioting and arson accompanied the shootings and bombing, and schools, churches and synagogues went up in flames. Unwilling to spend more lives for the privilege of being an imperialist Aunt Sally, Britain announced that she was hurrying forward independence day to November 30, 1967.
THE SUN SETS EAST OF SUEZ. After 128 years of imperial rule, the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967, was a sombre and unpleasant affair. Instead o cheering crowds, the streets of shuttered shops echoed only to the roar of armoured cars and the whine and rattle of rooftop gun battles between the rival Arab contenders for political power. At Khormaskar Airfield, scene of the biggest airlift operation since that of Berlin in 1948, exploding mortar bombs sped the 16,000 departing British servicemen and their families on their way.
Relinquishing their tough peace-keeping role, the Royal Marine Commandos embarked by sea on November 28. O the same day the High commissioner, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, flew off by helicopter to H.M.S. Eagle without a hint of ceremony - just a terse message of “happiness and prosperity” to the new People’s Republic. The question of future British financial aid for the new state was left politely in abeyance. Union Jacks still flying bravely over military depots were hauled down for the last time and rear-guards holding the perimeter of Khormskar Airfield finally flew out.
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