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State Formation in the Middle East: the Case of Securing the ‘Persian Gulf’ from Piracy

British efforts to establish maritime security in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the nineteenth century were of lasting importance for state formation on the Arab Peninsula. The historical sources on piracy in these parts show that around the beginning of the eighteenth century local rulers still set the security agenda. A century later, the British established a Pax Brittanica in the region. The treaties they concluded with local powerbrokers would prove to be the somewhat haphazard foundations for state formation in the Peninsula.

Two pictograms of houses with the red-white-and-blue flag indicate VOC factories of the Dutch in present-day Basra (Bassura on the map, 1645,1651, 1723-1752) and in Iraq and Bandar Abbas (Gamron, 1623-1765) in Iran; source: qdl.qa.

Two pictograms of houses with the red-white-and-blue flag indicate VOC factories of the Dutch in present-day Basra (Bassura on the map, 1645,1651, 1723-1752) and in Iraq and Bandar Abbas (Gamron, 1623-1765) in Iran; source.

Maritime security in the Indian Ocean

Some important historical sources and publications – the British Indian Office Records (1763-1951), Charles R. Low’s History of the Indian Navy (1877), and John G. Lorimer’s encyclopaedic, 5000-page Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia (1915) – have become recently available through the online Qatar Digital Library. These sources show how, towards the end of the seventeenth century, the ‘depredations’ of European and American pirates had become a threat to the trade agreements between the European East India Companies and local rulers: “The pirates that now appeared in the Indian Ocean were much more to be dreaded, the ships being large and well-armed, and manned by European crews“.

In 1699 the Mughal Emperor of India became exasperated by his continued losses to the pirates and put out an order to hold all the English, Dutch and French trade agents jointly accountable for the robberies. At this point the British, with the French and Dutch, agreed ‘to sign a security bond for payment of the losses sustained by any depredations which the pirates might, in future commit.’ Furthermore, the protection of the Red Sea was assigned to the Dutch, while the French were given the Persian Gulf as a station and the British undertook to police the ‘Southern’ Indian Ocean. It is unclear if this cooperation extended beyond a division of areas of responsibility to include operational cooperation.

A 1849 British map indicating 'The Pirate Coast' approximately alongside present-day Dubai; source: qdl.qa.

A 1849 British map indicating ‘The Pirate Coast’ approximately alongside present-day Dubai.

‘The Pirate Coast’

In the mid-eighteenth century the Mughal Empire in India had become weakened and from the 1770s onwards the British East India Company consolidated and expanded its colonial holdings in India. As a result, the trade routes to and from India gained in importance. John Gordon Lorimer in his Gazetteer argues that ‘the Government of Bombay had manifested towards the pirates a degree of forbearance which […] is difficult to understand.’ At the time, the Qawasim in the present-day United Arab Emirates controlled the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf. According to Lorimer, the Qasimi fleet ‘scoured the seas plundering all indiscriminately; and their successful example soon found imitators in every Arab port.’ Accordingly, the Arab coast of the Gulf became known as ‘the Pirate Coast’ in British sources.

In the 1980s two scholars from the Gulf took issue with the picture painted by Lorimer. The current ruler of the Sharjah emirate, Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi authored The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf in 1986. He argues that the British orchestrated a campaign to misrepresent the Qawasim as pirates in order to destroy a trade rival. A year later, the Kuwaiti sociologist Khaldoun Hasan al-Naqeeb (1941-2011) published his seminal study Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula: A Different Perspective. Like al-Qasimi, al-Naqeeb argued that lawful resistance to foreign influence by the Qawasim was branded as acts of piracy in order to camouflage British imperialist designs

State formation in the Gulf
From Pirate Coast to Trucial States

From Pirate Coast to Trucial States

The British, after repeatedly raiding Ra’s al-Khayma, the stronghold of the Qawasim, in 1820 finally forced them to sign a treaty for ‘a cessation of plunder and piracy’. A quarter of a century later, in 1853, the Emirates of the Arab coast were pressured to sign a treaty of ‘Perpetual Truce’ with Britain, followed by protectorate agreements concerning Bahrain, Muscat, and Kuwait. The Pirate Coast became the Trucial States.

For the Trucial States, the agreements with the British were the start of modern state formation, a point emphasized by al-Naqeeb. He describes how the agreements between the British and local rulers brought an end to the ‘natural dynastic cycle’ in the Arab emirates and ‘froze tribal leadership of rule in the hands of those who had signed the treaties’. In al-Naqeeb’s analysis, state formation in the Arab Peninsula resulted in part from the British pressing whichever ruling family happened to be in charge to sign treaties on the eradication of piracy, and later slavery and the arms trade. All under the pretext of ‘philanthropic deeds for the good of humanity’. Further British-sponsored agreements, culminating in the 1922 ‘Uqair conference, ensured political security for the local rulers. When oil was discovered in the region in the 1930s, oil royalties were granted to the ruling families, allowing them to develop authoritarian states following their independence in 1971 from Britain and the oil price revolution in the 1970s.

This account of the somewhat haphazard state formation of the Arab Gulf states struck a sensitive chord with the local rulers as it appeared to undermine their traditional claims to authority. Perhaps it is the reason why al-Naqeeb was arrested and briefly detained after the publication of his book. But to this day, the Arab Gulf states struggle to define their legitimacy beyond the redistribution of oil revenues to the population in exchange for acquiescence to their continued rule.