Persian Gulf, Great Britain and Power Vacuum

  August 07, 2021   Read time 3 min
Persian Gulf, Great Britain and Power Vacuum
The Iran-Iraq War came about as the result of a power vacuum that developed in the Persian Gulf with the announcement by Great Britain in the late 1960s that it would withdraw from the region, where it had exercised hegemony for over a century.

Britain’s decision inspired the shah of Iran to assume Britain’s role as “policeman” of the Gulf, a step that he was encouraged to take by the United States. The shah’s subsequent efforts to turn the Gulf into an Iranian lake disturbed relations among all the littoral states, but Iraq in particular perceived itself to be threatened, since the shah made no secret of his hatred for the Arab nationalist regime there. It was this vying for ascendancy between Iran and Iraq that led to the outbreak of war in 1980.

Great Britain’s active involvement with the Persian Gulf dates back to the nineteenth century. In this period its interests in the region were mainly strategic. Britain feared that hostile forces would turn the Gulf into a staging area for an invasion of India, its prized colonial possession. The principal source of danger to Britain was imperial Russia, which since the time of Peter the Great had been waging campaigns of conquest along its southern border. Russia’s imperial advance to the south, the British felt, was deliberate, a search for warm water ports giving access to India. Britain saw a second threat coming from Germany. Before World War I, the kaiser had contracted with the Ottoman Empire to build a Berlin-to-Basrah railway. Basrah, the second largest city in Iraq, is located on the Shatt al Arab, a watercourse debouching into the Gulf. To Britain, a German rail line that terminated on the Gulf almost inevitably would become an avenue for transporting troops.

To prevent the Gulf from becoming an enemy base, Britain consolidated its control over the area. Throughout the nineteenth century it concluded a series of treaties with the local rulers. The pacts forbade the rulers from allying themselves with parties of whom Britain might disapprove; the rulers also agreed not to alienate their territories, which meant they would not grant commercial concessions without British permission.

At the turn of the century Britain’s interest in the Gulf expanded; in addition to viewing the area as a strategic asset, it took note of its commercial importance. The change came about after oil was discovered in southern Iran. Britain ultimately gained control of this concession and formed a company to exploit it, percent of the shares of which were controlled by the British government. Britain was then in the process of converting its fleet to oil, and thus the discovery was of military as well as commercial importance.

The outbreak of World War I delayed exploitation of Gulf oil resources until 1928, when Iraq granted a concession to a group of British, Dutch, French, and American interests. Shortly afterward the Bahrainis opened their territory to the Americans—a violation of the nonalienation clause of their treaty with Great Britain. Britain put pressure on the Bahrainis to renege on this deal. Ultimately a compromise was struck whereby the Americans were permitted to take over the concession, after they had set up a company registered in the British Commonwealth. A similar dispute arose when Kuwait offered exploration rights to another American group. Again Britain intervened, and this time American and British interests shared the concession fifty-fifty. One by one all the states that today make up the Persian Gulf system let concessions; and in all but one of these states British interests were involved, either as monopoly holders or as participants: Qatar granted a concession in 1934; Abu Dhabi in 1959; Oman in 1963; Dubai in 1966; and Sharjah in 1972. Only in Saudi Arabia were the British shut out; there the concession was solely in the hands of Americans.

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