The Waning British Influence

  August 07, 2021   Read time 2 min
The Waning British Influence
The chief benefit to the local rulers from Britain’s hegemony over the Gulf was the military protection they received. The British suppressed piracy, the slave trade, and arms traffic; they regulated the successions in the various states; and they generally kept the peace.

Britain’s paramount position in the Gulf was jolted by three rude shocks, all occurring in the 1950s. In 1951 Iranian politicians representing the broad center—the bazaar, the middle class, and the intelligentsia—pushed through legislation in Iran’s majlis (parliament) to nationalize the Iranian National Oil Company, the principal owner of which was Britain. The British tried unsuccessfully to get the Iranians to rescind their action. After an initial violent confrontation, they took the matter to the World Court, where it languished.

In the meantime, Iran’s economy practically ground to a halt. Britain, claiming that Iran had no legal right to dispose of its oil, threatened to sue would-be buyers. The tactic was effective; Iran sold only an insignificant amount of oil during the three years the dispute dragged on. Despite legal maneuvering, Britain ultimately lost in this test of wills with the Iranians. It had to concede Iran’s right to take over the company. The British settled for relatively meager compensation.

The dispute with Iran had barely been resolved when the Middle East witnessed another nationalization crisis. Again British interests were involved. They, along with the French, had been the principal shareholders in the Suez Canal Company, which Egypt’s nationalist leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, seized in 1956. Refusing to acknowledge the takeover, the Europeans—along with the Israelis—sent troops into the canal zone to drive out the Egyptians. The operation miscarried after the United States and the Soviet Union demanded that the invading forces be withdrawn.5 Unable to stand up to superpower pressure, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned. Although the Suez Canal crisis occurred relatively far from the Gulf, its impact was felt throughout the region. Britain’s withdrawal was perceived as an ignominious retreat.

The coup de grace to Britain’s prestige came in 1958 in Iraq. Arab nationalists staged a coup that swept away the Hashemite dynasty, among Britain’s staunchest friends in the region. In contrast with previous instances, Britain could not restore its friends to power. Indeed, the king was killed during the takeover by the nationalists. Of all the reverses that Britain experienced during the difficult decade of the 1950s, this setback in Iraq probably proved the most costly.

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