British Era

The English East India Company was formed in 1600. It first began trading in Persia through Jask in 1616 and, in the following year, established two factories inland at Shiraz and Isfahan. In 1617, the Company succeeded in securing a firman (decree) from the Persian king, Shah Abbas, granting them a monopoly of the silk trade from the Persian ports. After the joint Anglo-Persian victory over the Portuguese in 1622, the Company’s representatives opened their first factory on the Gulf coast in 1623 in Bandar Abbas (formerly known as Gombroon) on the southern coast of Persia. Thereafter, the trade of Hormuz was diverted to Bandar Abbas, which became the headquarters of British commercial activities in the Gulf for the next one hundred and fifty years.

With the decline of the Dutch power, British fortunes began to prosper to some extent but the Anglo-French rivalry for mastery of India and the Gulf led to a period of instability. Furthermore, the British, whose major interest was trade, found that their position at Bandar Abbas had become increasingly precarious because of the political turmoil and frequent dynastic changes in Persia during the first half of the 18th century. In 1763, the Company opened a new ‘residency post’ for a native British official at Bushire and secured the monopoly of the import of woolen goods into Persia to the exclusion of other European nations. This inaugurated a period of about two hundred years of undisputed British commercial and political supremacy in the area after the collapse of the Portuguese, Dutch and French positions. It also marked the beginning of the British Political Residency in the Gulf. 

From the late 18th century onwards, the East India Company’s factories were superseded by a complicated network of Residencies and Agencies whose primary functions were almost entirely political. Their chief aims were to protect the sea and overland routes to India and to preserve the imperial interests of Britain from the growing interference of other European powers. Between 1763 and 1947, Residencies and Agencies were maintained at Bushire, Muscat, Basra, Baghdad, Bahrain, Kuwait and Sharjah.

The fall of the Safavid dynasty in Iran and the collapse of the Ya’ariba dynasty of Oman created disorder and a political vacuum in the Gulf in the early decades of the 18th century. Maritime Arab communities, who had fled a century before during the Portuguese regime, began to migrate from inner Arabia and Oman to the coast and resume their commercial activities. They established themselves on new sites that became the nucleus of the modern Arab Gulf states. Three political entities that emerged in southeastern Arabia in the early 18th century were the Qawasim and the Bani Yas federations and the Al Bu Said dynasty with Muscat as its capital. Over time, with their main base at Ras al Khaimah, the Qawasim became successful traders and gained ascendancy among the tribes of the area as a very powerful federation. For quite some time they had no rivals in the area and gained control of the area surrounding Ras al Khaimah. They owned ports on both sides of the southern Gulf, at Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Lingah, Luft and Basidu.

The Gulf was far from peaceful during this period. The Qawasim began to challenge Oman's dominance at sea and wrest from them a greater share of the Gulf, Indian and African trade that resulted in an intermittent struggle for preeminence between them and the Al Bu Said Rulers. Fears of a French attack on the East India Company's Indian possessions prompted the British to enter into alliances with the ruler of Muscat and the Shah of Persia. The supply of arms and ammunition to Oman led to a conflict of interest with the Qawasim as they viewed the British with suspicion for political, economic and religious reasons. Britain's own desire to control the maritime trade routes between the Gulf and India further exacerbated the differences as the Qawasim appeared to threaten maritime peace and the seaways of her commerce. In 1806, a Qulnamah was concluded between the British and the Qawasim in which it was agreed that there would be peace between the two sides and that they would respect each other's property and subjects. This Qulnamah can be said to be the beginning of official British relations with the region that is now the UAE.

Despite this agreement, attacks on British shipping continued and gradually increased. During the early years of their involvement in Gulf affairs, the British authorities harbored the mistaken notion that the Qawasim were the root cause of all lawlessness at sea and mounted expeditions against them and their allies. This viewpoint, however, was later retracted by some of the more experienced members of British officialdom. In 1809, Ras al Khaimah, the principal Qasimi port was attacked along with Lingah, Luft and other Qawasim bases on the Persian coast. Hostilities continued at various times and, finally in 1819, Ras al Khaimah was razed by a British naval expedition. After its fall, the expedition turned to other ports and destroyed the fortifications and larger vessels at Fasht, Sharjah, Umm al Quwain and Ajman. The subjugation of Ras al Khaimah removed the last vestiges of any challenge to Britain's command of Gulf waters. In 1820, the British concluded the General Treaty of Peace with the sheikhs of the Arab coast by which the rulers agreed to a cessation of disturbances on the sea forever and they were prohibited from building large ships and erecting fortifications along this coast. Furthermore, Article 9 of this treaty contained the first denunciation of the slave trade ever written into a formal treaty. Its terms effectively gave the British the right to police the seas of the lower Gulf and marked a turning point of British interest in the area.

“The agreement of 1820, opened an age of formal relationships between Britain and the Gulf states, and of greater, though by no means complete, general security”. The general conditions laid down in the 1820 treaty were to form the basis of all future agreements between Great Britain and the coastal sheikhdoms. The policy, which was to be pursued towards Arab states, was outlined by British authorities as a system of “steady control combined with friendly intercourse”, and was followed with little deviation for the rest of the century. The Resident at Bushire took over responsibility for the affairs of the whole area, although the term 'Political Resident' was not actually used until the middle of the century. In 1822 the Resident at Bushire was told to study the political system of the Gulf and to return regular detailed news reports to his superiors. ‘Native Agencies’ were subsequently established in certain Arab ports as a means of representing the British and maintaining a channel of communication with the coastal sheikhs. During the 1820s, there were ‘Native Agents’ at Muscat, Sharjah and Bahrain on the Arabian side and also at Lingah, Shiraz, Isfahan and Mughu in Persia.

Although some positive effects were manifest after 1820 by an increase in the pearl trade and the absence of attacks on foreign shipping, the treaty did not, in practice, prevent regular warfare at sea between Arab tribes. Therefore, the British persuaded the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman to sign a Maritime Truce in 1835 banning acts of war at sea during the pearling season. The sheikh of Umm al Quwain became a signatory to this truce in the following year. Since the 1820s, it had become customary for the Resident to make an annual tour of the Arabian side of the Gulf. After 1836, the tour became more essential as it was carried out for the principal purpose of renewing the Maritime Truce of 1835. During the next eighteen years there were a series of maritime truces similar to that of 1835 but, in 1843, a truce was put into effect for a ten-year period.  The Indian Navy began to patrol the pearl banks every year and, after 1843, disturbances were rare and trivial.

After the expiry of the Ten Years’ Truce, the sheikhs agreed with the recommendations of the Political Resident to establish a permanent peace at sea.  The Perpetual Treaty of Maritime Peace was signed in 1853 and, under it, the sheikhs agreed to a complete cessation of hostilities at sea and a ‘perfect maritime truce…for evermore’. British involvement, however, was limited to maritime security and at this juncture as they did not wish to become involved in the internal affairs of the sheikhdoms. Because of this truce, the area became known in British political documents as the Trucial Coast, and was also sometimes referred to as ‘Trucial Oman’. In order to eradicate the slave trade that continued to flourish despite the provisions of the 1820 treaty, the British government concluded four separate treaties with the Trucial Sheikhs in 1838, 1839, 1847 and 1856, which resulted in an improvement in the situation. With the installation of telegraph lines and stations in 1864 at various points in or near the Gulf, the British obtained a written guarantee for their protection from the Trucial Sheikhs by including an additional article in the Perpetual Maritime Truce of 1853.

Britain was at the height of her power in the 1870s and 1880s when new forces entered the arena and posed a challenge to her undisputed supremacy in Trucial Oman. During this period, repeated attempts were made by the Turks to assert their authority over the Arabian coast, while the Persians showed interest in the Trucial Coast with a view to establishing some kind of hegemony. French activities in Muscat and on the Trucial Coast in particular during the next few years, ultimately led the British Government to enter into Exclusive Agreements with the Gulf sheikhdoms. The Exclusive Agreements of 1892 made it obligatory for the Trucial Sheikhs not to enter into agreement or correspondence with any power other than the British Government. In return the British took the responsibility of defending the emirates from foreign aggression. The Exclusive Agreements represented the final tier in the treaty structure created by Britain in the Gulf in the 19th century, and continued to be the cornerstone of British domination in the Gulf up to their withdrawal from the area in 1971.

Between 1892 and 1914, the Gulf area became the scene of intense rivalry between the European powers. The French, Germans and Russians sought free access for their commercial enterprises and challenged Britain’s right to treat the Gulf as a ‘British lake’. Furthermore, French involvement in the arms trade in the region was cause for particular concern to the British. In 1902, the British authorities extracted a guarantee from the Trucial Chiefs that they would prohibit the import and export of arms from their respective territories. In the following year, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, visited the region as a show of power in response to the visits from Russian and French warships. A grand assembly was held at Sharjah on board the cruiser Argonaut, the largest ship to appear in the Gulf before the First World War. In the presence of all the Trucial Chiefs, Curzon categorically declared that the British Government had become their overlords and protectors and the Trucial Chiefs had no relations with other powers. Furthermore, he stated that despite the British policy of non-interference in their internal affairs, fighting between rulers on land, because of the restrictions on maritime warfare, would not be accepted as it was tantamount to an evasion of the spirit of the treaty they had signed. By a combination of diplomacy and coercion, the British emerged victorious and secured a formal recognition of their supremacy in the area from the French, Russians, Germans and the Ottomans. 

Through the 19th century, the Gulf area was important to the British for their defense of India. Britain’s policy was one of maintaining peace at sea and abolishing the slave trade by force. However, the Government’s non-involvement in the internal affairs of the emirates was not beneficial to the area. By neglecting the education and overall amelioration of the condition of the local people, an atmosphere of misunderstanding and antipathy was created. However, from the turn of the century, British attitude and decisions began to change gradually because of the interplay of several forces and factors. The years following the First World War saw several economic, political and cultural changes on the Trucial Coast that were reflected in the reactions of the rulers and the people towards British policy. The subsequent spread of modern education on the coast, the growth of Arab nationalism in the area and the prospect of discovering oil motivated Britain to pay greater attention to local affairs.

The years between the two World Wars witnessed increased British involvement in the internal affairs of the Trucial States. British Imperial Airways secured landing rights in Sharjah by 1932 and, in the same year, a wireless station was established on the coast. Shortly afterwards, refueling facilities and sea anchorage were obtained from the sheikh of Dubai while the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, after some persuasion, allowed the establishment of a landing ground on Sir Bani Yas Island and one near Abu Dhabi. On the administrative front, the transfer of the responsibilities of the Resident in Bushire, who was no longer able to deal adequately with the affairs of the Trucial Coast, to the Political Agent in Bahrain, “marked a historical shift of British interests in the Gulf from the Persian coast, where it had lasted for more than a century, to the Arabian side”. After the Second World War, Britain began to play an even more active internal role with the introduction of a Political Agency in Sharjah that was later transferred to Dubai in 1953. The sheikhs were encouraged to accept the advice and assistance of the Political Agent.

The most significant event that fundamentally altered the position of the Trucial Sheikhdoms in British strategy was the signing of the oil concessions in the 1930s. The prospects of discovering oil and the establishment of an air route on the Trucial Coast introduced a new dimension into British thinking about the Gulf. In the face of serious competition from other foreign powers, Britain obtained undertakings from the Trucial Chiefs to transfer their control over the granting of oil concessions in their territories to the British government, and also not to grant banking concessions to foreigners. A consequence of signing these oil concession agreements was the necessity to determine previously undefined boundaries, which led to the outbreak of inter-emirates disputes that became particularly crucial after the Second World War. As a result, in the 1950s, the British became involved in marking off the boundaries to ensure the security needs of the oil companies that were exploring in the interior of the Trucial States.

As the production and the export of oil started in the early sixties, the importance of the Trucial States in British strategy underwent a dramatic transformation. Although the British left India in 1947, the Trucial States remained vital to British imperial interests in their own right. This in turn led to a fundamental change of the traditional British policy of non-interference to one of active involvement in local affairs. In 1951, the British established the Trucial Oman Levies (later to be called the Trucial Oman Scouts), as a peacekeeping force that also helped with the oil exploration in the interior. The latter played an important role in 1955 in the dispute between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia during the Buraimi Crisis. In 1952, the Trucial States Council, a consultative and advisory body of the Rulers of the seven emirates, was formed under the chairmanship of the Political Agent to promote the idea of union among them. In 1965, it was taken over by the Rulers themselves giving rise to the Trucial States Development Council and the Political Agent withdrew from the chairmanship in the following year. The Council extended its activities to internal welfare and accelerated the area’s development. In the course of its numerous meetings, the sheikhs were able to create a common cause that paved the way for the subsequent emergence of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.

The production of oil in Abu Dhabi in 1962, and later in Dubai and Sharjah, placed the area in a prominent position in world economic and political affairs. Rapid development and modernization generated by oil wealth was accompanied by yet another significant internal development. This was the desire for unification among the emirates that further intensified after the British government announced, in early 1968, its intention to withdraw from the Gulf by the end of 1971.  On November 30, 1971, the British left the Trucial States bringing  to an end the era of British supremacy in the area. It is noteworthy that “the Trucial States were the first Arab territory into which Britain extended her authority in 1820 and the last area in which she relinquished it in 1971”.