Courtesy Reuters

The Persian Gulf: After the British Raj

When Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons in March that all permanent British forces in the Persian Gulf would be withdrawn by the beginning of 1972 he signaled the end of the last important vestige of the nineteenth century's Pax Britannica and opened the door to what could be a major, and possibly painful, reconstruction of the Middle Eastern map.

Ever since Britain signed her first Arabian treaty with the Sultan of Muscat in 1798, in a successful attempt to close the Gulf to French naval forces during the Napoleonic wars, a "special relationship" has existed between Britain and the territories around the Gulf. In Persia, as Iran was generally known until after the Second World War, the British established a sphere of interest so important to them as an answer to Russia's imperial designs upon India that for a time in the nineteenth century there were two separate British diplomatic missions in Tehran-one appointed by the British Government in India and the other from the London Foreign Office. On the Arab shore of the Gulf the relationship was for many decades more arbitrary and more tenuous, being based essentially upon the exercise of Britain's maritime power over a number of scattered, impoverished and generally piratical coastal tribes. These were compelled by the threats of gunboat diplomacy to sign a series of treaties suppressing piracy and the slave trade and eventually granting Britain exclusive rights to the control of their foreign affairs and defense, in return for a promise of British protection. At its peak, during and immediately after the First World War, this apparatus of British hegemony was complete from one end of the Gulf to the other, comprising special relationships, written or unwritten, with all the Gulf states, great or small, including Persia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The rise of local nationalism, the development of the Gulf oil industry and the fall of Britain's Indian Empire a quarter-of-a-century ago changed most of that. Today all

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