Tancred Bradshaw concludes in his new book – The End of Empire in the Gulf: From Trucial States to the United Arab Emirates – that, “The British imperial project in the Trucial States (the UAE) was an uncharacteristic success story.” He notes that most such projects in the Middle East were failures, and the Gulf States stand out as a bit of a paradox.
“In stark contrast with other dependent territories,” he writes, “the documents (archives) attest that in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the Trucial States, the rulers and their subjects did not want the British to withdraw prior to 1971.”
Taking us from 1820 to 1971, The End of Empire… charts the Gulf from being a region of marginal importance to being the centre of Britain’s post-Second World War empire. Bradshaw argues that the Gulf States are largely ignored by those who study the history of the British Empire. This is a pity, because in studying it we not only learn about power relations today, but also come to understand that the end of the British Raj in India in 1947 was not the de facto end of British imperialism, and that things could have turned out very differently.
Britain’s involvement in the Gulf began in 1820, when the colonial government in India signed a maritime treaty with the rulers in the sheikdoms which would go on to become the United Arab Emirates. The treaty was intended to end piracy against British ships; indeed, the Gulf was referred to routinely as the “pirates’ coast”. The Royal Navy was given the freedom to patrol the Gulf and the rulers of the various sheikhdoms were promised British protection as part of the “informal” empire governed from India, rather than the Foreign Office in London.
Post-1947 and Indian independence, however, responsibility for the Gulf States was handed over to Whitehall. There was a key difference between the two types of governance: the Raj in India preferred a hands-off approach to the Gulf, while the Foreign Office involved itself in the region’s domestic affairs, not least because of the growing importance of oil. Whereas the Raj period required the Gulf States to keep other foreign powers out and expel agents hostile to British interests, the Foreign Office period was characterised by state-building initiatives.
“The Indian government made no attempt to improve the economic and social conditions of the Trucial States for financial reasons,” argues Bradshaw. While he views this as the Raj’s great failure in the Gulf, he does credit the protectorates with providing a stable environment for trade to flourish.
The chapters that cover the end of empire are illuminating. Into the 1960s, for example, nobody wanted Britain to pull out of the Gulf. As Bradshaw explains, there was neither popular pressure nor demands from the rulers for Britain to do so. The Americans, meanwhile, were worried about Britain leaving the region. “President Johnson sent (Harold) Wilson (the British Prime Minister) two letters, in which he expressed his deep dismay about the government’s policy, which he regarded as being ‘tantamount to British withdrawal from World affairs.’ …The Johnson Administration refused to replace Britain’s security role in the Gulf on account of the war in Vietnam and Cold War commitments.”
Fears of Soviet and Communist penetration of the region was a key factor behind Washington’s unease. British rule in the Gulf was very low cost and the protectorates actually made more money for Britain from the sale of oil.
The decision to withdraw British forces from the region was eventually prompted by domestic concerns, Bradshaw argues. Wilson’s Labour government was facing a financial crisis which forced him to choose between cutting the welfare state or the empire; he opted for the latter. Despite the official pull out in 1971, though, Britain remained a partner of the nascent UAE with close economic ties which remain to this day.
Bradshaw provides a fascinating insight into the complexities of decolonisation in a region where there was no local demand for it. Britain’s rule in the Gulf was thus a stark contrast to its rule elsewhere. Understanding how political institutions took hold during this time enables us to grasp more easily how the modern United Arab Emirates developed.
The author apparently analysed over 40,000 pages from the official archives when writing The End of Empire in the Gulf. There is clearly scope for much more research to come.