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The British Empire in the Gulf
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articles to explore
How geophysicists working in the Gulf were able to contribute in the 1930s to the scientific community’s understanding of the earth’s magnetic field.
Kuwait, Carnegie, and Terrestrial Magnetic Observations
In spite of legally abolishing slavery in its Empire in 1833, the British Government struggled to eradicate the practice in its protectorates in the Gulf.
Manumission, Not Abolition: British Mediations over Slavery in the Gulf
An overview of the records created by the Bahrain Political Agency, 1899-1953
Finding Aid: IOR/R/15/2 Political Agency, Bahrain (1899-1953)
The family background, business activities, financial and political influence of the Qusaybi brothers, the eventual division of the family business, and their commercial and political legacy.
The Qusaybi Merchant Family: Agents and Financiers of Ibn Sa‘ud
The life and times of Shaikh Khaz’al bin Jābir bin Mirdāw al-Ka‘bī (1861-1936), the Emir of Mohammerah and chief of the Banu Ka’b tribe.
The Shaikh who lost his Shaikhdom, Khaz’al al-Ka‘bī of Mohammerah
An Italian bombing raid brought Bahrain into the Second World War’s ‘zone of operations’, sparking fear amongst Bahrainis and concerns amongst the British over the safety of the islands’ strategic oil installations.
The Second World War Comes to Bahrain
A colonial officer named Hickinbotham illustrates the everyday boredom of administrating the Empire with his practical jokes and escapist reading list.
‘Imperial Boredom’ and Imperial Reading
What was the life of a diver like and how did the trade function? Papers in the India Office Records provide some fascinating clues.
Pearl Diving: Inside the Trade That Shaped the Gulf
A minor incident at Basaidu in the 1930s led to the Royal Navy launching its First Destroyer Flotilla on a tour of the Gulf, in a very public display of its naval dominance over the region.
The Flotilla Tour of 1933: A Demonstration of British Naval Power in the Gulf
Negotiation and improvisation formed the basis of the Gulf’s early aviation industry.
Negotiating the Origins of the Gulf’s Aviation Industry
In recognising the importance of the trade, British colonial records cast light on the state of the ancient trade in Frankincense in the Dhofar region at the end of the 19th century, as well as some conflicts that emerged as a result.
Frankincense in Dhofar: An Ancient Trade at the Centre of 19th Century Tensions
At the time of Sheikh Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī’s death in 1913, his great wealth was revealed to the British in intelligence reports sent by Yūsuf bin Aḥmad Kanoo.
A Considerable Fortune: The Wealth, and Death, of Sheikh Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī
The 1930s was the decade that transformed the Gulf from its role as conduit between Britain and her empire to a strategic locus in the run-up to the war and a ‘highway between east and west’.
The 1930s: the Gulf as ‘Highway between East and West’
The culmination of extensive travel and research, George Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question was a critical success. Yet was its author happy with it?
George Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question: Published, yet unfinished?
Between the world wars, Reza Shah Pahlavi brought great changes to Iran and a challenge to British predominance in the Gulf, the legacy of which is still felt in the region.
Reza Shah Pahlavi and the Gulf
Appearing in files from Bahrain in the 1930s, the terms ‘Holi’ (singular) and ‘Hawala’ (plural) are not immediately recognisable to most readers. Gulf History cataloguers take a closer look at the terms to decipher their meanings.
Home and Away: The Itinerant History of the Hawala Arabs
In the late 1940s an American Mission Hospital was in development in Doha. The response of British officials seems to have been motivated more by the demands of the nascent oil industry and concerns over loss of influence than intrinsic concern for the health of the people of Qatar.
A Dispensary for Doha: healthcare, subterfuge, and external political influence in late 1940s Qatar
The dramatic decline of the Gulf’s pearling industry during the 1920s and 1930s, saw increasing numbers of pearl divers seek their freedom.
Twilight of Pearl Trade Sees ‘Slave’ Divers Seek Freedoms
Bahrain’s Order in Council gave the Political Agent the power to, on one hand, issue birth certificates, and on the other, to rule on capital punishment for convicted criminals.
Births, Marriages, Deaths: Bahrain’s ‘Order in Council’ in Action
A guide to the Departmental Papers: Political and Secret Separate (or Subject) Files (IOR/L/PS/10), describing what the files represent, their subject matter, how they are organised, and the different types of papers they contain.
Finding Aid: Departmental Papers: Political and Secret Separate (or Subject) Files
The movement for political reform in Kuwait in 1938 signified change in the region and highlights the country’s – and Britain’s – response to the ideas and forces that delivered it.
Kuwait’s Majlis Movement: National and Regional Developments Brought into Focus
An unassuming financial file that forms part of the India Office Records contains an unexpected example of British, Arabic-language propaganda.
‘For the Sake of Freedom’: British World War II Propaganda Posters in Arabic
A document written in the mid-1940s sheds light on how the Bushire Political Residency files came to be so well organised.
‘The life stream of an office’: Instructions for dealing with correspondence at the British Residency in Bushire
Bertram Thomas completed his historic crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1931, then the largest territory in the world outside Antarctica still unexplored by Europeans. But why is he still a minor figure in the history of exploration and Empire?
Skull Measuring, Oil Seepages and Desert Crossings: Bertram Thomas and the Exploration of the Arabian Peninsula
The British military constructed miles of railway in Mesopotamia during their war against the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. In doing so, they also laid the foundations for a post-war colonial regime.
The Imperial Railway in British-Occupied Mesopotamia
Germany’s desire for ‘a place in the sun’ saw her challenge Britain’s commercial dominance in the Gulf in the early years of the twentieth century.
German Interests in the Gulf’s Pearling Industry
The sources of the British Library’s Arabic scientific manuscripts are many and various. Here we discover an individual who contributed to the collection and lived an adventurous life in London and the Middle East.
The Baghdadi Bookseller of Bloomsbury
It’s hard to imagine a natural resource as important to the history of the development of the Gulf States as oil. But in the early days of oil exploration, nothing was more important than water.
Water, not Oil, the Most Valuable Resource in the Gulf
How the anti-British sentiments of a British adviser assisted the foundation of Saudi Arabia.
‘Calls himself an Englishman’: The shifting loyalties of Harry Philby
Britain and its Allies maintained supremacy over the Gulf’s airspace during the Second World War, but mechanical failure could quickly turn the tables, making crewmen dependent on the region’s local population for their survival.
Air Crashes in the Gulf during the Second World War
Britain’s decision to prohibit the use of modern diving suits and cultured pearls on the Gulf’s pearl banks was intended to preserve the region’s pearling industry, yet ultimately contributed to its slow collapse throughout the 1930s.
British Government Resist Modernisation of the Pearling Industry
The reign of Said bin Taimur was marked by financial troubles from the outset, but despite his more active role in the 1930s, a rebellion in the province of Dhofar ultimately cost him the Sultanate.
The Financial Troubles of Said bin Taimur
The short-lived escapades of the Sponge Exploration Syndicate.
The Humble Petition of the Sponge Exploration Syndicate
While much of the world was experiencing the effects of global war in the first half of the 1940s, the Gulf by contrast was an oasis of calm.
The 1940s: Perfect Peace in the Midst of War
An overview of India Office Military Department records relating to Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and the Arabian Peninsula.
Finding Aid: IOR/L/MIL Records of the Military Department (1708-1957)
New communication technologies transformed bookkeeping practice at the British Residency in Bushire.
Telegraphs and Typewriters: The Impact of Technology on Bookkeeping at Bushire
An overview of the records created by the UK’s Political Agency at Kuwait between 1904 and 1949, and an examination of some of the subjects covered.
Finding Aid: IOR/R/15/5 Political Agency, Kuwait (1904-1949)
From 1900 to 1933 the Persian Oil Concession was the backdrop to a stand-off between the British and newly-renamed Iran.
From Persia to Iran: the Politics of the Change of Name and its Impact on the Oil Concession
Not all prisoners during wartime are soldiers. During the First World War, many countries interned “enemy” civilians.
Civilian Internment in the First World War
Ibn Saud’s quest for recognition of his Arabian Kingdom, and how British Government officials turned their backs on the largest reserves of crude oil in the world.
Emir Faisal’s Diplomatic Mission and Britain’s Reluctance to Invest in Saudi Oil in 1932
A religious disagreement in 1930 between the Sultanate of Muscat and American missionaries in Muscat reveals more than just a battle for souls.
The Affair of the Muscat ‘Christian’ Widow
Following the formation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, Britain continued to maintain close relations with the new state’s founder and ruler, King Ibn Sa‘ūd, although it would eventually be supplanted by the United States in its role as Saudi Arabia’s key western sponsor and protector.
Britain, Ibn Sa‘ūd, and Saudi Arabia, 1932-1953
A small, unprepossessing file from the India Office Records contains some of the earliest surviving aerial photographs of Qatar, captured as the country was about to enter a new chapter in its history.
In Search of Landing Grounds: Views of Qatar from above, May 1934
From its earliest years the RAF played a vital role in maintaining and strengthening British power in the Gulf.
First Flights: Establishment of an RAF Presence in the Gulf
A small selection of memoirs by retired political officers provides a unique insight into one generation’s experiences of living and working in the Gulf.
Personal Reflections on Life in the Gulf during the Last Years of Empire
In the early 20th century, British Officials responsible for the administration of justice in cases concerning British subjects and foreigners in the Gulf had to maintain a delicate balance, so as not to stoke bad relations between neighbouring states.
Legal Business: The Judicial Aspects of British Rule in the Gulf
Keen to maintain peace and wary of inflaming relations with the Trucial Shaikhs, in 1910 the Government of India censured those responsible for a bloody bombardment of Dubai and its aftermath.
The Response of the Government of India to ‘The Dubai Incident’
In the immediate post-WWII period, despite British opposition, the U.S. sought to increase its influence in the Gulf by distributing propagandistic material in Arabic.
U.S. Propaganda in Post-WWII Bahrain
Salim Rashid Suri, an Omani ṣawt singer and oud player became famous as the ‘singing sailor’ and for developing a truly unique style, which took influence from musical sources across the Middle East and India.
The Singing Sailor, Salim Rashid Suri: A Ṣawt Musician from Oman
Despite inauspicious beginnings, Shaikh Aḥmad al-Jābir Āl Ṣabāḥ’s official visit to England in 1919 proved a success.
Shaikh Ahmad goes to England: The Politics of Official State Visits
Musandam’s majestic sea cliffs, inlets, and strategic location have always attracted the attention of external powers. British support in enforcing the writ of the Sultan of Muscat on the Peninsula has been vitally important since the mid-nineteenth century.
British Power, the Al Bu Sa‘id Sultanate, and the Musandam Peninsula, 1800-1932
Although relatively little is known about the early years of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa‘id Al Bu Sa‘id, his experience of growing up secluded in Salalah may well explain the solitary nature of his fifty-year rule.
The Lesser-Known Early Years of Sultan Qaboos
With the oil industry booming in Bahrain in the early 1930s, BAPCO oil workers, amongst others, lobbied for the first cinemas to be established.
Priority Air Freight to Serve Bahrain’s First Cinemas
J. G. Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia has long been used as a central source for the study of the region. Yet, it is essential to understand the contexts of its production in order to fully appreciate its content.
Colonial Knowledge: Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia
The subject of railways appears time and again in the India Office Records. What was Britain’s obsession with them and how did they transform how Britain thought about, protected, and ran its empire?
Technologies of Power: Railway Records and What They Can Tell Us
Qatar’s exploratory wells were drilled relatively late, although Major Frank Holmes sought an exploratory lease in 1922.
The Qatar Oil Concession Ushers in a New Era for British Relations with Doha
The uneasy union between British and Kurdish allies during the First World War gave way to hostilities in the war’s aftermath, as Britain failed to deliver on Kurdish hopes for independence.
Anglo-Kurdish Relations during the Mesopotamia Campaign (1914-1918)
For over a hundred years, in tandem with the colonisation of Palestinian land, Palestinian history has been systematically erased, suppressed, and distorted. The QDL however contains multiple sources on Palestine and Palestinians.
Finding Aid: Sources on Palestine
What do the records created by the British Political Agency at Muscat have to offer us?
Finding Aid: Muscat Political Agency Records
A little known first-hand account, that the British Agents in Bahrain garnered by chance, sheds light on William Henry Irvine Shakespear’s death.
The Death of Captain Shakespear
An overview of records on the Qatar Digital Library originating from the Political (External) Department (IOR/L/PS/12), including a description of the records and the subjects they cover.
Finding Aid: Political (External) Department Records
During the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran, Britain established the Anglo-Iranian Relief Fund not only to deliver humanitarian aid to the Iranian people, but also to justify and promote its military presence inside the country.
British humanitarian efforts as propaganda in Iran during the Second World War
In November 1917, St John Philby was sent from Basra on a mission to cross the desert and meet with Ibn Sa‘ud. It was an expedition that changed his life.
St John Philby’s Mission to Najd: Across the Heart of Arabia
Sharjah 1940, and Nazi radio broadcasts in Arabic filled the air, stirring pro-German sentiment amongst the town’s inhabitants – and provoking consternation amongst British officials.
Nazi Propaganda in Sharjah during World War II
The establishment of the Bahrain Agency in 1900 cemented previous British interest in the Persian Gulf and set the tone for increased economic and political involvement in the 20th century.
The Political Agency, Bahrain: Inside the Organisation that Ran Britain's Interests in Bahrain
A government department unique in its scope and power, the India Office had a profound impact on the history of the Gulf.
The India Office: The Government, in London, of British India
As the oil industry developed in the late 1940s, Britain was keen to place a Political Agent in Qatar. To do this the British had to come to an understanding with the Shaikh of Qatar on matters of slavery without being seen to interfere.
Petroleum and the politics of non-interference: the first Political Officer in Qatar
By offering military protection to Qatar, the British tried to ensure access to Qatari oil in the run-up to the Second World War. But why did Qatar need weapons and armoured cars in 1935?
Oil for Military Protection between the Wars: Qatar’s Request for Weapons and the British Response
The Persia Collection: casting light on Britain’s thorny relationship with Persia [Iran] throughout the 1930s, Second World War, and Anglo-Soviet Occupation.
Finding Aid: The Persia Collection in the Political (External) Department Records
Beyond Sykes and Picot, the India Office Records reveal the complex historical and political junctures that shaped the map of today's Middle East.
Just a Line in the Sand? The Making of an Arabian Border, 1925
A number of key moments in the life of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa are recorded in the India Office Records.
Episodes from the Life of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
During WWII food shortages in the Middle East caused by locust swarms were tackled by a largely forgotten, but ultimately successful war supported by British administrators in the Gulf.
The Forgotten War against Locusts that Helped Win the War
There are numerous records relating to high-level British officials in the Gulf, but the letters in the India Office Establishment Files also reveal the working conditions of the lower-paid ranks of Agency staff.
The Menial Establishment in Britain’s Political Agency, Bahrain
The arrest of a British Subject on spurious charges makes plain Britain’s dominant position in Kuwait in the late 1930s.
The Kuwait Cat’s Meat Crisis
Over several centuries, the close relationship between individual explorers of the Arabian Peninsula and the British Empire was made clear in often unpublished journals and accounts held in the India Office Records.
Thesiger’s Clothes: Empire and Exploration in the Arabian Peninsula
An overview of Bahrain Political Agency files dealing with the impact of the Second World War on the Gulf region.
The British Empire in the Gulf during the Second World War
For over thirty years, Charles Belgrave was an immensely powerful figure in Bahrain who played an instrumental role in its development but by 1957 he had become so unpopular he was forced to leave and never set foot in the country again.
Charles Belgrave – The Adviser
The 1948 visit of Shaikh Khalīfa bin Mohammed Āl Khalīfa to Britain on a training trip arranged by the British Council provides an early example of cooperation between Britain and Bahrain in matters related to policing and security.
Bahrain’s Chief of Police Visits the UK, 1948
In 1910, British officials discovered that the Persian authorities at Bandar-e Lengeh were charging travellers a domestic rate to travel to Bahrain, reigniting a decades-long dispute over Persian claims to the islands.
Passports and Politics: Britain and Persia’s Disagreements over Bahrain
During WWII, secret instructions for the interception of post passing through the Gulf were circulated to Political Agents in Bahrain, Kuwait and Muscat.
Invisible Ink: Intercepting Post in Second World War
While Britain more famously held naval bases in Basaidu, Hengam, and Bahrain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, less is known about the small base on the Musandam Peninsula, which was at one time envisaged as the centre of British power in the region.
‘Gibraltar at the head of the Gulf’: The Base that Wasn’t
In the wake of Indian independence and the United States’ increasing presence, British administrators sought to remind the Gulf’s inhabitants of who remained nominally in control of the region.
A Demonstration of British Firepower on the Trucial Coast, 1949
An Islamic seal with an unusual bird design appears on a witness statement delivered by the Sheikh of Dubai to the British Resident in The Gulf, following a fatal gun battle in Dubai in 1910.
Guns ‘n’ Seals: An Unusual Seal indicates Cultural Influences in Dubai in 1910
In 1920, a gift from Ibn Saud in the form of a female oryx was the first ever to have survived the difficult journey from Arabia to London.
The King’s Oryx: Ibn Saud’s Diplomatic Gift to George V
The untimely death of John Gordon Lorimer, acting Resident in the Persian Gulf 1913–14, was seen as a tragedy. Yet, his legacy – in the form of his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia – emerged forty years later and has remained central to the study of the Gulf ever since.
‘Persian Gulf Tragedy’: the Death and Legacy of John Gordon Lorimer
The vast trove of material held at the British Library that pertains to Britain’s Colonial exploits owe their present organisation in part to the early acknowledgement by officials in the EIC and India Office of the importance of record-keeping.
History of the India Office Records and Private Papers
With pearling in decline and oil exploitation on hold, what drove Bahrain’s economy between the World Wars?
Bahrain’s Economy: Buffeted between Pearls and Oil
An overview of records on the Qatar Digital Library created by Britain’s Residency Agency in present-day UAE (IOR/R/15/4), including a description of the records, the subjects they cover, and how they are organised.
Finding Aid: IOR/R/15/4 Residency Agency, Trucial Coast (1930-1951)
The private papers of George Nathaniel Curzon offer a window on the workings of the British Empire.
Finding Aid: Mss Eur F111-112 Papers of the Marquess Curzon of Kedleston (1866-1925)
Over 800 manumission statements, collected by numerous British administrators in the Gulf over the course of three decades, offer invaluable insights into the lives and labours of the enslaved peoples of the Gulf region.
Manumission Statements: Insights into the Lives of the Gulf’s enslaved Population