The Emergence of Qatar: Pelly’s Role in Britain’s 1868 Recognition of the State

Karen Stapley

Author

Archival Specialist, British Library
Sir Lewis Pelly is a key figure in the history of the Gulf who, in his role as Political Resident, was Britain’s senior official in the region from 1862 to 1873. He holds particular importance for Qatar due to his recognition of its independent sovereignty in 1868.

Sir Lewis Pelly is a key figure in the history of the Gulf who, in his role as Political Resident A senior ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul General) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Residency. in the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. , was Britain’s senior official from 1862 to 1873. However, he holds particular importance to the people of Qatar due to his recognition of the state as an independent sovereignty – separate from Bahrain – in 1868 during maritime peace negotiations.

‘Disturbances’ along the Coast and Britain’s Involvement

In 1867–8, there were a series of ‘disturbances of the maritime peace’ along the Arabian side of the Gulf Coast. The English believed they were being carried out by the ruler of Bahrain, Mohammad bin Khalifah Al Khalifah, and supported by various other rulers including those of Abu Dhabi and ‘Guttur’ (Qatar).

These disturbances consisted primarily of raids on the towns and villages of other tribes; ransacking and looting were reported. Had these disturbances solely affected local tribes, it is unlikely that the British Government would have intervened. However, some of the individuals targeted included British and British Indian citizens. This factor provided a rationale for Britain’s increased involvement.

Britain ‘Would No Longer Interfere’

For their part, the tribes involved believed the British would not interfere in the affairs of the Arabian Coast because, for several years prior to this, they had been too involved in events in Muscat to commit themselves to any military actions elsewhere, either on land or at sea. Pelly related that, after arriving off the Qatar coast, ‘the Chiefs came on board and confessed their breaches of the Maritime Truce, but pleaded their belief that the British Government would no longer interfere, and that they had been outraged beyond endurance by the piratical plunders or destruction of their property and Towns, on the part of the Bahrain Chiefs’. 

Statement recording Muhammad bin Thani’s – and other rulers’ – belief that the British Government would not interfere with their recent actions. Mss Eur F126/40, f. 31
Statement recording Muhammad bin Thani’s – and other rulers’ – belief that the British Government would not interfere with their recent actions. Mss Eur F126/40, f. 31

The disturbances became more serious when the ruler of Bahrain started to have his tribe loot and plunder the towns and property of his allies, which ultimately led to his capture and downfall. It was clear by this point that not only were the rulers of Qatar and Abu Dhabi financially beholden to Al Khalifah, their willingness to support him was partly due to their fear of him. They described themselves as being ‘weary of the tyranny, exactions and mad eccentricities of the Chief’.

Gunboat Diplomacy

The usual British method for dealing with these situations was to demand that restitution be made to those British subjects affected, and back up their demands with the threat of military force. In a case of unvarnished gunboat diplomacy, Pelly threatened the use of gunboats, which the Governor of Bombay had sent to him for just such a purpose.

The rulers, however, ignored Pelly’s warnings. In retaliation, Pelly bombed several key forts in Bahrain, Qatar and Abu Dhabi and made further threats of force. At this point the rulers of Qatar and Abu Dhabi agreed to negotiate with the British. Provided that the British would protect them from Al Khalifah, they were prepared to seek a peaceful solution. Soon afterwards, he and his key supporters were captured and the British Government made clear that they would support the rulership of his brother, Ali bin Khalifah Al Khalifah.

Ruler of ‘the Guttur tribes’ Signs the Declaration

Pelly insisted on having the declarations to uphold the maritime peace that the Arab rulers had made re-signed and re-affirmed, starting with the rulers of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. Significantly, he also insisted that Muḥammad bin Thānī, the ruler of ‘the Guttur tribes’, sign a declaration to uphold the maritime peace, too. In effect, this constituted the first recognition of Qatar as a sovereign entity.

The declarations made by Muhammad bin Thani to Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis Pelly, including his tribe’s commitment to the maritime peace treaty. Mss Eur F126/40, f. 33v
The declarations made by Muhammad bin Thani to Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis Pelly, including his tribe’s commitment to the maritime peace treaty. Mss Eur F126/40, f. 33v

Competing Claims over the Territory

Prior to this, Qatar’s tribes had been considered subordinate to Bahrain’s. This separate treaty would prove to be significant in the question of the sovereignty of Qatar, not only to the rulers of Qatar and Bahrain, but also to the other major players in the Gulf. The Ottomans and Persians, for example, both also believed they had valid claims over the territory.

Ultimately this treaty became the starting point for the British Government’s recognition of Qatar as an independent sovereign state in its own right. However, Britain’s intention was not quite as clear as might be imagined. Five years after the event, the British Government was still debating whether or not the signing of the treaty had signified recognition of Qatar as an independent entity. Indeed, because documents relating to the debate discuss the claims made by the Persians and Ottomans over Qatar and how they should be handled, it could be concluded that Britain’s recognition of Qatar’s sovereignty was not absolute, perhaps even unintentional.