From its formation on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was used by the British as a tool to exercise tighter control over their empire. In 1920, the RAF was used to crush the Iraqi Revolt, including the first use of chemical weapons against civilians, and the following year it was given responsibility over all British forces in Iraq. The influence of the RAF would soon extend further down into the Gulf.
Support for British air routes to India
The first air route from the UK to British India had been established by a flight from England to Karachi in December 1918. That flight, and subsequent ones, flew over Persia [Iran] and made use of airfields such as the one at Bandar Abbas to refuel. After the withdrawal of British forces from Persia in February 1920 (despite official neutrality, Persia had been a major battlefield of World War I), the air route became subject to the state of Anglo-Persian relations, and therefore a contingency was needed. In a telegram dated January 1927, the British High Commissioner at Baghdad details some of the requirements for a ‘subsidiary air route to India via Arabian coast of Persian Gulf’ including ‘refuelling grounds at maximum intervals of 250 miles and emergency landing grounds at intervals of 20 to 50 miles.’ He also states that the ‘cooperation of Arab leaders from Kuwait to Muscat will be necessary’ and that ‘Ibn Saud would strongly object to reconnaissance over his territory without his previous permission’ (IOR/R/15/2/119, f. 12r).
Strengthening British power in the Gulf
The creation of a new air route to India was not the only reason that the British desired RAF access to the Gulf, and the first steps towards creating such access had been taken some years before. On 8 June 1924, three planes left RAF Shaibah outside Basra, Iraq, for the first official flight to Bahrain. On reaching Manama, according to the official report, they ‘glided down in formation on a right hand circuit of the town to 1000 feet flying along the water front. The three machines fired together red white and green lights respectively, and these were duly taken by the inhabitants for the red white and blue of British Protection’ (IOR/R/15/5/97, f. 243r). Although its propagandist impact was clearly one motivation for the flight, behind the scenes another advantage was under discussion.
British officials in the Gulf were considering the possibility of using either Bahrain or Kuwait as a base for any potential future flights to Riyadh, the capital of Ibn Sa‘ud’s increasingly powerful Sultanate of Nejd. In a note on the subject, the 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. at Kuwait lays out the ‘three cases in which it might be desired to make a flight to Riyadh:- (a) In the event of hostilities with Ibn Sa‘ūd. (b) At Ibn Sa‘ūd’s wish. (c) At our suggestion and with Ibn Sa‘ūd’s permission.’ He adds that he finds it ‘difficult to conceive any conditions under which Ibn Sa‘ūd would desire aeroplanes to visit Riyadh’ (IOR/R/15/5/97, f. 204r). In January 1928, the RAF demonstrated its strength in the Gulf, and in the vicinity of Nejd in particular, by playing a decisive role in defending Kuwait from a series of raids by the Ikhwan from within Ibn Sa‘ud’s territory.
Construction of landing grounds
After these initial steps into the Gulf, the main practicality needed to consolidate an RAF presence was the construction of landing grounds. Writing in March 1927, with plans for the new air route to India underway, the Political Agent A mid-ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Agency. at Bahrain notes that the aerodrome built to receive the first flight from Iraq a few years earlier was now ‘over grown with tufts of grass’ and not ‘suitable for that purpose’ (IOR/R/15/2/119, f. 22r). By September 1929, a new aerodrome was ready, closer to Manama on the site of what is now Bahrain International Airport. Work had also begun on establishing landing grounds both in Kuwait and at Sohar and Bayt al Falaj in Oman. With these bases constructed, the RAF’s position in the Gulf was assured for decades to come.