The Shaikh who lost his Shaikhdom, Khaz’al al-Ka‘bī of Mohammerah

Louis Allday

Author

Gulf History and Arabic Language Specialist, British Library
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.
Detail from a 1908 War Office map of Persia and Afghanistan that shows Mohammerah. IOR/L/PS/10/332, f. 77
Detail from a 1908 War Office map of Persia and Afghanistan that shows Mohammerah. IOR/L/PS/10/332, f. 77

Mohammerah, now named Khorramshahr, is a city located at the confluence of the Karun and Shatt al-Arab Rivers in the Khuzestan region of Iran (formerly known as Arabistan). This area was nominally a part of the Persian Qajar Empire, but for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries it was ruled as a semi-independent Shaikhdom by the Arab al-Ka‘bī family.

Shaikh Khaz’al bin Jābir bin Mirdāw al-Ka‘bī wearing military uniform and honours bestowed on him by both the British and Persian Governments. Public Domain
Shaikh Khaz’al bin Jābir bin Mirdāw al-Ka‘bī wearing military uniform and honours bestowed on him by both the British and Persian Governments. Public Domain

Throughout Khaz’al’s reign (1897-1925), he was one of the most important political figures in the Gulf and a prominent supporter of Britain’s presence in the region. Although never formally a part of the British Empire, the Gulf had been effectively incorporated into the British imperial system since the early 19th century. The conclusion of treaties and agreements with the region’s various tribal rulers was one of the central means by which Britain enforced its hegemonic presence, and Khaz’al was no exception to this trend.

Shaikh Khaz'al's palace, Qasr al-Failiyah in Mohammerah, 1921. Public Domain
Shaikh Khaz'al's palace, Qasr al-Failiyah in Mohammerah, 1921. Public Domain

Indeed, Khaz’al actively fostered close relations with Britain in an attempt to gain their assurance that in the event of the Qajar Empire collapsing or being overthrown, Mohammerah would be formally recognised by Britain as an independent state, with him as its ruler.

Mohammerah, May 1917 from Album of tour of the Persian Gulf (Photographer: Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox) which contains several images of the city in 1917-18. Photo 496/6/40, 20-b
Mohammerah, May 1917 from Album of tour of the Persian Gulf (Photographer: Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox) which contains several images of the city in 1917-18. Photo 496/6/40, 20-b

After oil was discovered by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (the forerunner of BP) in Khuzestan in 1908, Britain strengthened its ties to Khaz’al further. In 1910, he was made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire. Khaz’al sought to prove his loyalty to Britain in return and he acted as a key ally throughout the First World War during which – with British military assistance – he suppressed a pro-Ottoman tribal uprising in his domains.

Shaikh Khaz'al's yacht docked behind Qasr al-Failiyah, 1925. Public Domain
Shaikh Khaz'al's yacht docked behind Qasr al-Failiyah, 1925. Public Domain

However, Khaz’al’s efforts to gain formal British recognition of his suzerainty over Mohammerah and achieve independence failed. Unlike the ruling families of the other Shaikhdoms in the Gulf – who remain in power today – ultimately Britain did not guarantee his rule. After the rise to power of Reza Khan (Shah from December 1925 onwards) and the fall of the Qajar dynasty, Khaz’al came under increasing pressure. The centralising and modernising programme of the new government in Tehran could not tolerate Mohammerah’s relative independence.

After leading an unsuccessful uprising, Khaz’al was taken to Tehran by force and detained by Reza Khan in April 1925. He remained in the capital under house arrest until his death in May 1936. After his fall from power, many of Khaz’al’s family members, including his son Abdullah, fled to Kuwait – where the Shaikh owned property – and many of his descendants remain living there until the present day.

A young Shaikh Abdullah seated (centre) and a number of retainers, 1908. Public Domain
A young Shaikh Abdullah seated (centre) and a number of retainers, 1908. Public Domain

Primary Sources