When Maritime Protection Is Not Enough: Britain’s Agreement to Protect Qatar’s Borders at Sea and on Land

Valentina Mirabella

Author

Archival Specialist, British Library
Although British power in the Gulf was founded on maritime truces with local rulers, in the early 20th century land-based attacks increased, creating the need for new agreements.

Before the discovery of oil in the Gulf, a shaikh’s protection usually involved the administration of justice and protection of his people from attacks on land. During the nineteenth century, when the pearling industry was the largest source of income in the Gulf, piracy and raids threatened the maritime communities along the coastline, too. What protection was offered by local shaikhs was of little use at sea. Agreements signed with the British from 1820 onwards helped to maintain peace and stability in the Gulf due to the maritime protection they offered.

Map indicating the 'blue line', formerly established under the Anglo-Turkish Convention of 1913, and which Britain later used to try to restrain Ibn Saud's territorial ambitions. IOR/R/15/1/614, f. 20
Map indicating the 'blue line', formerly established under the Anglo-Turkish Convention of 1913, and which Britain later used to try to restrain Ibn Saud's territorial ambitions. IOR/R/15/1/614, f. 20

Qatar, 1934

But in the inter-war years, when the pearling industry was in decline and the search for oil gathered pace, threats from rival powers on land were more worrying for those shaikhs under the protection of the British. The 1916 Order in Council A regulation issued by the sovereign of Great Britain on the advice of the Privy Council (in modern practice, upon the advice of government ministers). signed with the Shaikh of Qatar, ‘Abdullāh bin Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī, offered British protection ‘from all aggression by sea’. For this reason, when the threat came from land in the early 1930s, British protection was not afforded.

The Growth of Saudi Arabian interests in Qatar

In the 1920s and 1930s, the influence of Ibn Sa’ud, ruler of the newly emergent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, became stronger on the Arabic side of the Gulf. During this period, the British began to notice that informal payments were being made by the Arab shaikhs of Qatar and the Trucial Coast The historic term used by the British to refer to the Gulf coast of Trucial Oman, now called United Arab Emirates. to Ibn Sa’ud to protect their land. In 1930, Shaikh ‘Abdullāh of Qatar himself admitted to paying Ibn Sa’ud 100,000 rupees a year. But by 1934, Ibn Sa’ud was trying to draw the southern border of Qatar in his favour.

Letter from the Foreign Office regarding the borders of Qatar, 27 February 1934. IOR/15/2/413, ff. 40–43
Letter from the Foreign Office regarding the borders of Qatar, 27 February 1934. IOR/15/2/413, ff. 40–43

‘This Correspondence Must Now Cease’

Colonel Trenchard Craven Fowle, 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. 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. at Bushire, reported in March 1934 to the Foreign Secretary to the Government of India at New Delhi that these payments were ‘in the nature of the ancient Danegeld or the modern black mail’. He continued; ‘by stirring up his border tribes, and in various other ways, Ibn Saud can make himself a nuisance to his Shaikhly neighbours’. The shaikhs had to protect their sovereignty since – except in the case of Kuwait, which the British were committed to defending in the event of a land-based attack – the British would not commit to protect the Gulf’s other shaikhs in the event of a similar attack.

The sums they paid Ibn Sa’ud varied ‘with the rise and fall of Ibn Sa’ud’s prestige’ and ‘in the case of Qatar […] we can always tell the Sheikh – as I am about to do so- that in editorial language “this correspondence must now cease”’.

Letter from J. G. Laithwaite at the India Office in London to the Political Resident about the borders of Qatar and the payments made by ‘Abdullāh bin Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī, Shaikh of Qatar, to Ibn Sa’ud, King of Saudi Arabia. IOR/15/2/413, f. 36
Letter from J. G. Laithwaite at the India Office in London to the Political Resident about the borders of Qatar and the payments made by ‘Abdullāh bin Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī, Shaikh of Qatar, to Ibn Sa’ud, King of Saudi Arabia. IOR/15/2/413, f. 36

Shaikh ‘Abdullāh agreed to cease the informal agreement with Ibn Sa’ud and, on 5 May 1935, a new treaty was signed with the British, providing Qatar with the promise of British protection, both on land and at sea. The reward for the British was the granting of the Qatar Oil Concession to a British Company later that year.

Secondary Sources

  • James Onley & Sulayman Khalaf, ‘Shaikhly Authority in the Pre-oil Gulf: An Historical-Anthropological Study’ in History and Anthropology, Vol. 17, 3 (2006), pp. 189–208.