- British Policy in the Persian Gulf, 1961-1968: Conceptions of Informal Empire by Helene von Bismarck
The decision in January 1968 of the British government to terminate all military commitments east of Suez and thus to shed its role as the leading power in the Gulf has cast a long shadow over the study of the preceding decade of British involvement in the region. One way or another, most scholars who approach the study of the British role in the region are inclined to search for the origins of this decision. January 1968 has thus tended to become the point from which light is shed on all earlier developments in British policy in the region. When set against the broader backdrop of decolonization during the 1960s, it is tempting to paint a broad-brush picture of gradual and inevitable retreat. By contrast, Helene von Bismarck’s study shows that for much of the decade the British government and its representatives on the ground in the Gulf did not contemplate such a retreat. She argues that in the wake of the substantial military deployment in defense of Kuwait in the summer of 1961, a British government review concluded that vital British economic interests were at stake. Far from beginning the gradual unwinding of an untenable commitment, the government significantly increased its spending on the defense of the region, constructing new military facilities at Bahrain in order to increase its state of readiness for intervention in defense of Kuwait against any potential threat from Iraq.
One way or another, oil was central to the renewed British commitment, both to the defense of Kuwait and to the maintenance of its position in the Gulf region as a whole. Kuwait’s vast oil reserves benefitted the British economy in three ways: first, the concession to exploit Kuwait’s reserves belonged to the Kuwait Oil Company which [End Page 659] was 50% owned by British Petroleum (BP). In turn, 51% of the shares of BP were owned by the British government. Second, Kuwait was a member of the sterling area, meaning that Britain was able to buy oil from Kuwait without the need for scarce US dollars. Kuwait held large sterling reserves which were reinvested in the British economy. Finally, Kuwait provided a powerful example of a friendly, pro-British oil producer in a region where, in the wake of the Suez crisis of 1956 and the overthrow of the Anglophile Hashemite monarchy of Iraq in 1958, states friendly to Britain were a dwindling band.
If the defense of British economic interests was at the heart of the continuing British commitment to the Gulf through the mid-1960s, the question might reasonably be asked, defense against whom? Von Bismarck concludes rightly that the main threat to the British position was perceived as coming from Arab nationalism, whether in the form of the Iraqi threat to Kuwait, or, more generally in the form of the advance of the influence of Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. Much of the energy Britain devoted to the issues of modernization and good governance in the region in the mid-1960s was prompted by the fear that the region’s monarchs would otherwise be vulnerable to overthrow by Arab nationalist opponents.
An important subtheme of von Bismarck’s work is the relationship between Britain and the United States. For the most part, successive administrations in Washington were content to leave the defense of the region to the British during the 1960s. The British reaction at junctures when the United States evidence greater interest, for instance in introducing American diplomats to the British-protected Trucial States, is instructive as to the nature of the Anglo-American relationship in the Gulf. On the one hand, the British wanted American support for their position in the region. On the other, they saw serious dangers in an increased US presence which might disrupt their established relationships with friendly rulers. For the most part, it was the latter instinct which won out.