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[ 5 ] CHAPTER ONE ‘Pirates’ turned sovereign states, 1819–1964 Although tacit ‘influence’ over another state is a part of international politics today, the sovereignty of a state must, formally, be exclusive, not hierarchical or multiple, and it must be unambiguous.1 This quote may sound like a statement of the obvious and, indeed, it does summarise the way in which the norm of sovereignty operates in international society today. However, this was not the case when Britain originally entered the Gulf. Britain’s arrival in the Gulf Four hundred years ago, the earth appeared to be much larger than it does today. Only a century after some European sailors thought they had discovered a new world, European colonies in the Americas were still expanding. Back in Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was going into irreversible decline, though it was yet to witness the final blow of the Thirty Years’ War. In contrast, in its neighbourhood were the Ottomans, who boasted a larger empire covering south-eastern Europe, much of North Africa, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Further east were their rivals, the Safavids, the great power of Persia. And beyond that were a number of prospering dynasties, such as the empires of the Mughal in north India and the Ming in China. Multiple civilisations seemed to coexist. And this was no different in the case of the theatre of our story – the Persian Gulf. At the turn of the seventeenth century, two English brothers arrived on the northern coast of the Gulf. Their aim was to see the King of Persia, commonly known as Shah Abbas I of the Safavid Empire, and ask for permission to open up trade. Having come from a remote and minor state in Europe, their attitude was humble and their aims limited. After several exchanges, the elder brother was given an accord, or a firman, as follows: SATO 9780719099687 PRINT.indd 5 04/12/2015 08:53 BRITAIN AND THE FORMATION OF THE GULF STATES [ 6 ] Our absolute Commaundment, will, and pleasure is, that our countries and dominions shall be, from this day open to all Christian People, and to their religion … I do giue this Pattent for all Christian Marchants, to repaire and trafique, in, and through our Dominions, without disturbances or molestations …2 With this accord in place, the English East India Company opened its first establishment in the Gulf. No less important was the style of the firman. Unlike the format of other treaties that later became the standard, it was not presented as an agreement between states or sovereigns of comparable status. Instead, the Persian King was addressing all Christian people and merchants about their rights in his territories. It was not set upon the basis of perceived institutional symmetry between the parties involved. This is a crucial point. In order to fully appreciate it, one needs to have some understanding of the political situation of the region prior to British entry. In ancient times, the Persian Gulf was among the most prosperous of all civilisations. The southern coast was known as the Land of Paradise. It was fertile with abundant water, thanks to one of the earliest examples of irrigation.3 Over sea and land mingled the people who later came to be known as Persians and Arabs.4 By the turn of the seventeenth century, however, the coastal areas were lagging behind their richer neighbours. The harsh environment and the intense heat had constrained economic activities to transit trade, exportation of dates and pearls, and ship-building.5 Land for agriculture was limited, and many people led a nomadic life. Travelling along the southern coast from the east, we would first have found a desert with salt marshes, a few oases and temporary camps of pearl fishers, then several valleys ending in small bays with towns and villages. We would have met peasants and fishermen, the better-off living in houses and fortresses made of stone, the poorer in palm-frond huts or mud fortresses.6 These people living on the coastal line were organised in tribes.7 The tribal system was a multilayered structure of authority organised around kinship, with larger groups controlling and protecting smaller groupings. The degree of control varied and the relationship between different groups could also shift over time. On the southern littoral were three main tribal groupings: Banu Khalid in the east, Banu Yas in the middle and the Omani tribes in the west.8 They were not comparable in scale to their neighbours and...


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