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[ 67 ] CHAPTER FOUR Dilemmas and delay, 1968–70 When Harold Wilson announced in January 1968 that Britain intended to leave the Persian Gulf by the end of 1971, the obvious implication was that the Protected States, even though they had adamantly opposed Britain’s plan, would now have to become fully independent sovereign states within four years. Removal of British protection would require the rulers to be more accountable to their own societies , while at the same time they would have to defend themselves from potential threats from inside or outside their countries. In turn, regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia might capitalise upon this opportunity to increase their influence, while the US would need to ensure that independence would not become another source of turmoil, as was happening in Vietnam. In this contested theatre, the British needed to implement the withdrawal peacefully and gracefully, so that a mechanism could be left that would enable them to exercise some degree of influence after the retreat. The aim of the next two chapters is to examine the whole process of the implementation of the British withdrawal, which in the end accompanied the emergence of the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar in international society. Even though the British retreat was decided for short-term domestic reasons, it was going to have a more profound – even ‘epochal’ – effect than most could not foresee at the time. Whereas various actors had different stakes in this process, they also shared a set of unresolved questions: In what form would the nine Protected States be independent, if at all? Would they be organised under one political body, or two, or three, or even nine separate units? What would happen to the territories that were disputed amongst the Protected States and with their neighbours? Underlying these questions was a profound problem. The British imperial presence and the modality thereof had shaped the way in which these questions were put forward, but they were not the most SATO 9780719099687 PRINT.indd 67 04/12/2015 08:53 BRITAIN AND THE FORMATION OF THE GULF STATES [ 68 ] essential cause of tension. The problem arose from the difference between the local tradition of diplomacy and social organisation on the one hand and the modern form of international relations based upon the notion of sovereignty on the other. In order to obtain full membership of the existing international society, the Protected States would have to subscribe to the idea of sovereignty. And mutual recognition and territorial exclusivity lay at its heart. Who would represent whom? Where and how would they demarcate their people, lands and water? These questions, which have disturbed almost all peoples in the world at some point in modern times, now loomed upon the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. At the same time, given the longstanding influence of the British Empire and the fact that the whole process was initiated from London in the face of opposition from the Gulf rulers, Britain’s role in this crucial moment of transition was of paramount importance. Taken from this perspective, the next two chapters not only possess a significant resonance for the histories of the Gulf and the British Empire but are illuminating for all those who are interested in the history of international relations. In particular, this chapter will look into the initial developments following Wilson’s announcement in January 1968 and examine how effectively the local and external actors responded to the new situation. The first section will set out the main actors and their initial relationship, while the second will analyse how the local actors came together in order to take their own initiative towards unity, as well as the problems they encountered in doing so. The third section will analyse how Britain took a mediating role in overcoming one of the main problems by the spring of 1970, as well as looking at what remained to be solved. Challenges and rivalries Following Harold Wilson’s announcement in January 1968 that British troops would leave the Persian Gulf by the end of 1971, four groups of actors had to quickly respond to the new situation. In the following paragraphs, the basic picture of the Gulf will be illustrated, with some statistical and geographical figures mentioned in a British report issued in 1967.1 The first and foremost group was the nine Protected States who had hitherto enjoyed British protection. Bahrain in the west, a collection of more than 30 islands totalling some 200 square miles, was...


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