Britain and the Development of Professional Security Forces in the Gulf Arab States, 1921-71: Local Forces and Informal Empire
Date: 27 February 2014
University of Exeter
PhD in Arab & Islamic Studies
Imperial powers have employed a range of strategies to establish and then maintain control over foreign territories and communities. As deploying military forces from the home country is often costly – not to mention logistically stretching when long distances are involved – many imperial powers have used indigenous forces to extend ...
Imperial powers have employed a range of strategies to establish and then maintain control over foreign territories and communities. As deploying military forces from the home country is often costly – not to mention logistically stretching when long distances are involved – many imperial powers have used indigenous forces to extend control or protect influence in overseas territories. This study charts the extent to which Britain employed this method in its informal empire among the small states of Eastern Arabia: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the seven Trucial States (modern day UAE), and Oman before 1971. Resolved in the defence of its imperial lines of communication to India and the protection of mercantile shipping, Britain first organised and enforced a set of maritime truces with the local Arab coastal shaikhs of Eastern Arabia in order to maintain peace on the sea. Throughout the first part of the nineteenth century, the primary concern in the Gulf for the British, operating through the Government of India, was therefore the cessation of piracy and maritime warfare. Later, British interests were expanded to suppressing the activities of slave traders and arms traffickers. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain also sought to exclude foreign powers from gaining a foothold in the area. It was during this time that the British government assumed full responsibility for the external relations of these shaikhdoms and that Britain conferred the status of ‘protected state’ upon them. Up to this point, when Britain needed to protect these interests or use force to compel local rulers to comply with its wishes, naval power usually sufficed. By the midpoint of the twentieth century, Britain’s interests in the area had swelled and migrated inland – first because of the establishment of air stations servicing the imperial route to India, then as a result of oil exploration and production. At the same time, growing international opposition to colonialism and a steady reduction in Britain’s ability to project military power overseas made it more and more difficult for Britain to discharge it security duties in the Gulf. So how did Britain bridge this gap? Studies of British security policy towards the Gulf have focused almost exclusively on Britain’s formal military architecture. Using India Office records and British Government archival documents, this study provides a reinterpretation of the means by which Britain sought to maintain order, protect its interests in the region and discharge its defence obligations. The records, it will be shown, point to a broad British policy before 1971 of enhancing the coercive instruments available to the local rulers. Rather than having to revert to using its own military forces, Britain wanted the Gulf rulers to acquire a monopoly over the use of force within their territories and to be in a stronger position to defend their own domains against cross-border raiders and covetous neighbours. This policy was not always successful; Britain was progressively drawn into the internal security affairs of a number of ITS protégés, especially after the Second World War. The security forces that emerged – armed police forces, gendarmeries and militaries – varied considerably, as did Britain’s involvement in their establishment and running. Nevertheless, taken as whole, a trend emerges between 1921 and 1971 of Britain pushing the Gulf states to take over more and more of the security burden. Indeed, at a time when its traditional sources of global power were fading, indigenous security forces were an important tool in Britain’s pursuit of its interests before its military withdrawal from the Gulf in December 1971. This aspect of Britain’s approach to security in the Gulf has largely been overlooked.
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