Middle East Ii: Persian Gulf

Two of the nine rulers of Britishprotected states in the Persian Gulf area have now been deposed. They are the first victims of a campaign to resist the rapid growth of republican feeling among the 316,000 people living there, by removing some of the worst excesses of Arabian monarchy.

In August of last year, Sheikh Shakbut, at the age of sixty-one and after a fairly peaceful reign of thirty-eight years, was expelled from his small but rich oil kingdom of Abu Dhabi. A man whose grasping lust for money caused comment even among his fellow sheikhs, he has lost, at the same time as his kingdom, his income from oil royalties, totaling five and a half million dollars a month.

As soon as the deposition order had been signed, the R.A.F. flew him hurriedly from the national airport — a strip of beaten sand, a customs hut, and a wind sock — to Bahrein. There Sheikh Isa, the young and unsure ruler who is rumored to be the next on the British list of rulers to be dismissed, granted him exile with reluctance, perhaps fearing that by associating with his guest, he might further weaken his own position.

When Shakbut was safely out of the way, the British authorities announced that he had been deposed by his family for “failing to create a proper administration and not using the kingdom’s wealth for the benefit of the people.” While formally denying that Britain had played any part in the coup d’etat, its Acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf area, Hugh BalfourPaul, did not find it inconsistent with his status as a diplomat to add that the old sheikh had displayed “a manifest inability to govern properly.”

One bar against accepting these statements at face value is that they ignore the visit to the foreign office in London by Shakbut’s younger brother and successor, Zaid, a short time before. Another, more serious one is that the charges made against Shakbut could also be justly applied to most of the rulers who continue to enjoy British patronage in this remote but strategically important part of the world. Not all of them are as rich as Shakbut was, or as miserly, or as determined to prohibit social and economic progress in their countries. But they are as unwilling to reform their feudal and autocratic regimes as he was, and are unaccustomed to spending more than a third of their great unearned wealth for the general benefit of their people.

Playthings for the sheikhs

The rest of the oil royalties usually go for such playthings as racehorses, motor yachts, new palaces, lavish gifts for local sycophants and distinguished visitors, and of course, fleets of air-conditioned Cadillacs. The royal family of Bahrein, for example, whose income from the American-owned Caltex oil corporation’s local subsidiary, Bapco, is comparatively modest — one and a quarter million dollars a month — is said to spend more than twelve million dollars a year on these indulgences. While the sheikhs have built a four-lane highway between the palace and their private beach, many of their 165,000 subjects live in shacks walled and roofed with palm leaves, by the side of sewagestrewn dirt tracks, well traveled by confident giant rats.

Admittedly, most of what money is left over is devoted to the social welfare of the community. Old houses have been converted into hospitals and schools; an agricultural research station has been established; and a few foreign technical experts, medical specialists, and teachers are employed. But the fact that British diplomats hold up Bahrein to the rulers of other states as a model of a progressive monarchy gives an idea of the extent of social deprivation in the area generally.

Saqr, the other sheikh to be dismissed, ruled Sharjah, a still more primitive country where oil has yet to be discovered and whose people are mostly bedouins. Sharjah is a sizable tract of desert containing a ramshackle palace, a Royal Air Force base, and very little else. Last summer after reigning there for fourteen years, Saqr was quietly bundled aboard an R.A.F. plane and delivered in Egypt as an unexpected guest of President Nasser’s government. Since then, he has been addressing a stream of anti-imperialist speeches to his ex-subjects through Radio Cairo.

As a ruler, Saqr showed far more interest in the poems which he wrote laboriously in classical Arabic and had published at his own expense than he did in politics. Toward the end of his reign, when he at last began to pay some attention to the problem of national development, it was too late. His neighbor Sheikh Rashid of Dubai had already laid his hands on most of the capital locally available, and used it to establish a virtual regional trade monopoly, profiting mostly from the smuggling of gold to India, Iran, and, via the latter, the Soviet Union.

With the recklessness of a longtime reader and writer of Arabian romances, Sheikh Saqr decided to take on the British single-handed. He announced that he had accepted an offer of aid from the anti-British Arab League. A few days later, the British Political Residency solemnly stated that he had been overthrown (by his family) on account of his “scandalous behavior and neglect of the welfare of the people.”

Thus Britain has been attempting to deal with its quandary in a potentially explosive region where, under an exclusive treaty signed in 1892. it is the only foreign power with the right to diplomatic representation. The quandary is far from unique in diplomatic history, arising as it does from a conflict between a strong desire to maintain the status quo (in this case, to ensure regular supplies of oil) and a realization that the status quo is ultimately unprescrvable.

Britain has been involved with the feudal regime of the Persian Gulf for the past 150 years. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the sheikhs were operating as pirates against passing East India Company. ships. A show of force by the Royal Navy in 1820 frightened them sufficiently to sign an agreement to “abstain in perpetuity from acts of piracy and plunder.” Some years later, under further duress, they issued proclamations abolishing slavery; and by the end of the century, they had agreed to deal exclusively with Britain.

The discovery of oil in the 1930s came as an unexpected bonus, which Britain officialdom was slow to grasp. (Many of the best concessions passed into the hands of American companies as a result. Americans now hold about half of all Persian Gulf concessions, with monopolies in four out of nine states, and major prospecting rights in another three; currently they produce 20 percent of the total oil supply there, and have large stakes in an international consortium producing another 55 percent.) Largescale production started after the Second World War, and Britain’s dependence on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf had become so great by the 1950s that the blocking of the Suez Canal at the end of 1956 caused stringent gasoline rationing in England.

Instead of striving from then on to diversify its sources of oil, Britain reacted to the emergency by increasing its armed strength in the Persian Gulf area from a few hundred men to more than three thousand. Whitehall calculated that, having made a makeshift peace with Nasser and got the canal reopened, the primary objective now was to stop the spread of Nasserism to the oil fields themselves.

British diplomats deny any intention of using their dominating position to interfere in the internal affairs of any of the nine kingdoms. But it is a theoretical disclaimer. Any internal revolution would be most unlikely to succeed without some measure of outside support, which could be taken to justify the intervention of British troops.

The diplomats have, at the same time, made efforts to lighten the oppressiveness of the regimes. Their pressure on the rulers has produced at least rudimentary primary education and a few medical services through most of the area. They have prevailed upon Sheikh Mohammed, the illiterate twenty-eight - year-old brother of the ruler of Bahrein who is chief of police, not to arrest political suspects quite so casually and detain them for such long periods without trial, with manacles locked around their ankles which cause festering wounds and scars for life.

Directly after the British removed Sheikh Saqr, they initiated a public works program in Sharjah; and the people of Abu Dhabi can scarcely fail to benefit from the departure of Sheikh Shakbut, who refused to build hospitals and schools, on the grounds that his subjects would not know what to do with them if they had them.

But such activity has delayed, not produced, a solution to the most basic and pressing problem: that the archaic system of government by royalty, evolved within the framework of an isolated, tribal society, is simply unworkable in modern conditions. Apart from its impracticality and its immorality, it is becoming deeply resented by the people who are now living under it.

Oil as a progressive force

At the same time that it has brought wealth to the rulers, the discovery of oil has brought a large number of Arabs into contact with Western ideas. The attitudes, particularly toward authority, of American and European oil workers, have made an impression on their Arab employees. The latter are now familiar with such institutions as trade unions, a free press, and universal adult suffrage, although they are denied them. English schoolbooks and Egyptian schoolteachers (whose politics are viewed with suspicion but who are accepted as the only Arabic-speaking teachers that are available) have done much to teach the Gulf Arabs about human rights.

Most communities now have at least one transistor radio, and there is keen local competition between the BBC and Radio Cairo. Although their interpretations of democracy obviously conflict, at least they have made the word a familiar one.

Public relations lobbyists in Beirut, London, and other Western capitals have given the impression that some of the sheikhs are adapting their regimes to fit in with the new aspirations of their subjects. In the area itself, however, there is little evidence of this. Laws are still devised by the rulers personally, in secret consultation with relatives and courtiers, and then proclaimed without further discussion.

Popular representation is held to be unnecessary, on the grounds that any subject has the right of personal appeal to the ruler. Social welfare programs arc also said to be superfluous, because anybody in need is supposed to have the right to ask the ruler for help. But the growth of towns—Manama, the capital of Bahrein, has a population of 61,000, and Dubai City one of 55,000 — has devalued rights which have been traditional. The sheikhs’ regular, ostensibly public audiences are deteriorating into mere rituals, slavishly attended by Arab and British officials, partly in the hope of receiving favors and gifts, partly for fear of causing offense. Many genuine petitioners are turned away from the palace doors by the police, and a large number of those who do enter never get to voice their pleas.

Furthermore, young, literate Arabs, whose learning is often greater than their rulers’, are no longer willing to go down on their bended knees to request humbly as favors what the radio and books have told them are their rights. The assumption that public property actually belongs to the royal family also causes resentment, particularly when a ruler grandiosely goes through the motions of presenting some of it, usually a piece of land, to the nation and then expects to be praised by a grateful populace for his generosity.

The American and British oil companies have, in fact, demanded and ultimately created for themselves a generation of industrial workers, skilled tradesmen, and merchants. To qualify, the Arabs have had to abandon the tribal loyalties of their fathers and adopt semiWestern standards. They are cynical about palace corruption, licentiousness (Bahrein is a stopover with a unique reputation among airline hostesses), and unearned opulence, ashamed of the servile traditions of their people toward royalty, and perhaps too uncritical of what they have been told about Egypt, Europe, and the United States; and their privately expressed hostility toward the sheikhs has become much more marked, even in the past year.

Incompetent rebels

So far, the number of “freedom fighters” in the area is minute, for all the exhortations of Radio Cairo. Their record up to now is one of utter incompetence: their most recent efforts have been to blow up a water main in the mistaken belief that it was an oil pipeline, and to try to set fire to a sealed storage tank of crude oil by lighting an old newspaper underneath it.

If not their methods, their cause is supported by most of the rest of the Arab world, and it is becoming popular in the Persian Gulf area itself. The sheikhs have refused to convert their feudal regimes into constitutional democracies and to become mere figureheads. The British are too timid, despite the strength of their position, to do any more than arrange for the removal of the worst and least cooperative of the sheikhs, and substitute slightly better ones.

When British troops are withdrawn from Aden in 1968, as Harold Wilson has promised they will be, Britain’s position in the Persian Gulf area will become still more entrenched. The Middle East Command Headquarters is to be moved to Bahrein (just eight years after it was moved to Aden from Cyprus), and the base in Sharjah is already being enlarged.

British diplomats are trying hard to play down the significance of this change, and to persuade British newpapers to do likewise. It is claimed that the increase in military personnel in Bahrein will be “hardly noticeable” and that there is no danger of the island’s developing into a “second Aden.” But as recent events in Aden have been, in many respects, a repetition of the history of Cyprus (which Britain was determined never to repeat), it is not easy to feel much confidence in the ability of British diplomats to learn from past mistakes.

Marlin Page