Arabian Peninsula and British Imperialism

During the 19th century, the British extended their economic and political presence throughout the coastal areas of the Arabian Peninsula. With the largest and most powerful navy in the world, the British needed ports to serve as refueling stations and to replenish supplies of fresh foods and water for their sailors.

After the Suez Canal provided an easier and faster transportation route between Europe and Asia, the coastal areas of the Arabian Peninsula increased in importance.

In 1839 Britain occupied Aden on the southern coast of Yemen, then on the further fringes of the Ottoman Empire, making it a British Crown Colony. After the Suez Canal became a major trade route, Aden became a bustling port city and trading center.

Britain and the Ottomans clashed repeatedly over control of northern and southern Yemen. In the late 19th century, the British signed formal treaties with a number of tribes in the regions around the port of Aden; these became known as the Aden Protectorates.

The largest of these sultanates, sheikhdoms, emirates, and confederation of tribes was the two sultanates of Hadhramaut. In the early 20th century the British and Ottomans agreed to specific borders demarking their respective territorial claims.

Britain also sought to protect its vast holdings in India and to prevent rival European imperial powers from expanding into Asia by extending its control over neighboring areas both east and west of the Indian subcontinent.

Consequently, British foreign service officials in Delhi sought to extend British control along the Persian Gulf. The British secured a number of treaties with the ruling families along the Persian Gulf, which in Arab provinces was frequently referred to as the Arabian Gulf.

The patron-client relationship between Arab rulers in the Gulf and the British lessened Ottoman control and freed local rulers from Ottoman taxation while increasing their own political power.

The local economies were dependant on income from pearls and sponges obtained by divers who were paid by a few trading families who often had ethnic and commercial ties with Persia. Because the area was largely poverty stricken, local sheikhs were also interested in possible economic gains from ties with the British.

The first British treaty agreement in the region was with the sheikh of Muscat (part of present-day Oman) in 1798. Successive agreements were signed between the British and the ruling Al Khalifah clan in Bahrain in 1820 and with the Sabah family in Kuwait in 1899.

Under the latter, Britain had the right to conduct all the foreign relations for Kuwait, and no foreign treaties could be signed nor could foreign agents operate in Kuwait without the approval of Britain.

This enabled Britain to ensure that the proposed Berlin to Baghdad railway would not be extended to the Persian Gulf, and it also made Kuwait an unofficial British protectorate. Similar agreements were reached with the Thani clan in Qatar and with a number of local rulers in the Trucial Coast (present-day United Arab Emirates). As a result, acting through its surrogates, Britain was able to control the coastal areas along almost all of the Arabian Peninsula.