« My dear friend: In the light of the changed circumstances in South Arabia which will result from the independence of Aden and the protectorate of South Arabia, Her Majesty the Queen will not after the date of independence continue to extend her protection under the Treaty of May 1, 1888, to Mukalla and Shihr and their dependencies… »
What the reaction was of the Sultan of Mukalla when he received, some time after December 28, 1966, this ‘secret and personal’ letter from his friend the High Commissioner for Aden and South Arabia, is anybody’s guess. But a year later His Highness Sultan Ghalib Bib Awadh al Qa’iti did not go home from Saudi Arabia, where he had been visiting. The People’s Republic of South Yemen had been proclaimed by the revolutionaries of still another National Liberation Front.
And in January 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson told the House of Commons that his government had decided to withdraw British troops from East of Suez by 1971, and to cancel the exclusive agreement of 1892 under which the sheikhs of the ‘Trucial States’ undertook not to « enter into agreement or correspondence » with any other power but Britain, not to cede or sell any territory, and not to allow the representative of any other power to reside in their sheikdoms except with British permission.
Thus in little more than one year, between December 1966, and January 1968, Britain moved to bring to an end the imperial chapter in her history dominated by the need to protect the free access to India.
It is easy to see why the sheiks of the Persian Gulf viewed apprehensively the approaching end of such powerful protection. Sheik Zaid bin Sultan al Nahayan of Abu Dhabi says it plainly: Britain’s decision « came for us as a complete surprise – and that… is never good. »
In a rare interview Sheik Zaid conceded that the departure of the British « will oblige us to live independently to settle our problems among ourselves… (and) it will help the federation. But this seemingly positive attitude must be weighed against the fact that Zaid has invested a vast and unknown part of his considerable fortune in building up an army from almost nothing. As the richest of the sheiks, perhaps he feels he has the most to fear from his neighbors.
Zaid professes optimism about the political power of the federation of Gulf states, which, he asserts, « exists already – all we have left to do is to put it down on paper.. » But the stronger impression he leaves is that he relies ultimately on the power of his own army.
Shortly before being deposed by the British in 1966, Zaid’s brother Shakbut created the Abu Dhabi Defense Corps, a small army of 300 men. When Zaid took over, he planned to extend it to 1.600 men within two years, and started with a general staff of British officers ‘seconded’ to him,, though some of them say, bluntly and defiantly: « We are mercenaries. »
But when the British suddenly announced the end of their East of Suez policy, Zaid decided overnight that he wanted 4.500 men, and is now aiming at a force of 5.000 men by the end of 1970.
With a small airforce – a squadron of refurbished Hawker Hunters and a few transport planes – and a tiny navy consisting of a few patrol boats and 300 men, Sheik Zaid can take pride in having the only fully mobile armed forces in the area – not to mention an ultramodern underground headquarters where he can take refuge in an mergency.
But this defense force has cost a lot, perhaps far too much for a ruler whose wealth is still shaky. In addition to paying for manpower, Sheik Zaid has had to finance an entire communications system and a complete outfitting of the force – and on short, and expensive, terms.
« His army costs Sheik Zaid a third of his oil revenue, » a well-placed British officer said. And the Middle East Economic Digest estimates a figure of 40 million dinars for 1970 military expenditures, a sum representing about half the sheikdom’s income. This would partly explain the slump that has followed the economic boom of the late 1960s in Abu Dhabi, to which the uncertain future of the federation and the fear of what the British pullout will bring have also contributed.
A paper federation
Meeting in Dubai on Feb. 27, 1968, the sheiks of the nine sheikdoms – Bahrain, Qatar and the seven Trucial States – agreed to the principle of a federation, but they have yet to agree on either a capital or a prime minister, and most observers doubt they will reach an agreement before the departure of the British next year.
The British, no doubt victims of an ‘Aden complex’ after the bitter armed struggle that preceded their departure from there, are the mot pesimistic. A desert intelligence officer who compares one of the region most influential sheiks to « those uneducated English aristocrats of the 18th century – noble, proud, great hunters and great lovers » said: « I don’t give them five years if we go. They give money and houses to their people, but this is not what they want. They want to be able to work, to make their own money .»
Another British officer, who believes the sheiks « are surrounded either by crooks or by republicans » said that none of his fellow officers believes there will be a federation.
Even more striking is the opinion of the secretary to one of the rulers « I was at all the meetings of the federation. They are still far from it, and if the federation is not set up this year, they will all be wiped out. I don’t give them two years before some ommander of the army or of the police kills them or sends them into exile. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaima will each try to annex some territory… there will be war. »
The secretary of another ruler conceives the problem in different terms. « Don’t forget that two years ago sheiks sought the advice of the British political agent before as much as marrying off a son. Today, the British are sending ministers…to hasten the setting up of the federation with a capital, a constitution, a prime minister and a supreme court for the same sheiks. The sheiks met in early July to draft a constitution for a federation which does not exist.
« The British, he added, must understand this: An ‘imported » federation has no chance to survive their departure. One has to be patient, and to understand something which is most important: the sheiks must feel that the idea is theirs. »
While the Foreign Office tries to set up a federation in which nobody believes, and Sheik Zaid is busy buying planes, guns and troops, one ruler runs his emirate as if nothing were threatening the security of the gulf : Sheik Rashid bib Said al Maktum of Dubai.
Fifteen years ago, when all the Gulf was looking toward Kuwait, where a huge city was rising out of the sands thanks to the new wealth brough by oil, and while elsewhere in the gulf the sheiks were fighting for desolated sand dunes in the hope that oil would be found on their side of borders which hitherto had meant nothing to them – Dubai was but a tiny, sleepy harbor.
Today, it is the most prosperous city on the gulf, with 30 millionnaires in sterling (and no doubt more in terms of dollars) in a population of less than 60.000.
Each town has a peculiar ‘sound’ on its own, an image which the mind evokes when the eyes are closed. Dubai is a city of hammers ; their frantic rythm underscores the activity of the city, probably the only one in all the Middle East where people work every day of the week – Friday included – and nights as well, to build concrete buildings where one could see, only a few days or weeks before, the wind towers which lent their charm to the old houses of the gulf.
Dubai is also the most beautiful harbor on the gulf, with all the flags of the world, though with a predominance of red ones, notably those of Oman, Muscat, Sharjah and Ras al Khaima. A colorful crowd, the majority of which is Indian, Pakistani and Persian, shuttles between the two banks of the creek and in the narrow alleys of the soukh (market), a city in itself.
How can one explain the sudden prosperity of this town which will soon have the largest harbor in the Middle East (12 berths to Beirut’s nine) ? No one in Dubai doubts that the main reason is the astuteness of Sheik Rashid, who knows how to make a fortune with someone else’s money.
Nobody knows how the ruler gets his money, » said one of his associates, half seriously and in open admiration. « Sheik Rashid likes to work, not to speak. » « But everything, every bit of his income, is in hock up to 1984 » said the secretary of another ruler.
Neither of them is completely wrong, since the « unhappy creditor can try to take the harbor away from Sheik Rashid, » according to a Dubai banker who seems to know where the ruler gets his money.
Indeed, the mystery is only partial. A British journalist, Timothy Green, has documented the commonly accepted story that Dubai earns a huge income from a gigantic gold smuggling ring operating between London and India. In 1966, more gold went from London to Dubai than to anywhere else in the world except for France and Switzerland. Nearly four million ounces, worth $140 million, disappeared below the decks of the hundreds of dhows that come and go in the creek of Dubai, before reaching India, where the gold is sold on the black market for about $68 an ounce.
At the same time, by making Dubai a free port, Sheik Rashid has attracted the trade of all the gulf, with profitable offshoots in India, Pakistan and Kenya. And Dubai imports $250 worth of watches per capita par year and as much as $500 million worth of wine and liquor (even though the local Moslem population virtually doe not drink.) Imports have doubled during the past two years.
Moreover, while the other sheiks have adopted very conservative land policies, Sheik Rashid openly encouraged speculation, which has attracted a lot of foreign capital, mostly from Kuwait. And finally, the presence of oil, in commercial quantities was confirmed in February, 1967. Although the first tanker was not loaded until September, 1969, Sheik Rashid has been able to borrow , two years earlier, about £24 million for his harbor and another £6 million for an airport.
By May of this year, oil production had reached 120.000 barrels a day, worth about $70.000 at
the going crude price of 60 cents a barrel.
The banker who had told half the secret of the success of Dubai while standing on the roof of Sheik Rashid’s office, beheld the busy city spreading along the creek below and listened to a burning question : « There is too much money here. Why should anything happen in 1971 ? »
« People are so professionally and determinedly optimistic in Dubai ,» he answered, « that one ends up feeling that some creeping doubts are penetrating this business-minded community.
After all, after the Six-Days war in 1967, the populace marched on the houses of the Europeans, and the authorities almost had to call in the British troops. »
Nothing since then has awakened a population so somnolent that a spokesman for Al Fatah, the Arab guerrilla organization, said recently in Amman: « Don’t believe that the economic power of the gulf will be decisive. We are the action ; they (the people of Dubai) will always be in reaction to us. »
But in Aden, Cairo abd Damascus, other people have a completely different point of view bout the possibility of internal revolution in the gulf. After the fall of the feudal regime in North Yemen in 1962, they set up secret cells among workers and soldiers throughout the gulf, and made secret contacts with the Communist parties of Iran and India.
This Marxist-inspired movement, fully aware of the difficulties of isolated, sparsely populated sheikdoms decided to set up a guerrilla base in Dhofar, the western province of Muscat and Oman, almost totally cut off from the outside world by the deserts of the former Eastern Aden protectorate to the West, the Rub al Khali to the north, and the mountains of Oman to the East - an ideal base for a ‘liberation’ movement.
In 1967, the British-inspired Federation of South Arabia, stillborn, gave way to the People’s Republic of South Yemen after the departure of the last British soldiers from Aden. From then on, the liberation movement of Dhofar had a most useful rear base where it could set up training camps and offices, and, from September, 1968, call itself the ‘People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf’ (PFLOAG).
Today, a guerrilla war rages in Dhofar. Some call it a ‘hidden war’. The British won’t let journalists in, saying that Sultan bin Teymour, in Salalah, himself grants visas that allow only a few foreigners – but never journalists – to enter Oman and Muscat. As for the guerrillas, they show no enthusiasm for Castro-style interviews in the bush.
The stakes are indeed high as the 1971 deadline for Britain’s troop withdrawal nears. And yet this will not be the end of the British presence in this part of the world. There is, in fact, a singular and all-important omission in the declaration of Her Majesty’s Government: The withdrawal does not affect Muscat and Oman. The British will keep a base in Salalah and another larger one on the island of Masirah. In addition, four Omani regiments are British-led.
This could explain why Sheik Khalid bin Muhammad al Qasimi, in Sharjah, does not seem to worry about the departure of the British troops, though his sheikdom contains both the headquarters of the Trucial Oman Scouts – an internal security force of 2.000 men led by British officers and a few Dhofaris – and a Royal Air Force base with 1.500 soldiers who came from Aden, all of whom, according to plan, should leave within a few months.
« The British had to leave ; they knew that if they stayed there would be trouble, » Sheik Khalid said, but he also hinted that some « special three-or-five-year agreements » would allow British troops to intervene if necessary.
At the other end of the gulf, in Ras al Khaima, his namesake and distant cousin, Sheik Khalid, son of Sheik Saqr bin Muhamma al Qasimi, also spoke of « secret defense agreements » that would allow the emirates of the gulf to remain under the protection of the British troops remaining in Muscat and Oman.
Sheik Advice to Heath
In mid-May, the war in Dhofar took on an international dimension for the first time when the British air force bombed a small ship that was shuttling between Hauf, on the South Yemen border, and Dhofar, with arms and ammunition. Seven guerrillas were killed and several severely wounded ; the latter were flown into Aden, an a few weeks later the South Yemen government protested against « repeated violations’ of its air space by the British air force .»
And in London in mid-June, the surprise victory of the Conservative Party in the British general election raises the possibility of a change of policy in Whitehall. Soon afterwards, leaks to the press hinted that the new Tory government under Edward Heath was thinking about a delay in the British pullout.
« It would be a big mistake », said the secretary of one of the gulf rulers. « The English have the best opportunity they will ever have to tiptoe out of the gulf. Today, Nasser is far too busy elsewhere, and there is a natural balance in the Gulf. The Iranians won’t do anything, because they know they would provoke the Arabs, and the converse is true. But if this stupid Heath shakes up the sheiks, and prods them to ask for a delay of a few years, we will see only catastrophes. In a very short time, the British will have to leave, but under pressure from Nasser and Arab opinion. »
While this analysis has its logic, this well informed observer may be paying too much attention to Nasser and not enough to the still largely nameless and faceless guerrilla force that lies beyond the formidable mountains of Muscat and Oman.
(The Washington Post, July 26, 1970 ; Jeune Afrique, 18 août 1970 ; The Daily Star, Beirut, September 27, 1970)
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© Chris Kutschera 2013