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Archive documents reveal changing dynamic between UK and the Gulf

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, joked during a recent trip to the UAE that he was the mayor of the “eighth Emirate”. But eighty-four years ago, that would have been impossible to imagine, as dispatches from British diplomats illustrate

LONDON // It would have dumbfounded Britain’s former envoys in the Gulf.

From football stadiums, public transport links and alternative energy power generation to London’s tallest skyscraper, most expensive address and most exclusive department store, Britain has been visibly – and less visibly – transformed by Gulf investment in the past decade.

Residents of old-moneyed neighbourhoods in West London may sometimes complain about Gulf drivers racing their supercars through city streets in the early hours of the morning, but Gulf-financed marquee projects have become so commonplace in Britain’s capital, that Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, even joked during a recent trip to the UAE that he was the mayor of the “eighth Emirate”.

Eighty-four years ago that would have been impossible to imagine, as dispatches from British emissaries working for the British empire’s East India office illustrate.

The cables, telegrams and letters are part of a collection of some half-million documents, dated between the mid-18th century and 1951, that the British Library is digitising with the financial support from the government of Qatar. The documents throw intriguing light on a relationship that has changed beyond recognition.

In 1929, for instance, as Britain pondered its ever-growing role in the region and the responsibilities that came with it, Cyril Barrett, Britain’s political resident in the Gulf, cautioned that “owing to a lack of natives with sufficient education”, control of the senior customs position in the administration of Bahrain should remain with a westerner.

After all, reasoned Barrett in a confidential letter to his superiors: “Why jettison a European, who can be trusted, in order to replace him by some Oriental about whose integrity and whose intrigues one can never be sure?”

At a time when few Britons and Europeans travelled to the region and so little was known about the region, it would have amazed Barrett – even though as early as the 1920s he recognised that the Gulf’s “merchant classes” were “advancing rapidly” – to know that today, some one million Britons annually visit the UAE, what was then known as the Trucial States.

And it would have been completely unthinkable 64 years earlier, when, with the area still largely unmapped, Lewis Pelly, one of Barrett’s predecessors, through contacts with his close friend Sheikh Sabah in Kuwait, managed to obtain an invitation from Imam Faisal Ibn Turki Al Saud to travel to Riyadh.

In 1865, the British had yet to map the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. Some suggested it might never happen due to the perceived danger of travelling away from the coastline. Pelly wanted to prove the sceptics wrong.

He did. Not only did he make it there and back in one piece, he mapped the coordinates of Riyadh and established what was to become a crucial relationship with the Al Sauds in general and Faisal, in a particular - a man, he noted, with a “remarkable face… very calm and self-assured”.

Both Barrett and Pelly were based across the water in Bushehr, in present-day Iran. But where Pelly could focus on identifying and meeting local leaders and mapping territory, Barrett found himself more deeply enmeshed in the internal affairs of the region. The prerogatives of empire required him, after all, to aggressively pursue and protect British interests.

It was a trajectory that left Charles Prior, Barrett’s successor, genuinely upset at Britain’s treatment of Bahrain in another confidential letter dated December 10, 1931.

In his message, Prior lamented the failure of Britain to protect Bahrainis suffering persecution in Iran, even as it reaped the benefits of its tight grip over the island’s economic and political affairs:

“It is perfectly clear that Bahrain is in no sense an independent state and if we wish to maintain a reputation for fair dealing along the Arab coast, we must not default in our liabilities, and must pay the price which our acts of sovereignty incur.”

The year that Prior penned that letter, incidentally, oil was discovered in the Arabian Gulf in Bahrain. More prosaically, it also saw Manchester United relegated from the old first division of English football.

The demotion is something that keffiyeh-wearing fans of Manchester City, now owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, might care to reflect on as they bask in their club’s weekend victory over their fiercest rivals in what, largely due to UAE investment, has become one of the biggest matches of the footballing calender.


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