x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The empire and the islands

Documents in Britain's once-secret cabinet archives shed new light on the unhappy history of the UAE Gulf islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs.

Aerial view of the island of Abu Musa in the Arabian Gulf.
Aerial view of the island of Abu Musa in the Arabian Gulf.

When John Grogan, a member of the British parliament, returned to the UK from a visit to the UAE earlier this year, the Westminster Hall debate he initiated on June 9 raised a subject that had not troubled the parliament for more than 30 years: "Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs."

While in the UAE, Mr Grogan, a Labour MP for Selby in North Yorkshire, had been a guest of the Federal National Council, whose members, he told his fellow MPs, were "keen to impress on the UK parliament the importance of the islands and the part that they play in political debate in both the United Arab Emirates and the wider Gulf". The Tunbs, he said, had been seized by Iran "in the very last hours of the British protectorate and just before the coming into existence of the United Arab Emirates. One Arab policeman and three Iranians were killed." On Abu Musa, while no permanent agreement was reached, administration had been shared until April 1992, when "Iran ordered all foreigners off the island [and] took full control".

In recent years, he said, "the UAE has painstakingly set out its legal and historical case for sovereignty over the three islands"; now it was time for the matter to be considered by the International Court of Justice: "The islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs should not be forgotten by the House. We have a long and historic association with the UAE and a responsibility to comment."

The last time the subject of the islands was raised at Westminster was in 1971, in a debate about the Iranian action, within days of the ending of two centuries of British presence in the Gulf. Fortunately for Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the foreign minister, it was no longer Britain's problem. "Once the decision to withdraw our forces from the Gulf and to end our special treaty relationships with the Gulf States was taken, it was inevitable that these long dormant disputes would come into the open," he told MPs on December 6, 1971. The sigh of relief was all but audible.

Quite how long dormant this particular dispute was - and just how inextricably bound up it had once been in the secret machinations of British imperial policy in the Middle East - is revealed in cabinet discussions that no participant believed would ever become public. At the time there was no public right of access to government documents in the UK. But later legislation allowed for their eventual release; an initial 50-year waiting period was later reduced to 30 years. So the once-secret cabinet discussions on the disputed Gulf islands are now open to public scrutiny in the British National Archives at Kew.

The first appearance of the islands in the cabinet papers crops up in 1928, in a report by a sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Since power had been seized by Reza Khan in 1925, it said, Persia had pursued "a considered policy designed with the object of limiting our influence throughout the Gulf and eventual substitution of Persian authority". This, said the report, would not do. For one thing, "from a political point of view, the services we have rendered to civilisation and humanity in the Gulf, by the suppression of piracy, the slave trade and the arms traffic, the maintenance of order, the provision and upkeep of aids to navigation, etc, place us in a strong moral position".

It was also "essential to support the [Trucial] sheikhs by an active demonstration of our will and power to protect their legitimate rights in accordance with our treaties. In the forthcoming negotiations with Persia ... it is an essential part of our policy to defend the sheikhs on the Arabian shore against the claims of the Persian Government." Although it was thought "improbable that the Persians will attempt to prejudice the forthcoming negotiations by forcible action", the report nevertheless recommended that, "in order to be on the safe side ? the Admiralty should instruct the naval commander-in-chief that the status quo is to be maintained in the Gulf, and that he is to prevent (even by force, in the last resort) the occupation by Persia of Tamb [sic] and Abu Musa".

For Britain, Persia's membership of the League of Nations, founded just after the First World War, had complicated things, giving its regional rival an international forum in which to sound off: "The Persian Government has become more and more aggressive in asserting claims to sovereignty over the islands in the Gulf and in opposition generally to the British position in the Gulf. "For example, they have referred to the League of Nations a claim to sovereignty over Bahrein [sic], whose Sheikh is under British protection; they have revived claims to the islands of Tamb [sic] and Abu Musa - claims which, though never relinquished, have until recently not been pressed."

Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor and author of the report, did not consider for one moment that the Persians could get what they wanted by force. "She has no navy at all, and no aptitude for the sea," he wrote. "Her army possesses little military value. She could not assert herself effectively even against the sheikhs on the southern shores of the Gulf." But with Persia's election to the council of the League, "the position of the British Government is one of great delicacy.

"If we were to submit to arbitration some of the claims on which our position is strong, it would be impossible to refuse to submit others on which we are on weak ground. Consequently, it is better not to arbitrate at all at this stage." Besides, negotiating with the Persians would not play well on the other side of the Gulf: "The sheikhs on the Arab side ... whose protection is essential to our prestige in the Gulf, would not regard the reference to the League of Nations of questions which they regard as of vital importance as an adequate fulfilment of our obligations." The best course for Britain was "to do our best to negotiate a general agreement with Persia by a process of give-and-take, which will avoid any reference to the League whatsoever".

And, as usual in such "delicate" situations, when it did not reach for its guns, Britain reached for its wallet: "The remission of the Persian War Debt of £1,510,000, in whole or in part, represents by far the strongest if not the only really big counter in our possession." The report delves back into the 18th century to give an account of the history of the dispute - and reveals how the British allowed a fourth island, Sirri, about 50km to the east of Abu Musa, to slip into Persian hands.

"The islands," says the report, "are claimed by the Trucial Sheikhs of Shargah [sic] as representative of the Jowasimi [Qasimi] Arab Chiefs, one section of whom, in the 18th Century, established themselves by force or alliance on Lingah and elsewhere in South Persia." In the past, the Persian claim to the islands had been based "on the fact that the Jowasimi Arab Sheikhs of Lingah, under whose administrative control [the islands] were for many years prior to 1887, had ? been Persian subjects governing Lingah as Persian officials".

More recently, however, the claim had been based on a gift of cartography which the British now had cause to regret giving: "The islands are shown as Persian in a War Office map of 1887, of which copies were presented to the Shah by the Minister at Tehran, under the orders of Lord Salisbury, in July 1888." It was not the only historical bungle admitted in the report: "While, however, the Trucial Sheikh of Shargah, on the Arab coast, still controls Tamb and Abu Musa, on which he flies his flag, His Majesty's Government, and the Sheikh under protest, have since 1887 tacitly acquiesced in the Persian occupation of Sirri", making it "difficult, if not impossible, at this stage to dispute the Persian claim".

However, Britain had "little doubt" that the Persian claim to the other islands "can be rebutted and that the legal title of the Sheikhs is the better"; satisfactory disposal of the matter was "important ? Sir Robert Clive [the British envoy to Persia] should be given instructions to insist on the claims of the Trucial Chiefs". As history records, the dispute was not settled in the lifetime of Stanley Baldwin's government, nor in that of any of the 14 administrations that succeeded it prior to the foundation of the UAE in 1971. Part of the problem was that Britain was over something of a barrel in its dealings with Persia, upon which it relied for the oil necessary to keep its all-important Royal Navy at sea, following its conversion from coal before the First World War.

As a result, said a confidential Foreign Office cabinet briefing in June 1931: "A predominating interest of His Majesty's Government in Persia is the maintenance of the safety and prosperity of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company", which is "occasionally - and recently with considerable virulence - subjected to Persian attack". It was an additional problem for the British that the Russians were equally interested in the country's oil. As a result, "the Persian Government show a not unnatural tendency to play off British and Russian interests against each other and ? it is for this reason probably that the Shah and his Minister of Court have of late been so offensively anti-British".

In the event, although the islands remain today in Iranian hands, what a secret British Air Ministry report submitted to the cabinet in July 1931 called "Persian intransigence" was to play to the advantage of the Trucial sheikhs. At a meeting in Tehran in May 1928, Britain had won permission for Imperial Airways to use land in southern Persia for its new service to India, seen as "the key trunk route of the Empire". When permission was abruptly withdrawn in 1931, the British, with the co-operation of Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, switched the route to the west coast of the Gulf, and the first Handley Page HP42 passenger-carrying biplane touched down on October 5, 1932.

Sharjah and the UAE may have later lost the islands, but in 1932 it had gained an airport, the first in the Trucial states, significant income and increasing importance in the eyes of the British. And while Britain was never able to dislodge Persia from the islands, it was able to evict the Shah from Persia: in 1941, as German advances threatened the all-important oil fields, Russia and Britain joined forces to invade Iran, seizing and deposing Reza Shah Pahlavi.

The British papers contain one final postscript on the matter - and on Britain's long involvement in the Gulf. A confidential statement to the cabinet on defence issues, dated one month after Britain's withdrawal from the Gulf, paints a vivid picture of a nation increasingly concerned more with internal affairs than events unfolding in its former overseas interests. On January 25, 1972, Britain was preoccupied with the IRA's campaign of violence, which in 1971 had seen "some 1,100 bomb outrages and over 1,700 terrorist shooting incidents".

Events in the newly formed UAE merit only a brief mention: "The withdrawal of our forces ? was completed without incident, following the formation of the United Arab Emirates on 2 December 1971. Headquarters British Forces Gulf embarked in HMS Intrepid ? and closed on 16 December 1971. "Minor disturbances occurred in the Trucial States after the Iranian action in the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa which took place on 30 November 1971, but these were contained by local forces."