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Figure 16. Strait of Hormuz
According to archaeologists, warfare was a common activity 5,000 years ago among the peoples of the area of the Middle East that in modern times became Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller gulf states. Intermittent hostilities, often based on rivalries between the Persians of the eastern coast of the gulf and the Arabs of the western coast, have occurred ever since. Sargon, Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar II, and Alexander the Great were among the best known kings who led warring armies in the 2,500 years before the birth of Christ. During the centuries of Greek and Roman domination, the gulf region was of limited interest to the major powers, but the area's importance as a strategic and trading center rose with the emergence of Islam in the seventh century A.D. The caliphate's military strength was concentrated at Hormuz. Strategically sited at the mouth of the gulf, its authority extended over ports and islands of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf (see fig. 16).
The strategic importance of Hormuz, however, did not survive the appearance of Western powers, initially the Portuguese who came to the gulf in the late fifteenth century after Vasco da Gama's discovery of the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope. The Ottomans and the Iranians also tried to dominate the gulf but faced opposition from local tribes in Bahrain and Muscat, reluctant to cede authority over their territories, which by then were the most important areas on the coast. Increasing British involvement in India beginning in the late eighteenth century quickened British interest in the gulf region as a means of protecting the sea routes to India. The principal challenge to Britain arose from the Qawasim tribal confederation originating in the area of the present-day United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Qawasim, who amassed a fleet of about 900 vessels, demanded tribute for the passage of merchant vessels and were regarded as pirates by the Europeans. Between 1809 and 1820, British sea power gradually brought about the destruction of the Qawasim fleet. This in turn led to the signing of agreements with Britain by the Qawasim and other shaykhs (see Treaties with the British , ch. 1). The amirates promised to have no direct dealings with other foreign states and to abstain from piracy. Britain in turn assumed responsibility for the foreign relations of the amirates and promised to protect them from all aggression by sea and to lend its support against any land attacks. Before the end of the century, Britain extended protection to Bahrain and Kuwait; Qatar entered the system after it repudiated Ottoman sovereignty in 1916.
Although Muscat was traditionally a center of the slave trade, its sultan agreed to abandon this activity in return for British help in building a navy. In the early nineteenth century, the sultan's efficient fleet of sloops, corvettes, and frigates enabled him to support a maritime empire extending from East Africa to the coast of present-day Pakistan. With the eventual decline of this empire, owing in part to its division into two states--Zanzibar and Oman--Britain's influence grew, and it signed a treaty in 1891 similar to those with the gulf amirates.
The strategic importance of the Persian Gulf became increasingly apparent as the oil industry developed in the twentieth century. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran all claimed some of the territory of the gulf states during the years between World War I and World War II, but Britain's firm resistance to these claims enabled the amirates to maintain their territorial integrity without resort to arms. Except for a small force of the British Indian Navy to ensure observance of the treaty conditions and maintain maritime peace in the gulf, Britain abstained from direct military involvement. As the wealth of the gulf's oil resources became clear, the size of the British military establishment expanded. By the end of the 1960s, Britain had about 9,000 men in Oman, Sharjah (an amirate of the UAE), and Bahrain, where British military headquarters was located. The Trucial Oman Scouts, a mobile force of mixed nationality that Britain supported and British officers commanded, became a symbol of public order in the UAE until Britain's withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971.
Data as of January 1993
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