Relations Prior to the Iranian Revolution

For centuries, the peoples of the southern Gulf coastlines have been tied together by longstanding patterns of settlement and exchange. Such was the density of commercial connections and the fluidity of movement between the Arabian and Persian littorals that one anthropologist has asserted persuasively that the coastal communities had more in common with each other than with the inland towns and cities in Arabia and Persia such as Riyadh or Teheran.1 Episodes of repeated migrations across the waterway took place as trading conditions waxed and waned, leaving behind rich cultural and economic legacies in their wake. A notable example occurred in the early twentieth century when Dubai profited greatly from an influx of Persian and Arab merchants from the Persian coastal city of Lingah following the imposition of high taxation and greater regulations from Teheran. The newcomers brought with them their business and shipping networks and their links with trading associates in India who linked Gulf merchants to markets and clients worldwide. Emirati historian Fatma al-Sayegh has noted how this ‘drain of expertise from Lingah to Dubai was to be the foundation for the latter’s strong commercial growth after 1903.’2

Complex interconnections therefore developed over centuries that survived until the drawing of modern state boundaries in the decades after the First World War. This notwithstanding, the interwar years constituted a formative period that encompassed the transformation of the smaller Arabian Gulf sheikhdoms into proto-state entities alongside the creation and growth of the larger and centralizing states in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. The rise of modernizing states in Baghdad and Teheran and the rapid post-1953 growth of the Saudi state shifted the center of gravity in the Gulf away from the British-protected sheikhdoms and interfered with the web of cross-water linkages as new political boundaries took root. Contemporaneous developments in Iran and Iraq posed challenges to the smaller Gulf sheikhdoms of a different sort from that of Saudi Arabia, which despite the periodic flare-up of boundary tensions did not present an ideational challenge to the political survival of the similarly conservative Gulf monarchies.3

In Iraq, the military coup in July 1958 that bloodily overthrew the proBritish ruling elite triggered a thoroughgoing political and social revolution and an immediate threat to Kuwaiti sovereignty when the emirate became independent in June 1961. Whereas this was a direct threat to Gulf statehood, a decade later Sharjah was indirectly impacted as armed Iraqi mercenaries funded by the Ba’ath Party in Baghdad were implicated in a failed coup attempt by the exiled former ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, in an unsuccessful bid to return to power in 1972.4 Iran under the Shah, by contrast, constituted a different threat to the UAE and the other Gulf States than the ideological one posed by Baghdad. In this instance, the danger lay in the grandiose ambitions entertained by Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, of attaining Iranian hegemony in the Gulf by means of an increasingly southward-focused and interventionist policy toward the region.5 (Ironically, the type of the Iraqi and Iranian threat— namely revolutionary upheaval versus regional hegemony—reversed itself in the 1980s and 1990s following the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait.)

Examples of Iranian intervention in the Gulf in the 1960s and 1970s included the Shah’s longstanding territorial claim on Bahrain, which was settled in 1970 by a United Nations mission that conducted a plebiscite showing overwhelming support for an independent Arab state; the provision of Iranian military assistance to Oman in 1973 to help Sultan Qaboos defeat a persistent insurgency in Dhofar; and the seizure of three islands— Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs—located strategically astride the narrow entranceway to the Strait of Hormuz. Notably, in light of the smaller Gulf rulers’ concerns that the British military withdrawal from the Gulf would leave them vulnerable to their more powerful regional neighbors, Iran seized the islands on 30 November 1971, just one day before the formal end of the British-protected status and two days prior to the creation of the UAE out of the seven Trucial States.6 The Shah’s action underscored the dangers facing the newly independent rulers of the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar (which also gained statehood in 1971) as they navigated a volatile decade in which—uniquely in the modern history of the Gulf—there was no overarching external security guarantee for the smaller states.7

Shorn of any external guarantor, UAE officials spent the majority of the 1970s engaged in the processes of consolidating the new federation and in delineating the powers between the federation and the individual emirates. This was not always smooth as the charismatic rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in particular, followed their own models of political and economic development (with only Abu Dhabi joining OPEC, for example) and differed on the division of constitutional responsibility between the federal and emirate levels. Matters culminated in a ‘constitutional crisis’ in 1979 between what UAE-based historian Frauke Heard-Bey has labeled ‘the staunch unifiers of Abu Dhabi’ and ‘the diversifiers headed by Dubai, who would not cede their governmental and administrative authority to a central power.’8 Although the constitutional issue was settled through compromise, a longer-standing and potentially more serious flashpoint was the integration of the Dubai Defense Force into the Abu Dhabi- based Union Defense Force. This was achieved only in 1996 and after repeated struggle, including an episode when Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Qaiwain reportedly threatened to secede from the UAE in 1978 in protest at what they saw as the excessive centralization of power and authority.9

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