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Volume :2 Issue : 6 1976      Add To Cart                                                                    Download

THE CONFLICT OVER THE ARAB ISLANDS

Auther : Dr. Rosemarie J. Said

           This article sets out to examine the history of the dispute between the Arab Trucial States and Iran over the Tunb Islands. The Islands were occupied by Iran in November 1971 and the British government was accused by the Arab World of collusion.  For this article, extensive use has been made of the recently released India Office Records (London) in order to reveal the true nature of the conflict.

           The 1920’s were chosen as the best starting point for the study since it was then that the political structure of the Arabian Gulf underwent a radical change as a direct result of the outcome of World War I.  After the coup d’etat of Riza Shah, the Persian Government made a direct claim on the sovereignty of the Tunb, Abu Musa, Sirri and Bahrain Islands.  Britain, however, officially opposed these claims and upheld Arab ownership of all but the Sirri Island.  Central to the entire Arab-Peninsula dispute was the fact that the trucial states of Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, who owned the Tunb and Abu Musa respectively, were bound by their treaty relations with Britain (a) not to break the maritime peace and (b) not to have direct dealings with any but the British government.  In exchange, the Britain promised to protect them from attack by sea.

           The test of the true reciprocity of these treaties occurred in 1928 when the Persian customs service seized and confiscated an Arab (Dubai) vessel at Tunb.  The Persian government acted in accordance with its aggressive policy in the Gulf and had that same year expelled the Arab Shaykh of Herjam from Persia.  The Arab found themselves powerless to resist or even defend themselves.  Britain warned them against retaliation because of their treaty obligations.  Yet, by the same token, the British government did not find it expedient to implement its side of the bargain by protecting the Arab from the sea attack by the Persians.  Other than making mild diplomatic remonstrances, they did nothing.


           The study shows that it was not in the British interest at the time to have a confrontation with Persia.  But it also demonstrates that when British interests were at stake, Britain did not hesitate to uphold, by force if necessary, the rights of the Arab states of the Gulf: the Buraimi dispute and the Iranian claim to Bahrain provide the best examples of this policy.


             The British role in the conflict must be viewed from this angle.  Whether or not it colluded with Iran in 1971 is irrelevant.  What is more important is the fact that from 1928 on, it did little or nothing to solve the Tunb Island dispute, although it had ample chance to impose its pax Britanica with little or no resistance.  Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah were unimportant considerations in British policy and thus, when Britain withdrew from the Gulf in 1971, the two sheikhdoms were left in an isolated and highly vulnerable position.  Sharjah had no choice but to enter into an agreement with Iran regarding Abu Musa, Ras Al-Khaimah, which refused to do the same, lost the Tunb Island by force.  It is clear, then, that with direct reference to the Tunb island dispute, the British sins of omission outweigh those of commission.

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