12. Mesopotamia, Persia and Arabia

Known in Britain as the Middle East, this vast area was home to the Islamic faith, which swept away the late Roman Empire and, at its height, established its own Muslim civilisation in countries as far afield as Spain, the shores of the Danube and India. Britain had been involved in some of the crusading attempts to restore Christian control of Christ’s own country but, once that hope was extinguished, British interest in the region was purely as part of the Silk Road which brought exotic goods to Europe from the distant lands of the Indies and China. Britain began to resume regular contact with the region when the East India Company began trading with the East Indies. Trade was once again the precursor of later relationships, but apart from some treaties whereby Britain undertook to protect commerce and the ruling families with the might of the Royal Navy, Britain only established one quasi-colony, Aden, in the region in addition to some protectorates.

Britain became much more closely involved when oil was discovered in vast quantities throughout the region. British companies controlled most of the oil fields. New countries were carved out of the corpse of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War and Britain emerged as the governor, or major foreign influence, in the Persian Gulf and the ancient areas of Mesopotamia and Persia, which soon became known by their new names of Iraq and Iran. Although never part of the British Empire, these countries and the whole region played a major part in the later years of empire and are therefore included here.

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1763 The East India Company sets up a trading post at Basra, on the estuary of the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris, but Kuwait proves to be a politically safer trading centre.

1802 The Mamluk governors of Baghdad in the Ottoman Empire allow a British consulate to open in the city. Commercial activity is encouraged and British technology is introduced into the region.

1831 The Ottomans re-establish direct control of the Iraqi regions but the British maintain commercial contacts.

1914 The Ottoman Empire declare alliance with Germany. Britain, concerned for the links to India and the developing oil industry in the region, lands troops at Basra.

1915-6 Troops advance on Baghdad but the entire army surrenders after a prolonged siege at Kut.

1918 The collapse of the Ottoman Empire. British forces are left in control of most of Iraq including Baghdad and Mosul in the north. They have also taken Palestine and parts of Syria in alliance with the Arab rebels.

1919 A League of Nations mandate gives administration of Iraq to Britain, which is soon confronted with Arab opposition.

1922 The Hashemite prince Faisal is appointed King of Iraq with a British-style parliament and the decision is approved by a plebiscite.

An Anglo-Iraqi Treaty agrees upon commercial freedom and religious tolerance, but all foreign, military, judicial and financial matters are to be taken over by British advisers at Iraqi expense.

1927 Immense oil reserves are discovered at Kirkuk by the Iraq Oil Company, 23.75% owned by Anglo-Persian. Other discoveries in Iraq and Persia follow.

1930 A new treaty hands over power over domestic affairs to the king but retains foreign affairs and air bases in British control.

1941 Iraqi political leaders fail to support British war efforts and are overthrown by a British-led coup.

1955 The Baghdad Pact. An anti-Soviet alliance formed by the UK with Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

1956 The Suez Canal invasion stokes pan-Arab nationalism across the region.

1958 The Hashemite King Faisal is murdered and an anti-British government is installed. Britain loses control of Iraq.

1961 Iraq claims Kuwait. Britain sends troops to Kuwait and the Iraqi government is overthrown in a coup.

1979 Saddam Hussein seizes power in Iraq.

1980 Iraq invades Iran, beginning a brutal eight year war.

1988 End of the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein has become the major figure in the region.

1990 Iraq invades Kuwait and is defeated by an alliance led by the United States. Saddam is overthrown but the country descends into a complicated internal civil war and Islamic struggle.


1622 The Royal Navy assists the removal of Portuguese from Hormuz by Shah Abbas. The East India Company establishes a trading post at Bandar Abbas on the coast of Persia (Iran) at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

1661 The East India Company is appointed Crown agent in the Gulf region.

1763 The Arab governor of Bushehr on the Gulf coast of Persia permits the East India Company to open a residency.

1809 Britain agrees a Preliminary Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with the Shah.

1822 Bushehr becomes HQ of the British Resident for the Persian Gulf, who is responsible to the governor of the East India Company’s Bombay presidency.

1856-7 Anglo-Persian War. The Shah presses his claim on Herat, a city in Afghanistan, whose Emir declares independence and seeks protection from Britain. Persia withdraws its claim and British withdraw troops from southern Persia.

1908 Oil is discovered In Iran near the head of the Persian Gulf by a syndicate headed by Burmah Oil, the first deposit found in the Middle East.

1909 the Anglo-Persian Oil Company is founded to manage the Iranian oil field.

1913 Anglo-Persian opens its oil refinery at Abadan near the Persian-Iraqi border on the Gulf. For fifty years it remains the largest refinery in the world.

1914 The British government, committed to re-equipping the Royal Navy with oil-fired ships, takes a controlling interest in the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.

1933 The agreement between Anglo-Persian and the Shah is revised.

1935 Shah Pahlavi insists Persia be named Iran and the oil company is renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.

1941 The Soviet Union and Great Britain occupy Iran to secure oil supplies and the supply route to Russia.

1951 Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq moves to nationalise Anglo-Iranian. Britain imposes a boycott on Iranian oil.

1953 The Shah arrests Mossadeq who is imprisoned for treason.

1954 Iranian oil and plants are vested in the national Iranian Oil Company. Anglo-Iranian resumes oil production and changes its name to British Petroleum or BP. Iranian public opinion and United States pressure forces BP to accept a 40% membership in a consortium of western companies called Iranian Oil Participants, which becomes known as the Seven Sisters Cartel.

1955 The Baghdad Pact. An unstable, short-lived anti-Soviet alliance formed by the UK with Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

1979 The Iranian Revolution. The Shah is overthrown and an Islamic republic is formed under the religious leader the Ayatollah Khomeini.

1980 Iraq invades Iran beginning a brutal eight year war.

The Iranian embassy in London is occupied by terrorists. Hostages are rescued by the S A S.

1988 Iran makes peace with Iraq but relations with The UK and USA remain poor.

The Gulf States

1819 A Royal Navy/East India Company expedition crushes Qawasim pirates in the Gulf.

1820 The beginning of a British alliance with the Trucial States. A General Maritime Treaty is signed with Bahrain and sheikhs on the northern Oman coast of the Gulf. It prohibits piracy, bans importation of slaves from Africa and putting prisoners to death or enslaving them after they give up their arms; their ships are allowed to trade with British ports.

1847 Further agreement to prohibit transportation of African slaves on board vessels belonging to Bahrain and the Trucial States and to allow right of search to the Royal Navy.

1867 Bahrain and Qatar are separated and Britain informally provides protection to Bahrain.

1892 The Arab Trucial states sign an Exclusive Agreement which makes them effectively British protectorates with Britain in charge of their foreign relationships.

1916 Qatar is evacuated by the Ottomans and becomes a British protectorate.

1919 British officials supervise reforms in Bahrain.

1968 Britain begins to withdraw military personnel from the Gulf.

1971 The informal British protectorate of the Trucial States is ended and the United Arab Emirates state is formed. Qatar declares itself independent of the other states.


1792 The East India Company establishes a trading post in the port of Kuwait at the head of the Gulf.

1899 The Sheikh of Kuwait, at the Arabian end of the Gulf, fearing Ottoman aggression, agrees to become a protectorate of the British Raj in India.

1930s Massive oil deposits are discovered in Kuwait.

1961 Kuwait becomes an independent country, but is claimed by Iraq.

1963 Britain sends troops to enforce Iraqi recognition of Kuwaiti independence.

1990 Iraq invades but is driven out by an alliance led by the United States in the First Gulf War.


1839 The East India Company Bombay Presidency annexes the port of Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea, for use as a supply depot for Company ships.

1869 The Suez Canal opens and provides a shorter route to India, making Aden an important part of the imperial communications system.

1886 A series of agreements with local sheikhs in the port hinterland creates the Aden Protectorate with Indian officials and military units to administer and safeguard it.

1937 Aden becomes a Crown colony.

1962 The colony becomes federated with the sultanates in the protectorate as part of the independent state of Aden.

1963 A State of Emergency is declared when the National Liberation Front and monarchical forces start hostilities.

1967 Continuing insurrection causes the withdrawal of British troops and the state becomes part of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

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