Great Britain’s legacy in the Persian Gulf
The Persian Gulf is a remote body of water whose importance to Western powers over the centuries has vastly exceeded its size. An appendage of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, it stretches 600 miles in a northwesterly direction, from its mouth at the Strait of Hormuz to its headwaters at the Shatt al Arab, the river that separates Iran and Iraq. This Gulf separates two noble societies. To the south, on the Arabian Peninsula, live the Arabs. This is the holy land of Islam, the place in which the Prophet Muhammed in the 7th century received the revealed word of God, and from which – in an amazing display of faith and fury – his followers set out to conquer and convert what remained of the Roman and Persian empires. To the north live the Iranians, also Muslims, but of a diﬀerent stock. Speaking an Indo-European rather than a Semitic tongue, the Iranians claim a proud Persian heritage that stretches back over two millennia to Kings Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. Although thought by some to be the Biblical Garden of Eden, today the Arab and Persian lands surrounding the Gulf are dusty, hot, and humid. Arable land is scarce. Salt ﬂats and barren plains stretch for miles along the southern shore; forbidding mountains arise from the northern coast. The Arabs have been cheated of deep, navigable water on their side of the Gulf; the ﬂatlands ashore stretch underwater for miles, providing a dearth of natural ports. Iranian sailors have fared somewhat better; the natural deepwater channel through the Gulf hugs their northern shore, for example, but they too lack abundant havens from the sea, and hundreds of miles pass between good ports. Despite this paucity of harbors, however, the Gulf region sits athwart the trade and communication routes that bind Europe, Africa, and Asia. For centuries this strategic location, coupled the past 100 years with the discovery of oil, has made the Gulf a possession over which Western nations tangled. The Europeans arrived over ﬁve centuries ago, however, not to capture oil, nor to conquer, but rather to guard and to police. And though others preceded them, it would be the British who would stay for years, profoundly shaping the Persian Gulf region, and using surprisingly little force to impose their will.