chapter  6
18 Pages

Pearl towns and early oil cities: Migration and integration in the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf *


The landscape of migration, urban life and state authority along the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contrasts that of the late Ottoman Empire. The differences between Gulf ports and the provincial centres of the ArabOttoman world can be readily explained by contrasting political realities. With the exception of Ottoman Basra, the urban societies of the Arab coast were neither ruled by an imperial administration nor had been shaped by a long established tradition of self-government as was the case of some of the ports of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Kuwait Town, Manama in Bahrain and Dubai were ‘new’ towns that had risen to commercial prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century following the boom of the Gulf pearls in the world market. Located on the fringes of imperial administrations, these pearl towns were part of a region that bordered the Ottoman domains and those of the Qajar dynasty, which controlled southern Iran. At the centre of what in the late nineteenth century was an expanding urban frontier, these settlements were veritable ‘societies of migrants’, mercantile city-states or quasi-city-states ruled by local dynasties of tribal descent.1 Originally from central Arabia, the Al Sabah, Al Khalifah and Al Maktum families were able to consolidate their position in Kuwait Town, Manama and Dubai as protégées of the Government of India, which after 1820 integrated the Gulf coast into the sphere of British informal empire.2