Campaigns in the Middle East
British Empire and Middle East
Rus ul Khyma, 1809
For much of the Nineteenth Century, the British operated a fairly hands off approach to issues in the Middle East. The area was little more than a transit and communications point between the all important Raj and the home country. Although before the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, the preferred route was likely to be around the African Continent via the Cape of Good Hope and so bypassing the Middle East altogether.

Military interest in the area was kindled with the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798. Suddenly, the British became concerned at French Imperial ambitions and alliances with local tribal leaders were sought in case they might be needed to frustrated any French advance towards India. The most of important of these was with the Sultan of Muscat. The French arrival in the region also upset the delicate political balance of some of the other Gulf arab rulers and particularly in the case of Trucial Oman where Britain was supported by one dynasty, the Al-Busaids, but in doing so became the enemies of their rivals the Qawasim. This meant that British East India Company ships became fair game and were attacked and pillaged at every opportunity by the Qawasim. This stretch of coast soon came to be known in Britain, India and beyond as the Pirate Coast and the Royal Navy reacted accordingly by launching campaigns and raids against the Qawasim in 1805, 1809 and 1811. Unfortunately for the British, the locals knew the area too well and could quickly escape only to regroup elsewhere. Upon the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, the British could turn their full attention to this disruptive part of their communications lines. A large British fleet was despatched to the Gulf in 1819 to attempt to stamp out the piracy once and for all. In a sustained campaign that stretched into 1820, the British destroyed and captured every Qawasim ship that they came across and occupied all the major forts in the area, even going so far as occupying Qawasim hideouts in the Persian Empire itself. This high handed but successful operation was completed by the British imposition of a General Treaty of Peace on nine Arab sheikhdoms in the area and the installation of a permanent garrison and force of ships in the region. This particular campaign marked the beginning of Britain's enduring presence in Gulf Region.

British Empire and Middle East
Destroying a Pirate Base
Not all piracy was connected to politics and allegiance. Much of it revolved around the availability of targets from the other regional trade patterns created by the slave trade. Slaves were brought primarily from East Africa to the Middle East where they were sold and exchanged for goods that were then transported to India in the Indian Ocean's very own Triangular Trade system. This meant that high value cargoes plied the seas with regularity which pirates took advantage of. As the pirates became more successful, over time they turned their attention to yet more lucrative targets such as European ships carrying their valuable cargoes around or over the Indian Ocean. The role of the Royal Navy in suppressing pirates and slaving ships increased throughout the Nineteenth Century.

Religious sensibilities in the area meant that the British generally preferred to exercise their power through discrete means. Diplomatic staff preferred to work through proxies and sympathetic leaders; providing the backing of the Royal Navy for any shows of force required. This meant that the Persian Gulf was effectively governed by a single flotilla of ships and a handful of political advisers. This area became one of the stablest of the Imperial realms with just fine tuning to the rights and obligations of the rulers and the British throughout the Nineteenth Century.

In 1835, the East India Company signed an agreement with a local Sultan in the South of Arabia to use the port of Aden as a coaling station for the Red Sea route. Putting this agreement into place proved more troublesome than expected as other locals, including the Sultan's own son, were nervous at the arrival of European ships and that it might make prosecution of local piracy more difficult. Moves by the Egyptian leader of Muhammad Ali, with French backing, to try to seize the Yemeni port of Mocha saw an EIC expedition despatched to Aden in 1839 to seize the well placed port for the Company. It was actually the very first imperial acquisition of Queen Victoria's reign. This renewed French interest in the Levant in the 1830s, and the thought that she might join forces with Russia in extending both of their interests in the Middle Eastern Region set British alarm bells ringing once more. The British sought to prop up the Sultan in the Ottoman Crisis of 1839 to 1841 and also sought to frustrate Muhammad Ali of Egypt who was felt by the British to be a client of French regional ambitions and who was also undermining Ottoman power in the region. Indeed the British were consistent supporters of the Ottomans throughout the Nineteenth Century and time and again gave diplomatic and military aid as a way of frustrating Russian and French ambitions in the region. The British intervention in the Crimean War from 1854 to 1856 was yet another example of the British coming to the aid of the declining Ottoman Empire in an attempt to keep Russian influence away from Constantinople in particular and the Middle East in general.

Britain's had long supported the other important Middle Eastern Empire of Persia to also frustrate Russian ambition in Central Asia and the Middle East. However by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, its patience with the Persian Sultan began to wane. The Persians had renewed their own ambitions in Afghanistan at a time that the British felt that Russian influence was growing both in Central Asia in general but in the Persian Court also. The Persians wished to reclaim the town of Herat in modern day Afghanistan but the British were concerned that this might upset the delicate tribal balance in the region and might bring Persian, and hence Russian, influence closer to the important passes any invading army would need if marching towards India. Unwilling to commit forces through Afghanistan due to their recent defeat there in the First Afghan War of 1839 - 1842, the British responded instead by seizing the Persian port of Bushire in the Persian Gulf in 1856. The British then used this as a base to send an army into Persia and sent yet another force into Southern Mesopotamia. This determined demonstration of force convinced the Persian Shah to back down and abandon the city of Herat, to sign a commercial treaty with the British and to promise to help suppress slavery in the region. It should have had the effect of confirming British power and prestige in the region, but this was largely undone by the almost immediate outbreak of the Indian Mutiny which saw a frantic recall of troops and effort back to the Raj.

Of course the opening up of the Suez Canal itself in 1869 further transformed this route for goods and personnel alike as the Middle East suddenly found itself as the centrepoint of a global trading network and effectively the linchpin of the British Empire. The subsequent increase in maritime traffic saw the British show interest in other islands along the route such as Kamaran Island, Socotra, Kuria Muria Islands and a return once again to Perim Island which found a new lease of life as a coaling station for deeper draft ships in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.

The discovery of oil in Persia brought a new strategic dimension to Middle Eastern politics. It was discovered shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Britain had decided to switch its Royal Navy's newest ships from coal powered to oil powered and therefore greatly amplifying the importance of oil. This switch also came at a time that Britain's allegiance to its old Ottoman ally was fraying. The Germans were keen to woo the Young Turks who had come to power in Turkey in 1908 and forged ever closer links. It had not helped that the British had drawn closer to their mortal enemy of Russia as part of the Entente agreement with France. When war broke out the Turks remained nominally neutral at first, but their sympathies were clear to see. The arrival of two German ships in Constantinople and reflagged but keeping their German crews only confirmed the direction of allegiance. In November 1914 the Turks declared war on the Allies and threatened the Suez Canal and the Island of Perim almost immediately.

This Middle Eastern theatre also unleashed one of the more bizarre military missions of The Great War as the Turks and Germans sought to disrupt British control of its Muslim soldiers and subjects throughout the Middle East, North Africa and into Asia. Two German officers, Niedermeyer and Wassmuss were charged with travelling through the Middle East from Constantinople to Afghanistan with a message from the Caliph to rise up in Holy Jehad against the British infidels. En route, Niedermayer realised that the Abadan oil refineries were relatively unguarded. He made elaborate plans to isolate and attack them. At the last moment though, the Kaiser himself over ruled the attack for fear that it would reveal the existence of the mission and put the plans for a larger uprising at risk. As it transpired, Niedermayer would fail to inflame revolt on the borders of the British Raj, although Wassmuss, later referred to as the German Lawrence of Arabia, had a little more success in Persia. However, their isolation from further support and supplies and the British (and Russian) strength in the region and the control of the seas by the Royal Navy doomed their mission to failure. It should also be noted that the German High Command and the Kaiser had possibly yet to fully appreciate the strategic significance of oil when they over ruled the attack on Abadan. It was a missed opportunity and one that would never re-present itself to the Central Powers.

Lawrence and His Legacy
Lawrence of Arabia
The British went on to the offensive and landed a large Indian Army force at Basra to undertake the Mesopotamian Campaign and prepared another large force to land at Gallipoli from Egypt in order to force open the Dardanelles Straits and allow the British, French and Russians to open a new line of communications between them. Both the Gallipoli and the Mesopotamian Campaigns would end in failure, although the latter did restart again in 1917 with more success. A more determined thrust from Egypt into Palestine became the main focus of the war on the Turks supported by an Arab Revolt from 1916 in the Hejaz which ultimately aimed towards Transjordan and Syria. Ultimately, Turkey was defeated and many of its former colonies and lands were awarded to the victorious allies as League of Nations Mandates. These were particularly sought after with further discoveries of oil in the region, the most important of which was in Mosul which was stripped from Turkey and awarded to Iraq. Discoveries of oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the 1930s only increased the strategic importance of the area as the Second World War came into view.

Empire in the Middle East Maps
Middle East Maps
Kamaran Island
Kuria Muria Islands
Oman (Muscat and Oman)
Perim Island
Suez Canal Zone
Trucial Oman
Oman Coast Pirates
1805, 1809, 1811 & 1819 - 1821
Persian Gulf Operations
1837 - 1838
1837 - 1840
Syrian Expedition
1840 - 1841
Siege of Aden
Anglo-Persian War
1856 - 1857
Perim Island
Mesopotamian Campaign
1914 - 1918
The Arab Revolt
1917 - 1918
Aden Emergency
1963 - 1967

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames |

by Stephen Luscombe