A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sheikh Saqr and the Tunbs

When Queen Mary of England learned of the fall of the long-English town of Calais to the French, she reportedly said that when she died and her body was opened, "you will find 'Calais' written upon my heart."

For Sheikh Saqr of Ras al-Khaimah, who died yesterday at age 92 (earlier posts here and here), the word would be "Tunbs."

If you're not familiar with the Tunbs, you probably haven't known many Emiratis, since the subject does tend to come up. The Greater and Lesser Tunb Islands (Tunb al-Kubra and Tunb al-Sughra in Arabic; Tonb-e Bozorg and Tonb-e Kuchek in Persian)(pronounced in Arabic as if spelled Tumb) are two tiny islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Since November 1971 they have been occupied by Iran, but claimed by the UAE, along with the island of Abu Musa. Before 1971 the Tunbs were administered by the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, ruled from 1948 until yesterday by Sheikh Saqr, while Abu Musa was administered by Sharja. (My sense is the two Wikipedia links lean to the Iranian view of the dispute, but they introduce the subject.)

As the map shows, the Tunbs are located between the main shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, the key outlet for Gulf oil. Abu Musa sits just to the south. They are a strategic planner's delight: potential power bases on a key global chokepoint.

In 1971, as the British retreated from "East of Suez," what had been the "Trucial States" prepared to join together in the UAE, and Iran — Imperial Iran under the Shah, remember — claimed the islands as historically Iranian. The withdrawing British were not prepared for a confrontation and may have felt Iran would be the better steward of the Strait. (After all, Iran would always be a staunch ally of the West.)

Under the gun, Sharja reached a deal allowing Iran sand Sharja to share Abu Musa. Sheikh Saqr of Ras al-Khaimah steadfastly refused to compromise on the Tunbs. Iran occupied Abu Musa peaceably, the Tunbs by military force.

Since that time, Iran has been in possession of all three islands (eventually taking full control of Abu Musa in effect) and keeps them well garrisoned (even Lesser Tunb, which historically was uninhabited). The UAE has never relinquished its claim, and has produced a lot of documentation arguing its case, but Iran has refused to take the case to the World Court. Sheikh Saqr never forgot the Tunbs. The UAE has produced reams of documents, but Iran has the islands.

I won't judge the historical claims. Sovereignty has meant different things at different times, and the two sides of the Gulf have traded and fished and pearled since Classical times. There are Arab speakers on the Iranian side and Persian speakers on the Arabian side, and no argument is likely to persuade an Iranian or an Emirati of the merit of the other case. Like the "Persian Gulf" controversy, it is a matter of firm national conviction.

But Sheikh Saqr never lost faith, and never compromised.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

A detailed and very scholarly study of this issue is The Three Occupied UAE Islands, The Tunbs and Abu Musa by Thomas Mattair. It was published in around 2003 or 2004 by The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. As the title and publisher indicate, it is supportive of UAE claims. Mattair is a careful scholar, however, and to my knowledge his work has survived scrutiny by other serious scholars. If his bottom line is unacceptable to the Government of Iran and to various pro-Iranians, you can understand why Tehran has not accepted the UAE offer to take the matter to the World Court.