A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, October 27, 2014

October 1914: Anglo-Ottoman Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part I

Throughout September and October, 1914, Britain and the Ottoman Empire were both preparing for Ottoman entry into the Great War. Despite having signed a Treaty of Alliance with Germany secretly at the beginning of August, Turkey's divided cabinet had continued to delay, and despite the arrival of the Goeben and Breslau at Constantinople in August and Turkey's closing of the Straits to the Entente powers in September, Turkey was still officially neutral and Britain and Russia were treading softly to avoid pushing it over the edge.

A century ago today, on October 27, German (though now officially Ottoman) Admiral Souchon took his flagship the Yavuz Sultan Selim (still called Goeben by her Fez-wearing German crew) and a small force quietly out of Constantinople and into the Black Sea. Two days later, he would deliver the fait accompli that would propel Turkey into the war.

But that will be a post for October 29. In the meantime, Britain had been preparing for war as best it could without openly violating Turkish sovereignty. This post will focus on its preparatory actions at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Britain had several key strategic concerns in the region. First of all was the "Jewel in the Crown," the British Raj in India. Since British India included what today are Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, and thus had a huge Muslim population, Britain was concerned that the Turks might try (as they indeed hoped to do) to raise a revolt in India. The key line of communication to India was the Suez Canal. The security of the canal was partly assured by the British occupation of Egypt since the 1880s. To increase that security it was decided long before Turkey joined the war to train the Dominion forces from Australia and New Zealand in Egypt. They were ostensibly destined for Europe but would be close at hand if needed (as they would be) against the Ottomans. We'll talk more about Suez in another post.

The other huge British interest since time immemorial had been sea power, as an island nation, and in 1914 the Royal Navy still ruled the seas. In the naval rivalry with Germany First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had committed Britain to convert the Navy from coal to oil, allowing faster and more efficient vessels. But its main sources of oil were Standard Oil in the US and Royal Dutch Shell. For all its "sun never sets" breadth, the British Empire produced little oil.

But in 1908 oil had been discovered in southwestern Iran under a concession controlled by British interests in what became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). An APOC refinery on Abadan Island began producing in 1913, the same year Churchill negotiated a huge British Government investment in APOC which gave the government a controlling interest. The Iranian oilfields and Abadan refinery became a vital British interest.

Abadan Island was Iranian (Persian as the British would have said then) territory, but Turkey had long claimed that the whole of the Shatt al-‘Arab waterway (called Arvand Rud in Persian) belonged to them, while Iran had argued the border should be the Thalweg or deepest channel. In a 1913 agreement called the Constantinople Protocol, Iran had conceded most of the Turkish claim. So in a war, Turkey could claim to control the main access by sea to Abadan.

There was a further complicating factor. Britain, already controlling a number of protectorates in the Gulf, had extended its protection over two hereditary sheikhdoms at the head of the Gulf, one technically under Ottoman suzerainty and the other under Persian. Both were ethnically Arab.

One of these leaders was the Ruler of Kuwait, long a hereditary sheikhdom under the Al Sabah family though still nominally Ottoman (the origin of Iraq's claim to Kuwait). (In 1914, though, the Sabah ruler tilted towards the Turkish side.)

Sheikh Khaz‘al
The other, less formal quasi-protectorate was with the Arab ruler of Muhammara, the town since renamed Khorramshahr. This was Sheikh Khaz‘al bin Jabir al-Ka‘bi, hereditary sheikh of the Ka‘bi Arabs of the region. Khaz‘al (1863-1936) held multiple titles from the Qajar Shah and also received a Grand Commander of the Indian Empire and Knight Commander of the Star of India from the UK. By balancing these seemingly conflicting loyalties he managed to win control of a large part of southwestern Iran until brought to heel by Reza Shah in the 1920s.

As early as 1902 the British had offered Sheikh Khaz‘al (also called Khaz‘al Khan in Persian) assurances that they would protect his autonomy; this was reiterated in 1903 and yet again in 1908 just after the discovery of oil. Not entirely coincidentally, Khaz‘al's realm included both the mainland oilfields and the refinery on Abadan Island.

Muhammara, Early 20th Century (Lorimer's Gazaeteer)
The presence of a friendly ally and of British protectorates in the Gulf made it easy to begin a buildup even before the Ottomans entered the war. During September and October Britain began maneuvering towards an intervention. Part II, tomorrow, will discuss the buildup.

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