A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

More Gunboat Diplomacy: Ottomans Expelled from Qatar, August 19-20, 1915: Part I

 Just a reminder: Postings will be sparse during my current two week vacation.

Early last week we dealt with the British intervention at Bushire (Bushehr) and the punitive expedition against Dilwar in 1915 (Part I and Part II). Yesterday and today mark a century since the British used an aftermath of that campaign to do a little Imperial mopping up of a leftover of Anglo-Ottoman rivalry in the Gulf: ousting a residual Ottoman garrison from Doha, Qatar.

The Background

This requires a bit of historical scene-setting. (This is the Reader's Digest Condensed Version; there are many potential future blogposts here.) During the 19th Century, Britain, concerned with protecting its control of the sealanes with India, had been forming allegiances with the local rulers on both the Arab and Iranian sides of the Gulf, turning the Gulf into a virtual British lake, though without actual colonizing. The rapid decline of central authority in Qajar Iran posed little threat to this pattern, but the Ottoman Empire still saw these territories as Ottoman. In 1871, the Ottoman Empire, not quite yet the "Sick Man of Europe," began reasserting (or in some cases arguably asserting for the first time in years) Ottoman authority in the Arabian Peninsula. This included an expedition in Yemen and Ottoman efforts to establish sovereignty in what are today Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. (The ruling Al Khalifa of Bahrain had established a protectorate agreement with Britain as early as 1820, and the "Trucial" Emirates of the future UAE made their deals with Britain between 1820 and 1853. Oman was never under Ottoman control other than a brief interlude in the 1500s.)

In or soon after 1871, along with the expedition to Yemen, the Ottomans sent envoys to the various emirates of Arabia and to Kuwait and Qatar and persuaded the local rulers to hoist the Ottoman flag and to acknowledge a least a vague Ottoman suzerainty. This was the case in Qatar.

Now Qatar's history is a complex one. The Al Khalifa we associate today with Bahrain had an ancestral base at Zubara on the west coast of Qatar, but as the Al Khalifa became increasingly identified with Bahrain, other forces emerged elsewhere in the Qatar peninsula, notably the Al Thani around al-Bida‘ (BIdda or Bedaa in Western sources) and its adjacent port of Doha on the eastern side. (Al-Bida‘ is now a neighborhood of Doha.) Both the British and the Ottomans sought to cultivate the Al Thani rulers, who however raised the Ottoman flag and allowed the dispatch of 100 or so Ottoman soldiers to Qatar.

Since Bahrain was under British protection and the Al Khalifa still had a foothold at Zubara in Qatar, this added to Anglo-Ottoman rivalry in the Gulf. In 1893 an Ottoman effort to enforce tax collection by force was resisted by the Ruler and, in the end, the Ottomans were beaten and had to settle for a token presence at Al-Bida‘ and a very loose nominal suzerainty.

In 1913 Great Britain and the Ottomans negotiated a rather comprehensive agreement delineating their respective spheres in the Gulf and elsewhere. This Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913 recognized British influence in both Kuwait and Qatar and was signed July 29, 1913,

However, competing Russian, French, German and other claims made ratification difficult. Eleven months minus one day later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo, and a few months later Britain and the Ottoman Empire were at war. Though the Ottomans had agreed to evacuate Qatar, the agreement was never ratified, and the residual Ottoman garrison remained at Al-Bida‘ Fort.

In passing, I should mention that as an unratified agreement, the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913 has had a remarkable impact in both international law and politics in subsequent years. Both Kuwait's claim to independence and Iraq's claim to rule Kuwait relate to the status of the 1913 accord,  and the longstanding dispute between Bahrain and Qatar over the Hawar Islands, fought in the International Court of Justice between 1991 and 2001 and decided in the latter year, also saw both sides resorting to citing the unratified agreement.

August 1915

The campaign against the Tangistanis provided an opportunity for the British to do something about the residual Ottoman garrison in  to do something about the residual Ottoman garrison in Qatar. The British believe that some of the garrison at Doha had slipped across to the Iranian side and were aiding the Tangistanis. They also reported a rumor that the Ruler of Qatar had provided ammunition to the Tangistani leader Ra'is ‘Ali in exchange for a gift of hawks (for falconry). And they were determined to search for any Tangistani dhows in Qatari waters. That set the stage for the naval operation to be described in Part II.

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