Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

During the Middle Ages, Muslim countries of the Middle East controlled East-West trade. However, control changed in the fifteenth century. The Portuguese, who were building ships with deep hulls that remained stable in high seas, were thus able to make longer voyages. They pushed farther and farther down the west coast of Africa until they found their way around the southern tip of the continent and made contact with Muslim cities on the other side. In East Africa, the Portuguese enlisted Arab navigators there to take them across to India, where they eventually set themselves up in Calicut on the Malabar Coast in the southwestern part of the country.

Once in India, the Portuguese used their superior ships to transport goods around Africa instead of using the Red Sea route, thus eliminating the middlemen in Egypt. The Portuguese then extended their control to the local trade that crossed the Arabian Sea, capturing coastal cities in Oman and Iran and setting up forts and customs houses on both coasts to collect duty. The Portuguese allowed local rulers to remain in control but collected tribute from them in exchange for that privilege, thus increasing Portuguese revenues.

The ruler most affected by the rise of Portuguese power was the Safavid shah of Iran, Abbas I (1587-1629). During the time the shaykh of Hormuz possessed effective control over gulf ports, he continued to pay lip service and tribute to the Safavid shah. When the Portuguese arrived, they forced the shaykh to pay tribute to them. The shah could do little because Iran was too weak to challenge the Portuguese. For that the shah required another European power; he therefore invited the British and the Dutch to drive the Portuguese out of the gulf, in return for half the revenues from Iranian ports.

Both countries responded to the shah's offer, but it was the British who proved the most helpful. In 1622 the British, along with some of the shah's forces, attacked Hormuz and drove the Portuguese out of their trading center there. Initially, the Dutch cooperated with the British, but the two European powers eventually became rivals for access to the Iranian market. The British won, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century Britain had become the major power in the gulf.

Struggles between Iranians and Europeans contributed to a power vacuum along the coast of Oman. The British attacks on the Portuguese coincided with the rise of the Yarubid line of Ibadi imams in the interior of Oman. The Yarubid took advantage of Portuguese preoccupation with naval battles on the Iranian side of the gulf and conquered the coastal cities of Oman around 1650. The imams moved into the old Portuguese stronghold of Muscat and so brought the Omani coast and interior under unified Ibadi control for the first time in almost 1,000 years.

A battle over imamate succession in the early eighteenth century, however, weakened Yarubid rule. Between the 1730s and the 1750s, the various parties began to solicit support from outside powers. The Yarubid family eventually called in an Iranian army, which reestablished Iranian influence on the Omani coast. But this time the Iranian hold on Oman was short-lived. In 1742 the Al Said, an Ibadi family from one of the coastal cities, convinced the local population to help it expel the Iranians; this put the leader, Ahmad ibn Said Al Said, in control of the Omani coast. His success sufficiently impressed the Ibadi leaders so that they made him imam several years later.

The title of imam gave Ahmad ibn Said control over all of Oman, and under him and his successors the country prospered for more than a century. The Omanis extended their influence into the interior and into part of the present-day United Arab Emirates (UAE), consisting of the states of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubayy, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn. They also collected tribute from as far away as present-day Bahrain and Iraq. The Omanis conquered the Dhofar region, which is part of present-day Oman but was not historically part of the region of Oman.

Oman also strengthened its hold on the Muslim cities of East Africa. These cities had been established by Omani traders in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but their connection to Oman had grown somewhat tenuous. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the Al Said reasserted Omani authority in the area. Said ibn Sultan (1806-65) encouraged Omanis to settle in Zanzibar, an island off the African coast that had retained strong connections with Oman and, from Zanzibar, sent expeditions to take over several cities on the mainland 

Although Ahmad ibn Said had succeeded in uniting Oman under an Ibadi imamate, the religious nature of his family's authority did not last long. His son, Said ibn Ahmad Al Said, was elected to the imamate after him, but no other family member won the official approval of the religious establishment. As a result, the Al Said called themselves sultans, a secular title having none of the religious associations of imam. They further distanced themselves from Ibadi traditions by moving their capital from Ar Rustaq, a traditional Ibadi center in the interior, to the trading center of Muscat. As a result of the move, the dichotomy between coast and interior that had traditionally split Oman was reinstituted.

The relationship between coast and interior was becoming a major feature within the gulf. In the eighteenth century, tribes from the interior increasingly began to move and settle into the coastal centers. Although the economy on the Arab side of the gulf did not match past prosperity, coastal conditions remained better than those in central Arabia. Limited agriculture existed, and the gulf waters were the site of rich oyster beds for harvesting pearls. The area's easy access to India, a major market for pearls, made the pearling industry particularly lucrative, and this drew the attention of tribes in the interior. The tribal migrations that occurred around 1800 put in place the tribes and clans that in 1993 controlled Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE.

The Bani Utub moved from central Arabia into the northern gulf in the early 1800s, and one of its families, the Al Sabah, established itself as leaders of present-day Kuwait; another family, the Al Khalifa, established itself in present-day Bahrain. In the early 1800s, a number of other tribes were living along the gulf. Thus, Al Sabah and Al Khalifa control meant that these families ruled loosely over other tribes. Before taking Bahrain, the Al Khalifa had first established a settlement across the water on the peninsula that is present-day Qatar. Although the Al Khalifa were successful in taking Bahrain, they were unable to hold Qatar. They lost the peninsula to the Al Thani, the leading family from another tribe that, like the Bani Utub, had recently moved into the area.

The exact origins of the Al Thani are unknown, but they were already in Qatar when the Al Khalifa came. The origins of the Bani Yas and the Qawasim tribes that rule in the present-day UAE are somewhat clearer. The Bani Yas originated in central Arabia and probably established themselves on the coast at Abu Dhabi around 1700; they later extended their influence to Dubayy. Historical evidence indicates that the Qawasim lived along the gulf during the pre-Islamic period and engaged in trade, pearling, and piracy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress