Historical Overview

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

According to archaeologists, warfare was a common activity 5,000 years ago among the peoples of the area of the Middle East that in modern times became Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller gulf states. Intermittent hostilities, often based on rivalries between the Persians of the eastern coast of the gulf and the Arabs of the western coast, have occurred ever since. Sargon, Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar II, and Alexander the Great were among the best known kings who led warring armies in the 2,500 years before the birth of Christ. During the centuries of Greek and Roman domination, the gulf region was of limited interest to the major powers, but the area's importance as a strategic and trading center rose with the emergence of Islam in the seventh century A.D. The caliphate's military strength was concentrated at Hormuz. Strategically sited at the mouth of the gulf, its authority extended over ports and islands of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The strategic importance of Hormuz, however, did not survive the appearance of Western powers, initially the Portuguese who came to the gulf in the late fifteenth century after Vasco da Gama's discovery of the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope. The Ottomans and the Iranians also tried to dominate the gulf but faced opposition from local tribes in Bahrain and Muscat, reluctant to cede authority over their territories, which by then were the most important areas on the coast. Increasing British involvement in India beginning in the late eighteenth century quickened British interest in the gulf region as a means of protecting the sea routes to India. The principal challenge to Britain arose from the Qawasim tribal confederation originating in the area of the present-day United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Qawasim, who amassed a fleet of about 900 vessels, demanded tribute for the passage of merchant vessels and were regarded as pirates by the Europeans. Between 1809 and 1820, British sea power gradually brought about the destruction of the Qawasim fleet. This in turn led to the signing of agreements with Britain by the Qawasim and other shaykhs. The amirates promised to have no direct dealings with other foreign states and to abstain from piracy. Britain in turn assumed responsibility for the foreign relations of the amirates and promised to protect them from all aggression by sea and to lend its support against any land attacks. Before the end of the century, Britain extended protection to Bahrain and Kuwait; Qatar entered the system after it repudiated Ottoman sovereignty in 1916.

Although Muscat was traditionally a center of the slave trade, its sultan agreed to abandon this activity in return for British help in building a navy. In the early nineteenth century, the sultan's efficient fleet of sloops, corvettes, and frigates enabled him to support a maritime empire extending from East Africa to the coast of present-day Pakistan. With the eventual decline of this empire, owing in part to its division into two states--Zanzibar and Oman--Britain's influence grew, and it signed a treaty in 1891 similar to those with the gulf amirates.

The strategic importance of the Persian Gulf became increasingly apparent as the oil industry developed in the twentieth century. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran all claimed some of the territory of the gulf states during the years between World War I and World War II, but Britain's firm resistance to these claims enabled the amirates to maintain their territorial integrity without resort to arms. Except for a small force of the British Indian Navy to ensure observance of the treaty conditions and maintain maritime peace in the gulf, Britain abstained from direct military involvement. As the wealth of the gulf's oil resources became clear, the size of the British military establishment expanded. By the end of the 1960s, Britain had about 9,000 men in Oman, Sharjah (an amirate of the UAE), and Bahrain, where British military headquarters was located. The Trucial Oman Scouts, a mobile force of mixed nationality that Britain supported and British officers commanded, became a symbol of public order in the UAE until Britain's withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971.

Impact of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88

The first major threat to the security of the Persian Gulf states followed the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq in 1980. The war began after a period of deteriorating relations between these two historic rivals, dating from the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979 and his replacement as Iranian leader by Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. Full-scale warfare erupted in September 1980 as Iraqi military units swept across the Shatt al Arab waterway--which forms the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers--into the province of Khuzestan, Iran's richest oil-producing area. Iraqi president Saddam Husayn hoped to overthrow Khomeini, who had been overtly attempting to spread his Islamist (also seen as fundamentalist) revolution into Iraq, where the minority regime of Sunni Muslims ruled over a majority population of Shia Muslims.

By November 1980, the Iraqi offensive had lost its momentum. Rejecting an Iraqi offer to negotiate, Khomeini launched a series of counteroffensives in 1982, in 1983, and in 1984 that resulted in the recapture of the Iranian cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan. The destruction of huge oil facilities caused both belligerents sharp declines in oil revenues. Iraq was able to obtain substantial financial aid from Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. In early 1986, an Iranian offensive across the Shatt al Arab resulted in the fall of the Iraqi oil-loading port of Faw and the occupation of much of the Faw Peninsula almost to the Kuwait border. But the Iranians could not break out of the peninsula to threaten Basra, and their last great offensive, which began in December 1986, was ultimately repelled with heavy losses. In the spring of 1988, the freshly equipped Iraqi ground and air forces succeeded in retaking the Faw Peninsula and, through a succession of frontal assaults, continued into Iran. Iranian battlefield losses, combined with Iraqi air and missile attacks on Iranian cities, forced Khomeini to accept a ceasefire , which took effect in August 1988.

Initially, the fighting between Iran and Iraq only peripherallyaffected the Persian Gulf states. In May 1981, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE banded together in the GCC to protect their interests and, if necessary, to defend themselves. In 1984 Iran reacted to Iraqi air attacks on Iran's main oil terminal on the island of Khark by attacking ships destined for ports in gulf countries that assisted Iraq's war effort. Iranian links with a coup attempt in Bahrain in 1981, Shia terrorist activity in Kuwait, and Iranianinspired violence in Mecca underscored the conviction of the Arab states of the gulf that Iran was the primary threat to their security.

Iran stepped up the tanker warfare in early 1987 by introducing high-speed small craft armed with Italian Sea Killer missiles. Kuwait had already sought the protection of United States naval escorts through the gulf for reflagged Kuwaiti vessels. Determined to protect the flow of oil, the United States approved and began tanker convoys in May 1987. Eleven Kuwaiti ships--one-half of the Kuwaiti tanker fleet--were placed under the United States flag. Other Kuwaiti tankers sailed under Soviet and British flags. Although United States escorts were involved in a number of clashes with Iranian forces and one tanker was damaged by a mine, Iran generally avoided interfering with Kuwaiti ships sailing under United States protection.

Persian Gulf War, 1991

Despite its huge losses in the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq was unchallenged as the most powerful military presence in the gulf area. Reviving Iraq's old territorial claims against Kuwait, Saddam Husayn called for the annexation of Bubiyan and Warbah islands at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab to give Iraq a clear passage to the gulf. He also accused Kuwait of illegally siphoning off oil from Ar Rumaylah field, one of the world's largest oil pools, which the two countries shared. Saddam Husayn threatened to use force against Arab oil producers, including Kuwait and the UAE, that exceeded their oil quotas, charging them with colluding with the United States to strangle the Iraqi economy by flooding the market with low-priced oil.

Although Iraq had accompanied its threats by moving troops to the border area, the world was largely taken by surprise when, on August 2, 1990, the Iraqi army invaded and occupied Kuwait. A force of about 120,000 soldiers and approximately 2,000 tanks and other armored vehicles met little resistance. The Kuwaiti army was not on the alert, and those troops at their posts could not mount an effective defense. Some aircraft operating from southern Kuwait attacked Iraqi armored columns before their air base was overrun, and they sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. Of the 20,000 Kuwaiti troops, many were killed or captured, although up to 7,000 escaped into Saudi Arabia, along with about forty tanks.

Having completed the occupation of Kuwait, the Iraqi armored and mechanized divisions and the elite Republican Guard advanced south toward Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia. Intelligence sources indicated that the Iraqis were positioning themselves for a subsequent drive toward the Saudi oil fields and shipping terminals, possibly continuing toward the other gulf states.

In the first of a series of resolutions condemning Iraq, the United Nations (UN) Security Council on August 2 called for Iraq's unconditional and immediate withdrawal from Kuwait. In the ensuing months, a coalition force of more than 600,000 ground, sea, and air force personnel deployed to defend Saudi Arabia and to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Command of the force was divided: commander in chief of the United States Central Command, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, headed United States, British, and French units; his Saudi counterpart, Lieutenant General Khalid ibn Sultan ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud, commanded units from twentyfour non-Western countries, including troops from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, and the other gulf states. In addition to 20,000 Saudi troops and 7,000 Kuwaiti troops, an estimated 3,000 personnel from the other GCC states took part in the land forces of the coalition offensive, known as Operation Desert Storm.

When the massive coalition ground assault of Operation Desert Storm got under way on February 24, 1991, troops of the Persian Gulf states formed part of two Arab task forces. The first, Joint Forces Command North, consisting of Egyptian, Saudi, Syrian, and Kuwaiti troops, deployed on Kuwait's western border. Joint Forces Command East deployed along the gulf immediately south of Kuwait and consisted of about five brigades (each well below the strength of a regular Western brigade) from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. The main attack was a sweeping movement by United States, British, and French forces in the west designed to cut the links between the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and their bases in Iraq. The Saudis and Kuwaitis on the western border of Kuwait, composed of about four brigades organized as the Khalid Division, together with an Egyptian regiment, breached Iraqi defenses after allied bombing and engineer operations blasted passages. Iraqi troops, although in strong positions, surrendered or streamed to the north. Units of Joint Forces Command East advanced up the coastal road, capturing the city of Kuwait on the third day of the offensive after light fighting and the surrender of thousands of Iraqi soldiers.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress