The “General Maritime Treaty” signed in 1820 by the United Kingdom, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Sharjah, Abu-Dhabi, and the island state of Bahrain, was the final stage and the result of a dragged-out punitive action of the British Empire against the al-Quawasim. This paper is concerned with the research of the background, the details, and the outcomes of this Treaty, including the historical facts and their analysis.
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Al-Quawasim, or Quasimi, in the singular, was an alliance of Arab tribes living on piracy, which in view of poor economic conditions and lack of major political forces, were seemingly chaotic and often frayed with the British forces, displeasing them with their naval activities in the region. Kourosh Ahmadi, the author of the book “Islands and International Politics in the Persian Gulf: The Abu Musa and Tunbs in Strategic Context,” expresses an opinion that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, an absence of a distinct and dominant power in the Persian Gulf, as well as the constant inner conflicts and a few territorial claims that the French tried to make in the region, forced Britain to seek the incorporation of Persian Gulf into its sphere of influence in order to protect its Eastern colonies (6-7).
After a few years of slow-course conflicts, the battles began in 1808 and continued until 1820, when the Quawasim surrendered, and the sheiks, along with the British officers, eventually sat down at the table of negotiations. General Keir, of the British Army, signed a separate treaty with each surrendering ruler, namely, Sheikh Sultan Bin Saqar, the ruler of Sharjah, followed by Hassan Ibn Rahama, the ruler of Ra’s Al-Khaimah then the legal guardian of Mohamed Ibn Hassah, the boy Sheikh of Dubai, Sheikh Shakhbut Ibn Dhiyab and the Sheikh of Rams, Hussein Ibn Aly (Al-Otabi 154). The negotiations were held in Ra’s Al-Khaimah in January 1820.
The Treaty was aimed at pacifying the Gulf States of that time. It was intended to ban the piracy in the waters of the Persian Gulf, prohibit slavery, cut off the slavery trade, and set the strict requirements for registering all legal ships with the naval forces of Britain. However, the first cause for entering into an agreement was to finish the assaults and end the war, avoiding further destruction of Arab cities and strongholds:
The fall of Al-Dayah, considered by the Arabs to be impregnable, was an important factor in the Arab coast surrender to General Keir, as was the decision of a group of Quawasim after the fall and overall destruction of Ra’s Al-Khaimah to choose peace rather than fight the British forces. (Al-Otabi 153).
While the agreement itself was actually imposed on the sheiks by the British authorities, some draft provisions of both sides have remained in force because the future relations had to be based on trust, not force only. For example, the pearling and fishing boats could be kept for purposes of trade, safety was guaranteed for the sheiks Qadib Ibn Ahmed and Sultan Bin Sager before the signing of the preliminary treaties, and the British forces were withdrawn and were not allowed to destroy the towns (Al-Otabi 152).
However, despite the significant trade-offs and overall respectful treatment, the British forces under this Treaty gained complete hegemony over the region and its sea routes. The Treaty of 1820 was the first agreement in the series of following treaties and arrangements, which, according to Ahmadi, dealt with issues of war and peace, including slave trafficking, piracy as well as the restrictions to rulers, prohibiting other international relationships or agreements and concessions to foreign powers; in exchange, Britain offered them defense and recognition as legitimate rulers (9). Britain began to act as the naval police force of the region.
The moderate conditions of this Treaty are largely due to the personality of General Keir, who accepted the surrender and signed the contract on behalf of the British; his deep understanding of the situation, and the ability to smooth out the conflicts and find benefits for all the parties involved greatly affected the quality of relations between the parties. Al-Otabi, in his work, also notes that
Keir had … been compelled to adapt to existing circumstances … His personal desire was to give the British government a greater opportunity to pursue their policy vis-a-vis the sheikhdoms on the basis of fraternity and mutual cooperation after the Quawasim’s political and military force had been definitively suppressed … their independence could be recognized while providing Britain with the right of political and military interference in their affairs (157).
The sheiks have also desperately wanted to maintain their safety and legitimacy as the rulers of the according to territories, so despite the actual loss of their independence, in such dire circumstances, they deemed it right and proper to comply with this decision.
The outcomes of the Treaty were immeasurable, although it took a few decades and a number of subsequent agreements to secure and strengthen the positions Britain gained after the negotiations in 1820. While most of the truces were temporary by nature, they allowed establishing a system of legitimization and recognition of the local sheiks, which at the same time sealed their responsibilities as rulers of the littoral territories and their people.
Moreover, the agreements ensured the safe passage of trade and warships in the Gulf as well as forbade warfare and piracy, the definition of which extended, according to the Treaty, to almost any acts of aggression in the area mentioned. A residential post of a political agent was established; later, such an individual became responsible for the British relationships with the states and rulers of the entire Gulf region. The long-desired lower Gulf’s complete pacification, however, took another three decades.
For the Quawasim, the constant British surveillance, aside from succumbing to humiliatory peace, also meant an opportunity to settle for a share of trade in regional commerce and indulge in the dynastic and territorial squabbles, which were the essence of the local politics. The tutelary authority had been benevolent enough that the sheikhdoms and emirates even expressed a general dismay one hundred and fifty years later, as the General Treaty had eventually lost its force when Britain announced the withdrawal of its military forces in 1968 (Al-Otabi 167-168).
It would be a fair assumption to say that despite the difficulties and the harsh conditions in which the Gulf states were placed the during the age of British hegemony, the signing of the Treaty in 1820 allowed their leaders to realize their disunity and the general chaos of the political system of the time and take the first steps to unity within the framework of mutual agreements, albeit under the protectorate powers of the victor country. Without exaggeration, it can be noted that the union of states under this agreement could have been the modern United Arab Emirates creation blueprint.
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Ahmadi, Kourosh. Islands and International Politics in the Persian Gulf: The Abu Musa and Tunbs in Strategic Context. London, UK: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Al-Otabi, Mubarak 1989, “The Quawasim and British Control of the Arabian Gulf”, PhD.
Thesis, University of Salford, 1989. International Studies Unit. Web.