Competing tribal interests dominated political discourse throughout the Arabian Peninsula long before petroleum was discovered on it. To be sure, leading oil companies changed the area even if fierce international rivalries filled the existing void, redrew maps to suit core commercial needs, and routinely overlooked local requirements. In this valuable study, Michael Quentin Morton focuses on the Buraimi Crisis, which soured relations between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom over several decades (1932-1971), then the protectorate power over Oman and the Lower Gulf Shaikhdoms.
At the outset, it is essential to note that while the author relies on solid documentation, the overwhelming bulk of his sources are drawn from British and American archives that, unfortunately, limit his analysis. Admittedly, Saudi, Omani and Emirati documents are not readily available for scholarly scrutiny, though Morton acknowledges that Britain manipulated the international arbitration process “because they knew the tribunal was about to decide against them” (page 234). Still, the author’s bias towards Britain — an occupying power of the Lower Gulf region — is painstakingly suppressed, focusing instead on a greater culprit, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and especially its nationalist royal adviser, Shaikh Yousuf Yassin.
To be sure, Yassin always contended that Buraimi was Saudi territory because local inhabitants paid taxes to the Al Saud, though Morton reports a conversation between the United States ambassador Parker T. Hart and Eastern Province governor Saud Bin Jiluwi, who apparently stated that Riyadh had no jurisdiction over the oasis (page 84). While this was never refuted, it was embarrassing and contradicted Yassin’s “Buraimi is ours” assertion. Whatever disagreements existed between Saudi Arabia and Britain, they dawdled over time, as London strengthened its control of the entire area (pages 32-33). Significant controversies emerged as a “Blue” Line joined the “Violet” one, next to imaginary “Red” as well as “Brown” boundaries, all of which pretended to defend tribal interests under British tutelage. Morton maintains that “the Saudis, with the help of American lawyers, would realise that effective occupation was the key to establishing a claim to vacant territory in international law [since]: ‘possession is nine tenths of the law.’ Occupation was the strongest claim of all [page 33].”
This was probably true but British actions, including supporting Sultan Sa‘id Bin Taymour of Oman and Shaikh Saqr Bin Sultan Al Naimi of the UAE, strengthened the Saudi hand (page 102). Still, as events elsewhere in the Arab world gained momentum, the Buraimi dispute took on an Arab nationalist angle. Consequently, it became problematic for London to find a compromise, given what was at stake elsewhere. For example, while Anthony Eden objected to Washington’s sympathies for Saudi Arabia’s position, especially through the ARAMCO oil company that stood to gain from additional foraging (pages 112), his anti-Arab positions perplexed many. Lest one forget, Eden — who was foreign secretary before he eventually became prime minister — “had pro-Arab sympathies, read Oriental Studies at Oxford, was an Arabic speaker and, unlike Churchill, did not support the Zionist cause”. As Morton asks: “Why, then, should he detest the Arab world’s most prominent leader?” The answer(s), according to the author, lay in Eden’s mind, where “parallels between Nasser, Hitler and Mussolini were too obvious to ignore. He wrote to Eisenhower: ‘It would be as ineffective to show weakness to Nasser now in order to placate him as it was to show weakness to Mussolini [page 115].’” In other words, although Eden was predisposed to take the Arab position under consideration, he did not appreciate that the regional crises had spilt over into the Arabian Peninsula, a valuable and more or less exclusive British turf. For his part, prime minister Harold Macmillan threatened to use force, to regain full control over the small villages in the oasis (pages 178-179) but events were never allowed to get out of hand.
In time, Britain and Saudi Arabia agreed to submit to arbitration, whose details are worth reading too. Morton discusses how Riyadh attempted to outmanoeuvre London and nearly managed to score a victory though the dispute lurked. There are vivid assessments of the proceedings, including testimonies by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, which Emirati readers will appreciate in particular (pages 155-158, 169-173). In fact, details concerning Abu Dhabi politics between Shaikh Shakhbut Bin Sultan and Shaikh Zayed are fascinating, which also highlight Zayed’s character as a true statesman. English-speaking readers unfamiliar with this history will thoroughly enjoy the comparisons, as they are also bound to appreciate numerous photographs of key personalities who left their marks, and in certain instances more than mere scripts, on the crisis.
The Buraimi dispute was finally settled in July 1974 when Shaikh Zayed and King Faysal Bin Abdul Aziz inked an “Agreement” in Jeddah, although its terms were never made public, especially over the Shaybah-Zararrah oilfield thought to contain “15 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 25 trillion cubic feet of untapped gas reserves”, which was allocated to the kingdom (pages 228). Reporting on the gargantuan work by Richard Schofield — the 16-volume “Arabian Boundaries: New Documents 1966-1975” which was published in 2009 — Morton suggests that Shaikh Zayed, King Faysal and Sultan Qaboos of Oman first “reached an agreement to end” the Buraimi dispute at the February 1974 Lahore Organization of the Islamic Conference (as it was then known before it became the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on June 28, 2011) (page 233). With two of the participants no longer alive, it is doubtful whether the entire truth of what transpired then will ever become public.
Suffice it to say that serious questions lingered, with unsettled allegations that Saudis bribed their way through, and that the British wrecked the arbitration tribunal. What was undeniable was that foreign powers coaxed dependent local tribes to accept various interpretations on the promises that oil wealth would transform the oasis into an El Dorado — even if no oil was ever found in or near the villages — while they carefully mapped the entire region to advance vast concessionary holdings.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the recently published “Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia” (London: Routledge, 2013).
Buraimi: The Struggle for Power, Influence and Oil in Arabia
By Michael Quentin Morton,
I. B. Tauris, 304 pages, $40