Middle East — Southeastern Arabia & the Persian Gulf

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia were anchors in the turbulent sea of the Middle East of the 1960s. Both were anti-Communist. Both were anti-democratic. Both were pro-American. Stability was needed. We have seen Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Jordan, among others, experience great change. In southeastern Arabia also, there was change; and northward around Oman and into the Persian Gulf. Civil war split Yemen for our entire decade (1962-1970) – one side supported by the Saudis; one side by the Egyptians. Just as war broke out, Britain was preparing to evacuate its adjacent colonies to the east in the course of its retreat from global power. In 1963, it tried energetically to federate the myriad sheikdoms around the strategic base at Aden it had held since 1839 at the southern end of the Red Sea. But as its bases in Kenya, Egypt, and Cyprus vanished, so did Aden; and despite its oil refinery and the headquarters of Britain’s Middle East Command, the British departed Aden in 1967. This area became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and fell into war with its neighbor to the west, known as the Yemeni Arab Republic (YAR) with echoes of the Cold War when the Soviets supported the PDRY and the Saudis the YAR. The two states united in 1990 with a capital at Sanaa.

At the eastern entrance of the Persian Gulf lies the ancient area of Oman (known as Muscat & Oman until 1970) which was fully independent by 1951. The many smaller states inside the Gulf, however, came into their own only later in the 1960s with Britain’s reluctant imperial retreat. In the 25 years after the Second World War, the American fleet dominated the South Pacific and the Mediterranean, but the British insisted on filling the gap between. Defense White Papers of 1957 and 1962 reiterated the need for a British presence from the Persian Gulf to Singapore to assure international stability. As the logic went, Britain may have lost India in 1947, but it would hold the Persian Gulf and the coast of East Africa. Gradually this view changed as many came to believe that bases in Arab lands created political ill will out of all proportion to any military or commercial usefulness. Gradually this view became accurate and, throughout the 1960s – amidst general instability in the region, including the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 – Great Britain unwound its positions in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.

The British presence in the Gulf started from a need for communications from the eastern Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea on the way to India. After 1947, the Indian side of this rationale vanished and disruptions in the region in places like Egypt and Iraq and Jordan in the following twenty years made communications increasingly untenable. After World War II, it seemed also that oil was a reason for hanging on since Britain and the rest of Europe received the majority of their fuels from Middle Eastern sources. Still, by the 1960s, the idea of physical military bases to secure the free flow of oil seemed as irrelevant as the supply of any other commodity. A third reason for staying was to prevent violence from the frontier claims of one power of another – Saudi claims on myriad offshore islands, Iran’s claims on Bahrain, or Iraq’s claims on Kuwait.

Still, in 1968, the British Labor government of Harold Wilson announced a policy of ending all formal treaty relationships with Persian Gulf sheikdoms as part of an earlier stated goal of drawing down all military commitments “East of Suez.” Accordingly, the British left Kuwait in 1961; Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States (U.A.E.) in 1971. With these evacuations and the one earlier from Aden in 1967, Britain reduced its military presence to a shadow in the Indian Ocean area. Once British, Bahrain became home for the U.S. Fifth Fleet in 1971, and by 1976 the British had handed almost its entire naval presence in the Indian Ocean to American defense forces stationed at places like Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago. The 1960s marked the transfer of Gulf security to the Americans, who replaced the British in balancing volatile Saudi-Iranian antagonisms that exist to this day.

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