Tag Archives: Persian Gulf

Where oil and water mix: the Omani papers of John Craven Wilkinson (EUL MS 119)

Although the archives of John Shebbeare and John Craven Wilkinson (1934-) both relate to Oman, they are very different in both size and scope. Wilkinson is arguably the foremost Western scholar to have worked on the history of Oman, a field of study that he has dominated for the last half century. As his collection of papers is substantially a record of this distinguished career, it will be helpful to offer a summary of Wilkinson’s life and work.

Born in 1934, he was educated at Harrow before going up to Oxford where he matriculated at St Edmund’s Hall in 1955. While still a student, he led a university expedition to NE Kurdistan in 1956 that involved climbing Halguard – the highest mountain in Iraq – and a walk of some 600 miles through the mountainous regions to the north east of Rowanduz as far as the borders with Turkey and Iran. Papers relating to this expedition include correspondence with Cecil J. Edmonds (1889-1979), a former political officer in Kurdistan who was an expert authority on the area and was then Lecturer in Kurdish at SOAS. (EUL MS 119/1/1/1 and 119/3/1).

Correspondence and papers by C.J. Edmonds relating to Wilkinson’s 1956 expedition to Kurdistan

In his published account [‘Oxford university expedition to Iraqi Kurdistan, 1956’, Journal of The Royal Central Asian Society Vol.45:1 (1958) pp.58-64] Wilkinson paid tribute to the assistance provided by the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), who supplied a guide and a landrover as well as other forms of support, and after graduating from Oxford in 1957 he went to work in the oil industry. The Sultan of Muscat and Oman had granted a 75-year concession to the IPC, who set up an associate company called Petroleum Development (Oman) to run the oil operations in the Sultanate. Wilkinson was appointed first to Qatar in 1958, moving to Abu Dhabi the following year and then on to Trucial Oman before he transferred to work for Shell in 1962. After working in Laos and other locations, he returned to Oman in 1965. Many of his papers, including correspondence and reports, relate to his work for PDO during this time. (See for example EUL MS 119/2/3/1-4 and correspondence files.)

Oman and the Oil Industry

Petroleum Development Oman brochure, EUL MS 119/2/3/4

During the 1950s and 1960s Wilkinson witnessed first-hand how the politics of oil clashed with the Imamate society that inhabited central Oman – a topic that, in its various ramifications, would remain at the centre of much of his scholarly work over the next few decades. However, in order to understand this fully, it is necessary to explain a little more about Oman itself.

A water channel in Oman, part of the falaj irrigation system, from an official Omani bulletin EUL MS 119/2/2/4

Oman is essentially an island, bordered on two side by the waters of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and on the others by the vast sands of the the Rub’ al Khali desert or ‘Empty Quarter’ that separates Oman from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE. Furthermore, the country was roughly divided into two separate parts – the outward-looking, secular, seafaring society along the coast which was governed from Muscat, and the closed, more-or-less self-sufficient tribal communities who inhabited the interior region or ‘Oman proper’, who were led by a an elected Imam who followed the tenets of the Ibadi sect of Islam. (This dual nature was reflected by the country being referred to as Sultanate of Muscat and Oman from 1820 until 1970, when the coup (referred to here) simplified the name to just ‘Oman.’) The tribal organisation of the interior was based around the doctrines of Ibadism and the pattern of village settlements that were founded upon the falaj irrigation system, a complex system of channels that distributed water to owners who paid for specific units of time rather than volume of water. In order to penetrate the interior – where the Sultan’s authority was not recognised – the oil companies needed to deal with the Omani tribal leaders, over whom Saudi Arabia claimed a degree of sovereignty. Events in Oman during the mid-20th century are a complex web of rivalries between the British-influenced Sultan and the Saudi-influenced Imam, between the ambition of American oil companies and British diplomatic strategists and between the religious character of the Imamate tribes and the commercial secularism of the maritime coast, much of it muddied by disputes over boundaries that had been drawn up by British diplomats seeking to consolidate their influence in the Gulf region, but which did not correspond with the topographical and cultural realities of the region.

Understanding these complexities was essential for those working in the oil industry, and Wilkinson applied himself carefully to gathering as much information as he could on the region, its history, people and topography, climate, flora and fauna, Arabic etymology, religion and politics. In 1965 he left Shell and returned to Oxford to work on a doctorate under the supervision of Albert Hourani and Freddy Beeston, whose letters are in the archive. The result was a Ph.D thesis with the title Arab settlement in Oman: the origins and development of the tribal pattern and its relationship to the Imamate (1969), a copy of which is held in AWDU.

Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company report EUL MS 119/2/3/5

From 1969 until his retirement in 1997, Wilkinson taught at Oxford University, holding the posts of Lecturer and Reader, as well as Fellow of St Hugh’s College. During this time he consolidated his reputation as an expert on Oman and the Gulf, publishing a stream of important monographs and journal articles on a range of inter-related topics. Many of the papers in the archive formed part of the research materials he gathered for these publications, and include early drafts, conference papers and correspondence with other leading scholars such as Albert Hourani, Bob Serjeant, Freddy Beeston, Dale Eickelman, Calvin Allen, A.K.S. Lambton, Elizabeth Monroe, Ralph Daly and Daniel Varisco. (See for example EUL MS 119/3/14-20).

In order to understand better the nature of this scholarship, a brief overview of some of Wilkinson’s most significant publications may be helpful.

J.C. Wilkinson’s Published Work

Water and Tribal Settlement in South-East Arabia. A study of the Aflāj of Oman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977)

Wilkinson’s first major monograph was a remarkable, ground-breaking study of the relationships between water, land, community and religion in Oman. Beginning with an account of the arid climate and topography of the country, Wilkinson proceeds to show the vital importance of the irrigation system known as falaj, how this developed from the earlier Persian qānat system, and how this changed following the arrival of Islam as the tribal society developed under the influence of the Ibadi sect. It is a complex book in which Wilkinson applied his skills as a geographer, historian, linguist and Islamic scholar, and is all the more impressive considering most of his materials were drawn from primary sources and fieldwork. One of his most valuable sources – discussed in detail in Chapter X – was the Malki falaj book, a 19th century manuscript recording patterns of water ownership around the cultivated land around Izki, a village in central Oman.

A page from the Falaj Malki manuscript (EUL MS 119/4/1 ) with details of water rights near Izki in the 19th century

The Falaj Al-Malki is divided into seventeen channels that extend over nine miles, distributing to the villages of Al Nazar and Al Yemen and other agricultural areas around Izki. The manuscript has been digitised and can be viewed here.

The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

In his introduction to the book, Wilkinson reveals that he intended to write a dramatic account of the rivalry between oil companies caught up in the region’s political struggles, along the lines of Hammond Innes’ novel The Doomed Oasis (1960) – and it is interesting to note that the diaries of Charles Belgrave record Innes’ visit to Bahrain in 1954 to gather background material for his story. As work progressed, however, Wilkinson’s introductory material on the Imamate gradually came to dominate the book and the chapters on the oil industry were pushed to the very end. The Imamate Tradition of Oman covers well over a thousand years of Omani history, exploring the relationship between the Imamate and the tribal system of the interior in terms of a cyclical power dynamic and the tension between centralised authority necessary for statehood and the decentralised nature of the tribal communities, as well as the disastrous consequences of the involvement of foreign powers i.e. Britain. With regard to the latter, Wilkinson’s account of the demise of the Imamate during the 1950s is severe in its criticism of Sultan Said bin Taimur’s rule.

Arabia’s Frontiers. The Story of Britain’s Boundary Drawing in the Desert (London: I.B. Tauris, 1991)

In both the works above Wilkinson discussed Britain’s role in Omani affairs, with reference more widely to efforts by the British government to negotiate boundaries around the Persian Gulf and in Southern Arabia that would protect its sphere of influence. This was a flawed strategy, made worse by the lack of any valid legal framework to support it, that helped give rise to many of the wars and boundary disputes in the region during the 20th century. (Wilkinson’s book was published just after the Second Gulf War, in which Saddam Hussein had justified his invasion of Kuwait on the grounds that it had belonged to Iraq under Ottoman rule, and the British creation of a separate sheikhdom in 1913 was an illegal act of imperialism that had never been ratified.) The book provides a detailed, objective and often sharply critical analysis of British involvement in boundary arbitration, and the legacy this has left for the Gulf. The Wilkinson archive contains numerous boundary maps from the 19th and 20th centuries, while papers relating to the oil concession negotiations provide a first-hand view of how such disputes played out on the ground.

Ibâḍism: Origins and early development in Oman  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Ibâḍism had been a central element of Wilkinson’s work for over forty years due to its importance in the legal, political and cultural development of Oman, and in this book he revisited some of his earlier research in the light of new sources such as the Kitab ansab al-‘Arab (and other manuscripts made available in the library of the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture following the 1970 change of regime) as well as some of the recent scholarly work done on the history of Ibâḍism since his earlier publications. Dense and detailed, Wilkinson’s Ibâdism uses his encyclopaedic knowledge of the historical framework of the Imamate and Oman to reassess the early origins of Ibâdism during the first six centuries of Islam, beginning in Iraq with the early Ibâdi movement in Basra and tracing its development against a background of tribal migration and settlement through to the twelfth century. The progress of Wilkinson’s thinking on Ibâḍism can be seen in some of his published works on the topic (EUL MS 119/1/1/4) as well as the sources he used, such as the manuscripts EUL MS 119/4/14 and EUL MS 119/4/17. Almost all of Wilkinson’s studies were based at least in part upon careful study of Arabic manuscripts, some from the late medieval period, and his archive contains both original manuscripts and copies in various media forms.

A bifolium legal document in black and red ink, with some marginal annotations (EUL MS 119/3/23)

The Arabs and the Scramble for Africa (Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing, 2015)

Although much of Wilkinson’s research focused on the interior of Oman, on p.332 of The Imamate Tradition (1987) he mentioned that his ‘current research interests’ were being directed towards the study of Omanis in the Congo, and almost thirty years later the fruit of the research was published. This book charts the involvement of Omani Arabs in East and Central Africa over several centuries, while concentrating on the period between 1820 and 1890 with the demise of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which had belonged to a branch of the Omani Al Said dynasty since 1698. Utilising a huge range of archival sources as well as half a century’s accumulated knowledge of Omani history and documentation, Wilkinson also drew on his geographical background to emphasise the importance of land, sea, weather and climate in the decisions made by the Omani colonisers of Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and the Congo. Among his papers is an annotated 12-page typescript copy of a 1932 article, ‘The Al Bu Said dynasty in Arabia and East Africa’,  translated into English [possibly by Wilkinson] from the German of Rudolph Said-Ruete, the son of Emily Ruete (born Salama bint Said), author of Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar (EUL MS 119/1/2/12).

A small selection of Wilkinson’s published work (EUL MS 119/1/4)

Even this brief overview of five major monographs – quite apart from the numerous journal articles and conference papers he has written – will convey a sense of Wilkinson’s erudition across a wide range of interdisciplinary scholarly fields. The papers in this archive provide a rich resource for researchers interested in topics as diverse as the history of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and East Africa, the petroleum industry, hydrology, irrigation and agriculture, Ibâdism and the early history of Islam, tribal systems, archaeology, kinship and Islamic law, Arabic manuscripts, geology, maritime history and the flora and fauna of the Middle East. As Professor Wilkinson is still working and writing, permission needs to be sought for access to some of the papers, but the catalogue entries for the Wilkinson archive can be examined here and further enquiries can be directed as usual to the Special Collections department.

John Shebbeare and Oman: past, present and future

The papers of John Digby Shebbeare (1919-2004) are one of the smaller collections in the Middle East Archives, comprising just two small files, a photograph album and an envelope of newspaper cuttings, but they nonetheless provide a unique perspective of Oman’s landscape, both in its political and geographical senses.

John Shebbeare overlooking the old town of Muscat

John Shebbeare was born in Oxfordshire, one of three sons of the Rev. Charles John Shebbeare, who was Rector of Swerford and later chaplain to King George V. John was educated at Aysgarth Preparatory School, Yorkshire, Highfield Preparatory School in Hampshire and Rugby College. Following training at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he obtained a commission in the Indian Army in 1939 and saw service in India, Egypt, Persia and Iraq, serving with the Poona Horse and eventually attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His older brother Bill was killed in France in 1944. After retiring from the army in 1948, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar in 1951. He practised as a lawyer firstly in the family chambers in London and then as a legal advisor in the Department of Health. However, having spent so many years in the Middle East, he was keen to return to the region and secured a job in Baghdad as legal adviser to the consulting water engineers Binnie, Deacon & Gourley.

After spending five or six years in Baghdad, Shebbeare studied Arabic at Shemlan in the Lebanon, then moved to a post as District Resident in Beihan in the Aden Protectorate, (now in Yemen.) When the British withdrew from Aden in 1967 he had no wish to leave the Middle East and contacted Said bin Taimur, the Sultan of Muscat and Oman. Following an interview with the Sultan at Salalah, he was offered – and accepted – the post of ‘Secretary in Internal Affairs’. This was an advisory role in which Shebbeare was meant to guide the Sultan on internal affairs as well as using his legal training to monitor the activities of Oman’s wālis [governors] and qādis [religious judges].

One of John Shebbeare’s many photographs of the Omani falaj system

Oman is a dry and arid country with very low annual rainfall – hence the importance of the irrigation system known as ‘falaj’  أَفْ (plural  أَفْلَاج   aflāj). In classical Arabic, the word أَفْ has nothing to do with water, but refers to the distribution of shares, and as Shebbeare explains in some of his lecture notes (EUL MS 293/1), these are measured in units of time rather than volume. Usually the falaj is owned collectively, with water flowing out from the main channel into individual gardens, for which each landowner buys the right to so many minutes, or hours, per day or week. A nineteenth century document listing the owners of a falaj can be viewed here.

In his notes, Shebbeare describes seeing men cleaning a falaj (an endless talk that has been compared to the proverbial painting of the Forth Road Bridge), as well as some details of their construction, maintenance and ownership. His papers also contain correspondence in English and Arabic relating to a dispute between Seif bin Hamood al Qasimi and the Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) company regarding the reduction of waterflow in the of Falaj al Taibi, – also near Izki – which Seif claimed had been caused by the PDO’s actions in building a pipeline nearby (EUL MS 293/1/). Other papers in the collection relate to a divorce case, offering an insight into the social and marital customs of the region (EUL MS 293/2) within the wider context of village feuds and legal traditions.

Another of Shebbeare’s falaj photos, taken with a camera given to him by Sultan Said bin Taimur

Oman under Sultan Said bin Taimur

Sultan Said bin Taimur (1910-72) had been ruling the country since 1932, when he succeeded his father Taimur bin Faisal as 13th Sultan of Muscat. He inherited a colossal amount of financial debt, owed to Britain and India, as well as a country that was effectively divided into two halves: the cosmopolitan and more secular culture centred on Muscat and the coastal areas, which was controlled by the Sultan, and ‘Oman proper’, the interior region inhabited by tribal groups who were headed by an Imam, the religious leader of the Ibadi sect of Islam.  The latter is described in detail in The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge University Press, 1987) by John C. Wilkinson, whose papers are also held here at Exeter and will be the next collection to be catalogued: watch this space for another blogpost!

Over his 37 year rule Said bin Taimur succeeded in bringing his country out of debt, due in part to the discovery of oil. Extracting this was not easy as the wells lay in areas controlled by the tribes, and tension over the intrusion by oil workers led to violent clashes and a series of armed conflicts between the Sultan’s forces and the tribes. The Imamate finally came to an end in 1959, but this was achieved only through military support from Britain. The Sultan moved his residence 800 km away from Muscat to Salalah, and became increasingly reclusive, refusing to leave his palace and accessible only by appointment or through wireless contact shared with a select few. His determination to avoid returning to debt resulted in decades of financial parsimony, with hardly any investment in infrastructure or technology, an almost complete absence of education, and an isolated, anachronistic society that was described by outsiders as ‘medieval’. Discontent and unrest had been growing since the mid-1950s, especially in the Dhofar region, and the Sultan was increasingly reliant upon the British government for support.

Oman has over 500 castles and forts dotted across its landscape, many of them well-preserved

Suspicious of intrigue among relatives, Said avoided placing significant power in the hands of any senior family members and preferred instead to appoint outsiders – like Shebbeare – to senior positions in his government. Over 60% of the army’s rank and file – and almost all the officers – were British. The post of Minister of Internal Affairs was held by Ahmad bin Ibrahim Al Bu Said from 1939 to 1970, but the Sultan shrewdly limited his power by devolving some of his responsibilities onto Shebbeare, the Governor of Muscat, Shihab bin Faysal, Governor of Al-Sharquiyah, Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Harithi, and Director of Education, Ismail bin Khalil al-Rasasi. Other British officials in the administration included L.B. Hirst, Secretary for Petroleum Affairs, C.J. Pelly, Director of Planning and Development with William Heber-Percy as his secretary. Many of these appointments came in 1967 as oil revenues began to stream in, following the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in 1964.Francis Hughes, Managing Director of Petroleum Development (PDO) wielded more power and influence with the Sultan than many of his senior administrators, to whom Hughes was often asked to pass on official messages.

The Sultan’s distrustful isolationism extended to his treatment of his son Qaboos, who had returned to Oman in 1966 after being educated in England. He was kept under virtual house arrest in his father’s palace, isolated from political activities and contact with government officials except a select few permitted by the Sultan. As Sir William Luce commented in March 1970, the Sultan’s ‘inhuman treatment of his son’ had turned Qaboos into a potential rebel, and his policy of handing all senior posts to British and Indians rather than his own people had made the country ‘ripe for revolution’ (EUL MS 146/1/3/4). Luce (despite accusations made to the contrary) played no part in the forthcoming coup, and his prescient analysis of the situation stemmed from his intimate knowledge of the region and years of experience dealing with Gulf politics and culture.

The Coup of 1970 and Shebbeare’s Departure from Oman

On 23 July 1970 Qaboos forced his father to hand over power in a (relatively) bloodless coup. He was supported in this by the British, including intelligence officer Captain Timothy Landon, who had trained with Qaboos at Sandhurst and had been visiting him in Salalah, and Col. Hugh Oldman, the former commander of Oman’s armed forces who had returned from retirement in February 1970 as Defence Secretary. Said bin Taimur was deposed and sent into exile, spending the last two years of his life in the Dorchester Hotel in London, where he died on 1972. Under Sultan Qaboos the new government was restructured, with most of the British officials – Shebbeare included – losing their posts. Qaboos appointed his uncle, Sayyid Tariq bin Taimur, as Prime Minister of Oman, although such was the extent of the isolation imposed by his father, the two men had never met before. During his preparatory work for the founding of the UAE, Sir William Luce met with Sayyid Tariq bin Taimur at the Bustan Hotel in Dubai on 7 September 1970. He recorded their conversation in detail, and later wrote up a report entitled Thoughts on Oman in which he quotes Tariq as saying: ‘we will keep Oldman, but there are some British officials we do not need’ [EUL MS 146/1/3/7]. Hugh Oldman was indeed one of the few who was kept on, and among the papers in the archive is a letter from him to Shebbeare, dated 20 September 1970, confirming the dissolution of the Interim Advisory Council of which he had been a member. (This had been set up to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the old sultan.)

Letter from Hugh Oldman to John Shebbeare (EUL MS 293/1)

After spending a few months visiting friends in Pakistan, Shebbeare returned to Oman and embarked on a series of travels around the country, walking alone in the mountains as well as exploring regions he had not visited while employed by the sultan. He records these travels in fifty pages of hand-written notes that were used in preparation for a lecture about Oman he gave in the mid-1970s.

Photograph by John Shebbeare

Under Qaboos, Oman embarked on a process of modernization and reform, which included huge advances in education, healthcare and technology. The country’s name changed from ‘Muscat and Oman’ to simply ‘Oman’, and with Sultan Said’s isolationism reversed, friendly contacts were established with other countries in what has proved over time to be a remarkably flexible and well-balanced approach to foreign relations.

Meanwhile, after returning to the UK, Shebbeare became a teacher at Little Hampden Manor School before eventually retiring to East Leigh House in the village of Coldridge near Crediton, in Devon. He retained links with Oman through membership of the Anglo-Omani Society and was also active in local history, being chairman of the Okehampton History Society for many years, attending meetings of the Crediton Area History and Museum Society, and acting as churchwarden and bellringer of St Matthew’s Church, Coldridge. He died in October 2004.

Studying Oman

The next few years are going to be an exciting time for anyone wishing to pursue research into Oman, for a number of reasons:

Sultan Qaboos, now 78, is still the Sultan of Oman, and after 49 years on the throne he is the Arab world’s longest-serving leader. He has no children, and on 3 March 2017 Qaboos issued a royal decree appointing his cousin Sayyid Asaad bin Tariq Al Said as deputy prime minister for international cooperation and the sultan’s special representative – an announcement that was widely seen as indicating Sayyid as his heir and successor. (Sayyid is the son of the sultan’s uncle, former Primie Minister Tariq bin Taimur.) The long reign of Qaboos has been one of relative stability, and it is unclear what the effect might be of a change of ruler. Some have suggested that the Imamate may re-emerge and there have been reports of ‘Ibadi activists’ in recent years seeking to push such an agenda.

Aware of the need to adapt to a rapidly changing world, Oman produced ‘Vision 2020’ in the late 1990s, laying out an ambitious plan for economic diversification, technical development and social equality. Water supply has become a growing concern because of the massive population growth since 1970, with the future development of commodity extraction, environmental issues and the fossil fuel industry all playing a critical role. It will be interesting to see how much of Vision 2020 is realised.

From an archival perspective, 2021 will be of crucial significance as the government papers of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath relating to Britain’s involvement in Oman are due to be released from embargo and should be available for study.  These papers could be profitably augmented with work using Exeter’s archival holdings on Oman, of which the Shebbeare papers form just a small part. The catalogue entries can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Archives of Sir William Luce: Reframing the Personal and the Political

The personal face of diplomacy – Sir William Luce meeting Gulf leaders.                                    EUL MS 146/1/4/7

While at Exeter University Glencairn Balfour Paul, one of the founders of the Centre for Arab Gulf Studies (later the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies), wrote The End of Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s Relinquishment of Power in Her Last Three Arab Dependencies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) in which he paid the following tribute to Sir William Luce’s work as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Gulf Affairs:

Luce had to deal with the vain and arrogant Pahlavi government in Iran, with suspicious Saudis and anxious Gulf Rulers, not to mention his political bosses in London, some of whom were far from committed to the decision to terminate the British protective presence in the Gulf. He charmed everybody, he persuaded everybody, he was patient, good-humoured (with occasional explosions) and skilful. (xviii)

Some sense of Luce’s personality – and how important it was for his diplomatic work – can be gleaned from the collection of his working papers that are held in our Middle East Archives and have recently been catalogued. Material relating to his earlier career with the Sudan Political Service (1930-55) is held at the University of Durham, while the papers here in Exeter cover the period between his arrival in Aden in 1956 and his final visit to the Gulf States in 1977 shortly before his death.

Following posts as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Aden (1956-60) and Political Resident in the Persian Gulf (1961-66), he was called back out of retirement in 1970 to act as Personal Representative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary – Sir Alec Douglas-Home – overseeing the arrangements for British withdrawal from the Gulf. His task here was to ensure ongoing stability and the continuation of good relations with the various Arab leaders in the region – he played a vital role in the establishment of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar as independent states, as well as the foundation of the United Arab Emirates.

Text of Luce’s speech at the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Aden, 28 April 1958. Luce had become a confident speaker of Arabic while in the Sudan, but when giving speeches in Arabic he wrote the text out in phonetic script which he evidently found easier to read.                            EUL MS 146/1/1/5

Luce’s success in these complex and delicate negotiations was due largely to the personal relationships he had forged over the years, earning the trust and affection of Gulf leaders during a time of great political tension and mutual suspicion. Although the papers held in our collections relate almost entirely to his official activities, they reveal the extent to which diplomatic relations between the Gulf states relied upon human contact between individuals and Luce’s own personal skills and charm. So what can do the archives reveal?

The Luce Papers: personal or political?

The papers held here are a diverse group and include handwritten and typed correspondence, political memoranda, official reports, notebooks and appointment diaries, speeches, presscuttings, offprints and printed works such as pamphlets and journals. Some of the papers were written by Luce for his own use, or to be shared privately with close friends or colleagues, and retain an intimate, informal tone. (It should also be noted here that a large collection of personal papers and correspondence remains in the family’s possession.)

Notes written on cigarette paper during his Gulf visit in January-February 1970 reveal the spontaneous and informal aspects of Luce’s work, as well as reminding us that the concept of ‘winning hearts and minds’ in the Middle East has a long tradition.                    EUL MS 146/1/3/5

Others were intended for much wider platforms, such as public meetings or print media, and are phrased and framed with this in mind. The fact that these items are in the archive itself indicates a personal choice – that at some point Luce made a decision to keep a particular paper or booklet in his possession. There is a need to be aware not only of the material that is not in the archive – i.e. that related papers might have been discarded, lost or simply rejected for preservation – but also that other material may exist elsewhere in other collections that may complement or contradict the picture presented here. Each of the parties that attended meetings with Luce may well have recorded their own version of events, so that even an official government report must be treated as offering only a subjective and partial view of the topic – something especially pertinent for anyone approaching the complex kaleidoscope of Middle Eastern politics.

Excerpt from Luce’s confidential report on a meeting he had in Dubai in 1970 with Sayyid Tariq, Prime Minister of Oman.                  EUL MS 146/1/3/7

The above typed report is from a document entitled Thoughts on Oman and reflects upon conversations Luce had with Sayyid Tariq, Prime Minister of Oman, following the very recent bloodless coup in which Said bin Taimur, the sultan of Muscat and Oman, was replaced by his son Qabus bin Said Al Said. It illustrates the extent to which the wielding of power in the region was part of a tapestry of political allegiances, personal relationships, family history and ancestral relations. Luce’s ability to navigate his way through these complexities relied upon the detailed knowledge he had acquired over the years. The document shows how Luce drew on private discussions in order to advice the Foreign Office on points of strategy.

Personal Representative

Luce had reached the Sudan Political Service’s voluntary retirement age of 48 in 1955 but made it clear to the Foreign Office that he had no intention of ceasing to work. Even after his retirement from the Gulf in 1966 he maintained an active interest in the Middle East, appearing regularly at conferences and discussion groups to make his views known, and writing articles for publications such as Round Table. We have many of these talks and articles in the archive (EUL MS 146/5) as well as related correspondence that reveals the high esteem in which he has regarded within both political and academic circles.

Meanwhile the economic pressures upon Harold Wilson’s Labour administration had forced a reconsideration of foreign policy. In July 1967 Defence Secretary Denis Healey announced that Britain would withdraw its forces from the Gulf within ten years. The following January Wilson announced that this would be carried out by the end of 1971.

Luce strongly opposed this decision, regarding the announcement of any timetables as detrimental to the government’s position for negotiating terms of withdrawal – a position he had made clear as early as 1966 (EUL MS 146/1/2/2). The Conservative Party opposed Labour’s move in principle and let it be known that they would reverse the policy if re-elected. Following the election of Edward Heath as Conservative Prime Minister in June 1970, Luce was appointed personal representative to the foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, on 27 July 1970.  Heath and Luce had almost met the previous year during a tour of the Middle East undertaken by Luce between February and April 1969 in his capacity as a non-executive director of shipping agents Gray Mackenzie & Co., while the then Conservative Party leader was also visiting the region. While Luce thought any attempt to reverse the withdrawal would be unwise, Heath chose to leave that option open, at least in public.

Letter from Edward Heath to Luce, responding to a communication sent to the Conservative Party leader while he was at Abadan in Iran.                    EUL MS 146/1/2/14

How Luce worked to steer Heath’s cabinet in the right direction is the subject of a large chunk of the archive, which relates to his activities as ‘Personal Representative for Gulf Affairs’ between July 1970 and 1971. He made five major tours of the Gulf during this time, holding meetings with (among many others) the Shah of Iran, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Fayek, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the United Arab Republic, various parties at the Arab League Headquarters in Cairo, Abdul Hussein Jamali, Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister of Iran, Sayyid Mehdi Tajir (principal adviser to Shaikh Rashid of the UAR), the Amir of Kuwait, the Sultan of Muscat, the rulers of Umm al-Quwain, Ras-al-Khaimah, Ajman and Sharjah, Shaikh Ahmed bin Ali al Thani, Emir of Qatar, and his cousin Shaikh Khalifa bin Hamed al Thani, and the Emir of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Sulman. Each trip is documented by a mass of papers, including draft itineraries, guest lists, arrangements for travel and accommodation, as well as detailed records of conversations, confidential reports based on these conversations, and official government papers showing how this material was then interpreted and communicated for parliamentary debate or cabinet-level discussions. These papers reveal how Luce shuttled from place to place, carefully observing matters of precedence and etiquette in the frequency and sequence of his visits to successive rulers to avoid offence, painstakingly building up agreements and negotiating points in every successive meeting. Early on he had realised that the future of the Gulf Region after the British had left depended upon solidarity between the various Arab leaders, and with that in mind he set about laying the ground for a federation of the nine sheikdoms around the Gulf peninsula. Although he was unable to unite all nine of them – Bahrain and Qatar declared themselves independent states in August and September 1971 – he managed to bring together Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah to form the United Arab Emirates. The remaining state, Ras Al Khaimah joined the UAE the following year.

Headed letter from Brigadier F.M. De Butts of the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Defence, to Luce, dated 29 August 1972, and providing an update on various military and security issues.        EUL MS 146/1/4/1

Luce was strongly realistic and pragmatic in his approach to Britain’s involvement in the Persian Gulf and was under no illusions about the historic and political reasons for their presence. Writing in the Daily Telegraph he admitted: ‘It is important today to remember that these Gulf agreements were made on British initiative and primarily to serve British interests. We did not undertake the ‘policing’ of the Gulf for some vague, altruistic purpose; we went there, and remained there, because it has suited us to do so.’

William Luce, ‘Aden’s Shadow over the Gulf’, Daily Telegraph, 12 April 1967.         EUL MS 146/1/2/10

Although there is not space to discuss this here, studying the archival records of Luce’s career provide evidence of how his work in the Gulf was shaped by his earlier experiences in the Sudan and Aden. The range of documentation held in the Luce archive provides a fascinating resource with which to explore the wide range of factors that determine how political strategies are both formulated and implemented. While much attention continues to be given to famous and infamous figures in the early history of the British Empire, there is perhaps a need to start focussing more closely on those who played a prominent role in its final stages. The papers of Sir William Luce could provide a bridge for researchers between the contemporary political landscape in the Middle East and its historical roots in the imperial past, as well as illustrating just how much the personal and the political elements of diplomatic life connect and overlap.

Further Reading

Glen Balfour-Paul, The End of Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s Relinquishment of Power in Her Last Three Arab Dependencies.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

M.W. Daly, The last of the great proconsuls. The biography of Sir William Luce.
San Diego, CA : Nathan Berg, 2014

Luce, Margaret. From Aden to the Gulf: personal diaries, 1956-1966.
Salisbury : Michael Russell, 1987