Invasions of the Gulf: Radicalism, Ritualism and the Shaikhs

by Paul Rich

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The Gulf was ruled for a good part of the 19th and 20th centuries from India, and those who served there constituted a unique, small foreign service of their own. Their public (private boarding in American usage) school backgrounds taught them to believe in elitism and snobbery, which they passed on to their sheikhs who became obsessed with their own positions, their wealth, and rituals surrounding their majlis and the pompous titles of Highness and regal monarchy.

As Dr. Rich asks, if the British had come from ordinary schools would they have thought less about elitism and more about providing good education for their charges? Would the sheikhs have paid for education instead of thoroughbred racehorses? Would they still have treated Indians as houseboys?

The Residents did not see any incongruity between their own privileged education, and the lack of attention they paid to often appalling local conditions. If accused of neglect, the colonial rulers could reply that without them the Arabs of the Gulf would have been even worse off.

Dr. Rich’s verdict on the years of British rule is far from favourable. His conclusion is that British achievements were decidedly modest, and that a legacy was left behind which combined the worst features of Indo-British and Arab tradition. The rulers of the Gulf need to take crash courses in history, pluralism and constitutionalism if they are to survive. If the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq had brought the Gulf to its senses, then some good might have come from it. Obviously not. Perhaps the world is reaping the results of British policy that left a system in the Gulf which could not adapt, burdened by frontiers which are now questioned. Stability accompanied by social inertia was what the century and a half of British rule provided.