Richard Schofield on Britain Territorializing when Decolonizing the Gulf

Richard Schofield, an expert on the study of historical territorial disputes, delivered a CIRS ‎Monthly Dialogue lecture on “Territorializing when Decolonizing: Britain Tries to Square its ‎Circles in the Gulf, 1968-1971” on February 5, 2013. Schofield, who is Convenor of the Master’s ‎programme in Geopolitics, Territory, and Security at King’s College in London, examined the ‎period of the late 1960s and early 1970s when Britain announced its plans to leave the Gulf and ‎end the regional Pax Britannica. During this time, there were several territorial issues and ongoing ‎disputes that Britain needed to confront before its departure. “In the late 1960s, Britain was ‎faced with a whole set of territorial issues between protected states, and between protected ‎states and their neighbors,” Schofield said.‎

By examining recently released British foreign office documents, Schofield highlighted a set of ‎disputes that were ongoing in the 1960s, including northern Gulf worries that continued on from ‎the 1930s posed by Kuwait and its boundary dispute with Iraq, and, in particular, the intersection ‎of boundaries and territorial claims between Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in relation to ‎the access corridor of Khor Al-Udaid.‎

Before its departure, Britain actively encouraged Gulf states into increased cooperation with each ‎other and attempted to contribute towards a future grouping of Arab states on the western side ‎of the Gulf in what was termed “Gulfery.” In order to achieve some movement on these ‎territorial issues, the United States proposed solving several disputes simultaneously as a package ‎of disputes. This included proposing to the Shah that Iran drop its claim to Bahrain, that Britain ‎help Iran gain ownership of islands in the lower Gulf, and that a maritime boundary agreement be ‎signed between Saudi Arabia and Iran allowing oil companies in to develop the area. “One of the ‎things that was really troubling the States around this time was the failure of Saudi Arabia and ‎Iran to finalize a boundary agreement so that they could open up the hydrocarbon reserves of the ‎northern Gulf,” Schofield explained. Towards the end of the 1960s, however, these deals rapidly ‎unraveled and became unfeasible.‎

One particular case-study that Schofield examined was the “bizarre” boundary agreement signed ‎between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in 1974. The only way to make sense of this agreement, ‎according to Schofield, is to delve into the complex history of the dispute. “The agreement of ’74 ‎was bizarre […] for the way in which it dealt with both offshore and onshore boundary ‎definitions” because even though most of the territory lay within the Abu Dhabi boundary, the ‎agreement read that all hydrocarbons in the area would be considered as belonging to Saudi ‎Arabia. Similarly, the offshore agreement read that Saudi Arabia could mount military ‎installations on some of the islands said to belong to Abu Dhabi. ‎

Adding to the complexity of the agreement, the onshore boundaries and the offshore boundaries ‎were negotiated at different times and with different results. Schofield said that “it was an ‎unusual and messy situation – you don’t see it replicated anywhere else.” In a time when Britain ‎was taking less responsibility for protected states’ foreign relations, many of these territorial ‎agreements were being signed without the consent of Britain. “We move to a rather nonsensical ‎position where the southern Qatari land boundary was seen as a Saudi concern, yet its ‎southeastern maritime limits a British one,” Schofield said. ‎

In conclusion, Schofield argued that territorial boundaries in the Gulf were traditionally drawn ‎up according to “cultural and historical” agreements. Historically, Gulf states exercised control ‎over non-linear nodes of land as opposed to large swathes of continuous areas. Thus, Gulf states ‎do not always respect modern boundaries and may view them as political, divisive, and an ‎ongoing source of contestation. Modern political economic concerns and requirements for the ‎legal division of hydrocarbons according to clearly demarcated borders are thus incommensurable ‎with traditional Gulf claims to land and resources.‎

Richard Schofield is widely recognized as a leading academic authority on the international ‎boundaries of Arabia and its surrounding region. He has written extensively on territorial aspects ‎of Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, and has acted as adviser on territorial disputes to the ‎governments of Barbados, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, as well as to the Negotiations Support Unit ‎of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Ramallah. ‎

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications.