John Wilton joined the British Diplomatic 5 months after the end of the Second World War. He subsequently served in several countries in the Middle East. John was Ambassador to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Importantly for Dubai as it used to be, John Wilton was UK Political Agent to the Trucial States from 1949 to 1952. What follows is John's own account of his time as Political Agent in the Trucial States.
I got married while I was an leave from Qater. The Personnel Department kindly decided I should not return to the primitive conditions of Doha but go instead to Sharjah, where the office of the Political Officer, Trucial Coast, was located at that time. Both house and office had been established for many years and had recently been refurnished by the Ministry of Works in their traditional style (somewhat incongruously, as the drawing room and bedroom on the roof had no glazing, only fly netting, in the windows).
In Sharjah the RAF had a station landing strip, with a daily flight in and out, weather permitting. There was also an International Aeradio Ltd station and a Desert Locust Mission. These provided at least an illusion of contact with the outside world. The Political Officer himself had no such links: no telephone, no radio. A fortnightly mail bag by the British India Line steamer and, in the case of greater urgency, a daily RAF plane to Bahrain or, (in extremis) the IAL radio. It was in some respects an idyllic existence. I had seven Shaikhdoms to deal with and visit. "The Political Officer is away on tour. It is not known exactly when he will return - perhaps next week" was often the best enquirers could get from my office.
A considerable programme of touring was necessary. One of the British Government's preoccupations in the Trucial States was the maintenance of law and order. The Iraq Petroleum Company was exploring for oil in an area where concessions had been granted but where frontiers between the Shaikhdoms had not been settled. There was a general disposition on the part of the seven Rulers to try to enlarge their territories, and hence their prospects, at the expense of their neighbours. Dubai and Abu Dhabi had fought a brief and inconclusive war in 1948 in the course of which the Political Officer's car was fired upon. The dispute was nominally about some camels but its underlying purpose was lost on no-one. [It was about oil!]
Lesser clashes were frequent. The solution His Majesty's Government adopted was to set up a small military force under its control - that is to say, under the control of the Political Officer - not part of the armed forces of any individual Ruler. Shortly before I arrived in Sharjah a platoon of the Arab Legion from Jordan had been posted to Sharjah on secondment, with the agreement of the Jordanian Government. They established themselves in part of the RAF camp and, under the command of a British Officer - Major Richard Hankin- Turvin - set about recruiting and training a force of Levies (subsequently the Trucial Oman Scouts) which, when the United Arab Emirates achieved independence in 1972**, became the Federal Army.***
The importance of having an armed force which was not the personal army of any individual Ruler was no less in 1950 than in 1972. In 1951 I had to take a small force of Levies to make clear to the Shaikh of Rams that the Government regarded him as a subject of the Ruler of Ras al Khaima not as an independent Ruler. We were fired upon as we approached his fort but when he saw the speed and skill with which the Levies deployed and brought machine guns and mortars to bear upon his crumbling stronghold he quickly sent out a messenger with a white flag to explain that the whole affair had been a misunderstanding. He thought it was someone else. He did not say whom. As I was flying my flag on my Landrover it was not a very plausible tale. However, it gave me an opportunity to say that His Majesty's Government did not recognise him as an independent Ruler; and that nobody was going to be permitted to fire on passing travellers; or set up road blocks and purported frontiers. Thereafter the Shaikh of Rams kept the peace and, very slowly, the process of defining the frontiers of the seven Shaikhdoms began.
**UAE established on Dec 2nd 1971. ***Trucial Oman Scouts formed basis of Dubai Defense Force controlled by Sheikh Rashid but later incorporated into UAE Army.
Another operation in which the Levies played an essential role was the deposition of the usurping Shaikh of Kalba, who had assassinated his cousin in 1952 and taken over his Shaikhdom. In 1948 his father had been deposed as Ruler of Ras al Khaima without bloodshed by a nephew, the present Ruler, Shaikh Saqr bin Muhammad. Shaikh Saqr was reported in October 2005 to be "now into his 80s, upright, smiling and with a firm handshake" in 1948 when he came to Sharjah to be told that His Majesty's Government recognised him as Ruler [of Ras Al Khaimah]. I accompanied him back to Ras al Khaima for a celebratory luncheon. In 1995 my son Christopher was appointed Consul General in Dubai and called on Shaikh Saqr who remarked "I remember your father. He was the one with the fly whisk." Not, perhaps, the most flattering grounds on which to be remembered, but az fly whisk was a very desirable accessory on the Trucial Coast at that time.
The usurpation of Kalba had followed the immemorial habits of the inhabitants of the region. Few Rulers survived the ambitions and conspiracies of their relations and neighbours into old age. It was something like the Wars of the Roses. In the 1950s, faced with the need to bring the Shaikhdoms into the age of oil and industrial development, the British Government began to insist it would no longer accord recognition to Rulers who acceded by assassination - and the practice largely ceased. A deposed Ruler of Sharjah murdered his cousin and lived thereafter in exile, but otherwise such coups as have taken place in the Gulf States have been bloodless. The Kalba episode was a step in the establishment of this happy modification of a centuries-old tradition.
It was possible for the British Government to frustrate the murderer's accession because the presence of the Trucial Levies, small force though they were, meant an effective gesture could be made without mounting a ponderous combined operation involving British Troops. The first step was for me to go to Kalba with a Trucial Levy Escort and inform the Shaikh the British Government would not recognise him. This was accomplished by driving to Kalba up the then almost impassable Wadi Ghaur which involved a brief incursion of a few hundred yards into Muscat territory. Sultan Sa'id of Muscat had been consulted and acquiesced in the action. Few of the Gulf Rulers had any active sympathy for the usurper in person or the practice of assassination in general. My operations were observed with a mixture of fascination and benevolence by the Trucial Coast Shaikhs. I was met at the frontier by the Wali of Shinas and solemnly escorted across some hundreds of yards of the Sultan's territory.
On arrival in Kalba I camped on the plain outside the town and sent word I wished to speak to the Shaikh. In due course he appeared with an armed retinue and approached the camp. The assassination of a Political Officer was an eventuality that could not be wholly ruled out in the circumstances! Major Hankin- Turvin prudently sited two machine guns, clearly visible, to command the ground across which the Shaikh and his party had to approach the camp. The interview was brief and chilly. The Shaikh withdrew to his fort to wait and see what, if anything, would happen next in this novel scenario. I returned to Sharjah and reported to the Political Resident in Bahrain that the message had been duly delivered; and that if follow-up actions were required the Levies had sufficiently demonstrated their ability to get me back to Kalba if need be.
A small combined operation was then mounted. The Senior RAF Officer in the Gulf flew to Sharjah in his Anson aircraft and together we made an aerial reconnaissance of Kalba and buzzed the Ruler's fort. We did the same for another fort sited in a commanding position above our route through the Wadi Ghaur. The fort was occupied by the Shaikh's father (the deposed Ruler of Ras al Khaima) and there was the possibility that he might try to obstruct our passage. The appearance of the aircraft would, we hoped, discourage him. We relied upon his not knowing how limited were the warlike capabilities of an Anson.
As we arrived back at Sharjah, the Group Captain thought it would be kindly to let my wife know as soon as possible of our safe return and flew up the creek level with our drawing room windows. Alas, my wife was more concerned that he might have wakened our four month old son Christopher who was in his cot on the verandah. Incidentally news of Christopher's expected arrival had occasioned a certain disquiet among the Rulers, who sent cautiously to enquire of Ali Bustani, the Agency Clerk, if it was really true that I would expect them to offer their congratulations even if, "la samah Allah", a girl... I replied that we would be equally happy whichever, but that I had no wish to embarrass anyone and would not be offended whatever they felt appropriate. As my wife duly produced "Mustafa", the first of our four sons all born in Arab countries, general rejoicing was in order and I could look any Shaikh in the eye.
But to return to the planned action in Kalba: I set out again with the Levies while the Political Resident sailed from Bahrain in the Royal Navy Sloop on duty in the Gulf at the time with the intention of appearing off-shore in the early morning as I and my escort debouched from the mountains. The Anson would put in a brief appearance overhead. Meanwhile I had sent a letter to the usurping Shaikh announcing my impending arrival (of which he was certainly well aware) and expressing the hope I would not find him still in Kalba when I arrived. He got the message and departed for Saudi Arabia via the Jebel al Akhdar. The military part of the episode thus successfully concluded, the Political Resident came ashore in the neighbouring Shaikhdom of Fujairah, where Shaikh Muhammad al Sharqi had for many years wished to be recognised as one of the Trucial Rulers.
The British Government decided that the most satisfactory arrangement for Kalba would be to re-unite it with Sharjah. Kalba had once been part of the Qasimi territories and the vacancy thus created in the ranks of the Trucial Rulers could then conveniently be filled by the accession of Fujairah. At a simple ceremony the Ruler of Fujairah signed the Treaty undertakings required. Sharjah was formally admitted to the club which twenty years later was to become the United Arab Emirates.
I look back on this early adventure in my diplomatic career with particular pleasure because it must have been one of the last occasions on which such a piece of benevolent gunboat diplomacy marginally extended the bounds of "the Raj" - thereafter it was all contraction.
An enjoyable part of the celebrations that followed was the luncheon prepared in honour of the occasion. In order to pay proper respect to the susceptibilities of his exalted visitors, Shaikh Muhammad had decided to serve the meal at a table. He instructed his dhow-builder to provide a table. A solid teak table was promptly erected in the Majlis but as the dhow-builder had little experience in such matters the table filled the entire room except for a narrow 18 inch space between it and the four walls. Also Shaikh Muhammad had been able to round up only five chairs (with seats inscribed mysteriously in poker-work "Welcome to Czechoslovakia"). The top brass edged their way cautiously to the head of the table where the chairs were placed. The rest of the entourage - the Levies and the Ruler's Guards - then sat down on the ground as was their custom and disappeared from sight except for the occasional turban and the muzzles of their rifles stuffed with flannel against the dust but also out of reach from of their lunch on the table. Slowly they rose to their feet and took their meal standing.
In Fujairah now there are tourist resort hotels and a casino and the treasury is no longer largely dependent on the production and sale of an endless series of artistic postage stamps - a niche industry whose possibilities Shaikh Muhammad had been one of the first in the area to appreciate and exploit.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Kalba episode I was posted to Cairo and departed not without regrets but relieved that our five month old son would be spared the rigours of a summer in the Gulf.
This article was originally published in 2006 in Robin Wilton's Blog on The Sun newspaper.