The nineteenth-century diplomatists’ idea of a desert was that it was a region of no economic or political value because it was incapable of supporting life. Accordingly, while they were prepared to haggle, and, in the last resort, to go to war, over a few square metres in Alsace or Oregon, they amicably partitioned the Arabian Desert and the African Sahara by blithely drawing straight lines of enormous length across small-scale maps. In this cavalier way they disposed of the sovereignty over vast areas which, in the atlases of the day, were the “perfect and absolute blank” commended as the ideal kind of map by the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. During the late-nineteenth century partition of Africa between European states there was an occasion on which Lord Salisbury – under fire in the House of Commons at Westminster for having acquiesced in the annexation of startling numbers of African square kilometres by France – made the celebrated reply that most of this territory that he had let slip [in essence, Niger] was “very light soil”. Some of it, however, was the soil under which the French oil-prospectors have recently discovered what they believe to be rich oil-bearing strata; and the time has long ago passed when diplomatists negotiating international frontiers in either the Sahara or Arabia were carefree. The desert-girt Buraymi oasis is at this moment an object of acrimonious dispute between the governments of Saʿudi Arabia and Great Britain. The “idea formed” of a desert has in fact been transformed – in regions in which deserts overlie an oil-bearing subsoil – by the late-nineteenth century discovery of the economic value of mineral oil and the twentieth-century development of techniques for tapping it at ever greater depths below surface-level. The Arabian desert is just as inhospitable to life today as it ever was, yet it has now become a key part of the environment of the peoples of Western Europe.
In the agreement of 1890, the town of Say, in southwest Niger, was taken as the western end of an imaginary line which ran eastward to Barrua on Lake Chad. This is roughly the border between Nigeria and Niger. The “light soil” of the Sahara was recognised as French.
Niger has oil, but if you look at all the countries which once formed the colonial federation of French West Africa (1895-1960) – Mauritania, Mali (French Sudan), Niger, Senegal, Guinea (French Guinea), Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), Benin (Dahomey) – none, even today, whether of light or heavy soil, is a significant producer. In 1890, the industrialised world was getting its oil from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Azerbaijan, the US, Canada, not yet from Iran or Iraq, much less from the area now comprising the GCC.
The Buraymi oasis, or Al Buraimi, is in Oman, at the border with Abu Dhabi. The dispute arose from Saudi Arabia’s claim, first made in 1949, of sovereignty over a large part of Abu Dhabi where oil was suspected to be present and an area in a 20-mile circle around Buraymi. Both Oman and the Trucial States were British protectorates.
The Saudi claim was backed by the American oil company Aramco. In 1952 a small group of Saudi Arabian guards crossed Abu Dhabi and occupied Hamasa, one of three Omani villages in the oasis. The Sultan of Muscat and Imam of Oman gathered their forces to expel them but were persuaded by the British, who were no doubt under American pressure, to exercise restraint.
On July 30 1954, it was agreed to refer the dispute to international arbitration. Saudi Arabia began a campaign of bribery to obtain declarations of tribal loyalty. It even extended to Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan, the brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi (he overthrew him in 1966), who is said to have turned down an offer of $20 million. In 1955 arbitration proceedings began in Geneva. They collapsed when the British abitrator, Sir Reader Bullard, objected to Saudi attempts to influence the tribunal. A few weeks later, the Saudi party was forcibly ejected from Hamasa by the Trucial Oman Levies (later known as the Trucial Oman Scouts), a British-backed force based in Sharjah (Trucial States), taken to Sharjah and dispatched to Saudi Arabia by sea. The dispute rumbled on and was settled in 1974 by an agreement, known as the Treaty of Jeddah, between Sheikh Zayed (then President of the UAE) and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.
1961, Lance Corporal (later General) Saif Bin Mubarak sends morse code on a Trucial Oman Scouts dhow; Flickr credit: laponik
A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961