KUWAIT: Trading in weapons is part of Kuwait’s pre-oil history. Dr Mohammad Al-Habib, a researcher in Kuwait’s history, has conducted detailed academic research on this issue, and shared the information with Kuwait Times. He also addressed a presentation on this study titled ‘Arms Trafficking between Muscat and Kuwait during Mubarak’s Reign (1896-1915)’ at Kuwait University.
Arms trafficking surged in the Arabian Gulf in 1879 due to the outbreak of the Third Anglo-Afghan War, which led to increased demand for weapons in the region. “Local demand found its way to the domestic tribes in the interior of Persia and Afghanistan near the Indian border, where the British colonial center was located. In the British view, any attempt to deliver arms through Afghan tribes to the Indian border could’ve jeopardized its position in India, with the view of a possible revolution against its sovereignty,” Habib told Kuwait Times.
“In 1881, Britain prevented the import and export of arms to Persia and the Gulf without its consent, because such acts could lead to losing its control of the arms trade in a way that served its political and economic interests. Therefore, Britain claimed that smuggling of arms could lead to weakening the security of the Gulf region and thus affect trade routes between India and Britain. Britain’s fears were because of the critical political period that Arab states were going through. This period coincided with the formation of Arab sheikdoms and attempts by rulers of the Gulf to assert their sovereignty over their territories and transform themselves into legitimate emirates through a series of official treaties signed with the British government,” Habib explained.
“Local wars between regional powers in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, such as the Ottomans in Al-Ahsa and Basra, ibn Saud in Najd and his rivals Mohammed ibn Rashid in Hail, Sharif Hussein in Hijaz, Mubarak Al-Sabah in Kuwait and his opponent Yusuf Al-Ibrahim in Duraq, Saadoun Basha Sheikh of Muntafiq in southern Mesopotamia and Jassim ibn Thani in Qatar, were also part of the regional conflict during that time,” he noted.
Therefore, securing weapons – whatever the means to obtain them – became necessary for Arab rulers to stabilize their political rule and to secure their emirates from internal or external enemies that sought to overthrow them. The process of obtaining weapons was of equal importance to Arab tribes to prepare for any military confrontation, revenge or even an invasion.
“As a result, from 1890 to 1914, the Gulf region became a new market for European firms (including the British) as part of European capitalism. Cities such as Manchester, London, Cardiff, Newport, Dover and Folkestone in the United Kingdom, Marseilles in France and countries like Belgium, Germany and Romania supplied weapons to the Gulf region via the port of Muscat where there was no restricted policy for trade,” Habib told Kuwait Times.
After signing a protectorate treaty with the ruler of Kuwait Mubarak Al-Sabah in 1899, Britain became concerned about the stability of Kuwait because of the constant import of arms and ammunition from Muscat, which could put Kuwait in a position of being a central hub of the arms trade in the northwestern Gulf region.
“At the commencement of his reign, Mubarak promised to assist the British to reduce arms trafficking, signing a contract in 1900 prohibiting the import and export of arms in Kuwait via ‘Kuwaiti’ merchants and shipmasters by giving permission for the British to inspect any Kuwaiti vessels with suspicious cargoes within Kuwaiti territorial waters. Mubarak needed arms for his tribal wars, and so he did not keep his promise. However, he pretended to warn ‘Kuwaiti’ merchants and shipmasters against the arms business,” recalled Habib.
This happened especially when the British refused to give him permission to import weapons and ammunition with the excuse that Mubarak had asked for more than the local demand. “The official British recognition of Mubarak and his descendants in 1907 as the only legitimate family to rule Kuwait, and the Anglo-Ottoman convention a few years later which confirmed the Kuwaiti political status quo as under British protection, reassured Mubarak and made him more responsive to British pressure. He did not, however, fully committed to British regulations regarding arms trafficking in the Gulf,” Habib added.
“Such regulations did not deter the Maarafi and ibn Ghalib families and others from engaging in the arms trade, as British documents testify. Plenty of documents in British sources discuss the role of Maarafi and ibn Ghalib merchants in the arms smuggling trade between Muscat and Kuwait during Mubarak’s reign. During his reign, British sources show local khans and sheikhs of Persian tribes in towns and villages, especially the Tangistanis and Dashtis, usually sent their representatives to purchase arms and ammunitions from members of the Maarafi and ibn Ghalib families – the two major Ajam merchants that controlled the weapons trade not only in Kuwait, but also in the northern Gulf zone,” he pointed out.
“Mubarak himself benefited from Maarafi’s and ibn Ghalib’s business, obtaining arms without permission from the British from Muscat to Kuwait in two ways. Firstly, a constant quantity of arms and ammunition secured his needs for wars against rivals without taking regular permission from the British. Secondly, a regular additional income was added to Mubarak’s treasure due to the tax imposed by him on each rifle that entered the customs house of Kuwait, with an extra percentage on weapons exported from Kuwait’s port to elsewhere in the Gulf region,” Habib said.
Between April 1905 and Oct 1906, Kuwait imported arms and ammunitions 25 times from Muscat using either steamer ships or local ships belonging to some ‘Kuwaitis’. “Despite the extensive British monitoring on arms movements, Mubarak exceeded his permitted order of arms to make a personal profit by selling them in Kuwait or to regional arms dealers through Najaf, as the accounting book of Najaf indicates,” he told Kuwait Times.
“With these primary sources that discuss arms trafficking between Muscat and Kuwait, one can conclude that although the British government made every effort to restrict arms trafficking in the Gulf region through various policies and practical procedures, it did not, however, succeed in stopping arms smuggling. This was, firstly, due to the challenge that was faced by other international powers in the Gulf region, mainly the French, who refused to compromise with the British when the latter refused to give some political and economic privileges to the French in other British colonial areas,” Habib stated.
“Secondly, the expenses that the British navy faced to continue inspecting local ships during the sea blockade initiated by the British on the Makran coast in 1910. Thirdly, political circumstances associated with constant political disturbances in Arabian states and among the tribes motivated them to obtain arms by various methods, even by smuggling. However, the outbreak of the First World War relieved the British and suspended the arms trade temporarily. Britain after that successfully brought the entire Gulf region under its sphere of influence,” concluded Habib.
By Nawara Fattahova