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Volume 25, Number 5September/October 1974

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Outpost of Empire

Who would control Eastern Arabia? The Portuguese, the turks or the Arabs who lived there?

Written by Jon Mandaville
Photographed by Penny Williams-Yaqub

It is difficult to picture the quiet oasis farming towns around the bustling modern center of oil of Dhahran near the Gulf in eastern Saudi Arabia as the pivot of a struggle between great empires, centuries before the oil beneath had any meaning to the world. What, you might ask incredulously, would they fight over? Dates? Sand? Fish? None of those and all, and more besides. The answer is trade. Three thousand years before the first oil well was brought in on Dhahran Hill, al-Hasa, as these lands were known, was the center of a great mercantile empire of its own between Iraq and India. It kept this role, if not the political power, as centuries passed. Control of al-Hasa meant control of this trade. In the early 1500's it was the Portuguese seaborne empire that made a play for it, and the Ottoman Empire that countered.

Throughout the Middle Ages Western Europe bought its pepper, ginger and cinnamon from the monopoly of the Mediterranean middlemen. To break this monopoly Portuguese sea adventurers braved the uncharted depths of the Atlantic down the west coast of Africa. Finally, in the late 15th century, while Columbus and Spain sailed west to America, Portugal pushed east, rounding the tip of Africa into the Indian Ocean and wealth. It was Portugal's turn to control the spices. They set to with a vengeance to block up the old trade channels, maintaining ship patrols at the southern gates of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, burning and pillaging the port towns there. From 1517 on, it was the Ottoman Turks who ruled the Arab lands which depended on this trade. It was up to them to break the Portuguese blockade and keep the channels clear. Discussion in the palace cabinet meetings in Istanbul, 1000 miles away, made it clear that they would have to establish strong military and naval bases on or near the mouths of these gulfs.

The motives of a military occupation are always mixed, whatever the army, new or old. Establishing the bases fell in nicely with an equally important theme of Ottoman policy in those years under the sultans Selim the Grim and later Suleiman the Magnificent: bring all old Islamic territories under the direct, centralized rule of Istanbul. So while Ottoman marines established a base at Aden to keep the Portuguese out of the Red Sea, the hinterlands of Yemen, a few hundred miles north, were invaded by the Ottoman army. The Yemenis, unprepared to trade their independence for military advisors, fought long and hard but were no more able than Europe to withstand the onslaught of Ottoman discipline and artillery.

With the Red Sea coastline secured, the Ottomans turned to the Gulf. Here policy was complicated still further by a continuing war with Persia which, since 1511, had made the plains of Iraq little more than a parade ground for Persian and Turkish armies. Not until 1534 did the Ottomans take Baghdad; it took another 15 years for the Turkish forces to move on down the river to the head of the Gulf at Basra.

From there, with a watchful eye on Persia on their flank, they sent an expedition in 1551 down the Gulf to confront the Portuguese and claim the Arabian coastal towns for the sultan. The Portuguese had by this time fortified the island of Hormuz at the narrow entrance of the Gulf; that left the Turks with only one reasonable first-line site, the al-Hasa oasis.

Al-Hasa made sense. Its plentiful natural springs and large farming regions guaranteed a sufficient tax base to support the garrison and pay the salaries of the bureaucracy of its provincial government, while passing on a surplus to the imperial treasury. Though the communications line was long—it took one to two months for a letter from Istanbul to reach there—it was safe. There was also the established caravan route from al-Hasa across the Arabian Peninsula to Mecca and Jiddah and the new Ottoman garrisons there. But more important than any military calculation in the psychology of conquest were the fabled pearls of al-Hasa. Even if the court in Istanbul knew nothing of the geography of this region, they at least had read in the Islamic literary classics of its pearls: great golden pearls and small; pink pearls and white; baroque and perfect pearls worthy of any sultan's household. More than trade policy, defense or the orderly unification of Islam was considered when the al-Hasa campaign was launched.

When the Turkish expedition stumbled and splashed ashore across the tidal flats of Qatif Bay in 1551 no army opposed them. They were about 1000, half from the crack Janissary Corps, the rest gunners, marines, a few engineers and a motley crew of militia from Basra and Baghdad. Several hundred of the long and heavy muzzle-loading muskets came ashore with them and a few cannon. A crowd of curious from the town stood discreetly back up the beach observing the proceedings. Among them several merchants exchanged satisfied glances as the firearms, the latest modern tools of war, were offloaded. A year before a small force of attackers, Portuguese, had with the aid of weapons like these wreaked havoc on the anchored shipping and the town of Qatif. Now a Muslim ally was here to repay the pirates in kind.

It quickly became apparent, however, that the ally was here to stay. Among the officers that came ashore that day were representatives of the Imperial Land Records Office, and within a week their team was surveying all the income-producing lands around Qatif, as well as shops, mills and factories. Title deeds were demanded, produced and copied into the great registry book along with a carefully calculated tax assessment; a copy would be made and sent back to the main land office in Istanbul for future reference and inclusion in the imperial budget. The taxes were all of them justified and proper according to Islamic law, but it had been some time, perhaps centuries, since they had been so assiduously applied and collected in Qatif. Several landowners were thrown in jail for refusal to cooperate. More simply fled.

While this went on all available troops were put to work with pick and shovel, throwing up a fort in Qatif to consolidate the beachhead. Centuries later, long after the Turks had gone, these fortifications would be remembered by the people of Qatif as the "Portuguese Fort"—with hindsight, a bitterly ironic comment on the Turkish protection.

A few months later, with the fortress complete, the army once again was on the move. Inland they marched about 100 miles south of Hofuf (Aramco World, Nov.-Dec, 1970), largest town in the entire complex of oases, which later would be the Ottoman headquarters of the province. News of their invasion preceded them, and there they met their first resistance. It was led by Sa'dun, head of the Bedouin tribe which had for generations dominated the politics of al-Hasa before the Ottomans: the Bani Khalid.

Nothing is known of the battles which took place, the Ottomans with absolute superiority of firepower, the tribesmen with their knowledge of the terrain and more mobile forces. What emerged was a stalemate. The situation as described in the Ottoman reports of a year later show Sa'dun enrolled with a respectable salary as district officer of the desert regions of the province, responsible for keeping the peace there among the tribesmen. What this means, of course, is that the Ottomans were willing to pay the Bani Khalid to stay out of the towns. Sa'dun, with a strong appreciation now of the power conferred by muskets and cannon, was prepared to accept the offer—for the time being. It was a fragile agreement, and both sides must have known it. There was no ground laid for a real peace. The strength of the Bani Khalid lay at this time over the entire eastern seaboard of the Arabian Peninsula, from al-Hasa north into Iraq. Sa'dun settled back like a hawk on the mesa and bided his time, watched for his moment.

The Ottomans pushed feverishly ahead, building on old foundations the massive mud-walled fortress, al-Kut, at Hofuf, which still stands today. Dispatch after dispatch went out to Istanbul requesting more cannon, more muskets, more men. All were sent. At the same time, in 1555, the first of several new mosques was built in Hofuf; it too stands today, the governor's name proudly inscribed on the lintel piece with the date of its dedication. With the encouragement of Istanbul, abandoned lands and wells were cleared and rented out to farmers. The administrators were well-trained. They knew that a flourishing province meant contented subjects and benefited the imperial coffers.

Everything seemed possible in those early days of conquest. Grandiose plans were laid. Why stop at al-Hasa? With one supply ship came an officer from Istanbul to be district officer of Najd, the central region of the Peninsula where lies today's capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh. It was west another 200 desert miles inland from Hofuf, 200 miles across Bani Khalid territory. The Jabrin Oasis, 200 miles south of Hofuf, again all 200 miles across Bani Khalid territory, is mentioned as a tax district in the early land records of al-Hasa. The whole of the Peninsula? Why not!

It was one man's calculated gamble, and the Portuguese response to it, which put a damper on these dreams, roughly recalling the Turks to their original purpose. In the early fall of 1559, with the worst heat of the summer past, the new Ottoman governor of al-Hasa, a general named Mustafa, decided to outdo his predecessors in conquest and add Bahrain Island to the province.

In more ways than one it was a risky venture. Bahrain was a mere 40 miles across shallow waters from Qatif, but its ruler had sent a delegation to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1534, after the conquest of Baghdad, promising allegiance and cooperation against the Portuguese. In response to this Suleiman had issued orders to his provincial governors that there should be no interference in the island's affairs. Mustafa knew perfectly well that an invasion of the island would be in direct disobedience of this order, and might be paid for by death. On the other hand, he suspected that the rulers of Bahrain were neutral at best, and at worst were quietly working in collusion with the Portuguese. And the island was a rich land, with fresh water aplenty, its principal town, Manama, the major port of call for the vast Gulf pearling fleet. If by its taking the imperial treasury could be increased, an Ottoman monopoly of Gulf pearls assured, Portuguese influence undermined, then pardon for any disobedience seemed assured; indeed he might even be rewarded by promotion to a larger province with a higher rank and salary—Baghdad, perhaps, or Damascus.

It is on such private decisions in the field that many a general's career has been made—and many more destroyed. General Mustafa's gamble failed, and with near disastrous effects for the Ottoman hold on the entire province of al-Hasa. Mustafa ferried 300 musketeers, 200 cavalry and 100 or so local militia across to the island for what was to be a lightning campaign, stripping the forts at Hofuf and Qatif of weapons and men to do so. Murad, the ruler of Bahrain, took one glance at the cannon and muskets being landed and sent a courier boat flying downwind to Hormuz, calling in the Portuguese to defend his island. Two weeks after the landing General Mustafa looked up from his siege and bombardment of Manama's fortress to see a Portuguese fleet rise over the horizon. He watched helplessly a few hours later as they systematically shot up and burned his support ships, which were anchored off the coast before him. The Portuguese fleet then anchored in full view of the Ottoman forces—and waited.

Another stalemate. The fortress had not fallen. The Turks were low on gunpowder and shot and now had no way of replenishing their supplies. Without ships they could not even withdraw from the island. For a week a detachment of cavalry hid behind shrubs and sand dunes hoping to catch the Portuguese landing for water, but to no avail. For close offshore to the island were Bahrain's unique seafloor freshwater springs (Aramco World, Nov.-Dec, 1964), and with the help of Murad's divers, the Portuguese supplied themselves with drinking water miraculously bubbling up from the bottom practically under their ships.

Seeing that they might be on the island a long time now, the Turks decided to withdraw to more defensible high ground, abandoning the hopeless siege. Once again they left the cavalry in ambush to cover the retreat, this time with more success. Murad come forth from the fortress with his men and, scenting a rout in the wind, persuaded the Portuguese to land and join him in pursuit. They were fallen on by the cavalry and after hard fighting driven back to the fortress. Both sides took heavy casualties in the battle, but the Turks had succeeded in capturing several wounded Portuguese, one of them a distant relative of Sebastian the First, king of Portugal.

Secure on the heights, the Turks sent an officer to parley, offering their cannon and the prisoners for ships to withdraw from the island. In response Murad demanded not only the cannon and prisoners but also their muskets and swords, their horses, whatever supplies they had, their personal effects, and 10,000 gold pieces as indemnity! Impossible, sputtered the officer. Well then, Murad retorted, if they wouldn't accept they could sit on their hill until they starved to death.

They nearly did. One Turkish officer managed to cross over to Qatif and thence to Basra bearing word of the defeat and the need for ships and ransom money. When the news reached Istanbul a month later, it was the first the palace had heard of the whole escapade; the imperial council was enraged. Only a few years earlier a peace had been signed with Persia; indications were that the Portuguese were easing off pressure in the Red Sea and the Gulf. Now some ambitious frontier general had stirred up a hornets' nest and been caught in the bargain. They had a right to be angry, but statesmen are seldom allowed to show that emotion. Instead, they issued orders for Cairo to transfer 200,000 gold pieces from the Egyptian provincial treasury to Basra and orders for Basra to build a new Gulf fleet to bring the stranded army back. Direct by palace courier a letter was sent to Murad, explaining that the attack had been carried out without Istanbul's consent or knowledge and that once released the officers concerned would receive their just deserts.

But the wheels of imperial bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow, perhaps more so in this kind of situation. Prisoners of war can fare badly in the hands of diplomats, and seasoned soldiers know it. Four months after, the Ottoman troops on Bahrain gave up waiting. They persuaded the Ottoman chief justice of al-Hasa to sell some 200 pearls in the provincial treasury to pay the ransom. General Mustafa apparently died on the island before the money arrived. Records give no indication as to what brought about his demise, but it is safe to assume that if it was due to natural causes it merely saved the Istanbul government the expense of a formal execution. Mustafa's men, though stripped of all their possessions, eventually straggled back across to Qatif, a sorry lot. It was a sorrier scene that greeted them there.

Taking advantage of the lengthy absence of Ottoman gunners and musketeers the Bani Khalid with their desert supporters had stormed Hofuf and the surrounding villages. Only the fortress at Hofuf held out. With the desert approaches controlled by the tribal army there was little that the Qatif garrison could do to relieve the inland city. In any case, thanks to the abortive attempt on Bahrain they now had neither guns nor animals. New troops would have to be sent, with new weapons—and a new governor. Mustafa's gamble had not only failed in Bahrain, now al-Hasa itself would have to be conquered anew.

So troops and cannon and muskets were sent, and a new governor with them. The revolt was put down and Sa'dun the hawk returned to the desert. From this point on there is a subtle shift in the emphasis of Ottoman governance over al-Hasa. The next 30 years saw a gradual weakening of Portuguese control over Gulf trade; in 1602, in fact, they were thrown out of their Hormuz base by a joint Anglo-Persian force. With this went the initial Ottoman motive for the al-Hasa occupation. Were there other justifications for remaining? Well, it had taken only 10 years to show that though the province was self-supporting, it could make little financial contribution to the central treasury in Istanbul; some years, in fact, its governors were obliged to borrow from the Basra accounts to cover garrison pay. There were the pearls; every few years customs officials in Iraq and on the Gulf were notified that so-and-so would be passing through to buy pearls for the palace and no duty was to be charged on the items. But al-Hasa without Bahrain gave no monopoly on pearls.

No, the only justification for remaining was a belief in the Ottoman superior ability to maintain law and order. This was enough for the townsmen of al-Hasa. No one could fault the Ottomans in that portion of their government, not in the years of their strength. With the security of roads, with the consistency of justice and administration, the right of appeal from local oppression, the Ottoman occupation was tolerated, even liked, by the townsmen of the province. But townsmen made up a minority of al-Hasa's population. The rest shaded imperceptibly into the nomadic society of the desert through family ties and culture. And that desert society would find no accommodation with the Ottomans.

"This has been from time immemorial our land, and it still is!" Sa'dun of the Bani Khalid declared simply, when asked the meaning of his attack on al-Hasa. In part there is expressed in these words a kind of elemental nationalism which every person in any time might have, a dislike of foreign rulers. And certainly, there is scarcely concealed here the individual ambitions of the rebel leaders. But there is more to it than that. Drawn in broad strokes, it was the classic confrontation between country folk and city people, between the ranchers with their rough and ready justice, their hearty hospitality to strangers with strangers so few and far between, their reliance on the honor and dignity of the individual and his family even when this led to the brink of anarchy, and on the other hand the shopkeepers and lawyers in apron and waistcoat, their reserve, their reliance on the police force, trusting the system, the bureaucracy, to give them position and defend them in it.

Only time, patience, understanding and a willingness to compromise would maintain peace in this confrontation; that, or a clear superiority of force on one side. But there was too little of the first, and the Ottomans only precariously maintained the second. From 1580 onwards Istanbul was too beset with rebellions closer to home and a new war with Persia to maintain full garrisons and armories in al-Hasa. Between 1622 and 1639, in fact, the province was cut off from direct communication because of the occupation of Baghdad by the Persians. By the time Baghdad was retaken al-Hasa had become nothing more than a pawn in the provincial politics of Basra. Istanbul made no attempt to return it to direct rule. Al-Hasa was called "Ottoman" but the administration there was but a parody of what had been.

When the Ottoman troops were at last thrown out of al-Hasa in 1680 and the Bani Khalid—the tenacious Bani Khalid—returned, it was by a general uprising of citizens outraged by what had become corrupt and arbitrary appointees by Basra. The event caused scarcely a ripple in the palace circles of Istanbul. The empire, a little older, a little wiser—threatened from the West by a rapidly modernizing Europe—decided to cut its losses and al-Hasa, like the Hijaz, Egypt, Syria and Iraq centuries later, returned to the control of its own people.

Jon Mandaville, a teacher of Middle East studies at Portland State University in Oregon, writes frequently for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the September/October 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1974 images.