Sun sets on British Empire as UAE raises its flag

Two decades after the end of the Second World War, Britain was both bloodied and near bankrupt, a reality that would lead to the dismantling of its empire.

The Suez Canal in 1956, scene of Britain's first great post-war humiliation. AFP
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As he rose to speak in the House of Commons on January 24, 1968, Goronwy Roberts, Labour MP for the Welsh constituency of Caernarvon, must surely have wondered if taking on the job of minister of state for foreign affairs in Harold Wilson's government had been such a good idea after all.

Facing a chamber packed with hostile members of parliament, incredulous at the news that in just two months Britain had first reaffirmed, but then reneged upon, its long-standing commitment to defend the sheikhdoms of the Arabian Gulf, he may also have been struck by the grimly appropriate title of The Beatles' current number-one single: Hello Goodbye.

Roberts had been handed something of a poisoned chalice by George Brown, his new boss as the secretary of state for foreign affairs. Brown's predecessors had included such great names from his country's past as the Duke of Wellington, vanquisher of Napoleon, and Lord Palmerston, that notoriously aggressive empire-builder. But now Britain, which had emerged from the Second World War victorious but financially bloodied, was facing its own Waterloo and was no longer in the business of sending gunboats anywhere.

Booted out of the Suez Canal Zone by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, in 1956 - and, undone by US intervention, humiliated on the world stage by the failure of its attempt to take it back by force, in league with the French and Israelis - Britain had retreated to Aden, which it had first settled as an empire staging post in the 19th century and had officially colonised in 1937.

By 1967, just a couple of months into Roberts' tenure as junior foreign minister, Britain was on the run from Aden, too, and he faced a baptism of fire in the House over the imminent birth of the People's Republic of South Yemen and the departure of the last British troops from the soon-to-be former colony.

It wasn't only Roberts who had cause to doubt his timing. After 13 years in the wilderness the Labour party had finally squeezed back into power in October 1964 by the narrowest of margins - just four seats - only to find itself in charge of an economy close to bankruptcy. As it looked closely at the books, it dawned on the new administration that its pre-election manifesto had included two incompatible promises: that it would cut burgeoning defence costs while somehow also maintaining Britain's presence east of Suez.

One of the first tasks of Labour's new secretary of state for defence was to prepare a defence budget and, on February 9, 1965, the results were presented to a sombre meeting of the cabinet.

Britain's forces, reported Denis Healey, barely four months after taking office, were "seriously overstretched and in some respects dangerously under-equipped", yet to continue spending even along current lines "would mean imposing an increasing burden on the British people which none of their competitors in world trade are carrying".

The government commissioned a defence review which reported in 1966. Britain's independent nuclear deterrent would be maintained, contrary to pre-election pledges, while the commitment to maintaining a standing army on the Rhine against Soviet aggression would be subsidised by West Germany. Aden, on the other hand, would be abandoned, but some forces would be redeployed to the Gulf, to demonstrate Britain's continuing commitment to the defence of the Trucial States.

In March 1966, Healey spelled out the importance of the role to which Britain was bound by the treaties it had imposed on the sheikhdoms more than 150 years earlier.

"We have treaty obligations," he told the House. "Moreover, the Gulf is an area of such vital importance, not only to the economy of Western Europe as a whole but also to world peace, that it would be totally irresponsible for us to withdraw our force from the area unless we were completely satisfied that peace and order would be maintained after our withdrawal."

In under two years, his words would come back to haunt him.


The first suggestion that Britain might be wavering on this position, however, emerged less than a year later, and from Healey himself, in a debate in the Commons on February 28, 1967, on the recently published defence white paper, in which plans had been unveiled to bring home 25,000 British servicemen from east of Suez over the next 12 months, for a saving of £75 million.

"I know," said Healey, "that many of my honourable friends want us to go even further and faster ... to fix a date, and they say 1969-70, for complete withdrawal from the Gulf, Malaysia and Singapore."

In the long run, he admitted, "we hope that we shall be able to leave, but we are not in a position to be able to say at this moment when that long run will be".

Britain's aim, Healey continued, was "to produce a situation in which the local powers can reach agreement on a framework of stability for themselves without the presence of external forces. When we are satisfied that aim [has been] achieved, we shall certainly leave."

Within the year, that concern was to evaporate; 1967 proved to be a tumultuous and expensive one for Britain in Arabia and, with attacks on British forces in Aden escalating, the government brought forward the date of withdrawal from the colony to November.

Britain's leaders were facing "guns-or-butter decisions", wrote Jeffrey R Macris, a professor in the history department at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, in a paper published last year; whether to "buy expensive weapons to support Britain's overseas security commitments ... or support social programs at home".

Gulf leaders had naturally "interpreted this British flight from Aden in the face of adversity as a precursor to a greater British retrenchment from the entire region" and at first "provided the illusion of Britain's continued commitment to the Gulf" by transferring a few units from Aden to the region, "suggesting to their Arab and American allies that they could stay the course for the foreseeable future".

To further assuage fears, at the beginning of November, Roberts was despatched to the Gulf, where he assured the rulers of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Trucial States and Iran that "the hasty departure from Aden would not lead to the British discarding their other responsibilities inside the Gulf".

The flag-flying exercise, however, fell victim to exceptionally bad timing.

On November 18, Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, announced that his government was devaluing the pound against the dollar, in an attempt to stimulate the economy by making British exports cheaper to buy.

The day before, he had conveyed the shocking news in a Foreign Office telegram to the US president, Lyndon B Johnson. If there was "any lesson to be learned from the sombre way we have found ourselves obliged to lurch from one defence review to another in recent years", he wrote, "it is that we must now take certain major foreign policy decisions as the prerequisite of economics in our defence expenditure. "Put simply, this only amounts to saying that we have to come to terms with our role in the world."

Or, as Macris concluded, "The game was up."

To what must have been Roberts' horror, the Foreign Office soon found out it had written cheques the country's Exchequer could not possibly cash - and it was now his turn to come to terms with his role as a junior minister. Within days of the devaluation and just six weeks after having personally reassured the rulers of the Gulf that everything would be fine, he was put back on an aircraft to deliver an altogether different message.

"Although in public most international leaders welcomed the moves toward British withdrawal and independence," wrote Macris, "in private the Americans derided the act, as did the ruling Gulf sheikhs. Even in Saudi Arabia, at times the foe of Britain ... the move engendered fear."

It is a largely forgotten fact that in the days after the news broke, the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar offered jointly to meet the cost of keeping British forces in the Gulf. Not only did the British Labour government rebuff the offer, it did so in a way that offended the rulers.

"I don't very much like the idea of being a sort of white slaver for the Arab sheikhs," Healey, the secretary of defence, told BBC TV's Panorama programme on January 22, 1968. "I think it would be a very great mistake if we allowed ourselves to become mercenaries for people who would like to have a few British troops around."

As well as being offensive, it was also a curious observation from a government more than happy to accept Deutsche Marks to protect West Germany from the perceived Soviet threat. The next day, Healey sent an apology to the rulers, expressing "regret for any offence he may ... have given by the way in which he phrased certain remarks".


Recent history showed that the Gulf monarchies had reason to fear the loss of British protection.

After the British withdrew from India in 1947, the nawabs and maharajas of the dozens of Princely States were all dislodged from power, while the ruling families in South Arabia were overthrown in 1967. In Iraq in 1958 the British-imposed Hashemite royal family had been murdered in a military coup, which had in turn been inspired by the overthrow of Egypt's monarchy in 1952 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was now agitating for pan-Arabic revolution.

"The Gulf rulers feared the vulnerability that independence would bring," wrote James Onley, senior lecturer in Middle Eastern history at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, in a paper published in 2009 by the Center for International and Regional Studies in Doha.

Even if the monarchies of the Gulf faced no internal dissent, it was clear that larger neighbours could pose a threat, as had been demonstrated when Kuwait had renegotiated its relationship with Britain in 1961.

Kuwait, where the oil had started to flow in 1948, was much further down the road to self-sufficiency than the other Trucial States and "Kuwaitis wanted independence, placing the ruler under immense pressure". But as soon as the two countries signed a new Treaty of Friendship, on June 19, 1961, the Iraqi government announced that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq and that it intended to annex it. Britain, heavily dependent on Kuwaiti oil and investment, despatched 7,000 troops to the emirate from its base in nearby Bahrain - a base it was now about to vacate.

The other Gulf rulers, noted Onley, "had watched the Kuwait crisis closely. It was clear to everyone that independence would bring vulnerability. All of the Gulf states had territorial disputes with each other."

The subject had been tackled presciently in 1966 by David Holden, the Sunday Times special correspondent on foreign affairs, in his book Farewell to Arabia.

"The sheer enormity of what now is at stake in the Gulf must induce caution in the advocacy of any new policy there," he wrote.

However, many in Britain "would prefer to see Britain's 19th-century position in the Gulf brought more into line with her contemporary loss of diplomatic and military power" and one option would be for Britain to withdraw its protection and leave the rulers to "sort out their futures as best they may".

And that, wrote Holden, was a bleak prospect.

"Among the Arab settlements, only Kuwait, Muscat and ... Bahrain are big enough and rich enough to sustain a genuine independence; yet the traditional tribal rivalries of the other sheikhdoms will not permit them to unite or federate in larger units ..."


Holden was a highly experienced observer of the Arab world and it wasn't an unreasonable conclusion, except for the fact that the book was written before the leadership of Abu Dhabi passed to Sheikh Zayed.

If the news engendered fear in the Gulf, in Britain the predominant reaction was one of shame and fury. In the House of Commons on January 17, 1968, Iain Macleod, a former Colonial Secretary, was not alone among MPs, Lords and commentators when he condemned the withdrawal as "shameful and criminal".

The news also came as a shock in the US, where most officials "regarded it as a betrayal", wrote Onley. "America was bogged down in Vietnam and could not afford the necessary military forces to fill the security vacuum Britain was about to create [and] US officials feared British withdrawal would give the Soviets an opportunity to establish a military presence in the region."

Serve them right, thought some in the British establishment, still smarting over what they had seen as Washington's high-handed and geopolitically naive humiliation of Britain during the 1956 Suez crisis.

In the Commons, it was the hapless Roberts who faced the music during the angry foreign affairs debate on January 24, 1968. Before becoming an MP, he had had a career as "a brilliant academic" at the University College of North Wales and had served as an army reservist during the war. Described in his biography at the National Library of Wales as "a highly sensitive, scholarly man ... an innate negotiator, placing great emphasis on reason and compromise", he must have found it a painful experience to be cast as the villain of the piece.

"I find it very hard to take what has happened about the Gulf Treaties," Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe, the Conservative MP for Royal Windsor, told the House. Any government had the right to renegotiate a treaty, but "renegotiating a treaty means sitting down with the other party or parties and saying, 'I am sorry, but I want to alter it', and then doing it by agreement." The Labour administration had "destroyed the credibility of the British government; they have destroyed its credit".

As for the messenger, "if I had been asked by the prime minister or the foreign secretary to go out again within six weeks and say to the rulers there, 'I am sorry, I did not mean it', I should, I hope, have said, 'I am sorry, I am not going to do it. Send somebody else'."

In vain did Roberts point out that in November he had "very strongly warned and advised all the rulers I met that they should immediately get together and prepare for a possibly early date for our withdrawal".

Nevertheless, he would not "for a moment disguise that they were in a state of dismay and some alarm" when he returned in January. They received the news, he said, "with great understanding, which was remarkable in the circumstances".

Remarkable indeed, thought Sir Charles: "In Bedouin law and custom a man's word is regarded as absolute. There were days, which are perhaps now called the bad old days, when the Englishman's word was his bond ... I rather regret the passing of those days."


Back in Abu Dhabi, there was little time for regrets. For Sheikh Zayed, who had taken over as ruler a year earlier, it was time to act.

Sheikh Zayed had first travelled abroad in 1953, visiting countries including Britain, the US and France, and, according to his official biography, had returned "convinced of the urgent need in his own emirate for reforms that could facilitate the growth and development of his country so as to bridge the vast gap that separated it from the outside world".

Such reforms, however, would have to wait until August 6, 1966, when Sheikh Zayed, under pressure from his family, his people and the neighbouring emirates to direct Abu Dhabi's newly found oil wealth towards the development the region so badly needed, took over as ruler from his elder brother, Sheikh Shakhbut.

First on the agenda, he told a biographer in 1976, was the improvement of the quality of life of the people of Abu Dhabi. But the remark he made next to British journalist and author Claud Morris revealed that, however "dismayed and alarmed" Gulf leaders might have been when Britain broke the news in 1968, Sheikh Zayed at least had anticipated the path that needed to be taken.

"I wanted to approach other emirates to work with us," he told Morris. "In harmony, in some form of federation, we could follow the example of other developing countries."

The physical development of Abu Dhabi, a long-overdue priority, was one thing. Far tougher, and far more pressing for the future of the soon-to-be defenceless Trucial States, was the task of clearing the way to strength in unity, by overcoming centuries of mutual distrust.

"We have often inherited an attitude of separation when what we need is a spirit of cooperation," he told Morris.

"The people were all under separate rulers or emirs. None of us had any experience of federation."

By the time Goronwy Roberts flew back to drop the British bombshell in January 1968, Zayed was ready to act. On February 18, one month after the public announcement of Britain's planned withdrawal, Sheikh Zayed and Dubai's Sheikh Rashid met at a desert campsite to discuss the formation of a federation between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It was the start of a series of negotiations, meetings and summits that would culminate on December 2, 1971, with the signing of the constitution that would bind together the emirates as the UAE.

In Britain, the controversy over the withdrawal rumbled on, with the focus now shifting to the question of why Britain had rejected the rulers' offer to pay to keep troops there.

"Why," asked one MP during a debate on February 26, 1968, "are we refusing from the Trucial States the very thing we are actively seeking from the West Germans?"

Once again, it was Roberts fielding the questions. He would say only that it was "a very large and complicated question".

He hoped that "nothing will be said to make less possible the successful outcome of the very encouraging developments in the Gulf these days where the rulers are coming together and talking constructively of plans for cooperation and even for unification".

Labour would be evicted by the electorate before the pullout from the Gulf could be completed. In the run-up to the June 1970 general election, Conservative leader Edward Heath pledged he would reverse the decision, but in the event the withdrawal went ahead as planned. Britain's economic woes were only deepening and the Heath government became engulfed in a tide of domestic crises, including an escalation of violence in Northern Ireland, rising unemployment and a series of running battles with the unions that left much of the country working a three-day week to save energy - an ironic state of affairs for a country about to renege on its commitments to one of the most energy-rich regions on earth.


At its height in 1918, the British Empire had held sway over a quarter of the Earth's surface, ruling over a similar proportion of its people. At one time or another, there was barely a single line of longitude that, at some point up or down its length, was not tinged imperial pink. By the mid-Sixties, it was all but over, and the decline was sudden and dramatic: according to Judith Brown's Oxford History of the British Empire, between 1945 and 1965 the number of foreigners under British rule worldwide fell from 700 million to five million.

The British flag, a marriage of the crosses of saints Andrew, Patrick and George, created to mark the union of Great Britain and Ireland, flew for the first time in 1801, just eight years before the largest empire the world had known forced upon the inhabitants of the Gulf the first of the treaties that would convert the sheikhdoms of the "Pirate Coast" into the Trucial States.

One hundred and seventy years later, on December 1, 1971, the British Union Flag was lowered over the bases in Bahrain and Sharjah and Britain's ships and soldiers began to melt away. In its place the following day, saluted by the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman and Fujairah, and the Crown Prince of Umm Al Qaiwain, the flag of another union was raised to take its place.

Jonathan Gornall is a senior features writer for The National.