The Persian Gulf in Global Perspective: British Informal Empire and the Challenge of Arms Trafficking (c. 1870-1914)

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In the late nineteenth century, the Persian Gulf became a center of global arms trafficking. This involved lethal commodities manufactured in Europe, particularly in Britain but also in France and elsewhere, being routed via the Gulf and then redistributed over a vast region. One consequence of this traffic was the undermining of the existing imperial order in the wider region, notably with arms being acquired by groups involved in the tribal uprising on the North-West Frontier of British India. The Gulf and its hinterlands had long constituted a strategic borderland for the British Empire in India, and the challenge of arms trafficking suggests some of the limitations of the informal empire exercised there by Britain, which managed to quash the trade only with considerable difficulty. This arms trafficking, or global “empire of guns,” and the range of local and regional actors and structures involved in it, encompassing European and Indian merchants, Pashtun traffickers, Afghan smugglers, and Baluchi runners, also indicates the existence of a variety of networks and alternative forms of order in the region. This case can, to some extent, be situated within the growing scholarly literature on the larger Indian Ocean arena, of which the Gulf was an integral part; it also highlights the need to consider the maritime aspects of a space that was, at just this time, beginning to be described by British commentators as the “Middle East.”