How Wahhabism Led the Fight Against the British in the Gulf

At the end of the 18th century, the empire’s trade began to encroach on the routes of the kingdoms and sultanates of the Arabian Peninsula. It was Wahhabism that gave religious justification to their anti-colonial resistance

How Wahhabism Led the Fight Against the British in the Gulf
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

On a hot day in March 1813 in the area of Bidiyyah, located in what is today the Eastern Region of the Sultanate of Oman, the renowned Wahhabi military leader Mutlaq bin Mohammed al-Mutairi and his forces arrived near the Gulf of Oman. This occurred more than 50 years after the founding of the first Saudi kingdom, a dynasty based on the Salafist reform movement known as Wahhabism. Since that time, al-Mutairi’s strong leadership and fearsome reputation had helped expand and consolidate Saudi influence in the region, including the areas under the control of the Qasimi clan (the Qasimis or Qawasim) in Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah.

But his power came with cruelty, and ultimately this led to his demise, with the locals of Bidiyyah vowing to take revenge no matter the cost. In his book “The Clear Victory of the House of Busaid,” the Omani historian Hamid bin Raziq (1783-1874) recounts the battle that put an end to this most famous of Wahhabi leaders. Bin Raziq states that al-Mutairi arrived with his forces in the Bidiyyah region at sunrise, setting up his camp in a nearby area known as Al Wasil. When al-Mutairi’s army launched raids on the villages of the area, the local citizens were determined to attack him at all costs, victory or martyrdom. “They vowed and swore to God that they would not bend to him, even if it meant their deaths.” Bin Raziq then writes about six rounds of fighting against al-Mutairi’s army that day. The first three rounds targeted the camp of his brother, Batal bin Mohammed al-Mutairi, whom they defeated, followed by occupation of his camp. The locals then attacked al-Mutairi’s own camp during the last three rounds of fighting. Al-Mutairi repelled the first two attacks, while the third ended with his death and the defeat of his army. One eyewitness recounted with amazement and admiration the resolve and determination of the Hajiri warriors, residents of this region, in confronting the Saudis and fighting them to the death.

This battle was a turning point in pushing back the tide of Saudi Wahhabi influence before the ultimate demise of the First Saudi State five years later, in 1818, at the hands of Egyptian-Ottoman forces. And it wasn’t the only time that local tribes rose against invading forces. The Qasimis were to prove formidable opponents to the increasing hegemony of the British along the Oman coast, though this time the fight did not, despite fierce resistance, go in their favor. The British gained the upper hand and, consequently, full control of the seas and trade from India.

The history of Wahhabism is often told exclusively in the context of Saudi Arabia, with occasional references to its attempted expansion north, into Iraq and the Levant. Contemporary Wahhabi influence in other corners of the Arabian Peninsula is often understood as a product of later proselytization. But Wahhabism’s expansion south, all the way to Oman and today’s United Arab Emirates, is an overlooked part of the history of the region: how Wahhabism was first defeated but then took root as a local resistance ideology against the British and how Wahhabi “piracy” along the Persian Gulf caused the British Empire to turn its attention to the Gulf region and strike deals that shaped the formation of the modern Arab states of the Gulf.

But the British presence in that region was not an extension of its colonialism in Iraq and the Levant north of the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, it preceded it, and came through the Indian Ocean from the south. Wahhabism gave a religious flavor to the resistance against the infidel invaders, but the Qasimis and other local tribes were already experienced in standing up for their land and way of life and did so until the British turned the full weight of the world’s most powerful army against them. And so began British influence in the Arabian Gulf.

In 1727, Muhammad bin Saud (1710-1765), whose lineage can be traced back to the Banu Hanifa, one of the ancient Arab tribes of Bakr bin Wael, and who would later become the founder of the First Saudi State, assumed control over his tribe in the region of old Diriyah, a mere 12 miles from the modern-day capital of Riyadh. At the same time, a reformer emerged who had been educated in Najd, Hejaz and Iraq. His name was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791), a descendant of the famous Tamim tribe of Najd, located in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. He issued an urgent plea to return to the foundations of Islam from which these tribes, in his view, had strayed far away. He also believed that these same tribes must try again to do what the Prophet and his companions after him had done before: unify the Arabian Peninsula.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab realized that his reformist message would not resonate much within the Arabian Peninsula, especially among hostile and infighting tribes, without the support of an armed power on his side. After several failed attempts, he went to Emir Muhammad bin Saud in Diriyah and convinced him of his ideas, which relied upon a Hanbali Salafist methodology as the basis for reforming and redeploying Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula. In doing so, he also promised the emir that he would become the indisputable lord of the Arabian Peninsula.

When reading Wahhabi literature and sources from that time, whether written by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself or his offspring who later became religious leaders at the founding of the Third Saudi State, we find the recurring concept of “invasion to spread the message.” This principle is — and has always been — central to early Wahhabism. All four emirs of the First Saudi State believed in the firm relationship between the sheikh’s religious leadership and the emir’s political leadership to achieve the goals of his reformist message.

In the earliest historical Wahhabi literature, such as “The History of Najd” by Ibn Ghannam, one of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s pupils, we find a description of converts to Wahhabism as “Muslims.” It appears that this description is used exclusively for adherents of Wahhabism, which shows the extent of religious fervor and responsibility possessed by Wahhabis at that time. According to their faith, they were reenacting the first invasions of the Prophet to once again restore the people and tribes of the Arabian Peninsula to their conception of the creeds of “Islam” and “monotheism.” This religious zeal was undoubtedly the main reason behind the expansion of the First Saudi State and the people’s adherence to it, willingly or coercively.

The subsequent string of military successes of the Saudis resulted from armed force combined with the strength of religious persuasion and advocacy of the Sunni Wahhabi doctrine, which was tempting to many Arab tribes in its call to return to the pure Islam that was brought by the Prophet Muhammad. It was an appealing message, and it allowed the First Saudi State to expand its sphere of influence in all directions. It stretched to Al-Qatif, Al-Ahsa and Bahrain to the east; to the borders of Kuwait, Iraq and southern Syria to the north; to the outskirts of Hejaz and the Red Sea to the west; then to inner Oman, Muscat and the UAE (known then as the Omani Coast or Coastal Oman) to the south and southeast. The Saudis also saw it necessary to control the strategic Al-Buraimi Oasis, which is now divided between the Emirati city of Al Ain and the Omani Al-Buraimi Governorate.

The so-called “Pirate Coast” around the turn of the 19th century. Borders approximate. Map by Joshua Martin / MapTiler / OpenStreetMap contributors

Abu Dhabi was the first of the emirates to meet with the Saudi campaigns along the Omani Coast. In his book “The Meteor’s Gleam,” the Wahhabi historian Al-Rikki mentions that while the commander Ibrahim bin Suleiman bin Ufaisan was waging Saudi expansion campaigns in Qatar in 1793, orders came from Abdulaziz bin Muhammad bin Saud (1721-1803), the second leader of the First Saudi State in Diriyah, Najd, commanding him to direct al-Mutairi to invade Oman and go as far as the land of Sir (today where Oman and Sharjah meet).

And so the First Saudi State reached the Al-Buraimi Oasis in 1795, led by bin Ufaisan, and the Saudis subsequently dispatched several military campaigns to the same region led by Salem bin Bilal al-Harq, one in 1800 and another in 1803. During each of those campaigns, the tribes of that region became indebted in allegiance to the Saudis, sometimes through soft power employed by the Wahhabi sheikhs and other times through armed military might and coercion. The tribes of the Banu Yas, Banu Na‘im, Banu Qutb and the Qasimis were quickly incorporated into the First Saudi State. In 1809, the Saudis sent their most famous military leader, al-Mutairi, whose raids reached and subdued Muscat for a time. He remained the most influential of the Saudis in that region until his death in 1813.

From their important and stable foothold in the Al-Buraimi Oasis, the Wahhabis were able to reinforce their influence, religious/political messaging and military movements throughout all of Oman, Sir and the Omani Coast. After several military confrontations, they were able to coerce the Qasimis and their supporters into adopting Wahhabism. However, there is some disagreement among historians about the date of this conversion, with various writers dating it to 1797, 1800 or 1803.

Historian Charles Rathborn Low referenced this three-to-six-year discrepancy in his book “History of the Indian Navy 1613-1862.” The Qasimi tribes, in fact, resisted the Wahhabi invasion in this region during that period. Russian historian Viktor Leonovich Mikhin confirms as much in his book “The Qawasim Alliance,” stating that the chief of the Qasimis at that time, Sheikh Saqr bin Rashid Al Qasimi, refused to convert to Wahhabism. This refusal came when Emir Abdulaziz bin Muhammad bin Saud, the second leader of the First Saudi State, issued his decree to the Banu Na‘im in Ajman and the eastern Arabian Peninsula to attack the Qasimis and subjugate them, which they failed to do. Afterward, bin Saud sent forces from Diriyah to join with those of the Banu Na‘im and his Wahhabi commander, al-Mutairi, who were stationed in Al-Buraimi. Yet their attack failed a second time because of the Qasimis’ fierce resistance in Ras Al Khaimah.

The Wahhabis never gave up on the idea of conquering the Qasimis. This time, however, once again under the leadership of al-Mutairi and with the support of several tribes loyal to the Saudis, the Wahhabis laid siege to Ras Al Khaimah with 4,000 soldiers for 17 days. Although they succeeded in defeating the Qasimis, a new conflict and war erupted between the two sides because of the Wahhabis’ handling of the Qasimis’ religious affairs and their destruction of some shrines and graves. Once again, the Wahhabis subdued the Qasimis, aided by their allied tribes. However, a sizable portion of the Qasimis’ supporters from the Zaab tribe in Al Jazirah Al Hamra and the Tunaij tribe in Rams continued to stubbornly resist the Wahhabis until they were forcibly defeated. With this definitive defeat, all of them became adherents of Wahhabism — for a while.

After the Qasimis were brought into the fold under Saudi Wahhabi control, their attacks against the British in the Gulf took on a religious tone. According to historical and literary texts from that time, their raids against British warships and commercial vessels were a stand against the “Christian enemies of the faith.” As a result of this new policy, the Qasimis expanded their maritime activity into the Indian Ocean, where their ships appeared along the Malabar Coast north of Bombay (present-day Mumbai), India, for the first time in 1808. The Qasimis used to send a fifth of the spoils they got from their naval operations to the Saudis as a confirmation of their faith in the Wahhabi message and their submission to the House of Saud.

At that time, the British were keeping track of developments in the important regions of the Gulf from the safety of British-controlled India. Their greatest concern was stable security and business conditions to ensure the uninterrupted flow of commerce for the British East India Co. (EIC) from Bombay to Basra via the waters of the Gulf. For this reason, the British understood the importance of Oman and the Omani Coast in securing their presence, commerce and ships.

This formed the basis of Omani-British relations, which began during the start of the Yarubid dynasty in the 1650s. They held talks about the establishment of a British center in Muscat, but the Yarubids refused to allow any European base or presence there because of their experiences under Portuguese occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The situation changed with the arrival of Ahmad bin Said in 1741, the first imam of Oman from the House of Busaid, which still rules today. After his ascent to power, Omani-British relations took shape surprisingly quickly.

On Oct. 12, 1798, the British brokered a commercial and political pact with the House of Busaid in the Sultanate of Oman. This treaty stipulated ‌the latter allow the British to have a military presence in the port of Bandar Abbas along the Iranian coast, which was under Omani control‌. It also required the sultanate not to interact with any other European powers present in the Gulf, especially the French and Dutch, and to forbid them from setting up shop in Muscat and Bandar Abbas. In short, the Busaidis could only deal with the British.

The British had achieved a massive, easy win through this agreement. Researchers conclude that the pact successfully hampered French activity in the Gulf ‌and in Oman in particular. The signing of this agreement was extremely important for travel to India as it allowed the British to broaden their political, commercial and military sphere of influence, not only in Oman but also across the Gulf. Oman’s geographical position forced the British to focus their movements throughout the region in Oman, especially in the Qasimis’ territories of Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah. Thus, the Qasimis had genuine reasons to resist the British presence.

The first half century ‌of this agreement (1741-1798) was a period in which the House of Busaid consolidated its rule over the sultanate. They were converts to the Ibadi sect of Islam, which differed from orthodox Sunnism on various points. They faced challenges from an alliance of Sunni Ghafiri tribes along the Omani Coast, spearheaded by the Qasimis tribes in Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah, as well as regions within Oman, such as Samail, the area south of Muscat called Al Dhahirah and other areas in northern Oman. This alliance collided with the Ibadi Hinawi confederation led by the House of Busaid, and the two sides fought in several armed conflicts that ended with the latter overcoming all the Ghafiri tribes along the coast and within Oman, except for the Qasimis. For this reason, the Omani-British alliance was not only geared against the French but also the Qasimis. The Wahhabi Saudis supported the Qasimis against this alliance, as they had supported the Qasimis since the French conquest of the Qasimis in the 19th century, even though the Qasimis had initially resisted Saudi rule and dominance in the region.

The British exploited this complex, competitive political situation in the Gulf, working with the commercial and military fleets of Oman to attract another important power to its side: Bahrain. Since 1783, the rulers of that island had been the House of Khalifa, who were allied to the Banu Utbah tribes that had immigrated from Kuwait to Bahrain and Zubarah (a port town across from Bahrain in Qatar) in 1763. Britain tried to court the House of Khalifa to join their side, even though Bahrain was another area of the eastern Arabian Peninsula under Wahhabi control, one that the sultan of Muscat attacked from time to time. Nudged and pressured by the British, the Banu Utbah and rulers of Bahrain joined the sultan of Muscat in 1813 by launching a naval and ground assault on the Qasimis in Ras Al Khaimah. However, the attack failed because of the Qasimis’ fierce resistance, as recounted by historian and the colonial administrator in British-occupied India, J.G. Lorimer (1870-1914), in his book “Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia.”

The British continued employing a pernicious policy aimed at exaggerating the risk of the Qasimi fleets to both sides. They initiated a smear campaign against the Qasimis to portray them as pirates, even calling the areas under the Qasimis’ control (Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, Ajman, Al Hamriya, and Al Jazirah Al Hamra) the “Pirate Coast.” Remarkably, the Qasimis’ control during the 18th century and first quarter of the 19th century stretched all the way to the Iranian coast, on the other side of the Gulf.

However, before exploring the reasons for the tense relations between the British and the Qasimis tribal confederacy, we must first familiarize ourselves with the origins of these tribes and how they came to power in the southeast Arabian Peninsula and Omani Coast. Historians are divided over the origin of the Qasimis tribes. Some believe that the tribe’s name goes back to a tribe of the Banu Ghafir in Najd that emigrated to the Omani Coast in the 17th century, while others think ‌they are descendants of the Arab Huwala tribes that used to reside along the eastern coast of the Gulf in what is now Iran. The current ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, states in a small note titled “The Definitive History and Origin of the Qasimis” that the foundations of his tribe go back to the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Prophet Muhammad, as the descendants of Hassan bin Ali bin Abu Talib and Fatima bint Muhammad.

In exploring the documents of the British National Archives from the 18th century, we discover that the term “the Qasimis” became a banner for all the Qasimis together with their allied tribes in the regions of Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and the Omani Coast. This emphasizes the sway and control that this tribe had over this region, the main reason its members became the vanguard in resisting the British presence in the Gulf.

With the Qasimis living on barren land unsuitable for agriculture, maritime trade represented their only source of income and wealth. Their business with Indian ports, in particular, was extremely important, as they had brought back from there the most important supplies and timber needed to build their ships. As such, they saw the British as stiff competitors who could deprive them of their livelihoods‌. Foreign commercial competition had been a way of life for a long time, and local residents had become used to living under those circumstances. However, the British added an extra element to the mix. They started demanding that all ships trading in the Gulf carry British permits to do so, indicating that they considered themselves the masters over these waters, as Mikhin notes in his book, “The Qasimis Alliance and British Policy in the Arab Gulf.”

Toward the end of the 18th century, the British finally cemented their control over India, overcoming all their other European competitors, such as the French. Around the turn of the century, British commercial agents in countries connected to the Gulf began turning one after another into political pawns. In 1798, Britain signed a treaty with the rulers of Muscat aimed squarely against the French, but in reality, the treaty meant the start of Muscat’s submission to British rule, and their eventual transformation into an auxiliary unit against the Qasimis.

The charges made against the Qasimis were ostensibly part of Britain’s intentional and systematic policy to curb piracy, crafted by the British EIC. British residents and agents repeated these charges vigorously, working to spread this lie to create the pretext for using British sailors and ships to protect their trade. After a thorough examination of all the naval activities conducted by the Qasimis in the Gulf at that time, Mikhin confirms in his book that all instances in which the Qasimis were accused of piracy by the British were actually acts of self-defense.

In Lorimer’s “Gazetteer,” we find an entire chapter dedicated to the “Rise and Suppression of Piracy” between the years 1778 and 1820, the year in which the British destroyed the Qasimis fleets and imposed an armistice treaty upon them, making the British the true lords over the eastern coast of the Gulf. Lorimer describes the region as the Pirate Coast, as was common in British propaganda at the time, and details all the Qasimis acts of aggression, year by year, against British trade ships or the ships of their allies in the region‌. In one case, he states:

On the 18th of May 1797, off Rams, a fleet of Al Qawasim boats attacked and captured the snow [ship] ‘Bassein,’ though under British colours and carrying public dispatches, and took her to Ras Al Khaimah, where she was detained for two days and then released by order of the Shaikh. No reparation seems to have been exacted for this insult to the British flag. Impunity bore its natural fruit.

In this passage, he means to say that this instance led to many more Qasimi attacks on British trade ships.

Numerous British historical sources and documents indicate that the British deliberately attempted to depict the Qasimis as pirates, but this description is questionable for several reasons. The concept of piracy during the Middle and Modern Ages used to mean, and still evokes, an image of roving gangs operating in a specific area to plunder and pillage. While the Qasimis (and allied tribes) were engaging in acts that could be described as piracy, the attacks were driven by ideology rather than the aim of simply looting by sea. The Qasimis, just like the other Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula, had lived on these lands for hundreds of years before Britain ever considered establishing a presence in India and expanding their commerce in the Gulf, and their actions were part of a resistance against them, a resistance, moreover, that gained religious legitimacy from Wahhabi doctrine. As a British resident of Muscat, Francis Warden, noted in 1809: “The Qasimis’ piracy is nothing more than the result of the Wahhabis’ inducing them to do so.” This was jihad against the British, and the spoils from their actions on the seas but a (licensed) part of this sanctioned resistance against the infidel.

The reasons behind the British depiction of the Qasimis were either that Britain did not understand them very well, or that they knew them and intentionally distorted the truth. We must realize that the Qasimis’ subservience to the Wahhabis, and conversion to their sect, forced them to engage in the holy war that the Wahhabis had declared against the “enemies of the faith,” i.e., the British, among others. The British were also allies with the Qasimis’ regional and ideological archenemies, ‌the House of Busaid in Oman. The war between those regional enemies had gone on since 1741, when the Busaidis seized control of Muscat. The Omani-British alliance led to wider British commercial, political and military activity in the southern Gulf, which represented a serious threat to the Qasimis’ trade and fleets in that region.

In light of the Qasimis’ subordination to the First Saudi State and harsh Wahhabi supervision over them, their sheikh, ‌Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, longed for independence. He grew tired of the Wahhabis’ ever-increasing influence and direct intervention in the affairs of Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah, namely through the Wahhabi commander in the Al-Buraimi Oasis, al-Mutairi. The Saudis then decided to strip Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr of his authority, summoning him to their capital in Diriyah in late 1808. He was arrested and imprisoned but managed to escape in 1812, seeking refuge in the Egyptian military camp in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. The camp was under the command of Tusun ibn Muhammad Ali Pasha, who led the Egyptian-Ottoman military campaign of 1808-1811, which resulted in the demise of the First Saudi State.

After arresting Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, replacing him with another person more loyal to the Wahhabis, the Qasimis’ attacks on British ships intensified in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, during which ‌they seized several British ships. By 1809, the Qasimis fleet in Ras Al Khaimah on the Gulf coast and Bandar Lengeh on the Persian coast had reached 630 large ships, 810 smaller crafts, and 8,700 sailors. The leader of the Qasimis relied upon them in demanding that the British government in India pay a tax to allow British ships to freely pass through the Gulf. For this reason, Britain prepared for a military naval campaign, armed with 13 warships bearing cannons, 1,500 soldiers, a campaign officer, and four troop-carrying vessels. Their mission was to destroy the Qasimis’ naval might and force them into a treaty on British terms.

Between 1811 and 1818, the First Saudi State entered into a risky open conflict against Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt, who waged war at the behest of the Ottoman Empire. Under the influence of British propaganda, the Ottomans were convinced they had to confront the Wahhabi threat. This campaign culminated in Ottoman-Egyptian forces entering Diriyah and eliminating the First Saudi State in 1818. The Qasimis’ attacks on British ships did not cease with the fall of the Wahhabis, but rather after the fall of the Saudi State. These raids continued for genuine and possibly more profound reasons than the Qasimis subordination to the Wahhabis. The British were the ones who started harassing the Qasimis ships, accused them of piracy, and demanded that they comply by bearing British permits when conducting their trade in international waters. They were also the ones who allied themselves with the sultan of Muscat, who was launching attacks on Ras Al Khaimah periodically. All of this forced them to continue what may be described as attacks, carried out as an effective means of self-defense.

In the end, after the fall of the Saudi State, the British government dispatched a large military campaign to destroy the Qasimis’ forces once and for all, even though the latter had broken their alliance with the Saudis. In November 1819, this campaign was launched from Bombay, India, under the command of Gen. William Keir Grant, whose mission was to destroy all the Qasimis’ fleets in Ras Al Khaimah, be they commercial or military. After that, he was ordered to destroy the Qasimis’ boats, bases and ports in Umm al-Quwain, Rams, Al Hamriya, Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Ajman and Sharjah, then attack their ports on the Iranian coast, such as Maghoh, Bandar Lengeh and Kharaj. Grant was even given the authority to make any necessary political decisions.

On Dec. 2, English cannons fired a barrage at Ras Al Khaimah for seven consecutive days. Despite their staunch and bold resistance, the Qasimis began running low on ammunition and lost dozens of men to the English cannons, especially the large ones, forcing them to retreat. The city suffered massive looting and vandalism, and 80 of their large ships were seized. After negotiations concluded between the two sides, the English imposed a treaty on the leaders of Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Al Jazirah Al Hamra.

The Ras Al Khaimah Agreement was signed on Jan. 20, 1820, and formed the basis for Britain’s political and economic hegemony over the nations of the Gulf. Britain’s position in the region was an indispensable part of its empire in India, aside from its successful and brutal naval and land power. With the help of other regional parties, the British destroyed the Qasimis naval forces and required them and the other emirates to submit to British authority in the Gulf.

Despite this outcome, the Qasimis continue to take pride in their decadeslong resistance against the mightiest empire of the time to defend their right to trade and ensure their survival.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy