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Persian Gulf Conflict as New as Today's Headlines, as Old as Early Western Charts

September 20, 1987|JEFFREY BARTHOLET | Reuters

Kuwait City, KUWAIT--In a dusty, forlorn Christian graveyard beside a luxury shopping mall here is a memorial tombstone to a Briton named William Shakespear.

Capt. W. H. I. Shakespear, political agent and desert explorer, probably was not much of a bard. But he led a poetic life.

And his marble memorial, cracked and discolored over its 72 years, is a sobering reminder that today's news of upheaval and foreign intervention in the Persian Gulf is not really new.

Shakespear was last seen atop a sand dune, his topee thrown from his head, firing a revolver at advancing cameleers and barefoot Bedouins. They brandished curved knives as they voiced the time-honored Islamic cry, "God is Great!"

Service of His Majesty

He was on that dune in the service of His Majesty's interests--one in a long line of Westerners who have risked their lives in power plays for dominance in the gulf.

Since the time the Persian Gulf was first marked on Western charts, history is rife with precedents that make current events astonishingly reminiscent.

One lesson the current Emir of Kuwait may have learned from his forerunners: If you want help from a superpower friend, ask his enemy.

American warships are now in the gulf protecting reflagged tankers in large part because Kuwait asked for and received help from the Soviet Union.

Drew 'American Ace'

"Kuwait played the Russian king in order to draw the American ace," one Western diplomat here said.

The first treaty ever signed between a Western power and a Gulf Arab ruler occurred in almost the same way. It was signed by the British Empire in 1798 to forestall a French agreement.

Napoleon had offered to protect the Sultan of Muscat's shipping. In response, the British anxiously volunteered for the task.

The theme would repeat itself again and again.

'Pierced White Red'

Article 3 of the 1820 "General Treaty of Peace" between Britain and Gulf Arab tribes required friendly vessels to be reflagged with what the British navy called "the pierced white red."

"This shall be the flag of the friendly Arabs, and they shall use it and no other," the treaty declared.

One of the first military expeditions to the area was against raiders on gulf shipping. An Arab tribe called the Qawasim was accused of committing piracy against English and English-protected vessels.

There were no mines at that time, but if there were, you can be sure the Qawasim would have put them to good use.

Merciless Ruler

Consider, for instance, the merciless 18th-Century Persian ruler Karim Khan Zand.

The Iraqi port of Basra, the target of Iranian shelling today, was besieged by Zand in 1775. His armies pushed on the city demanding the head of the governor of Baghdad.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini requires one major concession to stop the current war--the head of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Zand shared another policy with present day pro-Khomeini fundamentalists--hostage-taking.

Sons Held

When the Persian leader distrusted a client sheik, he simply "insisted on keeping the latter's sons as hostages to guarantee the fidelity of their father," according to historian Ahmad Mustapha Abu-Hakima.

By now, Basra should be accustomed to the war cries of Persian armies clamoring at its doorstep.

The Iran-Iraq war is said to be approaching its eighth year, but the carnage really began at the time when Iraq was called Mesopotamia.

The governors of Baghdad "were in a state of almost continuous warfare with the Persians since the occupation of Mesopotamia in the 1530s," Abu-Hakima wrote.

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