Michael Quentin Morton / Middle East

Bedouins, Boundaries and the Buraimi Oasis

How the futures of the UAE and Oman were determined during the 20th century.


Boundaries are artificial creations. No matter how strongly we feel about our roots, our culture and country, boundaries are simply lines drawn on maps. They may have been created by war, treaty or simple geographical features. They may have been built upon a foundation of international law, but boundaries are figments of the imagination or, more prosaically, interpretation. Boundaries do not exist outside the human mind, and then they only exist if there is a need for them.

So how do you draw boundaries for an area devoid of distinctive features for a people that do not care for them? This was the dilemma facing the early oil explorers of the Arabian peninsula in the early twentieth century. As Britain and America became interested in the petroleum prospects of the desert sands, there was a collision of two worlds: Western concepts of territory grappling with the vague boundaries of tribal ranges.

Somewhere in the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, under the sands of the great sand desert, the Rub al-Khali, oil companies believed there was a territory rich in oil. From the 1930s, in order to explore for oil, they needed the certainty of boundaries, but there were none to help them. The bedouin moved their flocks from one grazing area to another as they followed the rain, caring nothing for what lay beneath the ground apart from water. They owed their allegiance to the strongest leader and had no concept of property ownership in the Western sense. Defining territory on a map was meaningless to them, since the range of their grazing and the sway of their rulers, rather than lawyer’s talk or the stroke of a pen determined the frontiers of this land.

In an age before satellite navigation, geologists would struggle to overcome misunderstandings caused by undefined boundaries and incomplete maps. The maps the oil companies used were next to useless. Tom Barger, one of the early geologists, wrote ‘Someone sat in an office, called in a bedouin, asked him the names of the places and then wrote them on a map, scattering them about so as not to leave too many blanks and thus produce a pleasing effect on the eye.’

This was no fanciful argument: the future of the Arabian oil industry depended on the boundaries being settled. Saudi Arabia, a newly established kingdom in the 1930s, had ambitions towards the whole peninsula, basing their claim on historical ‘rights’ acquired through conquest and tax collection. The British, who effectively controlled the foreign policies of their protégés – the Gulf sheikhdoms and Oman – relied on treaties and precedent.

In 1952, when matters came to a head, it was the quiet oasis of Buraimi that met the full glare of the world publicity. The Saudis occupied one of the nine villages of the oasis and claimed the remainder. It fell to British-led forces to expel the Saudis three years later and the status quo was restored, with Abu Dhabi (now part of the UAE) retaining six villages and Oman three.

The so-called Buraimi affair rumbled for another 19 years until the Treaty of Jedda in 1974 apparently settled the borders between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But, as recent events show, tensions are still smouldering. In the summer of 2009 Saudi guards brought in a new fingerprint system and lengthy document checks at its border posts with Abu Dhabi, resulting in traffic queues of 35 kilometres and delaying some lorries for a week in the searing heat. The official explanation was that the checks had been introduced to counter drug and alcohol smug­gling. A Saudi minister denied speculation that the problem was anything to do with a decision to locate a new central bank in Riyadh instead of in Abu Dhabi.

Today, as in the past, the natural tendency is to keep disputes between neighbours out of the public domain, so it is all the more surprising when news of an argument breaks out. In March 2010 The Daily Telegraph reported an incident in the Gulf in which the UAE navy opened fire on a small Saudi patrol vessel and two Saudi sailors were injured. ‘It looks as though attempts were made to keep this quiet, which is predictable given the important relationship between the two countries and the strategic relationship with Iran,’ a Gulf-based diplomat said. ‘But it does remind us of the simmering rows that there are in this part of the Gulf.’

As the rulers of UAE and Oman find themselves caught between the Arab Spring and a nuclear Iran, they might be tempted to close ranks. But when the British expelled the Saudis in 1955, they effectively preserved the status quo, allowing the modern states of the UAE and Oman to develop. Without their intervention, the Saudis would have kept their foothold in the Buraimi Oasis and, quite possibly, extended their influence across the whole peninsula, unifying Arabia in the process. Is the idea of a United States of Arabia really so far-fetched? Without Buraimi, it would have been a close-run thing. ■

BuraimiMichael Quentin Morton is an independent writer and researcher. He is the author of the new book Buraimi: The Struggle for Power, Influence and Oil in Arabia.


2 thoughts on “Bedouins, Boundaries and the Buraimi Oasis

  1. There is a danger of only remembering the dispute with Saudi Arabia when looking at the history of “the Bureimi Oasis”, and in the wider context of Middle East geo-politics this is justified. But the Bureimi region was and remains a focus of continuing low-level mutual aggravation between Abu Dhabi (latterly represented by the UAE) and the Sultanate of Oman. In the ’60s (when I was an Desert Intelligence Officer in the oasis 1965 – ’68) small border incidents were a regular feature of life; one of my roles was to carry messages (invariably courteous and positive) between Sheikh Zaid and the Wali of Bureimi to resolve the most recent case of lack of respect for the border by people from one side or the other. The border line itself was always a matter of dispute, and the ineffable Martin Buckmaster of the FCO spent very many weeks camped out listening patiently to voluminous anecdotal evidence from all sides of tribal areas and allegiances about where the border markers should be placed. Apparently, there are many who do not believe today that the matter is resolved in perpetuity, although it is not high on the priority list of either side.

  2. That’s very interesting. There was a strong feeling that the Buraimi dispute was about oil – in a sense it wasn’t, for even then the geologists were fairly certain that there was no oil under the oasis. However, the areas of petroleum interest, to the west and south, were indirectly at risk. The strategic location of the oasis, and the opportunity it gave the Saudis to extend their influence into south-eastern Arabia, gave the dispute an international significance. Once the threat to the security of Abu Dhabi (and subsequently the UAE) had faded, so did the issue on the international stage. But, as you say, the underlying local issues rumbled on.

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