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Volume 26, Number 3May/June 1975

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Rahmah of the Gulf

Written by Jon Mandaville
Photographed by Penny Williams-Yaqub

One dark moonless night in the summer of 1826 several dozen men worked feverishly to heave a 40-foot dhow across the narrow neck of sand and reach the open sea. This slender spit of land, known today as Ras Tanura, is the site of the world's largest oil port. But then it was no more than a sand breakwater protecting Tarut Bay and the ancient port towns of Qatif and Dammam.

That night there was no shouting; this was a disciplined crew under a strong and experienced commander. As the boat slid into the waters of the Gulf, its triangular lateen sail lifted to catch the offshore breeze, a watch on the anchored blockading fleet a few miles off the mouth of Tarut Bay raised an excited cry: "Rahmah's out!"

The shout, echoing from ship to ship, brought half-asleep sailors stumbling out through hatchways. Soon the heavy humid night air was filled with shouted orders; axes flashed as anchor cables were cut, oars splashed out on the several galleys, sails were hauled up. Slowly the fleet got underway, but far too slowly. Rahmah, known to some in shipping circles as the Scourge of the Pirate Coast, was once again loose to pursue his business.

Today Rahmah ibn Jabir is a hero in the popular folklore of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. In the early 1800's, however, opinions differed.

The ruler of Bahrain Island requested time and again the same British-fleet action against him as had been carried out against other small flotillas based along the Pirate Coast. "Destroy this bandit!" he cried. Each time the request was refused on grounds of Rahmah's studied neutrality and friendly attitude toward British shipping. As one British historian wrote late in the century, "... Rahmah was rather a petty territorial ruler . . . than a pirate; ... he had always carefully abstained from offenses against the British government and British subjects." Piracy, like beauty, often lies in the eyes of the beholder. As it happened, in Rahmah's case it was not piracy but war grown from the bitterest seed—a family feud.

It all began some 40 years before that fateful summer night in a burgeoning city-state called Kuwait at the head of the Gulf. In 1782 the heads of the three families who ran the city-state like the merchant aristocracy of classic Corinth met together in council and decided the time had come to exert a more direct control over their trading zone; in a word, they decided to take over Bahrain Island, halfway down the Gulf. At stake was control of the coasting trade and through it a monopoly in the India-to-Europe commercial trade. Their rival for this role was the growing maritime power of Oman, at the other extreme end of the Gulf.

At the council it was agreed that the Al Sabah family, while sending support troops, would remain at home and tend to ongoing business while the other two clans, the Al Jalahimah and the Al Khalifah, would launch the invasion from their already established base on the Qatar Peninsula opposite the island. The invasion was successful; but shortly thereafter the Al Jalahimah withdrew to Qatar, claiming that they had not received a fair share in the new government of the island.

So the feud was born. Khor Hasan on the Qatar coast became the seat of the Jalahimah government. Buildings were thrown up, as well as fortifications to protect the harbor and attract commerce. But the sons of Jabir of the clan Jalahimah knew that it could never seriously rival the established trade of Bahrain. Every ship from India that sailed past Qatar on its way to that island reminded them of what might—what should—have been, and further set their resolution to reclaim what was justly theirs. One of the sons was Rahmah.

For the next 20 years our sources tell us almost nothing of Rahmah. All attention is focused elsewhere in these years, on vaster movements which would affect the course of Gulf history far more broadly and deeply than the local city-state trade wars.

One was from within the heart of Arabia, a call for a return to the simpler, purer practices of worship found in the early days of the Islamic Community. This Wahhabi Reformation, as it came to be known, swept all before it and by 1798 outriding preachers of the reform had reached the Gulf and incorporated many of the tribes and city-states which had been recently crushed by the expanding powers of Kuwait and Oman.

The other movement came from without: the force of European empire, particularly the efforts by Napoleon to cut England's route to India. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt with the clear intention of cutting England off from her Indian empire, in response to which England rapidly moved to secure the Gulf by making Oman into a client state and by sending a squadron to impose a truce on the Gulf's other city-states. So emerged the Trucial Shaikhdoms of recent Gulf history.

Thus in a larger view of human history, the tides of power running through the Gulf had changed in Britain's favor. Those small states directly in the path of the current were willy-nilly lifted up and bowled along like so many rounded pebbles along the beach, helpless in the surge. Few of the rulers knew or cared about the cause or ultimate purpose of the tide; it was enough to keep their ships of state upright while it took them where it would. Fewer still defied this elemental force of modern history.

Yet Rahmah did, and successfully so as long as he lived. Like a stormy petrel he set his wings to the shifting winds and waves through all his twisting way intent on but one end: the seizure of Bahrain Island, righting the wrong done his family.

Before 1804 Rahmah had played Oman against Kuwait while consolidating his own forces in Qatar. But when Oman and Kuwait united to oppose the increasing power of the Reformists, Rahmah joined the Reformists.

Reformist backing stood the wily captain in good stead for another seven years. But in 1811, on the verge of gaining Bahrain with that support, he lost it as, on the Red Sea coast, 1,000 miles away, Egypt, at the request of the Ottomans, entered Arabia to suppress the Reformist threat to the empire. To meet this thrust Reformist troops withdrew from the Gulf, leaving Rahmah to his own devices. Immediately attacked by a joint Omani-Kuwaiti force, he retreated from Qatar to a mainland town called Dammam, now a thriving port in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

If checked, however, Rahmah was not stopped. He entered new negotiations with Persia and in 1814-15 participated in joint Omani-Persian attacks on Bahrain. It mattered not with whom he fought, so long as it was against Bahrain.

In 1816, however, he paid for this shift of alliance. Reformist forces remaining on the Gulf blew up his base in Dammam and again he had to flee.

This, you think, must surely be the end? Not at all. Rahmah is alive and well, Bahrain still beckons, and there are other allies in the offing. In 1818 the Reformist capital of Dir'iyah fell to the Egyptian expeditionary army, the Saudi forces were scattered and the Egyptians marched to the Gulf where, at Dammam, they were met by Rahmah.

By what feat of poetic persuasion, what promises did he win over the Egyptian commander? No way of knowing, but within months he was ensconced again in Dammam, now as Ottoman governor of the district. Soon, though, the Egyptians withdrew as rapidly as they had come and the governorship of Dammam proved to be a hollow title. With the Egyptians gone and the Reformists weakened, Rahmah was back to where he started, playing Oman against Kuwait. There was, however, a difference, a world of difference. For now came the British Indian Navy to impose on all the city-states—including Bahrain —after a series of naval and amphibious operations, a "General Treaty of Peace." Rahmah, for the first time, was alone.

For a brief period Persia, herself covetous of Bahrain Island, offered some protection, but in 1821 under British pressure even that was withdrawn. Desperately Rahmah turned again to Oman, but Oman was not prepared to jeopardize her favored position with the British; in 1822 the British Resident in Muscat was informed by the Sultan that Oman would "no longer" be responsible for Rahmah's actions.

It was now clearly a losing battle. Desertions and attrition took their toll, and by late summer of 1826 the Bahrain fleet had Rahmah and his few remaining boats securely blockaded and at its mercy.

Then it was that fateful night that Rahmah slipped across the Peninsula to the open sea. An ordinary man might have seized the chance of freedom in exile in some distant town or country. Not Rahmah. Sailing directly for the Persian coast, he again began to recruit men to continue the battle and with 25 or 30 men sailed back to Dammam, somehow successfully running the blockade.

He returned none too soon. There he found that the Bani Khalid, dominant tribesmen of the land behind Dammam, had been persuaded by local townsmen and Bahraini leaders to mass for a land attack from the south and west. At the same time a like force was marching from the north, while the Bahraini fleet was poised for invasion. Rahmah chose—had he any choice?—to fight on the sea.

Leaving his eldest son to defend the Dammam fort, he sailed out to meet the fleet and defiantly grappled his ship to the Bahraini flagship. "The scuppers of the two boats flowed with blood," says Ibn Bishr, Arab chronicler of the event. This was the climax of the long struggle and by sheer weight of numbers Rahmah clearly was to be the loser.

Rahmah knew this. Perhaps he knew it when he sailed out and grappled the Bahraini flagship. In any case, with the fighting at its fiercest, he took his eight-year old son in his arms, lit a slow match from the coals of his waterpipe, went below and touched off his gunpowder kegs. When the smoke cleared from the thunderous explosion, all that could be seen were two burning hulks sinking into the debris-filled waters.

So ended Rahmah ibn Jabir. Today his exploits live on in campfire stories; his poetry is quoted, and the site of his ruined fort pointed out to curious tourists. Better perhaps than any other he epitomizes that era in Gulf history when, like the ancient Greeks of Sparta and Athens, small city-states fought great maritime wars and battles—and a few of their leaders were made into legend.

Jon Mandaville is an associate professor at Portland State University where he teaches and writes on Islamic History.

This article appeared on pages 12-13 of the May/June 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1975 images.