During the fifteenth century, the two uncontested powers in the Gulf region were Bahrain and Hormuz. Bahrain controlled most of Eastern Arabia, right down into Oman; while the Hormuz dynasty, also of Arab descent, controlled most of the Persian coast. The two powers were rivals, but enjoyed a complex relationship, bound up in centuries of treaties and trade relations.
However, almost overnight this was to change: From the beginning of the sixteenth century three new competing superpowers emerged in the Arabian Gulf almost overnight.
Three new regional superpowers
Firstly, Hormuz found itself completely outgunned by the Portuguese ships that arrived in force at this historical moment. Despite several rebellions against Portuguese dominance the island of Hormuz quickly found itself as a vassal to the Portuguese.
At exactly the same time, an obscure dynasty of mystics from Azerbaijan – the Safavis – with their Turkish followers and mercenaries – the Qilibash – established an empire across Persia.
The Safavis united the Persian mainland for the first time in centuries and pushed out through the Zagros mountains to enforce their rule upon the Arabian tribes who controlled the Persian Gulf coastline and the Fars region.
This new Persian dynasty had no experience of seafaring and relied entirely on others for ships and naval forces. However, for nearly two centuries until the Safavi dynasty imploded, Persia would also aspire to be a regional superpower, often by allying itself with the Portuguese and other European colonial nations.
The other superpower to appear on the scene were the Ottomans who extended their rule across much of the Middle East and were to be the arch-enemy of the Safavi Persians. The two sides clashing repeatedly across their shared border in Iraq. The Safavis exported a militant and sectarian brand of Shia Islam that introduced the ritual cursing of the first three Muslim Caliphs; while the Ottomans responded with the aggressive exposal of Sunni Islam, proclaiming themselves to be the successors of the Abbasid Caliphate.
After annexing Hormuz, the Portuguese turned their attention to the islands of Bahrain, a lucrative prize on the Gulf trade routes with its famous pearling wealth.
Bahrain had also been a centre of resistance to Portuguese dominance, for example sending forces to the southern Omani coast to protect ports against invasion. After a couple of failed attempts, the Portuguese cemented its alliance with Persia and joined up with the Hormuz navy for a mass invasion of Bahrain in 1521.
Bahrain’s ruler, Muqrin Bin-Awjad Al Jabri, fiercely resisted the Portuguese invasion, but he was killed. His forces retreated to the Arabian mainland where the Jabri dynasty continued to rule for many years.
This moment marked the separation of the islands of Bahrain, from the region of ‘greater Bahrain’ along the mainland of eastern Arabia after at least a millennium of this region being regarded as a single political unit.
However, the Portuguese occupation of Bahrain was relatively short-lived. Just a few months later there was a Bahraini uprising. This seems to have been coordinated with the ruler of Hormuz, Turanshah, who despite being a vassal of Portugal, organized for several regions to rebel against the Portuguese at the same time.
In Bahrain, citizens attacked the Bahrain Fortress, captured the Portuguese governor and hanged him. However, they were beaten back when Portuguese reinforcements arrived. In Hormuz, the uprising was also unsuccessful.
Bahrain regains its independence
Just a few years later in 1529 the Portuguese tried to impose a massive increase in taxes on Bahrain. The Governor of that time, Badruddin, was a relative of the Hormuz chief minister. He organized a revolt against the Portuguese from inside the Bahrain Fortress.
The Portuguese suffered heavy casualties in attacking the fortress and used up all their ammunition. While the Portuguese troops were waiting for further ammunition to be sent from Hormuz they all became sick and feverish. Many soldiers simply collapsed and died. By the time the new munitions had arrived the Portuguese were too enfeebled to use them.
Rather than ordering an attack of the remains of the Portuguese forces, Badruddin was merciful and assisted them in organizing an orderly retreat for the remaining soldiers when further ships arrived to carry them home.
The Bahraini people had defeated the Portuguese colonial superpower. This victory was followed by lengthy negotiations in order to manage Bahrain’s new status. Badruddin retired from his position and left Bahrain. From 1530 to 1577 Bahrain enjoyed nearly 50 years of relative independence and prosperity under their new leader Jalaluddin Murad Mahmoud, who also appears to have been of Arabian-Hormuz lineage.
As a remarkable indication of Bahrain’s success at this time in managing complex relationships with the respective regional superpowers; in 1535 the Ottoman Sultan recognized Jalaluddin Murad’s status with the conferred title of ‘Sanjaq Bik’.
By 1559, Bahrain was once again at the centre of a superpower confrontation; this time between the Ottomans and the Portuguese.
Both sides suspected the other of preparing for an assault against Bahrain and tensions built up accordingly. As a result, the Ottoman governor in eastern Arabia – apparently acting independently of his superiors – launched a naval attack against Bahrain.
The Ottomans besieged the Bahraini fortress and the Bahrainis succeeded in holding out for many days until the Portuguese also arrived and attacked the Ottomans, burning many of their ships.
The Ottoman general, whose troops were now in a desperate situation, contacted the Bahraini ruler Jalaluddin and offered to withdraw if Jalaluddin provided him with ships. Jalaluddin refused.
The Ottoman forces ended up running out of supplies and were besieged by the Bahraini forces in the centre of the island. The Ottoman Sultan sent a message to Jalaluddin claiming that his Governor had invaded without permission. The Sultan declared that he was sacking his Governor and asked for permission for the remaining Ottoman troops to retreat.
After long and complex negotiations between the Ottomans, Bahrainis and Portuguese; the remaining besieged Ottoman troops were allowed to leave in Portuguese ships. Only 200 of the starving and exhausted Ottoman troops were still alive from an original force of 1,200.
In return, the Sultan renewed his recognition of Jalaluddin Murad as independent ruler of Bahrain and the Portuguese undertook to further strengthen the Bahrain Fortress and police nearby waters to make another hostile invasion more unlikely.
Thanks to this Bahraini victory and Jalaluddin’s success in securing Bahrain against these competing superpowers, Bahrain was able to maintain its independent status as a prosperous trading nation for several more decades under the rule of Jalaluddin and his successors and it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that further Persian expansion once again destabilized this balance of powers in the Arabian Gulf.