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Lesson Plan: The Modern Gulf

Dr. Allen Fromherz
Associate Professor
Georgia State University


The Modern Gulf examines the history, culture, language, and society of a vital but understudied region of the world. Though the Gulf has long been viewed as a hybrid of both Persian and Arab cultures, this series of lessons reveals the influence of many different Gulfs. The Persian, Sasanian, and Safavid Gulf, the Portuguese, Dutch and Omani Gulfs, the Ottoman Gulf, the British colonial Gulf, an African Gulf connected through trade on the East African coast, the cold war American and Russian Gulfs, the South Asian Gulf, and the Women's Gulf have all added depth and layers to the history and culture of the region and its peoples. These lessons will provide a setting to discuss the extent to which the Gulf can be considered an opening to the outside world. The Gulf a hybrid social, political and cultural space. The Persian Gulf, also called the "Arabian" Gulf by the Arabic-speaking states, is a space between Persian, Arab, and South Asian cultures; between mountain village, port and desert; and between hinterland and foreland, where pragmatic mutually-dependent relations in pursuit of trade often outweigh various dogmas. In this dynamic and changing milieu, cultural diversity and economic exchange have both played important roles.

Course Structure

The Modern Gulf will be divided into three units. Each unit of the class is organized around different approaches or themes. The three themes are "Connections to the Past: Ancient, Medieval and Pre-Modern Colonial Contexts", "The Opening Sea: Religion, Women, and Media," and "Bridges to the Future: The Challenge of Modernity."

Major Course Objectives

  • To understand the geographic and historical particularities of the Gulf. To be aware of the important peoples, ports and practices.
  • To engage in discussion and debate about Gulf society, government and culture.
  • To provide advanced analysis of recent trends in Gulf society while understanding the historical context for the policies of Gulf states.
  • To be able to write confidently and extensively on major questions related to the Gulf.
  • To become aware of the challenges and opportunities of primary and secondary sources on the Gulf.
  • To engage theoretical debates on tradition, modernity, rentierism and the influence of oil.


There will be a final exam based on readings and class lectures, as well as a final essay. Students will also complete a 10-page research paper on an agreed-upon topic. Students should send in their proposed paper topics by week 5.


Required: Lawrence G. Potter, ed., The Persian Gulf in History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Optional: Allen Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History, Georgetown, 2012 (Chapter 1 provided free on Google books.)

Unit 1: Connections to the Past, Ancient, Medieval and Pre-Modern Colonial Contexts

The first week will focus on historical connections and the importance and continuities of "pre-modern" or "pre-oil" cultural heritage, as well as the extent to which the Gulf can or cannot be described as a region culturally prone to change, exchange, and openness. Determining the persistent nature of cultural traditions in the context of economic shock, especially on the tremendous scale of wealth found in the Gulf, is an issue that has relevance beyond the Gulf. An open, chronological framework views changes and continuities in the Gulf over time.

Weeks 1–2: Ancient and Medieval Background

Commerce, trade, and exchange, interspersed with periods of isolation, characterized the pre-history and early history of the Gulf. The embrace of Christianity and new forms of Zoroastrianism in the region, as well as the rise and fall of great Empires on both sides of Asia, provided opportunities for contact and trade. The coming of Islam and its guarantee of relative security throughout the dar al Islam (Abode of Islam) in the Indian Ocean provided the first major opportunity for the revival of ancient trade routes, making the seaborne route at least as important as the land-based "silk road."

Suggested Readings

The Gulf is one of the first places in which humans set out on ships. What does the ancient history of Gulf trade tell us about its human geography? What is the role of the entrepĂ´t in the ancient and medieval Gulf? How did the coming of Islam shift or change the direction and focus of Gulf trade, culture, and society?

Roxani Margariti, "Mercantile Networks, Port Cities, and the "Pirate" States: Conflict and Competition in the Indian Ocean World of Trade before the Sixteenth Century," Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 51, No. 4, 2008, 543–77.

Roxani Margariti, "Cross Currents and Community Networks: The History of the Indian Ocean World," The Historian, Vol. 72, Issue 1, Spring 2010, 202–204.

D. T. Potts, "The Archaeology and Early History of the Persian Gulf," The Persian Gulf in History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 27–56.

Donald Whitcomb, "The Gulf in the Early Islamic Period: The Contribution of Archaeology to Regional History," The Persian Gulf in History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 71–87.

Class Assignment

Filling Empty Spaces: The problem of sources in Gulf History. Using the sources above, ask students to write short essays on the limitations of archaeological sources. What can such discoveries tell us about the state of pre-colonial Gulf society? What does a historian do when written sources are lacking?

Week 2: The Dutch, Portuguese, and African Gulfs

Often a neglected part of Gulf history, Africa had extensive and continuing contact with the region, even after the forceful entry of increasingly wealthy and successful European powers. This chapter also examines the Gulf as a launching pad for maritime empire, or thalassocracy.

Suggested Readings

Frederic Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, Heinemann, 1997.

Willem Floor, "Dutch Relations with the Persian Gulf," The Persian Gulf in History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 235–259.

Mohammad Bagher Vosoughi, "The Kings of Hormuz: From the Beginning until the Arrival of the Portuguese," The Persian Gulf in History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 89–104.

Abdul Sheriff, "The Persian Gulf and the Swahili Coast: A history of Acculturation over the Longue durée," The Persian Gulf in History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 173–188.

Abdul Sheriff, Dhow Cultures and the Indian Ocean, Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam, Oxford University Press and Columbia University Press, 2010.

John Nunley, review " Dhow Cultures and the Indian Ocean" http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33076

Thomas Spear. "Early Swahili History Reconsidered." The International Journal of African Historical Studies 33, no. 2 (January 1, 2000): 257–290

Class Lecture

Indian Ocean Slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade

  • Compare and contrast the Atlantic Slave Trade and Indian Ocean East African slave trading practices. What were the similarities and differences in the treatment of slaves in these regions?
  • Some scholars have claimed that Islamic slavery in the Indian Ocean, especially in Zanzibar, was less harsh than slavery in the Atlantic world. What is the basis of this argument? What are some of the potential problems that arise with this position, as articulated by John Nunley?

Week 3: South Asia and the Gulf: A continuous economic and cultural history

This week is devoted to the economic connections and socio-political relationships between West Africa, South Asia, and the Gulf. Among these three areas, the Gulf was the region with the smallest population, but its rulers and merchants often rose in power and influence far beyond their numbers. European powers were not alone in their ambitions to unify the great, wealthy trading zone that had developed across the Western Indian Ocean. Nadir Shah of Persia and Sultan Said of Oman, for example, both emerged with similar ambitions, sometimes surpassing the British in influence within the region.

Suggested Readings

Yacoub al-Hijji, Kuwait and the Sea: A Brief Social and Economic History, Arabian Publishing Limited, 2010.

John Gorden Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, London, 1908.

F Osella and C Osella, "Muslim Entrepreneurs in Public Life between India and the Gulf," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol 15, May 209, 202–221.

Patricia Risso, Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean, Westview Press, 1995.

Patricia Risso, "India and the Gulf: Encounters from the mid-Sixteenth to the mid-Twentieth Centuries," The Persian Gulf in History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 189–203.

Risso, Patricia. "Muslim Identity in Maritime Trade: General Observations and Some Evidence from the 18th-Century Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean Region." International Journal of Middle East Studies 21, no. 3 (August 1, 1989): 381–392.

Beatrice Nicolini, Makran, Oman and Zanzibar: Three Terminal Cultural Corridor in the Western Indian Ocean (1799–1856), Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Dionisius A. Agius, Seafaring in the Arabian Gulf and Oman People of the Dhow. Hooken: Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Juan R. I. Cole, "Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shiism in Eastern Arabia, 1300-1800." International Journal of Middle East Studies 19, no. 2 (May 1, 1987): 177–203.

Allen, Richard B. "Suppressing a Nefarious Traffic: Britain and the Abolition of Slave Trading in India and the Western Indian Ocean, 1770–1830." The William and Mary Quarterly 66, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 873–894.

K.N. Chadhuri, "The Unity and Disunity of Indian Ocean History from the Rise of Islam to 1750: The Outline of a Theory and Historical Discourse." Journal of World History 4, no. 1 (April 1, 1993): 1–21.

Class Assignment

Trade and traders: Divide students into three groups: Pearl merchants, Pearl Divers, and Pearl Buyers of India. Ask each group to elect either a Nakhoda (pearl boat captain for the divers), a Sheikh (of the Merchants), or a lead trader (of the Indian buyers). Referring to the suggested readings, have each group develop a profile of its constituents. The leader of each group should then present the interests and ambitions of the group's members.

Week 4: Ottoman and British Colonial Histories: Between Britain, Bombay, Bahrain and Basra

In this week the class will examine the outsized role of Britain and British colonial practices in shaping both historical outcomes and the portrayal of those outcomes by historians. The British Empire viewed the Gulf first as a vital transit point between the imperial homeland and India – the Jewel in its Crown. Stability in the region

was essential but direct intervention was seen as too costly. Piracy was rampant and it was often difficult to find an organized, responsible party for raids on commerce. A "protectorate" system emerged wherein Britain would select and support particular sheikhs as long as they promised to be responsible to the crown. Often, however, British interests did not extend very far onto the shore, if at all. The Ottoman Empire, in contrast, had more traditional, land-based ambitions. These important, if lightly implemented, imperial structures had a major impact on shaping the current power systems in the Gulf insofar as they favored and guaranteed particular families and ruling coalitions.

Suggested Readings

Frederick Anscombe, "The Ottoman Role in the Gulf," The Persian Gulf in History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 261–276.

J.E. Peterson, "Britain and the Gulf: At the Periphery of Empire," The Persian Gulf in History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 277–293.

Sulayman Khalaf and James Onley, " Shaikhly Authority in the Pre-Oil Gulf: An Historical-Anthropological Study," History and Anthropology, vol. 17, no. 3, Routledge, 2006, 189–208.

John Gorden Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, London, 1908: Selections. Lorimer's Gazetteer is a remarkable document. Secret for many decades until the withdrawal of the British from the region, the book provides an extensive view not only into the history of the Gulf but also into British views of the region.

Discussion Questions

  • What was the nature of Sheikhly authority before British intervention?
  • Why did Sheikhs accept British protection and sign treaties of peace with the British?
  • How did rulers negotiate the different interests of the Ottomans and the British?

Unit 2: Women, Religion and Media

Week 5: Women in the Gulf

The role of women in the smaller states of the Arab Gulf may seem surprising to many students. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, women have taken major leadership and public roles in Qatar and the UAE. Although still expected to fulfill traditional social roles, women currently outpace men in college graduation.

Suggested Readings

Emily Ruete, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, Mineola, New York: Dover, 2009.

Amira Sonbol, "Introduction" in Amira Sonbol (ed.), Gulf Women, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012.

Rkia Cornell (trans.) and Abu al Sulami, Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-Niswa, Fons Vitae, 1999. Primary source selections.

Class Assignment

Propose a research project - Using the readings provided, ask students to propose a new research project on women in the Gulf. Ask them to justify this new project. What has been said about their proposal? What has not? Professor could provide an example of a research project proposal. The proposal itself will not be carried out unless the student wishes to pursue the project further.

Final Paper Topics/Abstracts due. Final paper topics are proposed by students. The professor can also request a bibliography related to the student's paper topic.

Week 6: Variations of Religious Experience

The existence of religious diversity in the Arab and Persian Gulfs is not reflected in government or power structures. Shiites are marginalized in the Arab Gulf just as Sunni Arabs were often looked upon with suspicion in Iraq and Iran. Recent tensions between Shi'a and Sunni have crossed over complex ethnic, national, and even linguistic identities. This week focuses on these complex relations.

Suggested Readings

Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke. The Arab Shi'a: The Forgotten Muslims. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Chapter 1.

Valerie J. Hoffman, The Essentials of Ibadi Islam. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012.

Marc Valeri, "High Visibility, Low Profile: The Shi'a in Oman under Sultan Qaboos." International Journal of Middle East Studies 42, no. 2 (May 1, 2010): 251–268.

Devin J. Stewart, "Taqiyyah as Performance: the Travels of Baha' al-Din al-`Amili in the Ottoman Empire (991–93/1583–85)." Princeton Papers in Near Eastern Studies 4 (1996): 1–70.

Class Assignment

Essay: 4-5 double spaced paged. Are religious differences in the Gulf primarily the result of differing social and political interests or a reflection of inherent varieties of religious experience and doctrine? Have students provide examples from each side of the argument.

Week 7: Gulf Media in the Information Age

The recent explosion of Gulf media outlets has been transformative, but not so much for the Gulf as for the rest of the Arab world. Why might this be? What are the reasons and motivations for the establishment of international media outlets in Qatar and the rest of the Gulf?


Al-Jazeera Documentary, Al-Jazeera Arabic and English Broadcasts, Al-'Arabiyya (Shown in Class). Discussion (see above).

Class Assignment

Dueling media. Break the class into groups and assign each to a major media outlet in the Middle East: Al-'Arabiyya, Al-Jazeera, Al-Hura, Al-Baghdadia TV (Iraq), or BBC Arabic Television. How might these different media outlets portray a particular diplomatic crisis or situation? Possible crises to use:

  • Iran annouces nuclear bomb.
  • United States elects new president and moves two new aircraft carriers into the Gulf.
  • Saudi Arabia pushes Qatar to cease support of Syrian rebels.

Unit 3: Gulf Modernities: New Models.

One could argue that the Gulf has experienced more change over a shorter period of time than any other region of the world. Countries such as the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman have gone from having the lowest standards of living in the world after the collapse of the pearl market and other trade, to the highest in per capita income within living memory. In only the past two decades centralized government, often in the form of monarchy, has sped this process through technocratic investments at home. The memory of the "years of hunger" in the 1940's, however, has not been buried by hyper modernization. However, important historical, cultural, and social trends remain connecting the past in unexpected ways to present conditions. Historical relationships and memories have become the basis of new nationalist narratives even as individuals and groups claim a history separate from the centralized state.

Week 8-9: Introducing Modernity and the Gulf: Heritage, Memory, and Oil

This week focuses on the creation of national narratives and the role of oil and rentier economies in the region.

Suggested Readings

Allen Fromherz, "Introduction: Qatar - A New Model of Modernity?" in Qatar, a Modern History, Georgetown University Press, 2012, 1-33.

Eric Hobsbawm, "Introduction - Inventing Traditions" in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983, 1–15.

Sulayman Khalaf, "Poetics and Politics of Newly Invented Traditions in the Gulf: Camel Racing in the United Arab Emirates", Ethnology, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 243–261.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between "invented traditions" and regular "traditions"? Do those who participate in traditions distinguish between the two?
  • Why might invented traditions be important to rapidly modernizing societies?
  • How might traditions help the legitimacy of the ruler? How might other traditions, invented or not, also challenge authority?

Class Assignment

Ask students to research the heritage and cultural centers of a particular country in the Gulf online. Analyze websites related to heritage museums and other repositories of memory and identity. Ask students to submit a 1,000 word essay with references to websites, as well as readings provided in class. The essay should discuss the importance of tradition and heritage in the Gulf. Students could, for example, compare the national museums or national celebrations of two Gulf states.

Week 9: Rentierism

Class Lecture

One lecture can be devoted to the theory of rentier economy and should consider the following points:

  • States and rulers with single resource economies are able to develop a degree of independence from their populations.
  • When there is no taxation, there might be no representation. In other words, there is no need for taxation in a rentier economy and thus less need for a government to be concerned with the acquiescence of the people.

Discussion question

  • How does rentier theory work for the Gulf? What might be some limitations of the rentier approach as the only, or even the primary, explanation for present power systems?

Suggested Readings

Hazem Beblawi, "The Rentier State in the Arab World" in Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani (eds.), The Rentier State: Nation, State, and the Integration of the Arab World. London: Croom Helm, 1987, 63–82.

Giacomo Luciani, "Allocation vs. Production States: A Theoretical Framework" in Giacomo Luciani ed., The Arab State, London: Routledge, 1990, 65–84.

Week 10: Promoting New Models of Authority

This week is meant to highlight the challenging question of authority in the Gulf.

How have Gulf rulers transformed their social and political roles in the past two decades of expansive economic growth? How have Gulf societies reacted to recent revolutionary impulses in the Islamic world?

Suggested Readings

Peter Lienhardt, "The Authority of the Sheikhs in the Gulf", Arabian Studies, vol. 2, 1975, 61–75.

Dawn Chatty, "Rituals of Royalty and the Elaboration of Ceremony in Oman: View from the Edge." International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, no. 1 (February 1, 2009): 39–58.

Dale F. Eickelman, "Kings and People: Oman's State Consultative Council." Middle East Journal 38, no. 1 (January 1, 1984): 51–71.

Mehran Kamrava, "Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar", Middle East Journal, 63 (3), Summer 2009, 401–420.

Class Assignment

Essay – "Solving the King's Dilemma" Review Huntington's article, "Incumbent Regimes and the King's Dilemma," available for free at http://carnegieendowment.org/2007/12/10/incumbent-regimes-and-king-s-dilemma-in-arab-world-promise-and-threat-of-managed-reform/1ma3 and a recent response by Russell Lucas, "Is the King's Dilemma only for Presidents?" http://carnegieendowment.org/2011/04/06/is-king-s-dilemma-only-for-presidents/6bpf


Divide the class into two groups. Ask one group to defend the theory of the King's Dilemma for Gulf Monarchies and the other to argue that the King's Dilemma does not work for the Gulf. Provide time for each group to respond to each other's argument.

Week 11: The United States, Iran and the World

Has the United States truly taken over from the British as the neo-imperial policeman of Gulf security? What is the current shape of the Carter Doctrine (which seeks to maintain security of the Gulf and its oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz at almost any cost)? How have unexpected domestic oil discoveries in the United States and drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan potentially changed the dynamic?

Suggested Readings

Joseph J. Malone, "America and the Arabian Peninsula: The First Two Hundred Years." Middle East Journal 30, no. 3 (July 1, 1976): 406–424.

Gary Sick, "The United States and the Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century," The Persian Gulf in History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 295–310.

Class activity

Model Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

Divide students into groups. Assign each group to a particular state in the GCC. Iran and the USA should be included as well. Create an international "crisis" that requires action by the council and other interests in the region. Potential "crises" include:

  1. 1. The United States suddenly signs a far-reaching peace agreement with Iran and withdraws troops from Gulf bases.
  2. 2. A terrorist attack occurs on the oil terminal at Ras Tanura on the East Saudi Coast.
  3. 3. Saudi Arabia suggests a common defense pact (See this recent example: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2013/12/12/Persian-Gulf-states-seek-joint-military-command-again/UPI-74291386872938/).

How might each country in the GCC respond? Why? Require each group to present an introductory summary of their interests and debate a resolution.

Final Exam

The final exam could consist of definitions, multiple choice questions, and three or four essay questions. Suggested essay questions:

  1. 1. In what ways have Gulf regimes and rulers interacted with Britain, the Ottomans and the United States? Taken as a whole, were rulers and regimes circumscribed by Western imperial intervention or empowered by it?
  2. 2. What is the role of memory and heritage in the Gulf today? Imagine a major archaeological find in a wealthy Gulf country. How might the ministry of heritage portray the discovery and its meaning?
  3. 3. What was the social impact of modernization in the Gulf? What characteristics of Gulf society have not dramatically changed? Provide examples.

Students submit final papers.

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