Water and Society in the Gulf Littoral

By Noah Haiduc-Dale
Submitted to Session P4852 (Social and Environmental Histories of the Middle East in the Nineteenth Century, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
Much of the Persian/Arabian Gulf littoral is as dry as any region in the world. Averages range from 51mm per year in Hormuz, to 80mm in Bahrain, to close to 200mm annually in Kuwait. New York City, by contrast, receives approximately 100mm of rain each month. The dry interior of the region means that there are very few rivers of any size flowing into the Gulf, with the notable exception of the Tigris-Euphrates system at the northwest end of the sea.
Such dramatically dry conditions were a major block to expansive settlement in the Gulf littoral throughout history, and even in the twenty-first century creative efforts to provide water for growing populations is a key to Gulf states’ success. As Toby Jones (Desert Kingdom, 2010) has shown for one major coastal player, Saudi Arabia was really only able to control water resources once it had attained wealth through access to a liquid with greater global value: oil.
My paper examines the role that water, and the lack thereof, played in settlement patterns along the Gulf coasts during the 19th century. The major port cities were often determined by access to fresh water, but locals were also creative in their efforts to capture, store, and use limited water resources. Fresh water from oases close to the coast, springs, small streams, and even fresh springs bubbling up from the ocean floor were essential for life itself. The plentiful salt water was even used for a variety of uses that most cultures would have avoided.
I argue that, like other mediocre resources in the Gulf (such as fish), limited water was a mixed blessing for local inhabitants. Wherever plentiful water existed, so too did larger cities with regionally dominant political families. The lack of fresh water along much of the coast provided some people, anyway, the opportunity to establish life outside of the political elites’ control of water, and therefore people.
Arabic sources that discuss water usage by people outside of the major towns are as rare as the water itself. Instead, I use European travelogues, East India Company documents, British government dispatches, and missionary papers to catch a glimpse of this element of life in the region.