By : Johan Mathew and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)

Piracy is one of those activities that vie for the title of the world’s second oldest profession. It is undoubtedly the case that homo sapiens engaged in maritime raiding well before the dawn of recorded history. Some of the oldest extant texts produced by human beings – cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia – discuss the taking of booty and maritime raids between the various city-states and empires around the coasts of the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf.[1] Thus, there is little question that piracy in general, and piratical raids in the Gulf in particular, are among the most ancient activities undertaken by human civilizations.

However, the title of “second oldest profession” is misapplied to piracy, because until far more recently it was not a profession. As was the case in the Mediterranean and the wider Indian Ocean, piracy was almost never an exclusive occupation but rather raids were undertaken by groups otherwise engaged in fishing, trading or warfare. This mistaken notion of piracy as a profession, is at the heart of much of the scholarly debate on piracy in the Gulf. Did these individuals imagine themselves as “pirates” who made a living by deploying violence against peaceful traders? Or did they understand their violence as trading by other means? Were they engaged in violence for purely economic ends, or did their raiding have political motivations? Indeed is there any precise way to separate politics from the economy?

A very substantial historical literature has emerged over the past decades exploring these profound challenges that piracy poses to standard social scientific categories. The vast majority of this literature examines the early modern pirates of the Atlantic world. Central to this literature is Marcus Rediker’s seminal work on pirates as working-class utopian communities.[2] Yet, in the history of the Middle East, the “Barbary” pirates of the Mediterranean loom large in the historical imagination and have prompted important scholarship in Ottoman studies.[3] So, as it so often does, the Gulf seems peripheral to the broader trajectories of historical development.

Nevertheless, the only shoreline ever to be officially designated “The Pirate Coast” on maps is located in the modern United Arab Emirates. Piracy was the lens through which historians we have understood the early 19th century intersections of the rising British Empire, the First Saudi State, the Bu-Saidi Empire and various maritime polities of the southern Gulf. This political and economic contestation not only transformed the history of the region, but also historical understandings of the problem of piracy. The historiography moves from colonial to post-colonial to a sort of post-structural discursive analysis which questions the very stability of “piracy” as a concept. The following readings attempt to give a flavor of these different approaches and their primary source bases. Moreover, I hope the reader gets a sense of how this immensely productive historical debate has push a much broader reconsideration of piracy in time, space and theoretical approach.

Ḥumaid ibn Muḥammad ibn Ruzaiq, al-Fatḥ al-mubīn fī sīrat al-sādah al-Bū Saʻīdīyīn ed. ʻAbd al-Munʻim ʻĀmir and Muḥammad Mursī ʻAbd Allāh (Muscat: Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, 1977).

Ḥumaid ibn Muḥammad ibn Ruzaiq, History of the Imâms and Seyyids of ’Omân: From A.D. 661-1856 trans. George Percy Badger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
This 19th century manuscript (available in newer Arabic editions and the English translation is free online) is both a vital primary source and a unique indigenous history of the region. Ibn Ruzaiq sweeps through the history of Oman from the early Islamic period and then more intensively covers the political and military history of the Bu-Saʿidi Empire. Readers can get a sense of the local historiographical traditions and literary style, as well as an alternative perspective on the maritime raiding in the Gulf. The text provides a detailed military history of the naval engagements between the English East India Company and the Qawasim tribe of the Southern Gulf, though they are not characterized here as piracy. What is so fascinating about ibn Ruzaiq’s account is that he is just as likely to depict English soldiers pillaging and plundering as the Qawasim. Rather than seeing these events through the frame of piracy, the text details how the various tribes in Oman and the Gulf negotiated the rising power of Britain as well as the First Saudi State. Approaching the history of the Gulf through the lens of piracy is to approach this history through an orientalist lens; beginning with ibn Ruzaiq helps us to mitigate the worst excesses of this approach.
Hala Fattah, The Politics of Regional Trade in Iraq, Arabia, and the Gulf 1745-1900 (Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1997).
This classic work of historical political economy only tangentially addresses the question of piracy, but it situates this history within the wider scope of Middle Eastern, Indian Ocean and economic history. Fattah is in many ways the pioneer of 21st century histories of the Gulf, which see the region as deeply imbricated in wider inter-regional and global networks but also illuminate the ways that Khaleejis have navigated and engaged these distant forces on their own terms. The book illustrates the flexible networks of trade that connected the Nejd and Southwest Iran to the entrepots of southern Iraq and from thence out into the wider Indian Ocean world. She shows how these long-distance connections preceded both the rise of British influence and the Ottoman Tanzimat. Moreover, we see how Arab tribes tried to resist these twinned imperial expansions, and merchant networks used secondary market towns and diasporic families to survive these environmental and political challenges. Fattah’s scholarship allows us to balance the local and the global, the economic and the political, and sets the stage for a nuanced examination of piracy in the Gulf.

Roxani Eleni Margariti, “Mercantile Networks, Port Cities, and “Pirate” States: Conflict and Competition in the Indian Ocean World of Trade before the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 51, no. 4 (2008): 543-577.
If the first recorded instances of maritime raids in the Gulf reach back five millennia, the historiographical interest in the question of piracy begins in the fifth century of the Hijri calendar. This article is a vital intervention in the historiography of violence and trade in the pre-modern world. Margariti takes issue with the characterization of the pre-modern Indian Ocean as a pacific world of commerce and cosmopolitanism. The article acknowledges the relative flourishing of peaceful commerce and cosmopolitan interactions, but questions the extent to which this framing renders episodes of violence as exceptional and piratical. Margariti explores two cases of supposedly “piratical states”: Dahlak in the Red Sea and Kish in the Persian Gulf. In working through the fragmentary but diverse historical evidence from the 11th century (5th century AH), the article details how rulers competed for control of the waterways and trade routes. Merchants were routinely involved and invested in the defense of particular polities and political rulers were deeply involved in their own commercial endeavors. Ultimately we see how the line between naval intervention and piratical raid has long been in the eye of the beholder.

Charles Belgrave, The Pirate Coast (New York: Roy Publishers, 1966).
There are any number of texts that could serve as the foil for the more nuanced and complex studies of piracy in the Persian Gulf that are recommended here. Numerous travelogues, military histories and official gazetteers produced by British writers provide unashamedly orientalist and arguably racist accounts of the Arab peoples of the Gulf and their naval engagements with East India Company ships. For better or worse, Belgrave’s history has the distinction of being the most widely cited of this broad literature. Belgrave’s account is based largely on the diary of Captain Francis E. Loch who participated in the 1818-20 expedition against the Qawasim. The depiction here is one of the triumphant pacification of Arab pirates and the beneficent influence of the British Empire on the region.

Sultan Muhammad al-Qasimi, The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf (London: Croom Helm, 1986).
It is certainly rare to see a head of state much less a hereditary monarch on a list of essential scholarship. Yet Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi’s book is unquestionably one of the key texts on Gulf piracy. While it may not rise to the iconic stature of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, this book is arguably the fulcrum around which studies of piracy in the Gulf turn. The Myth of Arab Piracy is the first book-length critique of the self-serving imperial narrative concerning the suppression of piracy in the Gulf. He reads against the grain of colonial sources to show how East India Company officials used raids by various unrelated parties in the Gulf as an excuse for military intervention and the brutal suppression of the Qawasim. Al-Qasimi suggests that his ancestors supposed piracy was actually an effort to protect their own territorial waters and economic interests. The book also critiques the British historiography (particularly the work of J.B. Kelly) which uncritically adopted what Ranajit Guha has called the “Prose of Counter-insurgency” in their scholarship.[4] While others had voiced similar criticisms of this literature, this book sparked the historiographical debate over “piracy” in the Gulf that continues till today.

Charles E. Davies, The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy, 1797–1820 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).
The historian and barrister Charles Davies attempts to bring a scrupulously objective eye to the roiling debate between Al-Qasimi and his British interlocutors. In an extremely detailed and careful analysis of the colonial and Arabic sources he arrives at a somewhat equivocal conclusion regarding piracy in the early 19th century Gulf. For the most part he comes down against Al-Qasimi’s assertions, except that he does not see the Qawasim as pirates per se. In particular he sees this raiding as a continuation of traditions of Bedouin raiding, and thus it did not bear the taint of immorality that was attributed to them in British sources. Davies does argue that the Qawasim were the predominant raiders of Gulf shipping, but that this raiding was prompted both by an alliance with the First Saudi State and the loss of their trade to rivals. He ultimately concludes that they engaged in maritime plunder but this “piratical” activity was not their sole profession or identity. The book goes on to argue (somewhat less convincingly) that British anti-piracy efforts were not inflected by a desire to expand their trade in the region. In Davies painstaking analysis we have a more nuanced and even-handed consideration of these complex events.

Patricia Risso, “Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Piracy: Maritime Violence in the Western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf Region during a Long Eighteenth Century,” Journal of World History 12, no. 2 (2001): 293-319.
Patricia Risso’s article on the discourses of piracy in the long 18th century is perhaps the first work that makes discourse analysis central to the issue of piracy in the Gulf. Whereas most of the works listed here argue over a presumed common and objective definition of piracy, Risso demonstrates how the label piracy was deployed and how this discourse was part and parcel of these military endeavors. She examines a wide variety of terms used to refer to piracy in European, Asian and Middle Eastern languages. This linguistic analysis of events at sea both at the turn of the 18th and the turn of the 19thcentury demonstrates that Arabic texts like that of ibn Ruzaiq describe maritime raiding as a perhaps morally questionable but not illegal activity. The article on the one hand draws out the ways in which maritime raids helped fund state building and landed military defenses for challengers to the Mughal and Ottoman Empires. More powerfully it shows how the generalized accusations of piracy facilitated the pursuit of particular political aims, justified the projection of maritime violence, and helped to impose certain cultural norms on the defeated parties.

Johan Mathew, “Disarming Commerce” in Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016)
This chapter from my book traces the end of piracy and the new political economies of violence introduced into the region with the rise of the British Empire. In particular it suggests that free trade and free markets in the Arabian Peninsula were brought into being through the intensive intervention and violence of the British Empire. The Royal Navy constantly patrolled the waters for pirates and arms traders in order to maintain the ambition, if not the reality, of peaceful trade and secure property rights.

Qatar Digital Library,
One of the most useful pedagogical tools for the history of the Gulf is the Qatar Digital Library. Piracy is a particularly well indexed and well-represented issue in both the archival documents and the brief “articles from our Experts” available on the database. Hundreds of documents are easily discovered with a search for “piracy” or “pirates.” Students can explore and find piratical activities in the region from 18th century Iran to the 1950s Kuwait. While the vast majority of documents are from colonial records, this nonetheless presents a unique opportunity for students to engage in original archival research. Teachers can use this database to teach research methods as well as practice critical analysis of primary source material. The first two decades of the 19th century is well-trod ground for historians of piracy in the Gulf, but the following two centuries remain wide open – and easily accessible – for the scholars of tomorrow to continue this important line of inquiry.

One of the most legendary statements by a pirate may well have occurred in the waters of the Gulf more than two millennia ago. Saint Augustine records a quasi-mythical interrogation by Alexander the Great, who asks a pirate what he means by his violent theft on the waves. The pirate responds “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”[5] This ancient pirate’s insight continues to haunt the Middle East today both at sea and on shore. The question of whose violence is legitimate and whose is not, depends on who is asking. Far too often empires arriving from the West use labels like piracy to hide their own violence and delegitimize resistance. It is incumbent upon students, teachers and citizens everywhere to persist in examining what piracy reveals about the world but also what the language of piracy conceals about how we see the world.


[1] D. T. Potts, “‘The Plant for the Heart Grows in Magan …’: Redefining Southeastern Arabia’s Role in Ancient Western Asia,” Australian Archaeology, no. 48 (1999): 35–41.

[2] Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Beacon Press, 2005); Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700 – 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[3] Molly Greene, Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Early Modern Mediterranean, Reprint edition (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013); Joshua M. White, Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).

[4] Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45–84; J. B. Kelly, Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795-1880 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

[5] Aurelius Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1888), 140



[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at for any inquiries.]