Emirate of Arabistan

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Map of Arabistan, tribes and surrounding areas at head of the Persian Gulf
Geographical rangeMesopotamia
Period15th century - 20th century
Dates1440 – 1925
Preceded bySafavid Empire
Followed byImperial State of Iran

The Emirate of Arabistan[1] was, from the 15th century until 1925, an Arab Principality[2] in what is geographically the lower end of Mesopotamia,[3][4][5][6] today part of the Khuzestan Province in Iran. It was located at the head of the Persian Gulf, bordering the Ottoman Empire to the west and the Zagros Mountains to the east.[7] Although the emirate exercised self-rule for most of its history, imperial control over Arabistan would often vary, though starting from the 16th century most of Arabistan would be part of Safavid Iran until its fall in the 18th century. From 1800-1925, Arabistan would fall mostly within the Persian Empire as an autonomous polity. Before 1847, some regions within Arabistan, such as Abadan and Mohammerah fell within the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, in 1847, the Treaty of Erzurum gave Persia permanent jurisdiction over all of Arabistan, including the port cities of Abadan and Mohammerah.[8] Nevertheless, the Emirate would continue to be self-ruled through hereditary governance.[9]

The last Emirate of Arabistan, with its capital in Mohammerah, fell when its Emir, Sheikh Khaz’al Khan Ibn Haji Jabir Khan, was kidnapped[10] from his yacht, Ivy, and placed under house arrest by Reza Khan in 1925. In 1936, Khaz'al was murdered in his sleep. The emirate was abolished and Arabistan was incorporated into modern Iran.


15th-18th Century: The rule of the Mush'ashayiah[edit]

Over many centuries, the Arab tribes crossed the Persian Gulf from Bahrain, Yemen, and Kuwait and settled in Khuzestan. In 1440, an Arab extremist Shia sect called the Mush'ashayiah, led by Muhammad ibn Falah ibn Hibat Allah, initiated a wave of attacks on Khuzestan, leading to a gradual increase in its Arab population. From the middle of the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century, they came to dominate much of western Khuzestan and were in continual conflict with the Safavid dynasty in the sixteenth century, as well as with other Arab tribes. In 1508, Shah Ismail Safavid captured Hawiza, Dizful and Shushtar, and received the submission of the Musha'sha sultans. As a consequence of Musha'sha rule, the western portion of Khuzestan province became known from early Safavid times as Arabistan.[11][12]

In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Bani Kaab Arab tribe from Kuwait settled in Arabistan. During the succeeding centuries, many more Arab tribes moved from southern Mesopotamia to Arabistan, and as a result, it became extensively Arabized. The rule of the Mush'ashayiah state ended in 1724, when the emirate of Bani Ka'b, under the Al Bu Nasir, took over and was able to extend its influence over all areas of Arabistan.[13]

18th-19th Century: The rule of the Al Bu Nasir, Princes of Fallahiyah[14][edit]

For a long time prior to 1700, Arabistan, which had held a semi-autonomous position, was a subject of dispute between Teheran and Constantinople, as to whether the country should or should not form part of the dominions of the Shah/Sultan. Persian influence had usually been predominant but the population had become almost entirely Arab. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Arab element was further strengthened by the immigration of the great tribe of Bani Ka'ab, who were originally subject to Ottoman rule. As between Turkish and Persian domination, the Ka'ab had no preference, for both were equally distasteful to them, but when they spread eastwards they found themselves obliged to yield tribute to the Shah. Nominally subject to Persia, they were virtually independent and they appear now as allies of Persia, now as the allies of Turkey.”[15]

British relations with the tribes and Sheikhs of Arabistan go back over 250 years to the time when, in 1765, the Agents of the Honourable East India Company attempted naval operations against the Ka’ab. Between 1776-1779 and Basra was under Persian rule but this brief inter-regnum left little or no mark on Arabistan or its people.

19th-20th Century: The Rule of the Al Bu Kasib, Princes of Mohammerah[edit]

At the beginning of the 19th century a rival to the Cha’b in the Muhaisin appeared. This tribe determined to throw off the yoke of the Cha’b, to whom it was subject, and under an able and exceptionally long lived chief, Haji Jabir Khan Ibn Merdaw, who ruled from 1819 to 1881. He acquired large estates in Turkish territory that he might have a place of refuge and a means of livelihood in case of need, he aided the British government in its efforts to suppress piracy on the river, and he incurred the suspicion of his Persian Suzerain, who regarded relations between Great Britain and this Shaikh of Muhammarah with a doubtful eye and was inclined to listen to the rumour that the Shaikh intended to throw off his allegiance and transfer his Principality to the British.[15]

In 1890, British consulate established at Muhammarah,[16] simultaneous with the opening of the Karun to foreign shipping and the advent of Messers. Lynch Brothers. Thence-forward the affairs of Arabistan began to assume more than academic importance to British diplomatic and political authorities.

In 1897, Sheikh Khaz'al, Sheikh Jabir's youngest son inherited his father's Sheikhdom, and he would prove to be the most famous Emir of Arabistan. The British even mentioned in one of their military reports the following: "Sheikh Khaz’al is powerful, a fact which is realised by the Persian Government and the Bakhtiaris, and so long as he lives, Arabistan may hope for peace and prosperity, but the day of his death will be a bad day for Arabistan and possibly the British.[15]

Sheikh Khaz'al was, like his brother and father before him, to look for support to Teheran, and to pay his revenue to the Persian Government. He had, united the Cha'b as they had seldom, if ever, been united before, and was perhaps "...the most powerful Sheikh that Arabistan has ever known".[17] Even in the days of Jabir and Miz'al, the Cha'b Sheikhs of Fellahieh were always more or less independent of Mohammerah. But Khaz'al kept the Sheikhs by him in Mohammerah, and Fellahieh was "a sort of Arab Republic, paying taxes, however, to Khaz'al."[17] Under Qajar Iran, the Sheikhdom of Mohammerah had a position as a semi-autonomous sheikhdom within the territories of Persia, however in 1925 when Reza, the first Pahlavi shah of Iran consolidated power, he dismantled all of the locally governed territories within Iran, including Mohammerah. As a result, Sheikh Khaz'al enlisted the support of Luri tribes, an ethnic group related to Persians to revolt against the new centralized government of Persian under Reza Pahlavi. The allied Luri and Arab tribesmen were defeated and the province was successfully brought under full central government control while Sheikh Khaz'al was placed under house arrest and the autonomy dismantled.

Governance of the Emirate[edit]

Arabistan was ruled by the hereditary Muhaisin Shaikh of Mohammerah. Sheikh Jabir realised that to control numerous tribes over a vast area the power must be in the hands of one man; he, therefore, gradually broke the power of the tribal shaikhs. His son Khaz’al, has always borne this in mind and discouraged the pretensions of tribal shaikhs. Since he was unable to control the tribes over the whole area, he appointed agents of his own selection, whom he sent out to the various districts and tribes to keep law and order and to collect revenue. These agents were rarely of high birth and stood to the Shaikh in the same relation as a non-commissioned officer to his officer in the British Army. They were appointed to obey his orders and if they failed in their duties they would be dismissed. These agents belonged to no tribe and owed their allegiance to no one but the Shaikh.[15]

The outcome of the system may be summarised as follows:

  1. Revenue received was three and four times greater than when the Shaikh relied on tribal chiefs to collect from their own tribes.
  2. The power of the tribal Shaikhs was broken and his own power was more firmly established.
  3. The personal enmity for the Shaikh of all tribal shaikhs and others whose hope for power and wealth was thwarted.[15]

Relationship with Central Government[edit]

The Arabs did not acknowledge the Persian claims to rule over them beyond the necessity of paying revenue to Persia, which they regard not so much as a token of dependence, but as a monetary payment for the protection which Persia afforded to them against Turkey. The tribes had never been more united than under Khaz'al's rule, and they owed no sort of allegiance to the person of the Shah. Although they hated Persian rule they had embraced the state religion Shia Islam.[18]

A British diplomat, Sir Victor Alexander Louis Mallet, who served in Tehran from 1919-1922 wrote the following:

"Nothing is more striking...than to arrive in Arabistan or at one of the Persian Gulf ports and to find that no other foreign Power but Great Britain is of any account whatever. The Persian subjects dwelling on the shores of the Gulf are largely of Arab and not Iranian race and their tribal leaders mean far more to them than the Shah's distant government; if they speak a foreign language at all, they speak English; if they buy and sell, they are rupees oftener than tomans; they know of other Powers by name only...India is nearer to them than Tehran, and they look upon the British consular officers with friendship.[12]

Statistics (pre-1925)[edit]



Mohammerah was the capital and most important town of Arabistan. This country was bounded on the east by the river Karun, on the west by the Shatt al Arab and the south by the Haffar canal. The town consisted of about 1,500 houses. Upon the river were some fine modern building; among the most conspicuous were the offices and residential houses of the Anglo Persian Oil Company, and the palatial mansion of the Prime Minister of Arabistan, Haji Muhammad Ali, Rais-ut-Tujjar. There were 8 mosques, 3 public baths and 4 main bazaars, the Shaikh Khaz’al bazaar, which was widened and improved in 1921, the Suq-al-Shatt, Suq-Al-Bedah, and the Suq Al Khadarah. The town itself was divided into 4 quarters, Seef quarter, consisting of brick houses, Subba of mud huts and serifash, the Town, one third of which were mud and two-thirds brick houses and Sabakh.[15]

The Inhabitants of Mohammerah were chiefly local Arabs but there are also 100 families of Sabians and 300 families of Jews and Christians.[citation needed] Mohammerah was nominally governed by a deputy of the Shaikh, called Naib al Hukumah. This position would be occupied by members of the ruling family (specifically sons of Khaz’al). The Shaikh has a Hoshiyah, or personal guard, of 120 ghulam, whilst for the preservation of law and order in the town there existed a police force of four officers and ninety men.


A village situated on the left bank of the Shatt Al Arab, 3 miles above Mohammerah, between the Shatt al Arab and the Abu Jidi canal.

Failieh owed its importance to its being the headquarters of the Shaikh of Mohammerahs administration, where were the offices of his government and where was quartered his mercenary force of some 400 armed Arabs and Baluchis. The inhabitants were Muhaisin and mixed Arabs, Baluchis and Blacks. The principal buildings, were two palaces, which were occupied by the househould of the Shaikh, though he himself would reside in an imposing palace called Qasr al Khaz’aliya, three quarters of a mile farther up the same bank of the Shatt al Arab. Failieh was founded about 1860 by Shaikh Jabir, the first great Sheikh of the Muhaisin.

The shaikh kept at Failieh 9 guns in a specially made gun room with 2 machine guns outside the gun room and 8 more machine guns in the castle. In the river lay 2 river streamers used by the Shaikh on his tours to Basrah and one seafaring ship, “the Ivy” on which he would make his periodical visits to Kuwait.[15]


A town once situated on the left bank of the Karun immediately below the Ahwaz rapids, and about 1 mile from Al Ahwaz. It stood upon a slight elevation overlooking the river, and contained (as of 1923) 1,200 houses, 5 caravanerias, 6 baths, 5 mosques, 600 shops and two coffee shops. The population of Nasiriya was 7,000. The town was immediately under the power of the Sheikh and was administered by his son, the Crown Prince, Shaikh Abdul Hamid Khan.


Population of 700, entirely Shi’ah with the exception of a few families of Sabians. The district was Administered by Sheikh Molah, himself responsible to the Shaikh of Muhammarah.


A town in the East of Arabistan with a population 1,000. Baghalahs would come from Bushire, Bahrain, Lingeh and Kuwait. Grain, live sheep and wool were exported. The Inhabitants consisted of Qanawtis and Bani Tamim. The district was governed by Khaz'al's son, Sheikh Abdullah Khan.


Once the capital of Arabistan under the Cha'b leadership. In the 20th century, it was the capital of the Cha’b tribe with a population of 2,000. It is abundant in dates and rice. The district was administered by Khaz'al's son, Sheikh Abdulmajeed Khan.

Baraim: A small village on the west coast of Abadan Island. Location of Anglo Persian Oil Company Refinery. Inhabitants are from the Muhaisin and Cha’b along with employees of APOC.


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