While the news is dominated by conflict in Israel-Palestine and Iraq,
tragedies elsewhere in the region are being overlooked. One tragedy is Iran’s massacre of natives of the Arab-populated island of Qeshm.
This week, Iranian forces killed civilians (reports vary from three to six deaths) including one child and wounded 10 more on the island of Qeshm, the largest island in the Arabian Gulf and home to around 115,000 mostly Arab inhabitants. Local residents clashed with police who were attempting to close down small-scale fuel smuggling operations. Low-level fuel theft has alleviated some of the endemic poverty islanders suffer as they eke out a living from fishing and date plantations.
A deeper story: intrigue, ethnocide and Qatar’s hand
But as with all events in the region, there is a deeper story than a brutal clamp-down on fuel theft. It is bound up with historic intrigue, Iranian ethnic chauvinism and the corrupting influence of Qatar’s rulers.
The rulers in Tehran are developing the Qeshm free trade zone in order to exploit vast energy reserves: four billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Within 10 years, the government hopes to turn Qeshm into an “energy hub”.
On Doha’s behalf, Tehran is now engaged in persecuting the island’s Arab Sunni inhabitants, regarded as a threat purely due to their religion and ethnicity. It is forcing them out through state terror and establishing strong state control and the show of extreme violence is intended to send a message that they are no longer welcome.
Long Island’s long Arab heritage
The Arab cultural heritage of Qeshm and the nearby islands is unique and, until the recent campaign to exploit the resources, largely left alone by successive Iranian regimes. But the signs are that the indigenous population will lose out, as they have done under the “free zone” since it was imposed 20 years ago.
Having brought in migrant labourers from other parts of Iran, Tehran is seeking to step up its ethnic cleansing campaign against Arab islanders on behalf of foreign investors, just as it has done at the Arvand Free Zone , which is also situation in an Arab-majority region of Iran.
Located at the mouth of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in the east of the Arabian Gulf, the island has a land area of 1,500 sq km and is twice the size of Bahrain. Known in the native Arabic dialect as Jazirat al-Ṭawilah, which translates as “Long Island”, Qeshm has undergone a policy of Persianisation as Iran has sought to strengthen its hold on an island that has fallen into the possession of many different powers over the centuries.
For centuries the population of Qeshm has been dominated by the occupied by the Qawasim, a Sunni Arab tribe whose members include the current rulers of the emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah. While the Qawasim are the majority on Qeshm, the island was traditionally ruled by the sheikh of the Arab Banu Ma’in tribe with which it had ties through tribal inter-marriage.
Historically tied to the southern Gulf and never fully in Persia’s grasp, this geopolitically crucial island has changed ownership from various warring Arab Gulf leaders, including the Imam of Oman in the 18th century. Europeans have also stationed forces on the island. A 17th century Portuguese fort, built during fierce battles for control, still stands and the British secured the island in the mid-18th century and maintained a military depot there until the end of the 19th century.
Qatar seeks to profit from Arab misery
In spite of the threat to the island’s strong Arab heritage, Qatar has sought to build relations with Tehran to profit from Qeshm’s development. The massacre on Qeshm came shortly after Qatar’s deputy foreign minister Mohammad al-Rumaihi’s visit to the island with a view to exploiting its resources. Yet, Qatar has no historical or cultural links to Qashem.
Ethnicity, religion and human rights matter little to the Al-Thani family, which is building up a business empire by securing foreign resources to augment its own gas wealth. But Arabs are wising up to Qatar’s toxic influence through its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and a host of Islamist groups fighting in the Levant. The violence that accompanies Qatari greed will not be welcome by the population of Qeshm.