The sheikh who listened to Nazi radio
Early in World War Two, just after the fall of France, Britain's agent in the Gulf sheikhdom of Sharjah noticed an alarming rise in support for Nazi Germany. Slipping on a disguise he quickly found out who was responsible, reports Matthew Teller.
"I beg to report that lately I received information that the Shaikh of Sharjah had been opening his wireless set on the German Arabic Broadcast so loudly that one could hear it from 200 yards from his palace," wrote the agent, Abdurrazzaq al-Razuki, to his Bahrain-based superior, Hugh Weightman, in June 1940.
"A large crowd gathers there to hear the German news of which they took much interest."
To confirm this he went round to the palace incognito one night and heard both the radio broadcasts and people arguing with each other - for and against Germany.
There was other evidence too, that could not be ignored: "Long live Hitler" and "Right is with Germany" had been chalked on walls around the town.
After making further "secret inquiries" al-Razuki determined that the source of dissent was not the Sheikh, but his secretary Abdullah bin Faris - who a few months earlier had requested naturalisation as a British subject, and been refused.
"In order to throw ash into my eyes, he praises the British Government in my presence, [but] acts behind the curtain by inducing ordinary people to spread rumours about defeat," wrote al-Razuki to Weightman.
Even in far-flung Sharjah, British officials knew they could not let pro-German sentiment go unchallenged - not least because Sharjah was a refuelling stop for Imperial Airways flights between London and India.
Amid a flurry of correspondence "in the hope of frightening the Sheikh", Weightman reminded the Sheikh of his treaty obligations with Britain and demanded punishment for Abdullah.
This produced instant results.
"I and all my people are the loyal friends of His Majesty's Government," the Sheikh wrote.
"We do not listen to the Berlin broadcast because it is the promulgator of falsehood. In this war we are the enemies of Germany and Italy."
He enclosed a document signed by 48 Sharjah notables testifying to Abdullah's innocence. But then al-Razuki discovered that Abdullah had secured these signatures by deceit, substituting one document for another.
Weightman was in a bind.
The Sheikh "knows less of what goes on in his own town than I do," he fumed. At the same time, he recognised that it was "practically impossible" to force the Sheikh to sack Abdullah.
Fortunately, al-Razuki was soon able to report that the political climate in Sharjah was improving.
"The Sheikh is avoiding all talk about the Germans and is doing his best to show that he is the most loyal friend of the British Government," he wrote on 30 October.
"Abdullah bin Faris also refrained from pro-Nazi talk and is spreading only good news about the British Government."
Might the Sheikh have started blasting out the BBC's Arabic broadcasts instead of Germany's? The tradition of radio for the people certainly continued, it seems.
"In the evening people would mass in front of Sharjah Fort to listen to news broadcasts," Sultan al-Qasimi, the current ruler of Sharjah writes in his memoir, My Early Life - though he was only six at the war's end.
"They could hear the radio from one of the upper-floor windows, where the Sheikh held his [gathering]."
Some of the Sheikh's subjects evidently still supported Germany, possibly remembering the broadcasts heard in 1940, which had promised liberation from colonial rule.
"Half the people supported the Allies and half supported the Axis powers," writes Sultan al-Qasimi.
"We children watched the fighting between the two."
Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.
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