Oil maps of the Middle East

Dr Mark Hobbs looks at the role maps have played in oil exploration in the Middle East from the West’s early work in the region at the beginning of the 20th century until today.

Britain has a long history of involvement in the Middle East. Government files dating from the early 20th century, such as those found in the India Office Records held at the British Library, reveal British attitudes to the region in the wake of the discovery of large deposits of oil. The maps in these records demonstrate the extent of Middle Eastern oil resources, and illustrate the West’s attitude to the region, its nations, and the boundaries dividing them.

What does the Middle East oil map show and why is it important?

A map of the Middle East prepared by the British Government’s Foreign Office, published as part of a survey of Middle East oil resources, tells us much about the West’s attitude to the region throughout the 20th century. On first glance, its lines and shading give the impression that it is a political map, marking nations and the boundaries dividing them.

Oilfields & concession areas in the Middle Eastern Countries

Oilfields & concession areas in the Middle Eastern Countries

The map shows the locations of all the known oilfields and concession areas of the region

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A closer inspection reveals the shaded areas to be not countries but oil concession areas, and identified not by country, but by Middle Eastern oil companies. Concession boundaries are given priority over national borders, and human settlements ignored at the expense of oil fields and refineries. Unshaded areas allude to opportunities waiting to be claimed.

When did the search for oil in the Middle East begin?

The West’s view of the region as a blank canvas of rich mineralogical resources first took shape in the decade prior to the First World War. In 1901 the English entrepreneur William Knox D’Arcy negotiated a concession with the Persian Government to search for oil in its territory.

In May 1908, after seven years’ searching, oil was finally found in significant amounts at Masjed Soleyman, in the southwest corner of Persia, close to the border with Turkish Mesopotamia (now Iraq). One year later, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was incorporated in London.

Map of Persia showing oil sites

Map of Persia showing oil sites

The ‘unquestionable oil indications’ are shown as red dots while red crosses mark wells already in operation

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In anticipation of Britain’s plans to convert its naval fleet from coal to oil power, the company’s prospectus for investors promised that an ‘almost limitless market will be found for Fuel Oil for marine purposes … especially on Warships.’ Red dots on the map accompanying the prospectus indicated ‘unquestionable oil indications’, while red crosses indicated wells already in operation[1].

What role have maps played in Middle Eastern oil exploration?

Though APOC started out as a commercial enterprise, Britain’s interest in the Middle East’s oil resources it was to exploit, combined with the close proximity of those resources to the Mesopotamian border, would preoccupy officials up to the First World War and beyond.

So taxing were efforts to draw a line between Persia and Mesopotamia (and hence control APOC’s concession) that one British official suggested ‘the dossier containing its record [was] of a length to stretch from end to end of the entire 1,180 miles which constitute the actual frontier.’[2]

Further discoveries of oil reserves across the region followed in the ensuing decades: Iraq in 1927, then Bahrain (1932), Qatar (1935), Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (1938), the United Arab Emirates (1958), and Oman (1964).

With each discovery, new companies were founded, backed by investors from Britain, the United States, and Europe. Each hoped to secure concessions for exploration and extraction with the ruling figure or government. In many cases, the pithy issue of defining new national boundaries also had to be addressed.

Who mapped the Middle East’s oil fields and what was the outcome?

In a region still largely uncharted and unexplored by the West, maps played an essential part in plotting oil resources in the Gulf and determining the extent of concessions. Files in the India Office Records indicate the extent to which concession boundaries eventually dictated the region’s national borders. Many of these lines ran through harsh landscapes of desert, mountains and marshes, inhabited by nomadic tribes on a seasonal basis. Whilst previously national boundaries were vague and indeterminate, oil exploration added an impetus to defining these frontiers.

For British administrators, the most authoritative map of the day was Hunter’s Map of Arabia, produced by Lieutenant Fraser Hunter between 1905 and 1908. With a scale of 32 miles to an inch, and incorporating an index of place-names in both English and Arabic, it was the most authoritative map of the region in the early decades of the 20th century.

Hunter’s Map of Arabia

Hunter’s Map of Arabia

This map shows important features such as roads, routes, railway schemes (both completed and those under construction) and submarine telegraph lines

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Marked ‘secret’ by the British Government, this was the map that Britain’s political agents across the Persian Gulf and Arabian peninsula had on the walls of their office, and to which they repeatedly referred to in correspondence.

Negotiating oil boundaries: Oil politics in the Middle East

At Bahrain, oil concession negotiations took place in the early 1920s between the New Zealand-born entrepreneur Frank Holmes, representative of the London company Eastern & General Syndicate Limited, and the Ruler of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al-Khalifah. Discussions between the two parties were aided by Bahrain being an island, the coastline of which formed a distinct and unambiguous border.

A map, signed by Holmes and dated 12 May 1923, demonstrates the simplicity of the concession area, which could be determined on a map lacking in detail, with a scale of 1 inch to 48 miles.

Map of the Persian Gulf

Map of the Persian Gulf

The Bahrain Islands are coloured red, indicating the area covered by the concession agreement

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By contrast, concession negotiations on the Qatar peninsula were more complex. Here, the negotiations focused on the southwest edge of the concession area: Qatar’s land frontier with Saudi Arabia. The frontier between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was hotly disputed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, with the British Government, having made Qatar a British protectorate in 1916, on one side, and the King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, on the other.

The question of oil concessions on both sides of the frontier set the agenda for negotiations, with APOC negotiating for a concession in Qatar, and the California Standard Oil Company operating in Saudi Arabian territory.

Ibn Saud had agreed an oil concession for the Al Hasa region of Saudi Arabia with Frank Holmes in 1922. In December of that year, during a meeting to discuss the concession with Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner for Iraq, Ibn Saud produced a copy of Hunter’s Map of Arabia, on which was drawn a blue line indicating the extent of the Al Hasa concession.

The position of the blue line suggested Qatar as being included in the Al Hasa concession, to which – as one observer wrote later – Cox ‘showed considerable annoyance’. In response, Cox drew a red line at where he considered the Al Hasa concession limit to be (across the base of the Qatar peninsula) before crossing out Ibn Saud’s proposed line.[3]

Map of Qatar and parts of Saudi Arabia

Map of Qatar and parts of Saudi Arabia

A map showing the southern half of the Qatar Peninsula and the adjoining mainland

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The exploitation of the Middle East’s petroleum resources transformed the region in the decades after the end of the Second World War. GDP figures per capita produced by the International Monetary Fund in 2015, place Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain among the world’s 15 wealthiest nations[4]. And in spite of Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE gaining independence from Britain in the 1970s, and the nationalisation of many of the Middle East’s oil companies, Western nations have remained heavily dependent on the Gulf’s petroleum resources.


[1] File 1421/1908 Pt 3–5 'Persia: Oil' IOR/L/PS/10/144/2, f 214.

[2] Gilbert Ernest Hubbard, From the Gulf to Ararat: An Expedition through Mesopotamia and Kurdistan (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1916), 1–2

[3] Letter from the Political Agent at Kuwait to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, 4 July 1933, IOR/R/15/2/410, ff 167–169

[4] According to the IMF World Economic Outlook Database, April 2016. Available on Google Public Data: https://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=k3s92bru78li6_, accessed 15 February 2017
  • Dr Mark Hobbs
  • Mark Hobbs is as Content Specialist at the British Library, where he works on the India Office Records for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme. Prior to working at the British Library, Mark worked on a number of museum projects in the Middle East, including the slavery museum in Bin Jelmood House, Doha, Qatar. Mark has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Glasgow.