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British currency in the Middle East

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Title: British currency in the Middle East  
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Subject: Jordanian dinar, Egyptian pound
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British currency in the Middle East

British involvement in the Middle East began with the Aden Settlement in 1839. The British East India Company established an anti-piracy station in Aden to protect British shipping that was sailing to and from India. The Trucial States were similarly brought into the British Empire as a base for suppressing sea piracy in the Persian Gulf. Involvement in the region expanded to Egypt because of the Suez canal, as well as to Bahrain, Qatar, and Muscat. Kuwait was added in 1899 because of fears about the proposed Berlin-Baghdad Railway. There was a growing fear in the United Kingdom that Germany was a rising power, and there was concern about the implications of access to the Persian Gulf that would arise from the Berlin-Baghdad Railway. After the First World War the British influence in the Middle East reached its maximum extent with the inclusion of Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. At first, Indian rupees were introduced to Aden and the Gulf States, and later during the First World War to Mesopotamia. After the First World War, the Indian rupee in British East Africa was replaced by a florin and then a shilling, which eventually replaced the Indian Rupee in Aden by 1951. Meanwhile in 1927 a new Palestine pound at par with the pound sterling was introduced in the mandated territories of Palestine and Transjordan to replace the Turkish and Egyptian currencies. The East African Shilling in Aden was replaced in 1965 with the South Arabian Dinar at par with the pound sterling.


For nearly four hundred years, Spanish dollars (pieces of eight) had served as the international currency, and most of these coins were minted in Mexico City, Lima, and Potosi in the New World. The policy of introducing the sterling currency into all of the British colonies began with an imperial order-in-council dated 1825. The timing of the British imperial order-in-council corresponded to the drying up of the source of the Spanish dollars following revolutions in Latin America, and also the introduction of a successful gold standard into the United Kingdom in 1821, based on the gold sovereign. In 1825, the British Empire had not as yet taken on its widest extent. Following the American revolution, Britain's attention switched to India, but British India was originally controlled by the British East India Company. The British government did not take direct control over India until after the Indian mutiny of 1857. Hence the imperial-order-of-council of 1825 did not apply to India. As such, the already circulating silver rupee continued to be the currency of India for the entire duration of the British Raj, and afterwards into independence. The Indian rupee was not only the currency of India but also the currency of an extended region beyond, which stretched across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, up through the horn of Africa, through Aden and Muscat in Southern Arabia and Eastern Arabia, and along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf, extending even as far inland as Mesopotamia. These middle eastern territories did not become a part of the British Empire until a period ranging from the 1840s until after the first world war. The Middle East was the last major addition to the British Empire, and therefore just like India, was unaffected by the 1825 imperial order-in-council. The 1825 order-in-council was limited largely to the remnants of the old Empire in North America and the West Indies, along with New South Wales, Gibraltar, and some spoils of the Napoleonic wars such as the Cape of Good Hope, Malta, and Mauritius. It is said that the British Empire had three currency zones, and that the three currencies were the pound sterling, the dollar, and the rupee. The situation in the British territories of the Middle East was however somewhat complicated, because it involved a situation in which Indian rupees, Turkish piastres, and Egyptian piastres gradually gave way to systems based on units of the sterling system, but without ever involving the introduction of the full sterling coinage.

Pounds, Dinars, Maria Theresa Thalers, and Rupees in the Middle East

The situation as regards currency in the British territories in the Middle East was quite different from the situation as regards the currencies of the British West Indies.

East Africa and the Middle East were late additions to the British Empire, and by that time, the British government had already learned from experience in Canada, India, and Hong Kong, that it is highly impractical to impose a new currency in the place of already existing practices. At no time in the history of Britain's involvement in the Middle East region did the sterling coinage ever form a part of the circulating currency. The sterling unit of account did however enter the region through Palestine in 1927, in the form of the Palestine pound. The Palestine pound was introduced into Palestine in 1927 to end the confusion which had arisen as a result of the twin circulation of Turkish and Egyptian money in the territory. The Palestine pound was created at par with the pound sterling, but it was not used in conjunction with the pounds, shillings, and pence coinage. It was used in conjunction with a decimal system. This was in contrast to the situation in the Eastern Caribbean where sterling coinage was used in conjunction with a Spanish dollar unit of account. The Palestine pound was also used in Transjordan where it later became referred to as the dinar. The name dinar then became the preferred name for the pound sterling unit of account as it spread to other middle eastern territories. Iraq adopted the dinar in 1931 to replace the Indian rupee that had been introduced by the British during the first world war.

Meanwhile, after the first world war, the price of silver rose dramatically. In British East Africa, at the moment when the silver rupee rose to the value of two shillings sterling, the authorities opportunistically introduced a florin system to replace the rupee, with the florin being equal to the rupee at two shillings. Shortly after that in 1922, the monetary system in British East Africa was changed again, this time to a shilling system. The East African shilling was now on par with the shilling sterling, but although the earliest versions of the East African shilling and the East African florin corresponded in shape, size, and weight with the corresponding sterling coins, the full set of sterling coinage was never introduced into British East Africa, as it was in British West Africa and in the British territories in Southern Africa. The East African shilling was originally used in Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika but it soon spread to Zanzibar and British Somaliland, eventually crossing from the horn of Africa to Aden on the Arabian coast in 1951, where it replaced the rupee in that territory. In 1961, Kuwait adopted the dinar as a new unit of account to replace the Indian rupee, and in 1965 the dinar unit replaced the shilling in Aden at twenty shillings to the dinar. In 1966 the rupee was replaced by the dinar in Bahrain, and in Abu Dhabi, while in Qatar, Dubai and the remaining Trucial States, the rupee was replaced by the Saudi Riyal which was a direct descendent of the Maria Theresa Thaler. Interestingly, the Maria Theresa Thaler was a variety of the silver Thaler coin first mined in Joachimsthal, Bohemia, and the Thaler is the German coin upon which the Spanish eight real coin was modelled. It is these Spanish dollars (or pieces of eight) that are the parent coinage of the modern US dollar. The word 'dollar' originates from the word Thaler.

In 1970, The Sultanate of Oman replaced the rupee with a rial unit that was on par with the pound sterling. Meanwhile, the dinar units in the other parts of the Persian Gulf region had already risen in value against the pound sterling as a result of sterling's devaluation in 1967, and so the new Omani rial was not equal in value to the dinars in the nearby territories.

The situation today is that the currency units that are used in Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the Yemen are all descended from the pound sterling unit, while the currency units that are used in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are all descended from the Maria Theresa Thaler. This largely explains the factor of ten difference in value on average between Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates on the other hand. Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman are using units that are descended from sterling, whereas Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are using units that are descended from the Maria Theresa Thaler.

The special case of Egypt

When the British first got involved in Egypt in the nineteenth century, Egypt was using a monetary unit known as the piastre, or Qirsh. Since 100 piastres was roughly between the value of one pound sterling and one Guinea, a new unit, called the pound in English and the ginaih in Arabic, was created equal to one hundred piastres. The Egyptian pound, however, has never been exactly equal in value to the pound sterling; starting in the early 20th century it was worth slightly more than one pound sterling, and since then its value has slid to its current rate of approximately 6 pounds to the US dollar or 9.50 to the pound sterling.

In 1956 in the territory that had once been the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the Sudanese pound replaced the Egyptian pound at par. From 30 December 1969 until 21 September 1971, the Sudanese pound was at par with the pound sterling.

The Special case of Cyprus

The British introduced the Cyprus pound in 1879 to be equal to 180 Turkish piastres. Cyprus then became a territory where the British pound sterling unit circulated in the absence of the sterling coinage. However, the 9 piastre coin corresponded exactly to the British shilling and this coin was minted in an identical size and weight to that of the British shilling. Likewise, the 18 piastre coin corresponded to the British florin, and at one stage in the late 1940s and early 1950s, these two coins even had their shilling values written on them.

The Sterling Area

At the outbreak of the second world war, the sterling area was formed as an emergency measure in order to protect the external value of the pound sterling, mainly against the US dollar. All the territories mentioned above joined the sterling area since their respective pounds, dinars, shillings, or rupees were pegged at a fixed value to the pound sterling. The Indian rupee at that time was pegged to the pound sterling at a fixed value of one shilling and six pence sterling. In the years after the second world war, Egypt, Palestine, the Sudan and Iraq left the sterling area.

As a result of the sterling devaluation of November 1967, the floating of the pound sterling in June 1972, and the ending of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates that was introduced in 1944, none of the currencies mentioned above retain any fixed parity to any of the sterling units of account. There is no visible relationship between these currencies today and the currency that is used in the United Kingdom.

See also


  • Chalmers, R., "A History of Currency in the British Colonies" (1893)
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