Untold lives blog

10 July 2015

Anyone for Tennis? Relaxation and Social Mingling in the Gulf

As royalty and celebrities gather at Wimbledon for finals weekend, during a fortnight in which players, tournament officials and spectators have had to cope with soaring  temperatures,  it does well to ponder the prospect of playing a match in the heat and humidity of the Gulf in the first half of the twentieth century.  Although this may sound quite unappealing, tennis formed a vital part of the daily routine for the British officials posted there, alleviating boredom and stress. It also became an important meeting point with the Ruling Families in the Gulf.

For these reasons, if a tennis court was not available it could add considerably to the frustration of a posting.  In 1911 Captain David Lockhart Robinson Lorimer, Political Agent in Bahrain, made a request to Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Percy Cox, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, for provision of a court in Bahrain. He submitted that he had already built one at his own expense in Ahwaz, Persia, such was the importance of the facility.   

  Request for a tennis court in Bahrain
Request for a tennis court in Bahrain

IOR/R/15/2/53 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


A tennis court also formed an essential part of the fabric of social interaction between British officials and the Ruling Families.   Brian Stoddart pinpoints the role tennis played as a game introduced by Britain into its areas of imperial influence and empire: “Tennis was different in social purpose and directed towards a different social clientele. It was deemed a ‘social game’, meaning that it was designed to bring people of like mind and social rank together in a leisure setting rather than to stimulate competition, stress development of sporting skills, or strive for excellence. Consequently, tennis ‘parties’ (the term itself suggesting a nonserious purpose) were invariably staged at courts in the grounds of private homes, with participants drawn from upper social echelons”. Thus in the 1930s, Shaikh Hamad, was pleased to have a court and pavilion built where he could entertain European guests.

Note that Shaikh Hamad had built a court and pavilion

IOR/R/15/1/236   Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


In the same way that Wimbledon today forms an important part of the social calendar of ‘the great and the good’, so in the early 20th century, the tennis court with a pavilion in the gardens of the Gulf was a venue for influential social mingling before the area was transformed by oil and luxurious hotels (with tennis courts) assumed a similar role.

Francis Owtram
Gulf History Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further Reading:
'File 3/2 Agency Buildings, from 1912' IOR/R/15/2/53
'File [B 29] Arab States monthly summaries from 1929 to 1931'
B. Stoddart, (2006) ‘Sport, Cultural Imperialism and Colonial Response in the British Empire’, Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media and Politics, p.871

Another way to alleviate the boredom of Empire - Circumnavigating Warbah and Rollicking Riproars, or how to cure the boredom of Empire



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