The war in Oman, 1957-59
By Mark Curtis
An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses
In July 1957 an uprising in central Oman brought about a collapse in the Sultan’s authority in the area and threatened control of the country as a whole. Various tribes defecting from the Sultan joined forces with another tribal leader, Talib, who had landed in the country with an unusual combination of arms supplied from Saudi Arabia and backing from Nasser’s Egypt. On 18 July Britain decided on air action against the rebels and the following month ground troops were despatched to join the fighting.
Just after Britain had begun its military intervention, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan explained to President Kennedy that ‘we believe that the Sultan is a true friend to the West and is doing his best for his people’. As Macmillan would surely have been aware, this was being somewhat economical with the truth. Indeed, it would be hard to discover a more oppressive regime to whose defence Britain leapt than that of the Omani Sultan’s at this time. Literally all resources and political power were in the Sultan’s hands, who kept hundreds of slaves at his palace, which he rarely left. There was no development to speak of and the main city did not even have a public electricity supply until 1971. There were hardly any schools or health care, and diseases were rampant.
‘There is quite a lot to be said for a reasonably efficient feudalism’, Britain’s political resident in the Gulf, Sir Bernard Burrows, had commented a few months before the uprising, referring to the Gulf generally where Britain supported similar regimes.
Burrows also noted three days after the British decision to intervene that there had been: ‘a noticeable swing of general opinion throughout the Sultanate in favour of Talib, who is becoming more and more recognised as the local exponent of Arabism, and against the Sultan, whose popularity is at a very low ebb now’.
Burrows was also aware that ‘it was fear of the British that kept’ the tribes in the Sultanate on the Sultan’s side ‘and only the thought that we were coming back which kept them from joining the rebels now’. Thus Britain ruled the country with terror and force in the name of the Sultan.
Also instructive are the views of Burrows’ replacement, George Middleton. After 18 months of war by the British against the rebels, he told the Foreign Office that ‘this is yet another instance of our appearing to back an unpopular, undemocratic and selfish potentate’. He added: ‘The condition of the people is miserable, the Sultan is unpopular, there is no central administration… and, under the present regime, not a great deal of hope for the future… What surprises me, is not that there is still a rebellion’ in the central areas ‘but that there are not half a dozen similar uprisings in other parts of the country’.
However, Middleton’s views were countered by his political master Julian Amery, the Colonial Minister. Amery said that the Sultan’s record is ‘on the whole a good one’ since ‘he has been loyal to the policy of cooperation with Britain’ and has given Britain ‘important facilities to the RAF at Masirah and Salalah’, towns in Oman. Also, he was an opponent of Arab nationalism and ‘the only Arab ruler who gave public support to the Suez expedition’ just over two years earlier. Then, as now, these were qualities that ensured that the mediaeval Sultan be seen as one of Whitehall’s kind of chaps.
Britain had to intervene since ‘successful defiance of the Sultan… is likely to have a snowball effect’ throughout Oman and other parts of the Gulf, the Foreign Office stated. Bombing would ‘prevent the infection spreading’ elsewhere in the Gulf ‘by showing our friends there that we mean business’.
Defending the regime at all should be considered as morally repugnant, but actual British actions in the war surpassed even this, involving sheer terror and apparent war crimes. Officials in Bahrain, Britain’s key diplomatic post in the region, noted that the purpose of British ‘air action’ in support of the Sultan was ‘to show the population the power of weapons at our disposal’ and to convince them that ‘resistance will be fruitless and lead only to hardship’. The aim was ‘to inflict the maximum inconvenience on the population so that out of discomfort and boredom they will turn’ against the rebels.
The British bombed water supplies and agricultural gardens – thus civilian targets that are clearly war crimes. In a memo written on 21 July 1957, Charles Gault in in Bahrain noted that the Sultan had agreed to air attacks on date gardens which, with attacks from cannon fire, ‘would deter dissident villages [sic] from gathering their crops’. He also noted that ‘it also appears possible to damage water supply to certain villages by air attack on wells’. This was later described as ‘denial of water supply to selected villages by air action’.
The following year Burrows was noting that ‘shelling of mountain villages continues intermittently and is having success in denying the use of the village [sic] and cultivation’. He also noted a recent ‘air attack on water supply’ of villages in the plains around Saiq and Sharaijah, two Omani towns at the foothills of the Jebel mountain, saying that ‘shelling has already rendered cultivation… hazardous’ in these areas.
Burrows gave a further interesting insight into some of the concerns of planners at this time. He noted that he had advised against similar attacks against the villages of the plains in this area last summer ‘on the grounds of adverse political effect’ since ‘such attacks would have become widely known’. But now ‘circumstances have somewhat changed since then’. Villages on top of the mountain of Jebel Akhdar ‘are in a somewhat different position’ since ‘what happens there does not necessarily become widely known throughout the country’. Therefore, Burrows approved of an ‘attack on water supply at Said and Sharaijah’ and argued for ‘rocket attacks on water channel and tanks’.
In April 1958 the files reveal that Macmillan approved British ‘attacks by rocket on water supplies’ although he failed to approve a proposal from the Defence Minister to bomb ‘cultivated areas’. In August 1957 the Foreign Secretary had approved air strikes without needing to give warning. At the same time, the Foreign Office noted that ‘we want to avoid the RAF killing Arabs if possible, especially as there will be newspaper correspondents on the spot’.
By October 1957, British and local troops had recaptured the main centres of population and Talib and about 50 rebels then climbed the Jebel Ahkdar mountains and mustered the support of some of the hill tribesmen. At this time the Foreign Office was saying that Burrows, the political resident in Bahrain, ‘has recommended that the three villages concerned… should be warned that unless they surrender the ringleaders of the revolt, they will be destroyed one by one by bombing’.
Yet the government initially decided against bombing the villages on the mountain since ‘world opinion at that time was very flammable’. Instead, an alternative was approved in February 1958. The British commander in Oman noted in a later report that the British forces leant two ‘medium guns’ to the Sultan’s forces and ‘with these, manned by his own men, he could blast the top of the mountain where and when he pleased, without publicity or odium affecting HMG’. However, this strategy failed owing to the guns doing ‘insufficient damage’ due to the ‘daily rate of fire’ being restricted by cost and availability of ammunition.
So in March 1958 Britain authorised ‘the rocketing and bombing of suspected rebel hideouts’ on the mountain and the main routes leading up the mountain. This soon involved air attacks on supply routes, gunning the mountain top and ‘air attacks to deny waterways and proscribe cultivation outside inhabited areas’, according to the British Commander.
Fighting continued through the summer and the rebels on the Jebel mountain remained undefeated. In November 1958 it was agreed to deploy the SAS to take the mountain – an episode that has entered legend as proving the superhumanness of the SAS and which has received somewhat more attention than the British commission of systematic war crimes in this conflict (which have received none that I am aware of). However, it is partly the result of the infliction of terrible violence by the British beforehand, including these war crimes, that explains the ‘success’ of the SAS.
Interestingly, the assault on the mountain began after British officials had recognised that Talib and another rebel leader wished ‘to have peace to live in their villages’ and that, even though British officials could not be sure of the leaders’ seriousness to negotiate a peace, their conditions ‘would at least represent the basis for negotiation’. Not for the last time in the Middle East, Britain instead pushed for the military solution and in January 1959 the rebels were quickly defeated. The SAS had been deployed without the agreement of the Sultan (and the Sultan was barely consulted on British operations in the war generally) showing that it was really a British as much as an Omani war.
The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted that ‘great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions out of the press’ – a strategy that was aided by the Sultan’s complete ban on visas for reporters. ‘Throughout the whole campaign’, the report noted, ‘a game of bluff and deceit was carried out, which at times was far from pleasant’. It seems that little has changed in the pursuit of British wars in the Middle East.
Neither did the war solve much. As the Foreign Office noted in July 1959, there was no political settlement in the interior and the crushing of the rebellion ‘provided no more than a breathing space’ for the Sultan. The ‘long term problem’ lay in the ‘continued disaffection of large parts of the interior towards the Sultan’ which he was not interested in addressing. The Sultan ‘spends nearly all his time inaccessibly’ at his palace while ‘hardly any of his ministers can be regarded as even moderately competent’.
Five years later, though, little had changed when a rebellion broke out in the province of Dhofar. The rebels proclaimed the liberation of Dhofar in 1965 and were later to receive the support of Egypt, Iraq and South Yemen (once the British had been forced out of Aden in 1967) while renaming themselves the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). In response, the British embarked upon another military intervention that lasted until 1974.
The Dhofar uprising was ‘an indigenous rebellion against the repression and neglect’ of the Sultan, the Foreign Office noted later. Even by 1970 it was forbidden to smoke in public, to play football, to wear glasses, shoes or trousers, to eat in public or to talk to anyone for more than fifteen minutes. The Sultan’s response to the rebels was not an alternative programme but simply the use of even greater force.
The poverty and repression that lay at the root of the uprising here, as with those in North Yemen and Aden, were well recognised by British officials. Bill Carden, the British Consul General in Muscat, for example, noted that ‘apart from the few who work for the RAF, for the American oil company and for the Sultan, Dhoafris have no means of earning a reasonable livelihood in their country’. Meanwhile, the many who go abroad see ‘the unfavourable comparisons between the great amount which is done for the people there and the very little done for them in Dhofar’. Carden noted that ‘the Sultan has for too long had too many repressive measures’ such as forbidding people to buy bicycles or radios without permission.
Oil was the key issue and by August 1967 Oman was exporting around 10 million barrels a year, with prospects to massively increase this level. The manager of Oman’s Petroleum Development Corporation (PDO) was British, and probably the second most powerful man in the country after the Sultan. Shell had an 85 per cent interest in Omani oil and with almost all of Oman’s income generated from oil, the revenues were paid directly to the Sultan who released a proportion for the exchequer. Resources were thus in the correct hands.
‘If the Omani rebel movement were to succeed’, Britain’s political resident in Bahrain noted, and if ‘the territory where the oilfield lie were to be separated constitutionally from the coastal area near Muscat where the terminal is situated, the oil company might find itself in great difficulty’.
By 1972 Foreign Office Minister Patrick Jenkin was saying that ‘success in Dhofar is essential for the Sultan’ (ie, Britain): ‘If he fails there and loses his throne as a result, there is little doubt that stability in the Gulf area would be seriously affected, with consequent risk to our substantial commercial interests’.
Britain crushed the Dhofar rebellion and also removed the Sultan, who had by then become a liability, in a coup in 1970. The files on this coup remain completely censored – no doubt since the beneficiary, the Sultan’s son, Qaboos, remains in power today as Britain’s leading ally in the Gulf.
Filed under: Middle East, Oman, UK foreign policy | 7 Comments