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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Another fine colonial war you've got us into, Stanley!

“Keep the dogs hungry and they will follow you.” That, according to journalist Chris Kutschera, was the motto of Sultan Said bin Taimur, who ruled Oman and Muscat, as it was called, from 1932 to 1970. Kutschera’s color piece tells a lot about Oman at the time.

“There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.

No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.

No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours. But one day the dogs got too hungry, and they tore the Sultan almost to death.”

The politics of the Arabian Peninsula in the fifties and through the sixties were shaped by a number of rivalries: that between the Saudis and Nassar; that between the Americans and the Russians; and that latent and silent struggle between the declining colonial power of Britain and the Americans. It was part of the last named rivalry that Britain took the side of Oman in its border dispute with Saudi Arabia – which regarded Oman much the way Saddam Hussein regarded Kuwait. Sultan Taimur was an anglophile. Although foreigners, including Brits, were not welcomed to roam the country, British military men provided the real security advice and structure in Oman. It was the British who helped Taimur put down various revolts against his power. What the British couldn’t quench, immediately, was a revolt that sprang up in Dhofar, that region of Oman that bordered The Democratic Republic ofYemen. The original insurgency was simply that of the aggrieved, but it evolved into that third world special, Marxist revolutionaries. The two division of what eventually became known as the “Popular Front for the Liberation of the occupied Arabian Gulf” were named after Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara – names that are a little hoary, now, but that, in the sixties, had enormous magical power. The Marxists wanted to secularize, provide health care and education for women, etc., etc. – all of the things that Western policy in the Middle East was dead against for fifty years. So naturally the British had to do something. What they did was “loan” Oman use of the SAS, and build the Sultan (who had forbidden the use of glasses as an intolerable modern affront) an air force. There’s a nice, Kipling-esque account of the war on this Small Wars site. It would probably be accurate to call the Dhofar war the last classic colonial struggle undertaken by the British.

The impediment to stopping communist subversion in the Persian gulf, it turned out, was the incorrigibly backwards Taimur. So he was overthrown in a coup that is surrounded by the usual Cold War murk – the Brits most likely pulling the strings, but no chain of evidence leading directly to any order. Thus they elevating his British educated son, the present Sultan, Qaboos, and kicked the war into higher gear.

“By July 1970, the province of Dhofar in western Oman was almost entirely in the hands of Communist-backed rebels belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). The Sultan of Oman had failed to recognise the danger and had done little to gain support among the indigenous people of Dhofar. The province was ideal guerrilla country, being dominated by a range of mountains in which the Sultan's Armed Forces found it difficult to operate. On 23rd July, the Sultan's son Qaboos bin Said, seized power in a palace coup to try and save his inheritance. He immediately introduced policies based on British counter-insurgency operations (COIN) and new government agencies were set up, designed to modernize Oman and persuade the ordinary people that the Sultan was worth supporting. Elements of 22 SAS were sent to help the expanded SAF defeat the PFLOAG.”

However, the British ability and willingness to sustain a war in the Arabian peninsula in the seventies was dependent on the rotten financial situation of the British economy, as well as emergencies closer to home, as in Northern Ireland. So Sultan Qaboos turned elsewhere – namely, to the Shah of Iran. Not only was a generation of British military men trained in the Dhofar war – by the end, it became an exercise field for the planes the Americans had sold the Shah .

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