Analysis | Britain, Oman and “Our kind of guy”

Sultan Qaboos, Oman's ruler since 1970, is the world's longest surviving autocrat and Britain's closest ally in the Gulf. Elliot Murphy takes a look at the history and politics behind a very discreet, and troubling, relationship.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Wednesday, February 1, 2012 11:08 - 4 Comments

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David Cameron meets with Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said at his palace in Muscat; 24 February 2011 (Photo: PA)

With Libya recently dealt with, and its dictator killed, there has since been scarce mention in the mainstream media of the new holder of the “world’s longest surviving dictator” title: Qaboos bin Said, the Sultan of Oman.

And for good reason: Qaboos happens to be Britain’s closest ally in the Gulf and has reigned in Oman for over forty years, his initial rise to power swiftly aided by the SAS. Indeed, Britain’s collusion with Oman has been just as horrific as its relationships with other Gulf dictators (or ‘local cops on the beat’ to use the phrase of President Nixon’s Defense Secretary, keeping an eye out for British interests). Oman is essentially a British intelligence base, with Britain being its largest foreign investor, facts which the majority of scholarly histories shy away from.

Andrew Marr’s revered History of Modern Britain covers the textbook events of the last century, such as the Suez crisis of 1956. But only a year later Britain intervened in Oman to prop up the current Sultan’s father, Said bin Taimur, who was also installed through the SAS in a brutal civil war that involved war crimes such as bombing water supplies and agricultural gardens – an episode which has conveniently been consigned to Orwell’s ‘memory hole’ thanks to state intellectuals like Marr, Simon Shama and Niall Ferguson.

Pick up your favourite history textbook and try and find any mention of this: A search for ‘Oman’ in the mainstream media search engines produces mostly travel writing, despite the Sultan’s sharp crushing of dissent during last year’s protests, which he met with a promise to create 50,000 jobs and increase minimum salaries, choosing to ignore his country’s deeper constitutional problems.

The coalition government has been saying proudly since 2010 that it’s developing new alliances with the Gulf region, and that increased investment, trade and military training of these countries is vital to Britain’s ‘national interest.’ During one of his sermons, William Hague announced this only several minutes after winning the election in 2010, in an early effort to deepen support for some of the most undemocratic, repressive, sexist regimes in the world. But we should be quick not to indulge in the luxury of historical ignorance by sagely ‘looking forward,’ as David Cameron frequently insists on The Andrew Marr Show.

From the late nineteenth century the Sultanate (later the Sultanate of Oman) stretched from the southern Arabian Peninsula to parts of modern Iran, Pakistan and Zanzibar, and was ‘a de facto British colony’ since the 1870s, according to the late Fred Halliday.[i] Up until the 1950s it was a ‘disease-ridden society where the infant mortality rate was 75 per cent and the literacy rate was 5 per cent, where slavery was still practiced quite openly (the Sultan himself owned some 500 black slaves) and where mistreatment, mutilation and torture were routinely used to intimidate the population into quiescence and passivity.’[ii]

The two wars fought on behalf of the Sultans of Oman in the 1950s and 1970s were significant, writes John Newsinger in his study of British counterinsurgency efforts, ‘first of all for maintaining a British presence and British influence in the Middle East and, secondly, for the part they played in the fortunes of the Special Air Service.’ The Jebel Akhdar campaign of 1958-59 ensured the continuation of the SAS, who would later become, ‘in effect, mercenaries hired out by the British government to friendly foreign governments to advise and assist in the suppression of unrest and rebellion.’[iii]

James Morris, in describing his visit to Oman in 1955, wrote that the Sultan treated his slaves ‘kindly,’ and that they had ‘all the advantages of the welfare state, with one exception: they had to work.’[iv] After Said bin Taimur had been deposed through his son’s coup in July 1970, a reporter with The Times visited the royal palace in Salalah and described how ‘Among twelve slaves presented to foreign journalists some had been forced, under pain of beating, not to speak. As a result they had become mutes. Others stood with their heads bowed and eyes fixed on the ground, their necks now paralysed.’[v]

The Sultan was flown into exile and kept in secluded luxury in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death in 1972. By the end of his rule, Oman had only three schools and six miles of paved roads. According to William Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, ‘Oman [has] neither a constitution nor a legislature; all power [is] concentrated in the person of the sultan. The ministries [are] headed mainly by members of the Al Bu Sa’id ruling family,’ – who have reigned since 1744 – ‘and the sultan himself [serves] as prime minister.’[vi] ‘Even by 1970’, writes the diplomatic historian Mark Curtis in The Great Deception, ‘it was forbidden to smoke in public, to play football, to wear glasses or to speak to anyone for more than 15 minutes.’[vii]

British officers also held high positions in the Omani military until the 1980s. The British corporation AirServices, ‘the major consultant to the Omani Ministry of Defence … was strengthened by the order of British Aerospace Tornado jets in 1985.’[viii] From 1980-89, UK export credits for arms sales to Oman reached a total of £486 million. By the 1990s, Oman was essentially used as the US and Britain’s largest foreign military base during the first Gulf War, protecting the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Britain’s influence in Oman is unlikely to change while Qaboos remains in power, as Ian Skeet explained in the early 1990s: ‘His personal experience of Britain and the British has given him confidence in their advice and judgement. This has occurred at many different levels, from the friendships that he has with members of the Royal Family, the prime minister and ministers, through the military, diplomats, bankers and ordinary professional people.’[ix] To borrow Bill Clinton’s instructive description of General Suharto, the Sultan has remained ‘our kind of guy.’

Oman has great strategic importance to Britain, and an unfriendly rise of ‘radical’ Arab nationalism would be an affront to Western power, to be respected and revered. ‘If’, writes Francis Owtram, ‘domestic instability in Oman were to threaten Western interests it is quite possible that a Western intervention of some kind would seek to avert an anti-Western government from gaining and consolidating power in Oman.’[x] Owtram’s warning should serve as an indication of the crucial importance ‘local cops on the beat’ have to Western state-corporate interests, and of the struggles that lie ahead.

Footnotes:
[i] Fred Halliday, Arabia without Sultans (London: Penguin, 1974), p. 270.
[ii] John Newsinger, British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 133.
[iii] Ibid., p. 132.
[iv] James Morris, The Sultan in Oman (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), p. 130.
[v] Cited in Newsinger, p. 135.
[vi] William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Westview Press, 2004), p.470
[vii] Mark Curtis, The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order (London: Pluto Press, 1998), p. 21.
[viii] Francis Owtram, A Modern History of Oman: Formation of the State since 1920 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), p. 158.
[ix] Ian Skeet, Oman: Politics and Development (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), p. 99.
[x] Ibid., p. 192.
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Elliot Murphy

Elliot Murphy is a writer and activist based in the UK. He is the author of 'Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature', to be published in November 2014 by Zero Books.

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Ed
Feb 15, 2012 15:52

Thanks for the piece, really good summary.

I read Halliday’s book last year; the chapter on Oman ended on quite a hopeful note, talking about the successes of the left-wing guerrillas fighting against the Sultan. That was in the mid ’70s – I haven’t been able to find much info about what happened next, it’s clear that the guerrillas were not succesful – all I’ve been able to gather is that the full weight of British, Iranian (under the Shah’s rule) and Jordanian forces were brought to bear against them and they were defeated. Do you know anything about what happened to the guerrillas, or if there’s any trace of them in Oman today?

Elliot
Feb 20, 2012 0:12

Hi Ed, thanks for your comment. As far as I know the guerrillas were officially declared defeated by the Sultanate in January 1976 (having been overwhelmed by Iranian, British, and Jordanian arms and soldiers), a few years after Halliday’s assessment. According to wikipedia, the Dhofar Liberation Front ‘still exists as a political group operating from London.’ The Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman was renamed in 1992 to the People’s Democratic Front of Oman which apparently struggles peacefully for democracy (wikipedia). Halliday’s book ‘Revolution and Foreign Policy’ also occasionally mentions the PFLO. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find anything else about leftist movements in the country – not too surprising considering that unions were legalised only in February 2010.

Joseph
Mar 9, 2012 17:53

It is very insightful that you highlight that British were responsible for implement both Sultan Qaboos and his father, yet I feel there is a partial, perhaps misleading, nature within your article.

If we are to accept Western norms of society, as your article seems to infer we should, then I think you should draw a deeper distinction between Qaboos and his father. While Said bin Taimur’s Oman was marred by lack of development and appalling statistics, by our Eurocentric norms, during the reign of Sultan Qaboos Oman has been transformed. The situation there is a far cry from what it was. Education, health and transport are all relatively good now. Literacy stands at 81%, while not as successful as impressive Soviet and Cuban literacy missions, I think this should be at least acknowledge within your article. “Development” has also been carried out in a far more sustainable fashion than Oman’s richer neighbours, probably with less human right violations of expat manual-labour as well.

While I am not saying Sultan Qaboos is some perfect despot (and I certainly have many problems with his rule and positions), at the same time I think it is important not to present such a partial view, and I feel eurocentric view. Of course it is difficult to gauge popular opinion within Oman, frustration at expat communities and lack of jobs do feel apparent, yet the scale of protest in 2011 was very different to Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria (to even draw so many varied societies into one group feels fatally flawed). Sultan Qaboos still seems to draw a strong degree of popularity within Oman, especially from those who remember the time of his father’s reign. For us just to ignore this and denounce support as “in fear” or as “brainwashed”, feels like we are pretending that Omanis themselves have no agency; when it is clear from their protests that they must have. , I can not speak for Oman, but I imagine, like many societies in the Middle East, that Omanis probably hoped for fast paced but gradual and sustained reform, which admittedly have been blocked to a certain extent.

Your article also fails to touch on what the precise implications have been for both Oman and Britain within this neo-imperial relationship. I think it would make the article stronger and more interesting if you were to explore this. It would be something I would be eager to read. Perhaps you could look at Oman as a proxy negotiator used against Iran and with Israel, or Oman’s military importance with regards to the Hormuz Straits. Of course any analysis, should ensure respect, or at least consideration, of the possibility of Omani agency and self interest.

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