Back in the mid 80’s I found myself soldiering in Oman, as mentioned in a post a few days back on the subject of Baluchistan. Anon asked me to elaborate, and here we go. I don’t claim any of this is up-to-date, because I haven’t been back for a long while; so it’s in the past tense accordingly. Also, I wasn’t there on a UN fact-finding mission or writing a thesis: I was there to assist our ally the Sultan maintain the integrity of his realm, and only know what I saw or was told. If anyone reads something and thinks, hey, that’s not correct, then – do tell !
So – draw up a sand-bag, swing the red lamp, and harken to old Drew!
Intro: the Benign Dictatorship – a Bit of Background
Britain has had a very longstanding relationship with the Sultans of Muscat from the days when Sinbad the Sailor was pirating against our India trade, and plenty of Brits have been down that way over the years to help the Sultan out. ( For example, rather unexpectedly the RAF Museum at Hendon has an interesting exhibition on airforce links with Oman, including film of a fly-past put on for the Sultan back in the ‘30’s.)
In the post-war period, things hotted up when the Sultan sought to extend his reach from the coastal strip he traditionally ruled, further inland: he was after the oil being found there, naturally. In so doing he came up against the local tribal leaders (supported, it is said, by Saudi and US interests to the west, who also wanted the oil: the border on that side was vague, just a dotted line on the map). It wasn’t plain sailing. However, the trusty Brits weighed in on his side and, well, fortresses made of mud don’t really stand up to strafing from Hawker Hunters (see below). But the tribesmen retreated to the high Jebel, and couldn’t be dislodged. Inevitably it fell to the SAS to do the job, winkling them out cave by cave. The northern Jebel thus pacified (and given protected areas somewhat like Native Indian reservations), the Sultan lay claim to all of Muscat and Oman.
|“… cave by cave.” In the foothills of the northern Jebel|
This worked more or less satisfactorily during most of the 60’s, until communist insurgents based in the former South Yemen (confusingly, to the north of North Yemen) started taking a crack in the south of Oman, where the border was also still just a dotted line. Once again, airpower and the SAS were pivotal in sorting things out, after a coup against the Sultan by Qaboos, his son, who encouraged some much-needed modernization in all departments, including the military. Brits, inevitably, were well to the fore. Qaboos bin Said al Said still reigns to this day.
By the time I got there these major disturbances were a thing of the past, and the residual aggro was a lively (but little noticed) border dispute with South Yemen: no communism involved, just the usual neighbourly land-grabbing I wrote about briefly before. There were many Brits knocking around in the Omani military: some on long-term secondment (especially in the airforce), some taking the Sultan’s shilling directly. There were also quite a few Brits in the northern coastal towns on business – mostly energy, though the Sultan had a (misplaced) fear of the oil running out, so he encouraged the precautionary building of tourist-industry infrastructure. This one could see in the form of fine but lightly-used coastal highways, large dusty hotels only occupied on the ground floor and first floor, and the remarkable Al-Bustan complex, of which more anon. But very few tourists indeed, at that time: the visas just weren’t being issued.
Finally, there were quite a few Brits in the Christian cemetery, just to remind us it could be for real.
|“… quite a few Brits in the Christian cemetery …”|
The Sultan ran a fairly relaxed, not-quite-secular country. Booze could be bought openly and legitimately, and consumed in private or in licensed bars. Plenty of the Omani officers drank: I was the only British officer in the garrison where we were stationed but there was Fosters on tap. Islam was the official religion, but Christians were fine, it was Hindus that weren’t countenanced (idolatry). Oman is very sparsely populated so a huge immigrant workforce was required to maintain the standards the oil-rich Sultan aspired to for his country: Pakistanis, flown into Seeb to hand over their passports and complete a tour of work – mostly menial. There were some unexpected sights: for example, Tuesday was motorway-cleaning day, meaning you had to watch out for chaps with brooms dashing out to sweep the carriageway. No lanes were closed for this exercise. The number of itinerant workers was a state secret: and since it was pretty obvious they outnumbered the locals by quite a multiple, you could see why.
But everyone seemed pretty happy. Away from the ‘coastal strip’ (60 km between Seeb and Mutrah), everything was dirt-poor: why, then, no beggars? Because that would be a disgrace to the Sultan: if anyone really needed alms, they would present at a Post Office and be given some. (Open to being abused? No – the Omanis themselves would have been disgraced if they did that to their monarch. A similar honour-code prevailed in recruiting the soldiery, as I’ll recount in another episode.) The phrase ‘benign dictatorship’ came unavoidably to mind. (to be cont …)
The village of Tanuf, a rebel headquarters in the Jebel campaign. The building are of mud: the RAF unsportingly shot them up. It’s been left in that state as a reminder. But the complex and ancient irrigation system (falajes) had been carefully repaired; and Tanuf Water from a local spring is the Perrier of the Gulf. Indeed, Perrier owned a bottling plant there!
Photos © Nick Drew 2016