Continuing Drew’s expedition to Oman in the 1980′s …
Into The Heat
Recruiting ordinary Omanis into the ranks of private soldiers was an informal, traditional affair. At some point early in his adult life a young Omani man(1) would reckon it was time to serve his Sultan, and would wander down to a nearby army camp to enlist. After a few years, he would decide he’d done his bit, and would unilaterally take his leave and wander off back home.
To the average westerner there is a flaw in this set-up … what if there was an active campaign underway and Private Mah’mud could ill be spared? Don’t be daft: if the Sultan still needed his service, why of course then Mah’mud wouldn’t leave! Other than these honourable self-imposed feudal disciplines there was only one significant formal rule applied to local recruiting: if a former soldier fancied another spell of all-found accommodation in the ranks, he would have to go through basic training all over again.
As I said in the original post, these loyal soldiers were pleasant and (I guessed) hardy and brave enough: but they didn’t come across as sufficiently ruthless for the 1980s border troubles we were there to assist with. Border fighting in the mountains is a matter of maintaining small, hidden observation posts – and taking out the OPs of the other side; which all places a premium on operating silently and invisibly. Now your average friendly Omani expects to get up in the morning and warmly greet everyone he meets – a blessing and a hearty handshake for even your closest friend. Apparently these charming courtesies would be observed even in the field. Even in an OP … And, clean-living Moslem fellows that they were, they certainly wouldn’t dream of carrying out their bodily functions in the confines of the slit-trench as is required in these circumstances.
This is where the Baluchi battalions came in. Somehow, the Islamic customs of Baluchistan comfortably embraced the disciplines necessary to conduct silent throat-slitting operations in the mountains.
|Officers quarters. My baiyt was second on the right.|
Into this heterogeneous mix of soldiery flew Drew and his two SNCOs. We travelled incognito, Gulf Air (business class) and stepped straight into a waiting vehicle (unmarked) on the tarmac. Stepped? Staggered, really, after the massive punch in the face that comes from the oven-door blast of a Gulf summer’s day on an open concrete surface in coastal humidity. Our little white Toyota runabout had aircon, of course (on the coast itself you needed the windscreen wipers against the condensation forming on the outside of the cold car windows), so we were rapidly back into a bearable micro-climate for the duration of the drive to the garrison. Heading inland mean we had put the humidity behind us: but on arrival we had to acclimatize PDQ. Some rooms had clanking aircon, some ceiling fans, others just desk-mounted jobs. But the inevitable walking-around that happens in any military camp, from quarters to mess, and from mess to place of work, was unavoidably exposed to the heat. There was one saving grace: for whatever reason, we were asked to remain in civvies (we were ‘advisers’) and could therefore dress loosely in white.
|Perimeter stand-to position (not used while I was there)|
The camp was spartan, but I was delighted by it all. On the one hand it was romantically situated in barren foothills on the edge of the desert, very basic in essence, and felt like a proper 19th century cantonment, nicely marked out in white-painted bricks and with a rather lightly fortified perimeter (see pics). On the other, it had electricity and running water, a small swimming pool (for the mad Brits), and Fosters in the mess. My ‘baiyt’ (phonetic, & I have no idea what the proper Arabic is) had a rudimentary shower (all water was hot), a crapper-hole, a useless aircon and a reliable, fairly quiet ceiling fan.
If the climate was a bit too hot, the welcome was warm. I was the only British officer there. The garrison commander was an Omani Brigadier: young, tough, suave, British educated, energetic, decisive and with natural authority, he would have done well in any army. I got on well with him: he enjoyed conversations that ranged a little more widely than he probably encountered day to day, and was happy to offer his views on any subject, including (after a little cautious fencing on both sides), politics. He had a brilliant gambit which I have subsequently used myself to good effect in third world countries: all pronouncements would be prefaced with the formula: “I think the Sultan is very wise on this matter …”. After that, it didn’t matter who was listening in.
The senior staff officer was a Pakistani, a full colonel in the Sultan’s pay. He operated from an office with a wooden verandah, straight out of the North West Frontier. Clerks with manual typewriters pounded out the orders of the day (in English). Though this colonel’s duties were strictly administrative, I figured he would be a useful person to have onside; so I made a point of seeking him out, presenting my compliments and inviting him to visit the unit I was advising. He showed little emotion (then, or indeed ever), but I could tell he was dead chuffed to be treated with due respect – by a Brit! – and he took up my invitation; out of reciprocal politeness, probably, since he showed little real interest in what we were doing.
I am guessing he got less deference from the Garrison RSM, a robust Brit on secondment who seemed to me remarkably lacking in the kind of live-and-let-live tolerance I associate with the best of colonial behaviours. He ruled the roost uncompromisingly in a Brit-dominated Sergeants Mess. Maintaining standards is one thing, but apparent disregard for the locals is another.
Daily routine was oriented around the accommodations necessary for dealing with the oppressive temperature, naturally enough. The call to prayer was broadcast noisily through a loudspeaker, and most of the Omanis rolled their eyes upwards when it interruted what they were doing. By no means all of them responded to the call. Work started at 06:00 – with the usual hearty handshake for everyone. Breakfast was at 09:00, a substantial affair with much minced lamb involved. More work between 10 and 13:00, then back to the mess for lunch. Lots of juicy, energy-giving local dates always on offer at lunch, which were pressed upon me enthusiastically: you eat dates, Captain Nick, then you go to your woman!
|Pool – without which, a punishment posting indeed|
Lunchtime could be the last I saw of many of the officers for the day because all of them, along with all the Omanis of any rank or job, would then slope off for the whole afternoon (going to their women?) and few would be back for the evening meal. The Brits, of course, reconvened at 14:00 and cracked on with everything that couldn’t be achieved in collaboration with the less-than-sparkling locals during the morning. Then at 4, it was down to the pool; at 6 it was into the car and off to the souk for a wander as evening fell; then back to our respective messes. For me, dinner and a chat with the Brigadier. Yes, the Sultan was very wise. (to be cont …)
(1) I note that these days the Sultan’s armed forces contain some rather dashing ladies as well. Lots of medals on some of those chests …