UK and Oman - a history of military co-operation

It is now 45 years since the end of the Dhofar War. This was an insurgency campaign taken over by a Communist revolutionary movement receiving the full range of support available from Russia and other Communist states. In a classic campaign well supported by Britain, the Sultanate was helped to defeat the insurgency and become the prosperous, stable and progressive country it is today.

Britain and Oman have had friendly relations, often based on military co-operation, since the 18th Century when both nations had widespread empires based largely on sea-power and trade.

Oman in the 17th and early 18th centuries established suzerainty over Baluchistan, Zanzibar, and parts of Southern Persia and East Africa. Dealings with Britain were generally friendly, and British ships were normally safe from Omani warships. Britain herself was in the process of building what became the greatest empire the world had known.

The first treaty between the countries was signed in 1798, and the first joint military action involved the subjugation of piracy in the Gulf in 1809. A predominantly Royal Naval force from India attacked Qawaasim pirates and their boats at Ra’s al Khaimah, Lingah and Luft, while Omani forces under Sultan Said bjn Sultan Al Bu Said marched Northwards with troops and took the fortified town of Shinas. This first joint British-Omani military venture was followed by others over the centuries.

The most recent conflict faced by Oman with British help was the Dhofar War in the 1960s and 1970s. The situation at the outset was that Britain had agreed to strengthen the Sultan’s forces and second officers to train and command them to meet a serious conflict in Northern Oman in 1958/59, and therefore there were British officers and other personnel embedded throughout the Sultan’s Armed Forces as the country faced the new threat in Dhofar, which began with sabotage and murder but developed into a full-scale military insurrection.

Further British assistance over the years came in the provision of staff and troops such as Royal Air Force Regiment airfield defence units, specialist artillery, medical teams, and Royal Engineers which the Sultanate did not at that stage have, and most notably Special Air Service personnel who played a leading role in raising the firqat, Dhofari irregular troops largely formed from former enemies who realised that Oman under Sultan Qaboos was worth fighting for rather than against.

The single decisive event in Dhofar was the accession in July 1970 of Sultan Qaboos, who was received with rapturous acclaim by Dhofaris dancing and singing round the palace and houses of Salalah. Under his new administration, restrictions were abolished, development forced by plans for schools, clinics, houses, roads and other social and economic projects, National unity enhanced, and SAF expanded, with British, Jordanian and Iranian assistance.

There was much heavy fighting to come as SAF with the firqa went onto the offensive, fragmenting the enemy units, choking off supplies from over the Western border, establishing permanent bases on the jebel, and following this with development of track access, water, power and government aid with medical, veterinary and other facilities. The military mission was “to secure Dhofar for civil development”. This was achieved in late 1975 with the defeat of the so-called people’s Liberation Army.

The victory for the Sultanate had wider significance. It was a rare victory in a period when the combination of real grievance and Communist exploitation of it proved irresistible in many countries with vaster greater Western support. Oman is in an important position strategically, and the lessons of the Dhofar War are being widely studied even now, 45 years later. There were many military lessons, but political reform, the selection and maintenance of a National strategy, civil development, information policy based on truth, a permanent amnesty for former enemies, and international assistance which was appropriate in leadership, scale, timeliness and necessity were key.

Many British military personnel served in Oman. Some died there and others bear permanent disability from that service. All of them gained a great affection for the Sultanate and its people. Links have been established which continue the centuries-old friendship between the two countries. Not least, there is a SAF Association in Britain of comrades from the Dhofar War and from periods before and after it, who meet to recall their service and to continue and enhance the links.

Article courtesy of the Sultan's Armed Forces Association: www.oman.org.uk

View the SAF's Journal here: http://mag.digitalpc.co.uk/fvx/safa/journal2014/