Western Interventions In Oman

I find Oman to be a fascinating yet rarely discussed nation of the Middle East.  It contains a pivotal role in the era of exploration and again in Cold War politics of Communist insurgency.  It has a vibrant history both ancient and contemporary that is truly remarkable.  This research merely provides an overview of the topics listed below:

Past Omani Society:

native governance of Oman

Imperialist Struggles:

Portuguese and British exploration and exploitation of the region

Emphasized Strategic importance of the Musandam Peninsula.

The British and the Trucial States:

Oman Proper as opposed to the United Arab Emirates

The Oman Scouts (British Regiment)

Rebellion in Dhofar

Oman as a shatterbelt region for Communism

Funding and support from neighboring Saudi Arabia

Border control issues

Present Omani Relations

Recent cooperation with Oman

Western Interventions in Oman

Oman’s territorial struggles on the Arabian Peninsula can be divided into three phases of foreign intervention to the benefit of the Omani state.  These can be described as imperial conquests, conflicts of Trucial Oman (now the UAE), and the Dhofar Rebellion of the 1960’s.  Each of these periods of struggle illustrates how amidst mixed relations with the west Oman has become prosperous and powerful.  Lusting eyes of European nations did not pass on the temptations of Southern Arabia for it was of great strategic importance for the securing of colonial goods in the growing world economy.  Despite a history of controversial involvement, western intervention has been greatly beneficial to Oman.

Past Omani Society

To understand Oman’s condition during its phases of western involvement one must first observe conflicts of past Omani society.  Conflicts in this early history help to shape Oman’s stance in the Persian Gulf today as a powerful voice of reason and pragmatic leadership idolized in the present Omani Sultan, Qaboos (Kechichian 2008).  The complex rivalries of “early” Omani society are described here in the context of pre-Islamic time and shows that the advent of Islam was effectively used as a tool along with physical geography to establish the first centralized rule. Omani society was loosely defined in the centuries before Islam was introduced with loyalties remaining with independent tribes rather than one supreme ruler.  Thus, quarrelling amongst these tribes was inevitable.   Tribes were abundant as the early society was established in accordance with its natural physical environment. Mountainous regions provided isolated communities with natural defenses as well as economically independent villages (Wilkinson 1972; Bathurst 1972).  The natural defenses of this region would continue to be relevant throughout Omani history as a stronghold against aggressive western militaries.

The first centralized government capable of reigning in quarreling tribes of this mountainous terrain was the Imamate government ruled by a Muslim prayer leader known as an Imam and elected by village elders.  Oman is unique from other Muslim nations in the fact that a sect of Islam called Ibadism is followed. This ideology has also been exported to select locations in North and East Africa (Hoffman 2008).  While worthy of research all its own, in the case of Omani leadership it can be summarized as a strict adherence to religious and political law as stated in the Quran (Wilkinson 1972).  It is important to note also that fanaticism is frowned upon in the ideology and as a professor of Islamic Studies has researched,

British observers of Omani rule in East Africa commented that Ibadis are the least fanatic and sectarian of all Muslims, and openly associate with people of all faiths … Hostile action is reserved for … the unjust ruler who refuses to mend his ways or relinquish his power (Hoffman 2008).

In this way, rulers such as the Imams were not forging dynastic empires but were watched carefully by the Ibadi populace.  Imams not upholding Islamic rules of government were to be renounced of their duties and another was to take his place (Wilkinson 1972).  This refusal of dynastic rule and belief of disassociation over fanaticism began a beneficial system of government that assists the pragmatic leadership of Oman.  This reflects its openness to new, and even western, ideas.

Following the internal struggles of forming a state, Omani trade flourished with maritime exploration and voyages to eastern ports of India and China.  Prime real estate was to be had in Oman and did not go unnoticed by foreign powers.  Its northern coast provided a central location between the trading center of Baghdad and South Asian ports allowing for booming commerce (Bathurst 1972).  The phase of imperial conquest was beginning with cities such as Suhar and Muscat among the first prosperous cities to be invaded by the West.

Imperialist Struggles

Global trade first drew in the imperialist ambitions of the Portuguese followed later by the English.  Much later, Great Britain would continue to have ties to Oman through its political interventions, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Cordesman 1997).  Portugal’s first contact with Oman occurred in 1507 and was not a peaceful endeavor.  The expedition’s commander, naval officer Afonso de Albuquerque, was intent on conquest rather than cohabitation with the natives.  His primary objective in the region was the occupation of the Musandam Peninsula adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway dividing Oman from Iran and a critical possession for any reigning superpower.  Albuquerque desired to possess this territory not for the logical answer of the present (oil) but rather a base of conquest for controlling trade of all colonial goods.  His initial success, however, was limited to forcing subordination of coastal cities following bombardment from the sea.  Fierce resistance prevented his takeover of the Musandam Peninsula (Bathurst 1972).

Map of Oman showing the Musandam Peninsula's proximity to modern day Iran

Another geographically essential location of Portuguese conquest was the northern city of Muscat along with other coastal towns of Oman.  Muscat was a promising catch with the lure this city able to be described with two factors; physical geography and provisions.  Any European trade dominance in this region would require strong maritime power and Muscat would provide the means of achieving it.  Muscat’s location provided both a natural harbor and natural defense due to the topography of the region.  The harbor could protect ship and mountains provide a strong defensive land position.  Provisions such as water were also abundant for re-supplying vessels travelling on long trade voyages (Peterson 2006).  Muscat was conquered by the Portuguese in 1551, forty-one years later that initially planned, only after a bloody conflict.  Portuguese-Omani relations remained hostile (Bathurst 1972).

These hostile relations, however, bestowed unintended gifts to Oman following a brief Portuguese withdrawal in 1622.  Portugal had transformed the city into a formidable network of defenses.  Forts and gun platforms were installed during the occupation and left for Omani use following the Portuguese departure.  Watchtowers, walls, and ditches were also among the armaments left behind (Peterson 2006).  Following futile attempts to regain lost ground in Oman the Portuguese were expelled for good in 1650.  With this attempt to regain control Portuguese ships were captured and used for trading missions boosting the economy with Muscat at the center of Omani trade with Europe (Bathurst 1972).  Portuguese oppression had ended allowing Omani coffers to be filled by European trade.

Following this violent era of Omani history was a period of political re-orientaion in two distinct regions of the state.  Coastal towns were oriented toward loyalty to the rule of the Sultan while the influence of the Imam in the interior was fading but not depleted.  The age of the Sultan ushered in an age of imperialism for Oman in which the Makran and East African Coasts were controlled by rulers out of Muscat (Oman 2009).  This reinforces the fact that Oman had reached imperialist status due in part to its involvement in the growing world economy and acquiring the spoils of the Portuguese invasion.

Endeavors in Africa reveal that the Sultans of Muscat were keen on the East African Slave Trade while their European counterparts dominated the industry in the west.  Slaves in Oman were used primarily as pearl divers off the coast (Nicolini 2006).  The region of Zanzibar, East Africa had been under Omani control for centuries until it was relingquished in 1856. Other Omani influence of Omani culture is found in its institution of Ibadism in the Mzab Valley of Algeria, Nafus Mountains of Libya, and island of Jerba in Tunisia (Hoffman 2008).  Though very specific regions it is proof of the proliferation of Omani culture as far as North Africa and its advancing influence of the region.

The British and the Trucial States

As the Portuguese targeted Oman proper in their conquests there is another region of Oman, the Trucial States, that had also experienced foreigners meddling in local affairs by the British.  This meddling, however, was of a much different nature than that of the Portuguese.  The phase of British presence in the Trucial States of Oman was triggered by the presence of pirate raiders operating there during the 17-1800’s (Cordesman 1997).  Protection of assets motivated expeditions to protect British investment in India in 1819 (Walcott 2006).  It is important to note that British presence in the Trucial States would most likely not have existed had it not been for the issue of trade security.  Little was to be earned monetarily from the region as oil was not yet in demand (Walcott 2006).  However, Britain’s presence was made clear and a peace agreement was signed with the local sheiks (the title given to leaders of the Trucial States) in 1835 signifying a maritime truce.  A later treaty of 1892 brought the western and near-eastern power into a very close relationship.  Conditions of the treaty were, that no territory would be disposed to, “any foreign government without the consent of Great Britain.  In return, the British promised to protect the Trucial Coast from all aggression by sea and to help in case of a land attack (Cordesman 1997, 291).”  This stance on Trucial Oman would change during the 20th century with the discovery and necessity of oil.  Economic development of Trucial Oman was now a priority along with maritime security.  In order for the British to profit from the region their situation would require stability; a relatively absent term during that time (Walcott 2006).  A local military was established to keep the peace and establish a stable economy.

Un-demarcated boundaries of the Trucial States also increased tensions and threat of invasion from neighboring states.  The military presence established by the British in the region was the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS) formally the Trucial Oman Levies (TOL).  This was a volunteer force of locals led by British leadership to defend the region and enforce law and order (Wilkinson 1972).  Saudi forces, for example, clashed with TOS forces in a border dispute in 1955 resulting in many deaths. Border disputes, however, were not the only use of the TOS troops.  Internal struggle known as the “Imamaate Opposition,” was occurring.  The Sultanate of Oman was under threat from the Ibadi Sect Muslims discussed previously.  A power struggle was taking place with Imamate power in the strong defensive position it had retained for thousands of years in the western mountains.  The Imam of the Ibadis, Ghalib bin Ali, even consulted the Arab League on recognizing western Oman as a separate entity in 1954 (Cordesman 1997).  Saudi Arabia stepped forward and aid was provided to the rebels via the Saudi border.  Sovereignty was not being violated in the traditional sense but aiding the rebels through supply made it no less intrusive (Wilcott 2006).

The mix of non-demarcated boundaries and conflicting political ideologies of Omanis, be it the Trucial States or Oman Proper, ultimately resulted in disputed territory which in turn had led to a violent acquisition of that territory.  Resources are contested due to disputed claims to those resources.  For example the Buraymi Oasis was wealthy land for citizens who held it.  Saudi Arabia occupied this region against the Trucial State Abu Dhabi’s claims.  This territory remained in Saudi hands during the next phase of Omani geopolitics setting off a string of military commitments for the British protecting their interests (Cordesman 1997).

Rebellion in Dhofar

The Dhofar Rebellion became the epicenter of Middle-East conflict during the 1960’s.  The conflict was as much internal as it was external at this time with involvement of the British and other various influences.  Dhofaris of South Oman differ from their northern counterparts in that their society is much like that of the pre-Islam tribal groups rather than supporters of the Sultanate rule of the North (Hensel 1982).  Also, Dhofar does not seem to have a natural geographic tie to Northern Oman as a desert barrier divides the two (Peterson 1977).  The root of the problem, however, is found in the oppression of Dhofari peoples by a powerful ruler.

Historically, Dhofari loyalty had not been claimed by the Sultan of Muscat but rather to tribes and clans.  Initial dissatisfaction with the Sultan can be traced to the territory’s annexation in 1829 following the death of the local leader.  Dhofar was seen as a prize to be had, as Peterson describes, a “private fiefdom (Peterson 1977,279,” for the Sultan.  Sultan Faysai bin Turki made frequent trips to the province during his reign (1888-1913) using it as a “beach getaway,” spending more time there that his capital of Muscat.  This became a source of contention as Dhofari pride and identity were being insulted.  Monetarily the regions oil resources were also threatened with revenues being re-directed to the coffers of Muscat (Hensel 1982).  Repression such as this gained momentum and soon organizations were established to prepare for the impeding war (Peterson 1977).

Repression came to a head in the 1960’s resulting in the Dhofar Rebellion.  Although oppression was responsible, un-demarcated boundaries intensified the war.  Inadequate monitoring of the borders allowed reinforcements to pour in supporting the rebel cause.  Take for instance the Buraymi Oasis region.  Under Saudi ownership munitions and money was shipped to the rebels (Cordesman 1997).  Not only were tangible reinforcements provided but new political agendas were introduced.  Ideologies such as Nationalsim, Marxism, Nasserist, and Baathist were being exposed to young Dhofaris that had sought work in other areas of the Persian Gulf (Hensel 1982).  Arab Nationalism was among these political entities sweeping through the Middle-East with branches of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) sprouting up and remaining underground in Dhofar.  Under this political organization the rebels initiated a guerilla war using Yemen as a refuge from the Sultan’s attacks.  British armaments were essential on the battlefront and bought by the Sultan providing fighter jets, transport aircraft and naval patrol vessels.  Even American helicopters made an appearance in Dhofar.  The Sultan’s reliance on foreign equipment and weapons was undeniable with a bill between 71-83 million British pounds for air armaments.  An even closer relationship was developed with commercial interests on behalf of the British.  Infrastructure development such as ports and roads were constructed along with interests in banking and communications (Peterson 1977).

Present Omani and American Relations

This tradition has transcended through to the present with the United States eagerness to participate in foreign relations with Oman, No doubt due to its geographic prospects of controlling the Strait of Hormuz for oil security (Cordesman 1997).  However, Oman shares the same eagerness concerning trade with the United States including the exchange of students.  The only great issue with this exchange is that in a post September 11th America, Visa restrictions are making studying in America progressively difficult for Omani students.  This results in a loss of these prospective students to Australia.  Tourism is also encouraged by Oman and efforts are being made to attract American tourists to the country (Committee on Ways and Means 2005).  As a friend to the United States, Sultan Qaboos has become a natural ally in the Middle-East understanding its responsibility of defending the Strait of Hormuz stating, “Oman will not hesitate to act in defense of our national sovereignty… and contribute to the protection of this vital waterway against the dangers of terrorism or other forms of aggression… (Kechichian 125).”  The Sultan also shares ardent anti-communist views by opposing the communist incursion in Dhofar and Afghanistan (Kechichian 2008).

At this point it can be deduced that it took these three key phases of Oman’s history to create the receptive modern Sultanate of Oman.  Its beginnings as a tribal society show how the loosely defined borders of Oman began as the physical geography of the mountainous interior and would be shaped by foreign intervention in Omani politics and conflict.  Imperialism influenced the face of cities such as Muscat and introduced new trading partners to mutually benefit each other monetarily.  Trucial Oman had lured in a permanent British military presence and assisted in the training of the scouts that contributed to the preservation of the Sultanate.   The last breakthrough of Omani benefit from the West was the help it had received during the Dhofar Rebellion.  Although outside interest in Oman was triggered by selfish geographic significance and security, the Sultanate of Oman has nonetheless prospered under its western influences.

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Comments
  1. Peter Meinhold says:

    I read in “Atlas Magazine”, in 196 or 9, that the Dhofar Rebellion was – at least in part -a slave revolt, and that Oman was the last nation to officially outlaw slavery. (Have since read that this honor belongs to Mauritania…)
    Has anyone else got a more recent reference to slavery in Oman, and its part in the Dhofar Rebellion?
    Thanks,
    Peter

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