An article in the Guardian certainly brings home the truth about British foreign policy. For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world.
In 1945 British troops were fighting in the former French colony against the local population, and that they were doing so alongside their former enemies: the Japanese army and the Vichy French. The entire 20th Infantry Division of the British Indian Army had been airlifted into the country the previous August, with orders to suppress the Vietnamese people’s attempts to form their own government. There were almost 26,000 men with 2,500 vehicles, including armoured cars. Three British artillery regiments had also been dispatched, the RAF had flown in with 14 Spitfires and 34 Mosquito fighter-bombers, and there was a 140-strong contingent from the Royal Navy. The British rearmed the Vichy troops and shortly afterwards, surrendered Japanese troops were also rearmed and compelled to fight the Vietnamese – some under the command of British officers. Back in the UK, parliament and the public knew next to nothing about this war. Despite the size of its military commitment to Indochina, this was to be a British military operation that would be kept out of sight, and largely out of mind.
Situated on the south-west corner of the Arabian peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman sits alongside the Strait of Hormuz, the 33-mile wide waterway through which oil from the Persian Gulf makes its way to market. In the 1960s, more than 60% of the western world’s crude oil came from the Gulf, a giant tanker passing through the Hormuz bottleneck every 10 minutes. As the oil flowed, local economies flourished and became important markets for exported British goods: London became even more anxious to protect its interests in the region and the local rulers who supported them. In the mid-1960s, the country’s tyrannical ruler, Sultan Said bin Taimur received more than half his income directly from London. His defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British. The British commander of the Sultan of Oman’s armed forces met daily with the British defence attache, and weekly with the British ambassador. The sultan had no formal relationship with any government other than that of the UK. The official British position was that the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman was a fully sovereign and independent state. In truth, it was a de facto British colony.
In the mid-1960s, Oman had one hospital. Its infant mortality rate was 75% and life expectancy was around 55 years. There were just three primary schools – which the sultan frequently threatened to close – and no secondary schools. The result of this was that just 5% of the population could read and write. There were no telephones or any other infrastructure, other than a series of ancient water channels. The sultan banned any object that he considered decadent, which meant that Omanis were prevented from possessing radios, from riding bicycles, from playing football, from wearing sunglasses, shoes or trousers, and from using electric pumps in their wells. Those who offended against the sultan’s laws could expect savage punishment. There were public executions. Conditions in his prisons – where Pakistani guards received their orders from British warders – were said to be horrendous, with large numbers of inmates shackled together in darkened cells, without proper food or medical attention. The sultan owned around 500 slaves. An estimated 150 of them were women, whom he kept at his palace at Salalah; a number of his male slaves were said to have been physically deformed by the cruelties they had suffered.
During the 1950s there were a number of uprisings in the north of the country, which were put down by British forces. Both the SAS and the RAF were critical to the success of these counter-insurgency operations. Between July and December 1958, for example, the RAF flew 1,635 sorties, dropping 1,094 tons of bombs and firing 900 rockets at the insurgents, their mountain-top villages and irrigation works. In 1966, a new rebellion broke out. The new oil fields on the desert between Dhofar and the capital, Muscat, were beginning to look vulnerable. Some in London were developing a fearful Middle Eastern domino theory, in which they envisaged the Strait of Hormuz falling under communist control.
The British response was merciless. “We burnt down rebel villages and shot their goats and cows,” one officer wrote. “Any enemy corpses we recovered were propped up in the Salalah souk as a salutary lesson to any would-be freedom fighters.” Another officer explained that unlike in Northern Ireland, where soldiers were anxious to avoid killing or wounding non-combatants, he believed that in Dhofar there were no innocents, only adoo: “The only people in this area – there are no civilians – are all enemy. Therefore you can get on with doing the job, mortaring the area and returning small arms fire without worrying about hurting innocent people.” A despot who was propped up and financed by Britain, British-led forces poisoned wells, torched villages, destroyed crops and shot livestock. During the interrogation of rebels they developed their torture techniques, experimenting with noise. Areas populated by civilians were turned into free-fire zones. Little wonder that Britain wanted to fight this war in total secrecy. There was no need to resort to the Official Secrets Acts or the D-notice system in order to conceal the war, and the ruthless manner in which it was being fought, from the outside world. Two simple expedients were employed: no journalists were permitted into the country, and nobody in government mentioned the war. When Wilson published his account of the Labour government of 1964-70, for example, he mentioned the war that the US was fighting in Vietnam almost 250 times. His own government’s war in Oman was not mentioned once.
By the summer of 1970, Britain’s secret war was going so badly that desperate measures were called for. On 26 July, the Foreign Office in London announced that Sultan Said bin Taimur had been deposed by his 29-year-old son, Qaboos bin Said, in a palace coup. In fact, the coup was a very British affair. It had been planned in London by MI6 and by civil servants at the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, and given the go-ahead after the election that brought Edward Heath into Downing Street. In 2005, a Foreign Office memo was briefly made public that describes the way in which the old sultan’s own defence secretary, Colonel Hugh Oldman, had taken the lead role in planning the coup that deposed Oman’s ruler, in order to safeguard British access to the country’s oil and military bases. The new sultan immediately abolished slavery, improved the country’s irrigation infrastructure and began to spend his oil revenues on his armed forces. Troops from the SAS arrived, first as the sultan’s bodyguards, and then in squadron strength to fight the adoo. Eventually, the tide turned, journalists were permitted into the country, and by the summer of 1976 the war was won. Today, the war is still studied at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Britain because of the way in which information about the long campaign was so successfully suppressed at the time that it was being waged, it has been all but blanked out of the nation’s memory.