Lessons from the Omani Conflict – Winning Hearts and Minds

Modern theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency theory have developed a list of characteristics of insurgencies which will impact on either the success or failure of an insurgency movement. While all of these drivers and attributes of an insurgency will be present in almost all cases in varying degrees, this essay seeks to analyse the Omani Insurgency in the 1970s by the characteristics of popular support, sanctuary and external support, and weapons.

The conflict in Oman existed from the 1950s until the 1970s, even as the contestants and insurgents changed and reformed their form and goals constantly. Even though early insurgencies ended in failure, the oppressive and corrupt rule of Sultan Sa’id Bin Taymur resulted in discontent across the country, especially in the region of Dhofar in South Oman

Dhofar had long been considered the personal property of the Sultan, and was his place of residence year round, even though the government capital was in Muscat, 500 miles to the northeast

The Sultan sought to keep Oman closed off from the rest of the world, banning all forms of modern or Western technology or thought. Any who left the country for education were forbidden to return. The Sultan refused to invest in Oman’s infrastructure, creating a nation without functioning hospitals, schools, communications, or civic services

In this environment, an underground resistance movement began in Dhofar in the early 1960s. Influenced by Arab Nationalism, and seeking reforms in government, they began a small scale resistance campaign based in Salalah, the provincial capital. In 1965, Iranian forces intercepted and arrested armed Dhofari rebels in a ship attempting to enter the country. The intelligence gained from this group aided the Sultan’s forces in cracking down on the resistance in Salalah, forcing remaining resistance fighters to flee into the mountainous Jebel of Dhofar. From their new sanctuary, they formed the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) with the express purpose of establishing a separate Dhofari state.

Popular Support:

Originally, popular support in Dhofar was on the side of the insurgency. Initially, the DLF were committed to establishing an independent state which would end the hated rule of the Sultan, and thus achieved fairly wide popular support. The Suntan’s counterinsurgency also alienated the general population with crude tactics such as cordon and search programs, indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, and collective punishments for communities expected as being rebel supporters. In a Government report in 1970, the military described the counterinsurgency campaign as being a purely military campaign, with no attempts to win hearts and minds, no amnesty agreements, no civil projects, and no police or intelligence support to the military.

After the DLF merged into the left wing PFLOAG, the insurgents received external funding and weapons provided from a number of Communist countries, and sanctuary across the border in Yemen. Due to this, the insurgents were on the verge of possibly overthrowing Salalah, the last remaining bastion of the Sultan’s support in Dhofar.

In 1970, Sultan Saíd Bin Taymur was overthrown in a bloodless coup by his son, Sayyid Qabus bin Said. Qabus, Sandhurst educated, had been placed under arrest by his father upon his return to Oman, but with British support and backing easily wrested control of the country from his increasingly besieged father.

Once in control, Qabus embarked on a rapid policy of openness and modernization in a five pronged strategy which illustrated his understanding of the whole of government approach to the counterinsurgency campaign. His plan included a rapid development of the country through the increase of civic services, especially in the Dhofari regions. Also, he offered a general amnesty to all insurgents who surrendered and embarked on a diplomatic campaign to isolate the rebels and their supporters in Yemen from other Arab nations.

These popular reforms went far in gaining support from the local population for the government position. Civic development teams would enter communities and provide medical and schooling care, as well as veterinary attention for the farm animals owned by the primarily farming based population

The British especially embarked on a propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim based population. By playing upon religious sentiment, the general population was led to reject the Communist insurgents as atheists and infidels.

In return, the rebels responded against the population supporting the government with harsh attacks, further losing public support.

Translation: “The Hand of God Smashes Communism”

At the end of the campaign, both internal and external support for the insurgency had dried up. This is primarily due to the success of the new Omani government in winning the hearts and minds of the disaffected population.

Some authors, such as Thompson, believe that the attempt by the Rebels to force the general population to renounce Allah was the greatest alienation between them and the population. Once the Communists resorted to torture in order to attack the Muslim faith held by most of the population, their attempts at gaining popular support would always meet a measure of resistance.

External Support:

Externally, the DLF received little support initially. Egypt and Saudi Arabia provided advice, however the real external support started in 1968 from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Using the PDRY as a base, other communist countries, or leftist leaning regimes, such as China, Libya, Iraq, Cuba, and the USSR funnelled through weapons and equipment over the Yemeni border. In addition, a small contingent of Yemeni troops supported the rebels in their operation.

This influx of equipment and weaponry evened the odds initially, and put the PFLOAG on the offensive against the Sultan’s forces. Before the arrival of support and equipment, the DLF’s tactics consisted primarily of ambushes and small raids. The better armed PFLOAG was able to level the playing field, and given similar numbers would often defeat the Sultan’s forces in engagements.

From the Government’s side however, Sultan Qabus relied heavily on British forces, particularly the SAS counter insurgency forces who were able to organize an effective counter insurgency campaign against the rebels. By building on the failure of the PFLOAG to gain popular support, they formed effective tribal units to hunt down the insurgents holed up in the Jebel. The British also provided heavy weapons and equipment such as helicopters and armoured personal carriers to the Sultan.

Sultan Qabus also worked strongly to bring Oman into the Arab league and isolate the PFLOAG and the PDFY from Arab support. On a military front, the British forces cut off the outside support to the rebels through use of the Hornbeam Line, which intercepted shipments of arms from Yemen, thus denying outside support to the rebels.

Weapons:

As discussed previously, the PFLOAG became a decisive force through external support by leftist movements who provided the rebels with modern Soviet arms. These included AK-47 Kalashnikovs, 60mm and 81mm mortars, Rocket Propelled Grenades, 122mm Katyusha rockets, and SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles. The primarily smuggling route for these weapons was over the Yemeni border by camel trains into the Jebel.

Armed to this extent, the insurgents became more than a match both in firepower and numbers against the government troops. In contrast, the government soldiers were armed with inadequate uniforms and gear, no heavy weapons, and with WWI and WWII rifles and Bren guns.

After the change of government to Sultan Qabus, the tide of the insurgency turned in favour of the government forces. Rebel supply lines were targeted, cutting them off from outside support. Additionally, the amnesty program put in place by Said was remarkably effective in encouraging the surrender of insurgents. As public support turned more and more against the insurgency, the last remaining members fled across the border into Yemen in 1976, effectively ending the insurgency.

In conclusion, the deciding factor in the Omani Insurgency was the hearts and minds of the Dhofari people. Initially, the public support for the insurgency guaranteed them early victories. However, as the insurgents failed to follow up on their opportunity, and indeed drove the general public away from them through acts of terror, support was gained by the government forces, ultimately resulting in a failed insurgency.


[1] Peterson JE, “The Experience of British Counter-Insurgency Campaigns and Implications for Iraq”, Arabian Peninsula Background Note No APBN-009

[2] McKeown J, 1981, “Britain and Oman: The Dhofar War and It’s Significance”, University of Cambridge

Ladwig W, 2008, “Supporting Allies in Insurgency: Britain and the Dhofar Rebellion”, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol 19, No 1, March 2008

White Jim, 2008, “Oman 1965 – 1976”, Small Wars Journal Online Publication, 2008

Fine W, 2010, “Winning the Hearts and Minds in Counterinsurgency: The British Approach in Malaya and Oman and the US in Iraq and Afghanistan”, University of Kansas 2010

Thompson, L, 1996, “Ragged War: The Story of Unconventional and Counter-Revolutionary Warfare”, Arms and Armour Press, London, UK

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