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

The Saudi Royal Family

To understand the Saudi Royal family, who has ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its inception, is to attempt to understand a family torn by internal power struggles, beset on all sides by enemies and rivals, and who have also been cursed with all the disadvantages of extreme wealth. The House of Saud can be traced back to Muhammad ibn Saud, with the ruling party fathered by King Abdul Aziz.

Unlike most Western style monarchies, the line of succession is not passed down from Father to Son, but rather to brothers of the sons of King Abdul Aziz. While all close members of the family, including grandchildren, have received important government posts, the surviving sons of King Abdul Aziz are seen as being in the line of succession. With the incapatation of King Fahd due to a stroke in 1995, Crown Prince Abdullah took over the governing of the affairs of the kingdom until the death in 2005 of King Fahd, when Abdullah was crowned king.

Next in line to the throne was Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz. However, on June 16, 2012, the Crown Prince passed away at the age of 80, leaving the title to Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. Salman is now the last significant member of Abdul Aziz’s direct sons, and the last major member of the so called “Sudeiri Seven”.

Prince Naif had been no friend of the West, and especially not of America. After the September 11 attacks, Naif did everything possible to prevent American investigations into Saudi Arabian suspects, and openly attacked the American government as being an enemy of Muslims everywhere.

Crown Prince Na’if

However, while Na’if may have paid lip service to the radicals, and personally hated America, even he was concerned about the activities of radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2003 Na’if stated that he believed that Saudi Arabia had given too much support to radical elements, and that these elements themselves could become an enemy to Saudi Arabia.

With the election of Salman to the position of Crown Prince now, the Saudis face a dilemma. All the full blooded sons of Abdul Aziz are now over 60 years old, with King Abdullah 90 years old and in poor health. Salman was born in 1936, and is also in poor health. Indeed, the youngest son, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, was born in 1945.

Even the grandsons of Abdulaziz, who would be potentially eligible for consideration with appropriate support, are all over 50 years old.

Thus, a third generation of princes will begin to slowly fill important civil ranks in the government, and will move upwards to replace the First and Second generations as they pass away. The Third generation, however, are far less experienced than their grandfathers and even their fathers.

Saudi Arabia is entering one of the most important milestones in its history at the moment, with the rise of Iran to the east, the Arab Spring surrounding the country, insurgencies in Yemen, a hostile Israel to the north, and internal discord and division both against the Saudi Royal family and between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

However, the younger generations especially have shown themselves poor leadership material. It can be said that the House of Saud was blessed with power, but cursed with wealth. The extreme wealth into which the second and third generation princes were born into has corrupted the family to the point at which the old Roman aristocracy comes to mind.

The family of al Saud now numbers almost 15,000 members. While only a few possess political power, a majority of the family members receive allowances, which become more and more substantial the closer to the direct bloodline one gets. In a cable to Washington in 1996, the US Ambassador stated that monthly stipends ranged from $800 a month for the most distant princes up to a sum of $270,000 a month USD for the sons of Abdul Aziz.

In addition, payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars are handed out upon completion of tasks such as getting married or building a new palace.

The princes, particularly those with power, have found new and innovative ways to raise money above that which they received from a stipend. These include defrauding businesses, theft of state property, arms sales, oil deals, bribes, and outright theft. Saudi Royals will borrow money from banks without paying it back, seize land and businesses from their owners, and demand substantial bribes from foreign companies doing business in Saudi Arabia.

The billions of dollars controlled by these princes helps to fund an extremely lavish lifestyle, the decadence and debauchery of which is legendary. King Fahd’s youngest son, Abd al Aziz, built himself a massive theme park in Mecca, costing $4.6 billion, after seizing the land to build the park on. Abd al has also built lavish personal estates for himself and his mother.

The entire house of Saud spends along these lines however. When the family goes shopping in Marbella, they spend on average $5 million a day. In the 1970s, Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East, and almost exclusively catered to Rich Saudi royals, with brothels, nightclubs, and high class restaurants. The Lebanese underworld also saw an opportunity inside Saudi Arabia and began a brisk slave trade into the Kingdom, bringing in women to work as prostitutes for the Royal family. When Saudis wish to leave the Kingdom, the more lowly princes head for London, France, or Monte Carlo, and enjoy the pleasures and sins of the West including women, gambling, alcohol, and lots and lots of money. For the higher born Saudis, each prince has a private estate along the Mediterranean coast, which are exclusively for entertaining women and for holding lavish events. The new playground for the Saudis is Morocco, where the Saudi princes can retreat to secluded palaces in the Tangier mountains and hold even more wild and debauched parties than in Europe or Saudi Arabia. In return, Saudi Arabia has funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars into Morocco in exchange for their silence on their activities.

 

Saudi Royal Yacht

The Saudi Royal attitude towards these decadent pursuits is strictly hypocritical. While the royal family may engage in any activity they see fit to, the common people live in one of the most repressive countries in the world. Especially to women, Saudi Arabia is a closed society, with women only recently receiving the right to drive, vote, and even shop by themselves (only in exclusively women staffed shops).

The Saudi society is a three tiered layer, with the Royals on top, a business class underneath who owe their patronage to the Royals, and the common class on the bottom.

However, while the Saudi Royal family has spent billions whoring, drinking, spending, and stealing for decades, they have become extremely out of touch with their own people. Radical elements in Saudi Arabia have found eager recruits from the oppressed population, who hate their ruling family and their ways. Iran is seeking to create Sectarian strife in the country, and the winds of the Arab Spring have even ruffled the feathers of the Royals.

Now, more than ever, Saudi Arabia must make a decision to either acknowledge the challenges it faces, or to accept the fact that it will fall. It is unknown yet what Crown Prince Salman will do, or even how long he will hold this position.

In our next instalment, we will analyse the future direction of the monarchy and detail the coming fall of the Royal family, if they refuse to act now.