So - draw up a sand-bag, swing the red lamp, and harken to old Drew!
Intro: the Benign Dictatorship - a Bit of Background
Britain has had a very longstanding relationship with the Sultans of Muscat from the days when Sinbad the Sailor was pirating against our India trade, and plenty of Brits have been down that way over the years to help the Sultan out. ( For example, rather unexpectedly the RAF Museum at Hendon has an interesting exhibition on airforce links with Oman, including film of a fly-past put on for the Sultan back in the ‘30’s.)
In the post-war period, things hotted up when the Sultan sought to extend his reach from the coastal strip he traditionally ruled, further inland: he was after the oil being found there, naturally. In so doing he came up against the local tribal leaders (supported, it is said, by Saudi and US interests to the west, who also wanted the oil: the border on that side was vague, just a dotted line on the map). It wasn’t plain sailing. However, the trusty Brits weighed in on his side and, well, fortresses made of mud don’t really stand up to strafing from Hawker Hunters (see below). But the tribesmen retreated to the high Jebel, and couldn’t be dislodged. Inevitably it fell to the SAS to do the job, winkling them out cave by cave. The northern Jebel thus pacified (and given protected areas somewhat like Native Indian reservations), the Sultan lay claim to all of Muscat and Oman.
|"... cave by cave." In the foothills of the northern Jebel|
By the time I got there these major disturbances were a thing of the past, and the residual aggro was a lively (but little noticed) border dispute with South Yemen: no communism involved, just the usual neighbourly land-grabbing I wrote about briefly before. There were many Brits knocking around in the Omani military: some on long-term secondment (especially in the airforce), some taking the Sultan’s shilling directly. There were also quite a few Brits in the northern coastal towns on business – mostly energy, though the Sultan had a (misplaced) fear of the oil running out, so he encouraged the precautionary building of tourist-industry infrastructure. This one could see in the form of fine but lightly-used coastal highways, large dusty hotels only occupied on the ground floor and first floor, and the remarkable Al-Bustan complex, of which more anon. But very few tourists indeed, at that time: the visas just weren’t being issued.
Finally, there were quite a few Brits in the Christian cemetery, just to remind us it could be for real.
|"... quite a few Brits in the Christian cemetery ..."|
But everyone seemed pretty happy. Away from the ‘coastal strip’ (60 km between Seeb and Mutrah), everything was dirt-poor: why, then, no beggars? Because that would be a disgrace to the Sultan: if anyone really needed alms, they would present at a Post Office and be given some. (Open to being abused? No – the Omanis themselves would have been disgraced if they did that to their monarch. A similar honour-code prevailed in recruiting the soldiery, as I’ll recount in another episode.) The phrase ‘benign dictatorship’ came unavoidably to mind. (to be cont ...)
The village of Tanuf, a rebel headquarters in the Jebel campaign. The building are of mud: the RAF unsportingly shot them up. It’s been left in that state as a reminder. But the complex and ancient irrigation system (falajes) had been carefully repaired; and Tanuf Water from a local spring is the Perrier of the Gulf. Indeed, Perrier owned a bottling plant there!
Photos © Nick Drew 2016