EGIC experts argue Sultan Qaboos was not 'a British puppet’

Gerald Power, Josephine D’Urso, Leone Radiconcini

 ROME – Scholars have argued that Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the purported “British puppet” who led the strategic Arab nation of Oman from 1970 to 2020, was actually more independent-minded than previously thought, speakers at an EGIC conference have argued.

 Qaboos studied in Britain and served briefly in the British Army during his youth before overthrowing his father in a coup in 1970. Those early links to Britain fuelled rumours that the young royal was in his one-time host country’s pocket, but new evidence suggests the case has been dramatically overstated. The revelations come at a time when Britain’s colonial legacy is under growing scrutiny. 

 The first speaker on the panel Gerald Power (Chair of the History and Philosophy Department at the Anglo-American University in Prague) noted that while Qaboos attended the English private school in Bury St. Edmunds, many English schools were initially not prepared to take on the 17-year-old royal. They rejected him on the grounds that he wouldn’t have gelled with the other pupils academically, having been isolated totally by his father, Sultan Said Bin Taimur, up until that point. In 1950s England there was also undoubtedly an element of prejudice that caused schools to reject the Arab prince, Power added. 

 Much of the speculation around Qaboos’s relationship with the British is the fault of his father. Said was circumspect about his son’s sojourn in Britain, saying only that he wanted him to have a “basic English education,” and to be “socially comfortable with English-speaking people.” “He didn’t maybe think of a concrete role for his son,” surmised Power, arguing that the vagueness of Said’s ambition for his son undermines the notion that the UK had a standard way to groom a perfect leader for Oman.

 From the first years of Qaboos’ rule, researchers have found evidence to support the idea that he was in charge of his decisions, not the UK, as has been suggested.

 Josephine D’Urso, a researcher in politics, security and insurgency, stressed that the relationship between the two nations is key to understanding insurgencies and argued that the level of concord between Oman and the UK ultimately determined the success of the counterinsurgency operations in the Dhofar Rebellion.

 D’Urso explained that there are two traditional approaches to the Rebellion. First, that British counterinsurgency is indicative of unique and exemplary expertise. Second, that it is a myth that can be dismantled via reference to all the ways that the British have failed historically.

 She also strives to test Andrew Mumford’s tripartite model of counterinsurgency (comprising the counter-insurgent dimension, insurgent dimension and international political context). In the counterinsurgent dimension, which sees the most contact between British and Omani figures, Mumford identifies three sub-categories which any successful counterinsurgency must master (and each have further sub-dimensions). These are military effectiveness, political management, and intelligence gathering.

 D’Urso called these three areas “useful,” but said their explanatory power is overstated. It fails to present the crucial element of the dynamic between the host and intervening nations (Oman and UK respectively), something which the expert believes underscores every single dimension and fundamentally determines the outcome of the situation.

 Winning locals ‘hearts and minds’, i.e. securing indigenous support and encouraging insurgents to defect and become counter-insurgents, has been key to UK power (a foretenant of British counterinsurgency theory). People tend to view it through the binary lens mentioned before. Critics claim it’s a cover for violence and coercion.

 Civil development was stalled by Sultan Said’s opposition to reform, which was fuelling the insurgency before it took on a Marxist character. A concession from him could have made the conflict shorter.

Those who adhere to the idea that British counterinsurgency is only a myth might be quick to identify the slow pace of civil development works in Oman as proof that British adherence to the doctrine of winning hearts and minds does not exist in practice.

 But, what the records reveal is that an intervening nation in counterinsurgency will only implement all the strategies they see fit. The determining factor is the host nation.

 The British implementation of the ‘hearts and minds’ strategy was crucial from early on and they tried to impress this on the Sultan while at same time avoiding incurring his anger or his insistence that the British fund all proposed projects.

 By 1967 when the character of the Rebellion changed into Marxism, there was an increased danger in the Sultan’s habit of, as one British observer at the time put it, “finding logical reasons for doing nothing.”

 Sultan Said’s son Qaboos, however, demonstrated a keen understanding of the importance of civil development in extinguishing the ideological fire behind the rebels’ activity.

Research suggests that the British support of Sultan Qaboos stemmed from their recognition of first, the importance of the host nation’s government’s attitude in successfully waging a joint counterinsurgency and second, the belief that Qaboos better understood the policy of ‘hearts and minds.’

 Qaboos' stance on civil development was reported by one British observer in 1966 and quickly circulated amongst the many British offices both in the UK and abroad. In 1968, when the UK was thinking who should get financial support in the event of Sultan Said’s death, it was established that Qaboos was the ideal candidate. 

 “The best bet looks like Qaboos supported by Tadiq, but we must leave the family to make this decision if they will.” 

 However, civil development was still under-prioritised in the first years of Qaboos rule. The archives are filled with repeated calls for more action, said the speaker.

 In 1971, multiple British advisors seemed to get through to the Sultan about the importance of implementing them now and quickly. He formally committed to raising the standard of living in Dhofar, providing military and administrative positions to the insurgents who were now fighting on behalf of the counterinsurgency and who were crucial to the victory.

 If the UK had indeed been pulling the strings then civil development would have taken a larger role from earlier on, beginning in 1970, and progressed much more rapidly. However, as it really played out, it was small incremental successes combined with persistent British sentiment and pleas to Qaboos that more action in this area was needed.

 Leone Radiconcini, a researcher of contemporary history at La Sapienza, spoke about the withdrawal of British forces from the Arabian Gulf in 1971, and claimed that the UK did not provide the security apparatus Oman needed to be autonomous.

 The conference moderator, Anat Kidron (Head of the Israel Studies program Tel-Hai Academic College in Tel-Aviv), equated the idea of a perfect or model state with imperialism, and noted that the British have a ‘blind spot’ for understanding other cultures and how they do things differently. However it seems that the British did indeed keep some distance and can be criticised for this too, as in the case of not preparing enough security apparatus for a country before withdrawing.

 An audience member asked, “Were the British a force of good or evil in the history of Oman?” This simple question, to which everyone would like to know the answer, in fact has no answer, because it is not a binary issue. As EGIC writes, “in the Euro-Gulf space there is a tendency to speak of the past in broad strokes and generalisationsm,” which “come to replace the specifics of exchange.” Instead the panel shared their areas of expertise that challenge the over-simplified binary stances and demonstrate that the matter cannot fall into the category of simply “good” or “evil.”