|Part of the Arab Cold War|
| Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces: 10,000
Firqat irregulars: 1,800
Imperial Iranian Armed Forces: 4,000
British Army: ≈500
Jordanian Army: 1 squadron engineer
1,000 local fighters
|Casualties and losses|
|Oman: 187 killed, 559 wounded
UK: 24 killed, 55 wounded
Iran: 724 killed, 1,424 wounded
2,000 POW (Iranian estimate)
|10,000 civilians killed|
Part of a series on the
|History of Oman|
The Dhofar Rebellion (Arabic: ثورة ظفار) was launched in the province of Dhofar against the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, which had Iranian and British support, from 1962 to 1976. It ended with the defeat of the rebels, but the state of Oman had to be radically reformed and modernized to cope with the campaign.
In 1962, Oman was a comparatively underdeveloped country in the Middle East. Sultan Said bin Taimur, the absolute ruler, had outlawed almost all aspects of twentieth-century development and relied on British support to maintain the rudimentary functions of the state. Dhofar itself was a dependency of Oman and it was subjected to severe economic exploitation.[page needed] Moreover, the population of Dhofar, who speak various modern South Arabian languages, were subjected to even greater restrictions than other Omanis.
The province of Dhofar consists of an intermittent narrow, fertile coastal plain, on which stand Salalah, the provincial capital, and other towns such as Mughsayl, Taqah and Mirbat. Behind this are the rugged hills of the Jebel Dhofar. The western portion of this range is known as the Jebel Qamar, the central part as the Jebel Qara and the eastern part as the Jebel Samhan. From June to September each year, the jebel receives moisture-laden winds (the Khareef or monsoon) and is shrouded in cloud. As a result, it is heavily vegetated, and for much of the year is green and lush. The inhabitants of the villages and communities on the jebel were known as jibalis. To the north, the hills slope down via rough wadis and cliffs into the gravel plains and sand seas of the Empty Quarter.
Early years of the rebellion
In 1962 a dissatisfied tribal leader, Mussalim bin Nafl, formed the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) and obtained arms and vehicles from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Oman had earlier clashed over ownership of the Buraimi Oasis, and the Saudis had already supported two failed insurrections in the Jebel Akhdar in the interior of Oman in 1957–59. The DLF also received support from Imam Ghalib Bin Ali, the exiled Imam of Oman, who had led these earlier revolts.
Bin Nafl and his men made an epic crossing of the Empty Quarter to reach Dhofar. As early as December 1962, Bin Nafl's guerrilla band performed sabotage operations on the British air base at Salalah and ambushed oil industry vehicles; however, they then withdrew, having been sent by Saudi Arabia to Iraq for more guerrilla training.
From 1964 the DLF began a campaign of hit-and-run attacks on oil company installations and government posts. Many of the DLF were trained former soldiers of the Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces (SAF), or of the Trucial Oman Scouts in the United Arab Emirates.
The Sultan had relied on the "Dhofar Force", a locally-recruited irregular unit of only 60 men, to maintain order in the region. In April 1966, members of this unit attempted to assassinate the Sultan. This event apparently changed the nature of the conflict. The Sultan retired to his palace in Salalah, never to be seen in public again. This only served to add to rumours that the British were running Oman through a "phantom" Sultan. The Sultan also launched a full-scale military offensive against the DLF, contrary to the advice of his British advisors. Heavy-handed search and destroy missions were launched in Dhofar, villages were burned and wells were concreted over or blown up. A member of the SAF reported that after receiving heavy resistance, it "proved that the position was unattainable, and after blowing up the village wells we evacuated the camp."
An emboldened movement
From the early days of the rebellion, Nasserite and other left wing movements in neighbouring Yemen and in Aden were also involved. In 1967, two events combined to give the Rebellion a more revolutionary complexion. One was the Six Day War which radicalised opinion throughout the Arab world. The other was the British withdrawal from Aden and the establishment of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). From this point, the rebels had a source of arms, supplies and training facilities adjacent to Dhofar, and fresh recruits from among groups in the PDRY. Training camps, logistical bases and other facilities were set up in the coastal town of Hawf, only a few miles from the border with Oman.
At a "Second Congress" of the insurgent movement in September 1968, most of the official posts within the movement passed into the hands of radicals, and the movement renamed itself the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (al-Jabha al-Sha'abiya li-Tahrir al-Khalij al-'Arabi al-Muhtall), or PFLOAG. The move towards Marxism-Leninism ensured that the PFLOAG received sponsorship from both South Yemen and China. China in particular was quick to support the PFLOAG as it was a peasant-based organisation, giving it a strong Maoist credence. Chinese support for the PFLOAG also had another benefit for them, as it acted as a counterbalance to increasing Soviet influence in the Indian Ocean. China was quick to establish an embassy in Aden and "the Yemeni regime allowed its territory to be used for channelling weapons" to the PFLOAG. Both the Chinese and Soviets also provided members of the PFLOAG with indoctrination and training in unconventional warfare.
The transformation of the DLF, combined with a new supply of Chinese and Soviet weaponry and better training, ensured that the armed wing of the PFLOAG turned into an effective fighting force. However, it also led to a split between those such as bin Nafl who were fighting mainly for local autonomy and recognition, and the more doctrinaire revolutionaries (led by Mohammad Ahmad al-Ghassani). One of bin Nafl's lieutenants, Said bin Gheer, was an early and influential defector to the Sultan.
Nevertheless, by 1969 the DLF and PFLOAG fighters (known widely as Adoo) had overrun much of the Jebel Dhofar, and cut the only road across it, that from Salalah to "Midway" (Thumrait) in the deserts to the north. They were well-armed with such weapons as the AK-47 assault rifle. They also used heavy machine guns (the DShK), mortars up to 82mm in calibre and 140mm BM-14 or 122mm "Katyusha" rockets.
By 1970 communists controlled the entire Jebel. Terror was then used to break up the tradition tribal structure. Five elderly sheikhs were pushed over a 450 feet high cliff. Other sheikhs were machine gunned with their sons. Children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to train in Yemen. Young men were sent to train for guerilla warfare in China and Russia.
The units of the Sultan's Armed Forces were under strength with only 1,000 men in Dhofar in 1968. They were also badly equipped, mainly with World War II vintage weapons such as bolt-action rifles, which were inferior to the PFLOAG's modern firearms. These rifles were replaced by the FN FAL only late in 1969. Even the SAF's clothing and boots were ragged and unsuitable for the terrain. The units of the SAF were generally not properly trained to face hardy guerrillas on their own ground, and no Omani held a rank above that of Lieutenant (a result of the Sultan's fears of opposition to his rule among the armed forces). The SAF generally were unable to operate in less than company strength on the jebel, and were mainly restricted to Salalah and its immediate area. Small detachments of the British RAF Regiment and Royal Artillery had to be deployed to protect the vital airfield at Salalah from infiltrators and from harassing mortar and rocket fire.
Other insurgents in the north of Oman formed another organisation, the National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (NDFLOAG). In June 1970 they attacked two SAF posts at Nizwa and Izki. They were repulsed but the incident convinced many (including the Sultan's British advisers and backers) that new leadership was required.
On 23 July 1970, Said bin Taimur was deposed. The coup was almost bloodless. Folklore has it that one of the plotters, two of the Sultan's bodyguard and the Sultan were slightly wounded, all by the Sultan himself. Sultan Said went into exile in London. He was replaced by his son, Qaboos bin Said, who immediately instigated major social, educational and military reforms. Qaboos had been well educated, first in Salalah by an old Arab scholar and then at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, after which he was commissioned into the Cameronians, a regiment of the British Army. He then completed his education sitting in on councils, attending committee meetings and visiting industry and administrative centres in Britain before returning to Oman. His "five point plan" involved:
- A general amnesty to all those of his subjects who had opposed his father;
- An end to the archaic status of Dhofar as the Sultan's private fief and its formal incorporation into Oman as the "southern province";
- Effective military opposition to rebels who did not accept the offer of amnesty;
- A vigorous nation-wide programme of development;
- Diplomatic initiatives with the aims of having Oman recognised as a genuine Arab state with its own legal form of government, and isolating the PDRY from receiving support from other Arab states.
Within hours of the coup, British Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers were flown into Oman to further bolster the counterinsurgency campaign. They identified four main strategies that would assist the fight against the PFLOAG:
- Civil administration and a hearts and minds campaign;
- Intelligence gathering and collation;
- Veterinary assistance;
- Medical assistance.
The military commanders on the ground (rather than the UK Ministry of Defence) suggested the implementation of a "hearts and minds" campaign, which would be put into operation primarily by a troop (25 men) from the SAS. The British government (then under Conservative leader Edward Heath) supported this unconventional approach to the counterinsurgency campaign. It approved the deployment of 20 personnel of the British Royal Engineers, who would aid in the construction of schools and health centres, and drilled wells for the population of Dhofar. A Royal Air Force medical team would also operate out of Salalah hospital, in order to open a humanitarian front in the conflict. The operation was almost a carbon copy of a system that had proved successful in the Malayan Emergency some twenty years previously. The British government additionally provided monetary support for the creation of the Dhofar Development Programme, whose aim was to wrest support from the PFLOAG through the modernisation of Dhofar.
To assist in the civil development and coordinate it with the military operations, the command structure in Dhofar was reorganised, with the newly appointed Wāli or civilian governor (Braik bin Hamoud) being given equal status to the military commander of the Dhofar Brigade (Brigadier Jack Fletcher to 1972, Brigadier John Akehurst from that date).
A major effort was made to counter rebel propaganda and induce the Dhofari population to support the government. In particular, appeals were made to Islam and to traditional tribal values and customs, against the rebels' secular or materialistic teachings. A significant outlet for government propaganda was the many inexpensive Japanese transistor radios which were sold cheaply or distributed free to jibalis who visited Salalah and other government-held towns to sell firewood or vegetables. Although the PFLOAG could also broadcast propaganda by radio, the Government's propaganda was factual and low-key, while that of the rebels, broadcast by Radio Aden, was soon perceived to be exaggerated and stereotyped.
One step which had a major impact on the uprising was the announcement of an amnesty for surrendered fighters, and aid in defending their communities from rebels. A cash incentive was offered to rebels who surrendered, with a bonus if they brought their weapon. The surrendered rebels formed Firqat irregular units, trained by British Army Training Teams, or BATTs, from the Special Air Service. Eighteen Firqat units, numbering from between 50 to 150 each, were eventually formed. They usually gave themselves names with connections to Islam, such as the Firqat Salahadin. (Some of the PFLOAG units also gave themselves ideological names such as Ho Chi Minh or Che Guevara.) These firqat irregular groups played a major part in denying local support to the rebels. Being jibalis themselves (and in many cases with family connections among the communities on the Jebel), they were better at local intelligence-gathering and "hearts and minds" activities than the northern Omani or Baluchi personnel of the regular SAF. The first serious step in re-establishing the Sultan's authority on the Jebel took place in October 1971, when Operation Jaguar was mounted, involving five Firqat units and two squadrons of the SAS. After hard fighting, the SAS and Firqats secured an enclave on the eastern Jebel Samhan from which they could expand.
Meanwhile, the regular units of the SAF were expanded and re-equipped. Extra officers and NCO instructors from the British Army and Royal Marines (and also the Pakistan Army) were attached to all units (there were nominally twenty-two British or contracted personnel with each infantry battalion) while Omani personnel were educated and trained to become officers and senior NCOs. British specialist elements, including mortar locating radar troops and artillery observation officers, also rotated through Oman over several years.
The revitalised SAF created fortified lines running north from the coast and up to the summit of the Jebel, to interdict the movement of rebels and the camel trains carrying their supplies from the PDRY. The "Leopard Line" had already been established in 1969, but this line had to be abandoned during the monsoon season as it could not be supplied. The more effective "Hornbeam Line" was set up in 1971, running north from Mughsayl on the coast. The lines consisted of fortified platoon and company outposts on commanding peaks, linked by barbed wire. The posts possessed mortars and some also had artillery, to provide cover for patrols and to harass rebel positions and tracks used by them. The SAF soldiers continually sortied from their outposts to set ambushes on the most likely enemy infiltration routes and mount attacks against rebel mortar- and rocket-launching positions. Anti-personnel land mines were sown on infiltration routes. The rebels also used anti-personnel mines against suspected SAF patrol bases, and even laid anti-tank land mines on tracks used by SAF vehicles.
The Sultan of Oman's Air Force was also expanded, acquiring BAC Strikemaster and, later on, Hawker Hunter aircraft which provided air support to units on the ground, and eight Shorts Skyvan transport aircraft and eight Agusta Bell 205 transport helicopters which supplied firqat and SAF posts on the jebels. A flight of RAF Westland Wessex helicopters also operated from Salalah.
On 17 April 1972, a battalion of the SAF made a helicopter landing to capture a position codenamed Simba at Sarfait near the border with the PDRY. The captured position overlooked the rebels' supply lines along the coastal plain, but did not block them. Although the demands on its transport aircraft and helicopters to maintain the post at Sarfait forced the SAF to abandon some positions in the eastern Jebel, Sarfait was nevertheless retained for four years.
Defeat of the rebellion
As a result of the various measures undertaken by the Omani government, firqats and regular SAF, the rebels were being deprived both of local support and supplies from the PDRY. To retrieve the situation, they mounted a major attack on the coastal town of Mirbat during the monsoon season of 1972. On 19 July 1972, at the Battle of Mirbat, 250 Adoo attacked 100 assorted Firqat under training, paramilitary askars (armed police) and a detachment of the Special Air Service. In spite of the low khareef cloud cover, air support from Strikemaster aircraft was available, and helicopters landed SAS reinforcements. The Adoo were repulsed with heavy losses.
From this point on, the rebel defeat was inevitable, although they defeated an offensive by the SAF in 1973 intended to seal the border with the PDRY and capture the main Adoo base in the Shershitti Caves. The Adoo earned the respect of their opponents for their resilience and skill.
In January 1974, after several splits and defections, the rebel movement renamed itself the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman. This public contraction of their aims coincided with a reduction in the support they received from the Soviet Union and China. Meanwhile, the Adoo were steadily cleared from the Jebel Qara and Jebel Samhan by firqats and were driven into the western part of the Jebel Qamar.
As a result of Sultan Qaboos's diplomatic initiatives, the Shah of Iran had sent an Iranian Army brigade numbering 1,200 and with its own helicopters to assist the Sultan's Armed Forces in 1973. The Iranian brigade first secured the Salalah-Thumrait road. In 1974, the Iranian contribution was expanded into the Imperial Iranian Task Force, numbering 4,000. They attempted to establish another interdiction line, codenamed the "Damavand Line", running from Manston, a few miles east of Sarfait, to the coast near the border with the PDRY. Heavy opposition from the adoo, which included artillery fire from within the PDRY, thwarted this aim for several months. Eventually, the town of Rahkyut, which the PFLO had long maintained as the capital of their liberated territory, fell to the Iranian task force.
In July 1975, the SAF launched a second "final" offensive. An attack from Simba, intended to be a diversion, nevertheless succeeded in descending cliffs and slopes 3,000 feet (910 m) in total height to reach the coast at Dalqhut, and thus finally cut off the Adoo from their bases in the PDRY. Other SAF units finally captured Deefa, the Shershitti Caves and other defended positions in the Jebel Qamar. Hawker Hunter aircraft of the Sultan's Air Force, 31 of which had been transferred to the SAF from the Royal Jordanian Air Force, attacked artillery positions in the PDRY. Over the next few months, the remaining rebel fighters surrendered or sought sanctuary in the PDRY.
The Rebellion was finally declared to be defeated in January 1976, although isolated incidents took place as late as 1979.
The Sultan of Oman had also been the ruler of the port of Gwadur in Balochistan in Pakistan until 1958. Baloch troops formed a substantial part of the Sultan's Army. During the rebellion, Oman sought to hire more Baluchi troops. One act of resistance against this was in 1979 when Hameed Baloch, an activist of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO) tried to shoot at an Omani military officer who was visiting Balochistan to recruit more Baluchi troops. As a leftist organization, the BSO expressed solidarity with the Dhofari rebels. Hameed Baloch was later executed by the Government of Pakistan for the incident, even though the Omani officer was unhurt.
- The Dhofar Rebellion
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- British contribution
- Walter C. Ladwig III, "Supporting Allies in Counterinsurgency: Britain and the Dhofar Rebellion," Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 19, No. 1 (March 2008), pp. 62–88.