“Keep the dogs hungry, they will follow you”. Such was in essence, the ruling theory of Said bin Taimur, sultan of Oman and Muscat, the last feudal monarch of Arabia. And during the long reign of the seventh sultan of the Al Bu Said dynasty, the so called dogs, his subjects, were hungry indeed, and obediently followed their master.
In this country of more than 80.000 square miles -- the second largest Arab country east of Suez after Saudi Arabia -- with 750.000 inhabitants, the clock of history was stopped somewhere in the Middle Ages. Everything, it seemed was forbidden. The inhabitants of the coast were forbideen to travel inland, and those of the inland valleys could not go to the coast, or even from one valley to another. No one was allowed to go to Dhofar, in the extreme southwest.
There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.
No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.
No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours. But one day the dogs got too hungry, and they tore the Sultan almost to death.
A fragile rule
The first assassination attempt took place in April 1966, during a parade. Some Dhofaris, who along with his slaves made up the Sultan’s private army, suddenly started shooting at their master. They failed to hit him, and when the ringleader jumped on him, one of the Sultan’s slaves cut the throat of the would-be killer. The Sultan was splattered with blood, but was unharmed. Six people were dead.
After this attempt, the Sultan no longer left his palace except for rare trips to London; he governed from Salalah and through three advisers.
But a triple menace threatened the Sultan:
- In Dhofar, the Marxist rebels of the Liberation Front of Dhofar vicrtually controlled the hills, mountains and even the small coastal villages. The Sultan controlled nothing but Salalah, which had become an entrenched camp.
- At home, where the population had already revolted against the Sultan with the help of the Saudis during the mid-1950s, insecurity was greater than ever.
- Abroad, in 1966, one of the Sultan’s own brothers, Tariq bin Taimur, self-exiled for several years, launched a movement aimed at overthrowing Sultan Said and restoring democracy,.
Born of a Turkish mother, married to a German, speaking five languages fluently, Tariq had friends in the Western embassies in Kuwait and Beirut, and was thinking of raising a mercenary force to remove Said from power. So trouble was brewing. But quite surprissingly, the coup which brought the 36-year reign of Said bin Taimur to an end and opened the last medieval country of Arabia to the outside world came from the most unexpected source: Salalah itself, where the Sultan’s son, Qabus bin Said, had been living virtually under house arrest since 1964.
According to the official version of the coup, soldiers won to Qabus’ side surrounded the old palace one early morning last July and, after a brief clash with the Sultan’s forces, took charge. The old Sultan himself suffered five wounds but survived to be deposed.
A few weeks earlier, most observers in the Persian Gulf and Beirut thought the fall of Sultan Said was only a matter of time: “When the oil revenues reach £50 million ($120 million) the British will remove him and put a Tariq in power”, said one well-placed source in Abu Dhabi last June. Said bin Taimur was the sick man of Arabia; intervention was imminent, and Tariq was thought of as the surgeon.
Why did the British choose to let Qabus’ coup succeed? Was it, as a British diplomat in Muscat had the audacity to say, because “it (British policy) is not to interfere with the local affairs of the natives”? Or, as other say, was it because Tariq was too involved abroad or because of his idea of democracy, which would give the Sultan a largely honorary role? Or did the new Sultan really impose himself?
In any case, four days after the coup of Salalah, the outside world learned that Tariq was only to be prime minister and that Qabus would succeed his father to become the eighth sultan of a dynasty which has been in power since 1749. His first decision was to call himself Sultan of Oman -- and not of Oman and Muscat, phraseology which summons up the country’s everlasting division. His second decision was to visit Muscat, where his father had not been seen since 1958.
Born in 1940, the new Sultan lived all his childhood in virtual seclusion at his father’s palace, in Salalah. He was not allowed to talk with his teachers about anything but his lessons, and although he spent many years literally yards from the sea, he never played in it or learned to swim.
At 16, Qabus was sent to England, where he studied with a private tutor, then went to Sandhurst. He was stationed for a time in Germany after becoming an officer. The only other major event in his life was a round-the-world trip on which he was chaperoned by a British major.
For six years, Qabus lived the life of a prisoner, except that he could have all the books and records he wanted, but he was desperately lonely. His father ignored him. At the time of the coup, Qabus had not seen his father for 14 or 16 months, though they lived next door to each other.
Despite this bizarre upbringing, Qabus gives every appearance of being very much in control of the situation. He is a man who studied in the Western world but never forgets that he reigns, in the full meaning of the word, over the last feudal country on the Arabian peninsula.
“I am a man with one foot in my country -- backwards as it is, with its tribal customs, its life dominated by Islam -- and the other in the 20th century. I must be vert careful to keep my balance”, Qabus said recently in a two-an- a-half-hour interview.
And as far as the political organisation of his country is concerned, Qabus will not upset the tribes. “You cannot run before you walk”, he said. “Most of the population that lives in the interior of the country still does not live with its time. What these people want before anything else is education and health. As long as we provide them with these fast enough, there will not be any problem”.
Qabus first task since the take-over has been to lift all the feudal personal restrictions and to set up the beginning of a government. As of now, there is a prime minister -- Tariq -- and five ministers: education, health, interior, justice and information. But as far as the writing of a constitution or the formation of a parliament is concerned, Qabus is blunt.
“”It would be a mistake, a big mistake. Most of the people do not even know what a vote is... In these conditions to draft a constitution, to set up a parliament would be like building a huge dome without either walls or foundations. It might perhaps give a nice impression to the outside world, but it would be nothing but a big show. Look how people vote in Egypt. They are driven to the polls in army trucks. If there were a parliament now, I would have to choose its members among the sheikhs and a few others. What would be the significance of such a body”?
... In his own words, Tariq is a prime minister “without baggage” and practically without a personal staff. And his five-man cabinet is hardly functional, lacking premises for its own staffs.
But in his efforts to modernise Oman, Tariq has one trump card: a fairly large pool of educated Omanis who were forced to live in exile during the reign of said. There were at least 3.000 of them with university degrees scattered from Persian Gulf countries to Cairo to Europe, and many are ready to come home and form the backbone of a modern native administration.
“The Sultan was put in power by the British”, says an anrgy young man. “”We, the young people, would like to have a republic. But we are ready to give him some time, to see how he will act. After a while, if he does not do anything, we will shout very loud”.
But Qabus fears this shouting much less than another threat to his throne: the war in Dhofar.
A secret war
A dirty war, the war in Dhofar has also been a secret war. Even the inhabitants of Muscat were not allowed to go to Dhofar, and journalists were not allowed in Oman, still less in Dhofar, until recently. It is now possible to tell the story of the war in Dhofar -- or at least part of it -- since it has become possible for journalists to rove freely all over Oman and to go to Salalah.
It began in 1962 -- the year of the revolution in Yemen -- when a so-called Musallim bin Nufl, the historical leader of the rebellion, was sentenced to jail for some pecadillo. Bin Nufl fled to Damman in Saudi Arabia, where he met two of the leaders of the earlier revolt in 1955-58 -- the former Imam Ghalib and his brother Talib. Bin Nufl said he was ready to start a movement in Dhofar, and Ghalib promised him support -- and gave him money and arms, supplied by the Saudi officials as in 1955.
During its first few years, the war was sustained by Saudi Arabia alone, Bin Nufl shuttled back and forth across a thousand miles of desert to bring back small groups of Bedouin tribesmen trained in Saudi Arabia. The attacks against the main road and oil company camps did no serious damage, but sufficiently worried the old Sultan that he allowed his regular army into Dhofar in late 1964.
It was about this time that Iraq began to train recruits for Bin Nufl’s guerrilla army, and by mid-1965, British intelligence officers discovered that the rebels were operating on two fronts. Documents captured from suspect coastal smugglers led them to arrest 33 members of the “Salalah Front”, including three members of its “central committee”. The Salalah Front, they also discovered, was getting support from Egypt’s President Nasser.
Bin Nufl’s movement was still tiny when the British pulled out of Aden at the end of 1967. The new People’s Republic of South Yemen immediately gave active support to a militant off-shoot of Bin Nufl’s group, and in September, 1968, the movement became the “People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf”.
The supply route from Aden is a much shorter one, and from that point, the rebels became a real threat to Sultan Said. The rebels’ numbers had grown to more than 1.000, and the Sultan’s authority virtually ceased to exist in Dhofar outside the town of Salalah.
The rebels’ training and equipment improved. Armed with Soviet submachine guns, and with mortars and rockets, their units -- called “Che Guevara and “Ho Chi Minh” -- were solidly based in the hills overlooking Salalah.
A well-timed coup
In this setting, the palace coup of July 1970, was a masterpiece of timing. Qabus, who within a few weeks after taking over visited the entire country, thus showed himself to a population that had not seen its sultan for decades. He suppressed all the restrictions which had led many Dhofaris to join or help the rebellion, and proclaimed a nearly general amnesty. For all but the totally committed revolutionaries, the struggle had lost its meaning, and they rallied to the government. Now the Sultan’s army is bulding up its strength, increasing in numbers from 2.500 men earlier this year to 3.500 in September, with a goal of 4.600 by early 1971. The air force now has a fleet of Caribous and Sky Vans, and a strike squadron of Strike Masters equipped with rockets, plus a few helicopters and scores of new trucks.
But British intelligence officers are not relaxing. They have learned recently from interrogation of captured rebels that the National Democratic Front, a separate clandestine group, is linked with Palestinian guerrilla leader George Habache and the Baathist rulers in Bagdad, and is influenced by Moscow.
The former commander of Sultan said’s forces likes to tell his visitors that Said once asked him to buy a book on how to defeat communism. “He was used to tribal wars, to attacks by Djebalis, not an ennemy which attacks the mind”, he said.
Yet even the new updated Sultan with his well-trained British advisers and his small army of returnning Omani intellectuals must still face a dilemma: how to continue buying planes and soldiers while trying to bring his country out of the Middle Ages.
(Washington Post, Excerpt, 27 December 1970)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002
Displaced Kurd, Turkey
Abu Dhabi, UEA