The Oman Djebel War, 1957–59

What this Battlefield Tourist learned about Practical Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in the Southern Gulf

The years 1955–1959 brought a major insurgency to the Gulf state of Muscat and Oman which, for a while, threatened the integrity of the Omani state. All the key battlefields were in Northern Oman, within 150 miles of the capital, Muscat, and because this is a mountainous region, Omanis remember it as the Djebel (Mountain) War; in the UK it is referred to usually as the Djebel Akhdar campaign, after its climactic battle. Historically, the Djebel War has been almost completely overshadowed by Oman’s other insurgency, Dhofar 1965–1975, which was longer, bigger, bloodier and far better covered in print. However, the Djebel War sends messages in its own right. It was truly ‘complex’, difficult to pigeonhole as either insurgency or civil war and showing many of the characteristics of both, and at the tactical level mixed battalion-level battles, including sieges of fortified areas, with close air support and bombing of the rebel infrastructure, alongside guerrilla warfare, sabotage and terrorism. As strategy, it illustrates limited military force dealing with a potentially major crisis where larger-scale deployments were unacceptable politically.

The Great Fort at Nizwa. Built in the 17th century, it is one of Oman’s national landmarks. The scars from RAF rockets are still visible today (author’s photo).

I confess deep personal interest here. I have made five professional visits to Muscat since 2007, and have many former students turned good friends in the Omani government, military, police and private sector, some having family members involved in the Djebel War. On my last visit, one such good friend and former student, Salim al Kindi of the Royal Oman Police, took me on a day-long trip to Nizwa, his home town and for a while the rebel HQ, and the Hajjar Mountains, the main battlefield of the Imamate insurgency. In twelve hours of walking the ground I can say safely that I learned more about how and why this particular insurgency took the shape it did, and about how small wars in general work, than in hundreds of hours of reading or listening to distinguished professors expounding theories of these things. Hans Delbruck called this sachskritik, and he had a point about its analytical value. What follows illustrates this.

The Djebel War was a tribal uprising led by separatist sheikhs in Oman’s interior, against the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, Said bin Taimur, ostensibly in the name of Oman’s traditional spiritual and secular ruler, the Imam. They proclaimed it their patriotic duty to either throw off the rule of the Sultan, a British client, and restore Oman’s traditional system of rule or secede and follow their own path. To an extent, they were being manipulated, the Djebel uprising also being a proxy war against the British by President Nasser of Egypt and King Saud of Saudi Arabia, who provided the rebels covertly with training, weapons and money, and overtly with diplomatic and propaganda support.

Said bin Taimur al bu Said, Sultan of Muscat and Oman from 1942 to 1970: personally charming, politically canny, and utterly inflexible in his views on running a country.

Said bin Taimur al bu Said, Sultan of Muscat and Oman from 1942 to 1970: personally charming, politically canny, and utterly inflexible in his views on running a country.

Said bin Taimur al Busaidi had been Sultan of Muscat and Oman since 1932, and was tied to Britain by treaties going back to the 1790s. Since the 1860s, a subsidy from the Government of India, and from 1947, from the British Foreign Office, provided 95–98% of Oman’s annual budget, effectively putting Britain in charge of Oman’s foreign policy — British diplomats represented Oman at the United Nations, for instance — and also of much of its internal policy, all but one member of Said’s cabinet, such as it was in the mid 1950s, being from the British and Indian expatriate communities in Muscat. The relationship was stronger still in military affairs. To ‘coup-proof’ his small army, Said forbad Omanis promotion beyond lieutenant and all officers’ posts above this were held by retired British or Pakistani officers contracted to Said himself. His main aim throughout his reign was to get Oman out of debt to the British and therefore reduce their political control, resulting in him seeing inflexible austerity as a desirable end in itself and enforcing mountains of petty restrictions on public spending which kept Oman in the Dark Ages. When the Djebel War broke out, there were just two hospitals in the entire country, two secular secondary schools, all in Muscat and run by foreigners, just three miles of metalled road, linking Muscat with the port of Muttrah, and in some villages in the interior, it was reported that every single adult had some kind of serious medical condition, including leprosy. It would seem, therefore, that the rebels held out far more for the people of Oman than Said and his British allies, who found him a major embarrassment, but backed him as the alternatives were worse.

Ghalib bin Ali remained in exile in Saudi Arabia until his death in 2009, despite peace overtures from Qaboos.

The figurehead of the rebellion was Ghalib bin Ali Al Hinai, the last Imam of Oman, misidentified by the British as its leader. In actuality, those who knew Ghalib remember an affable, kindly Islamic scholar and judge, not ideal guerrilla leader material. However, he was politically astute and as a focus of loyalty, he was indispensable — after all, it is rare that fighting men have their very policy aim walking amongst them, talking with them, arbitrating their disputes and tending their spiritual needs. The military campaign was commanded by two very different characters. Suleiman bin Himyar al Nabhani was Sheikh of the Bani Riyam, the biggest tribe in Oman, and paramount Sheikh of the Hinawi tribal federation. Suleiman secured Ghalib’s elevation as Imam in pursuit of his agenda to make himself the most powerful man in Oman, then break away from Muscat’s control and form his own emirate. Suleiman was vital to the insurgency because as leader of the biggest tribe in Oman, he had massive political clout, and also provided most of the fighters. The other insurgent leader was Talib bin Ali al Hinai, the Imam’s brother: forceful, charismatic and a genuine idealist, as the insurgency continued, he gradually took over from Suleiman as its leader and main driving force. Talib commanded the Oman Liberation Army, a hard core of 300 trained fighters, recruited from the substantial Omani Diaspora in the Middle East and trained by American mercenaries in Saudi Arabia. Talib seems to have been heavily under Nasser’s spell, and the insurgency became more ambitious as Talib began to pursue a radical Arab nationalist agenda aimed at overthrowing the Sultanate and expelling the British from Oman altogether. This led to competing priorities: the region of northern and western Oman affected by the uprising was surveyed by British oil companies from the 1940s onwards, and it appears that Suleiman was motivated far more by potential oil contracts in his fiefdom than by religion or Arab nationalism. He raised the issue of oil contracts with the British as early as 1949 and the Saudis in the early 1950s, and it seems that the main driving force behind Saudi support for the uprising was the Arab-American Oil Company, ARAMCO, which had been encouraging the al Sauds towards an aggressive approach to border disputes in potentially oil-rich areas for some time — and it happens that a lot of the weaponry smuggled into Oman was US-manufactured. Alongside the OLA were some 2–3,000 tribal warriors, mainly from Suleiman’s Bani Riyam tribe: before the 1960s, every man and boy in the Omani interior carried a rifle as soon as he was big enough, usually a Martini-Henry, an Indian Jezail, or a Lee-Enfield .303 if they could get one. Against these, Sultan Said had about 800–1,000 semi-trained troops, organised into three infantry regiments based on the British model and with a collection of middle aged ex-British Army officers commanding and training them. The regiments were severely under strength, only about 3–400 men each, and one was effectively wiped out early on in the insurgency. They carried Lee-Enfields and a few Bren Guns, and were ‘desert mobile’ on Land Rovers (of limited use in the mountains of northern Oman); supporting them was a battery of Victorian-era pack howitzers, at least 50–60 years old at the time, with the only known reserves of ammunition in the Imperial War Museum in London. Said had possibly about 3,000 tribal warriors of his own, but these were considered unreliable and likely to defect.

Britain was, by the 1950s, widely hated in the Middle East: as the Mandatory power, she was seen as culpable in what happened in Palestine in 1948 and, more recently, as a partner in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran.

All this mattered politically. Muscat and Oman was the closest British ally in the entire Middle East, and Britain needed a stable, secure Gulf. Kuwait and the smaller Gulf states had been British protectorates since the 19th century, and Britain relied on Kuwaiti and Iranian oil, less for its own consumption than because selling it played a major part in paying off Britain’s debts to the USA following World War Two — indeed, by 1950, proceeds from Kuwait oil made up fully half of Britain’s currency reserves. Not only did the sea lanes carrying this oil run past Oman, but Oman itself was potentially a major source of oil, and the rebellion cut off the potential oil-producing areas around Fahud, in the interior, from Muscat on the coast. Moreover, Britain was, by the 1950s, widely hated in the Middle East: as the Mandatory power, she was seen as culpable in what happened in Palestine in 1948 and, more recently, as a partner in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. From 1952 onwards, she faced the tidal wave of Arab nationalism erupting from Egypt, and it is no coincidence that the early stages of the Djebel insurgency coincided with the British withdrawal from Suez in 1955 and their cack-handed attempt to retake it the following year: Nasser’s policy was to get the British and the Zionists out of the Middle East, his strategy including covert backing for insurgents across the region, including in Algeria and Sinai, as well as Oman.

Troopers of 22 SAS on top of the Djebel, January 1959.

So, my first observation: tactics matter, so geography matters. Strategy is not a branch of philosophy, but a practical activity hinging on securing ground of political importance, hinging in turn on your forces beating your enemy in the physical environment concerned. The physical environment concerned here was the Hajjar Mountains, which stretch from Musandam in the north down the coast of Oman almost to Sur, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and include several peaks of over 5,000 feet. Having seen them for real, the height of these mountains is emphasised by their extreme steepness and the distinct pyramidal or ‘witches hat’ shape of many of the peaks. Before the 1970s, the range was un-crossable except via the wadis between the mountains, some of which rival the Thames when in full flood, being several hundred yards across. And looming over all is the Djebel Akhdar: one of the most memorable sights of my visit is of a mile and a quarter high black wall, towering even above the rest of the Hajjar range, water channels the size of rivers running down its face, stretching across the horizon; at night, what I thought initially were the lights of aeroplanes in the sky were actually from cars driving on the higher Djebel above. The Arabic name ‘Green Mountain’ is a misnomer — it is not a single peak, but the central massif of the Hajjar, incorporating several peaks, including the 9,000-foot Djebel Shams, which I saw in the distance. Secondly, it is black, not green — it is ‘Green’ possibly because the soil at the top is more fertile than in the lowlands below, and some slopes have a covering of trees. Mountain springs and runoff from winter rains on the Djebel mean that northern Oman is well-watered by Arabian standards; however, temperatures were around 35 degrees C when I visited in early autumn, and can be 10–15 degrees hotter in midsummer, yet at night can drop low enough to freeze water inside metal canteen bottles.

The Hajjar mountains of Oman, not easy territory for an invading force to penetrate.

Reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom will not help you in northern Oman; these are people of mountain villages, not nomads of the desert. Anyone wishing to control inner Oman from Muscat on the coast must secure these wadis, which means controlling the towns and villages along them, no mean task given the climate, their distance from the coast and that most will be fortified and held by men with local knowledge and a stake in the outcome. Moreover, defenders may fall back on the massive natural fortress of the Djebel Akhdar, as several did in Oman’s past, and the rebels did again in 1957 having been pushed out of the lowlands. Even before this, the Commander of the Sultan’s Armed Forces, Colonel David Smiley, had the problem of advancing a small, 1940s-standard force through the wadis. I estimate that 2–3 snipers with local knowledge, positioned on mountainsides overlooking any of them, might hold up a far larger force for hours; a few well-placed and concealed mortar positions could impose even longer delays. The villages are rabbit warrens full of tight, twisty little streets, each old-style house having a low wall around the roof for fortification, and some have elevated walkways allowing defenders to run between them without going on the streets. Each village in Inner Oman was a potential mini-Stalingrad and one, Ibri, held up a Sultanate column for two days with some well-placed snipers until the Royal Air Force simply flattened the place.

So Talib and Suleiman did not use guerrilla warfare initially, but attrition based on inducing Sultanate forces to attack them in their villages or on apparently impregnable geographical features. The rebels would try as far as possible to fight from fortifications, mainly villages or the 2–300 year old forts sighted on hilltops to overlook the surrounding countryside, while smaller parties or individual saboteurs snuck around the Sultan’s forces to plant mines on the supply trails behind them. Visit the area and this becomes the most obvious method of fighting there, and it was also rational at the strategic level: the Imamate were asserting their independence, so had to hold the area they wanted to rule, and, in doing so, expose the weakness and ineptitude of the Sultan in Muscat while their agents toured Arab capitals (and, later, Beijing) seeking formal recognition.

The COINdinistas talk of ‘population-centric counterinsurgency’ but none have stood below the Djebel, looking up: talk is all you have if the human terrain you want to plough sits on top of a 6,000-foot massif with all routes up covered by well-sited angry men with guns.

If the rebels had faced Generals Petraeus or Richards, it is likely they would still have held the top of the Djebel today. The COINdinistas talk of ‘population-centric counterinsurgency’ but none have stood below the Djebel, looking up: talk is all you have if the human terrain you want to plough sits on top of a 6,000-foot massif with all routes up covered by well-sited angry men with guns. No amount of cultural sensitivity is going to get you over those mountains or up that massif, you must develop the practical military means to do so, and get those men out of the way. So, once the rebels retreated up the Djebel in autumn 1957, the state of the Sultan’s Armed Forces made air attack probably the only viable option for continuing hostilities in the short to medium term. Britain passed legislation authorising financial support to Oman, sent Royal Marines officers and NCOs to train the Sultan’s forces, and most significantly, deployed several Squadrons of RAF Venom fighter-bombers and Shackleton medium bombers to bases in the Gulf. In July 1957 these began ‘firepower demonstrations’, attacking forts in Imamate-held areas and in early August, switched to sweeping the countryside, pairs of Venoms rocketing any movement observed on tracks and trails, including those on the plateau of the Djebel. The only known routes up the Djebel were defended obstinately, despite bombing, the rebels repelling most attempts to reconnoitre them with heavy casualties on occasions, including two Royal Marine NCOs killed leading Omani troops, and continued mortaring Sultanate positions from the top of the Djebel while small parties sneaked down at night to mine the surrounding roads. Omani troops in the Sultanate forces were brave, well-trained and themselves skilful in mountain warfare, but Colonel Smiley simply did not have enough to cover all the routes up the Djebel or carry out an effective assault, so using airpower, no matter how flawed it may seem to the theoreticians, seemed the only viable way to keep the rebels under coercive pressure.

Despite the air attacks, it was clear after eight months that the rebels were still not going to surrender, and they were still lobbing mortar bombs and mining the roads almost nightly. An assault, carrying the war to the top of the Djebel and removing the rebels’ last safe haven, would be necessary, particularly before the return of the summer heat made it impossible. The General Officer Commanding Persian Gulf estimated it would need two divisions, including at least one Gurkha battalion each, and they would need several months’ training in mountain warfare beforehand. Such a massive British deployment to a Middle Eastern country, to support a ruler viewed widely as a British puppet, would be unthinkable so soon after the Suez episode.

Colonel David Smiley, the first Commandant of the Sultan’s Armed Forces. An experienced proponent of unconventional operations he served with Special Operations Executive in World War Two and after Oman advised insurgents supporting the Imam of Yemen against occupying Egyptian forces in the 1960s.

So, strategy was shaped by political expediency and the physical environment. Colonel Smiley’s only viable alternatives were to continue the siege indefinitely, assault the Djebel using Sultanate troops, or find specialists who had the necessary skills and physical fitness to climb the Djebel quickly and the firepower, tactical skill and aggression to take on all comers once they got to the top. Smiley went for the third option and requested the deployment of 22 SAS in September 1958. D Squadron, under Major Johnny Watts, one of its troops commanded by Captain Peter de la Billière, arrived from Malaya in October and began aggressive patrolling of some of the routes up the Djebel found previously by Sultanate patrols, almost immediately getting contacts and inflicting casualties. In January 1959, they were joined by A Squadron, under Major John Cooper and in late January, they climbed the 6,000-foot high wall in just one night, carrying a number of rebel positions by surprise, and, once at the top, the rebels and their leaders, believing they were facing far more than just 100 SAS men, retreated along the one remaining trail into Saudi Arabia, and the bulk of their forces surrendered. The insurgency dragged on into the 1960s, approximately 99% consisting of mining and sabotage at the ‘containable nuisance’ rather than ‘genuine threat’ level, and the British began a programme of civil development in the Hajjar region, having secured it by military force. So, the SAS, the extraordinary force, as Sun Tzu might say, was the main offensive arm in the final stages of the shooting war, expanding strategic options beyond simply bombing the Djebel. More importantly, they demonstrated the potential political-strategic impact of Special Forces as a low-key substitute for a major deployment (particularly after the Suez embarrassment), succeeding in saving a close ally in a globally important region.

Overall, therefore, the situation was driven by practitioners adapting to geographical and political circumstances — yet the strategic impact was immense.

Dr. Simon Anglim is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He is the author of Orde Wingate: Unconventional Warrior, and he has embarked on a volume on the Djebel War in 1950s Oman. The author would like to thank Aiysha al Toubi and Salim al Kindi, without whom this post would have been impossible.

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