On the 23 July 1970, the Sultan of Oman was shot and deposed in the only known military coup d’état executed by British or other NATO officers during the Cold War, or by British officers in living memory.
In 1970, two years after the Tet Offensive and just months before the last major clash between American forces and the North Vietnamese Army, the world’s attention was still monopolised by the Second Vietnam War and America’s agony.
However, six thousand miles away, events in a country unheard of by most people spelt potential catastrophe for the West. In Oman’s Dhofar Province, a parochial nationalist insurgency with limited aims had morphed into a Marxist communist revolutionary movement with supra-national ambitions. PFLOAG, Popular Front for the Liberation of the Arabian Gulf – armed and trained by China and the USSR, and emboldened by the UK’s intended withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971 – was on the cusp of victory. If achieved, Oman would join the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen as the only two communist states in the Arab world.
Why did it matter to us in the West? On its Musandam Peninsula, Oman stood sentinel over perhaps the world’s most strategically important sea choke point. Laden with 43% of the Free World’s crude oil, tankers exited the Persian Gulf through the 10 kilometre-wide navigable stretch of the Straits of Hormuz.
Calling in its debts after a PFLOAG victory could have earned the USSR bases in Oman and in particular, a base in Musandam with its spectacular and dominating views over the easily blocked Straits of Hormuz below. Already in Egypt as its main adviser and arms supplier, the USSR was also sitting comfortably in Aden since the UK’s expulsion from South Yemen in 1967. Should the cold war turn hot, the USSR could block sea passage to both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, linking with the Suez Canal – closed since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War – in an embrace that isolated the Arabian Peninsula from sea access.
On the night of 11/12 June 1970, the Iraqi-backed NDFLOAG – National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf – attacked Omani army camps at Nizwa and Izki towns in Oman’s heartland. While Nizwa was a failed IED effort, Izki hummed with small arms fire from an 11-man ground attack party. Captain Charles Hepworth, camp commander, assembled an ad hoc force from those few soldiers not on Jummah (Friday, Muslim Holy Day) vacation and set off in pursuit. Twelve hours later, 10 attackers were either KIA or WIA; the 11th escaped – but only for a few weeks.
Now Oman had two conflicts to handle – a nascent insurgency war and a developed rural revolutionary war, one in the north, the other in the south and both separated by 800 kilometres of desert. Politics motivated both liberation movements against an obscurantist Sultan who refused to play politics by either his own volition or the persuasion of others (mainly the UK’s FCO).
Sultan Said bin Taimur al-Busaidi had to go. In the absence of a democratic ballot box to remove the Sultan there was just one alternative.
On 23 July 1970, just 35 days into Mr Edward Heath’s new Conservative government, Ray Kane, Commander of Red Company, Desert Regiment, was ordered to assault al-Husn palace and seize Sultan Said bin Taimur al-Busaidi – alive, if possible.
The operation’s successful outcome led to Oman’s renaissance, heralded the beginning of the end of the Dhofar War and removed a potential threat to the passage of almost half of the Free World’s crude oil through the Persian Gulf.
Extracted from his memoir Coup D’état Oman, Kane’s talk at the CVHF gives a blow-by-blow account of the coup’s execution from his receipt of orders into action to its successful conclusion. It is not a dry recital of facts. Salisbury artist Fred Fieber’s sketches illustrate and bring to life the coup’s ‘waypoints’, while maps and the odd few photograph show its geopolitical context and give just a hint of Oman’s magical landscape.
Attendees at Kane’s talk will be unsurprised to learn that in the coup’s execution, as in most military endeavours, not everything went according to plan. The Muse of Comedy walked hand-in-hand with the God of War and, uninvited and unwelcome, the lurking Goddess of Retribution exacted her dues. After all Kane, like others involved in the action, had betrayed his pledge of loyalty to Oman’s legitimate Ruler.
The talk finishes with a point for consideration linking the 1970 Oman coup d’état with events in the Middle East in 2003.