19 September 2020

Nasser & the 1966 Defence White Paper

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 234-235:

When I reached Jedda early in March, 1966, the Egyptians had already broken the ceasefire and resumed bombing in all areas of Royalist Yemen. For a brief period after the Haradh Conference President Nasser seemed to lose heart, and began withdrawing troops from the country; from its peak of 70,000 their number dropped to about 20,000 at the beginning of February. At that moment the British Government issued their notorious Defence White Paper, announcing our withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, and the situation changed overnight. Nasser saw a fresh opportunity to seize Aden, and began to reinforce in the Yemen until he had nearly 60,000 troops there. More important, the White Paper marked the final eclipse of British prestige among the Arabs. Only two weeks previously Goronwy Roberts, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, had toured the Gulf and given the Rulers positive assurances that the British would stay. Hitherto the Arabs had trusted the British, despite many disappointments, to the extent that the phrase ‘word of an Englishman’ had become a part of their vocabulary; after the White Paper it ceased to have any meaning.

18 September 2020

Mercenary Roles in Yemen, 1963

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 176-179:

When I returned to the Yemen in November, 1963, I went in through Aden and Beihan; by then I had met Johnson and Boyle, who had informed the mercenaries in the field of my impending visit. The first of the British to arrive there was Major Johnny Cooper, who had commanded one of the SAS squadrons that served under me in the attack on the Jebel Akhdar in Oman. Shortly after that operation he had left the SAS, having reached the age limit, but returned to Muscat as one of the Sultan’s Contract Officers and did extremely well. He later became the first of Johnson’s recruits. At the time of my arrival in Aden he had already established his headquarters with a wireless set and operator in the Khowlan area, not far from Sana, with one of the princes.

It is worth recording that at the height of the mercenary effort, when I was commanding them, they never numbered more than 48, of whom 30 were French or Belgian and 18 British. They were broken down into small missions — usually one officer, one NCO wireless operator, and one NCO medical orderly — and deployed according to the wishes and needs of the Royalist commanders. It is important to realize that none of the mercenaries actually fought in the war; their job was to advise the commanders, train their troops and provide communications and medical services. The medical situation in Royalist areas was particularly desperate; there were virtually no trained doctors. Until quite late in the war the International Red Cross operated only in Republican territory; but even when it sent a mission to the Royalists its hospital was situated a long way from the fighting and the doctors spent most of their time treating the local civilians for endemic diseases. This was no fault of the Swiss doctors, who would gladly have served at the front, but of the Red Cross directorate, which gave them categorical instructions not to go near it.

I flew to Aden on 14 November, and on to Beihan two days later. There I spent the night in the village of Naqub, twenty miles north of the State capital, in the ‘safe house’ allocated to the mercenaries by the Ruler. I shared it with three Frenchmen, who were in wireless contact with Johnny Cooper and the other missions, and seven British, who arrived in the middle of the night after a drive of three days in a lorry from Aden; in the morning another Frenchman joined us — Colonel Bob Denard, a veteran of the Congo who now commanded all the mercenaries in the Yemen except the British. His Frenchmen and Belgians, though very polite to me, were seldom chatty or communicative outside their own circles; some of them, I knew, had belonged to the OAS and so had little love for General de Gaulle, but I never discussed politics with them. Their attitude to the work was strictly professional; they were there for the money, but they meant to give good value in return. Most of them, as I have said, had seen service in the Congo, and many of them alternated between the Congo and the Yemen, serving now in one theatre, now in another. The reason, I discovered, was that in the Congo they had all the drink and women they wanted, but seldom received their pay; whereas in the Yemen they had regular pay but no women or drink. And so when they had earned enough in the Yemen they went off to the Congo to enjoy it.

The British, on the other hand, were more often inspired by enthusiasm for the Royalist cause or a simple thirst for adventure, although there were some deplorable exceptions — one fairly senior officer, in particular, was strictly on the make; unfortunately mere enthusiasm was an unreliable guide to efficiency, and I discovered later on that, while the NCO specialists did excellent work, the British officers who proved their worth were those who understood some Arabic.

17 September 2020

Yemeni Men's Attire, 1960s

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 145, 160-161:

After a very refreshing bathe in a stream I changed into Yemeni dress. I put a white ma-arraga on my head and swapped my trousers for a khaki iz-zar, which I found much more comfortable, although I missed the pockets; only the Egyptians wore trousers in the Yemen, and I was taking no chances. For a similar reason I had to accustom myself to another Yemeni habit — to squat while passing water; according to the tribesmen, ‘only dogs and Egyptians pee standing up,’ and I had no wish to be shot in mistake for either.

...

On their heads, which were often shaven, perched skull-caps, or white embroidered pill-box caps called kofias, or the hand-woven basketwork ‘flower pots’ I have already described; they wound cashmere shawls or lengths of khaki cotton round their caps or hats, in the form of turbans. Tattered jackets of European design hung from their shoulders over shirts and vests, and over the jackets ran crossed bandoliers, each carrying about fifty bullets. Every man wore a long cummerbund, which served the double purpose of belt and pockets. Thrust into this belt, behind the jembia, which is a defensive weapon, was a long, straight knife used in the attack, and behind it reposed an assortment of articles, allegedly nine in number and all beginning with the Arabic letter for M: there was a pair of scissors, a needle, tweezers for extracting thorns, a bunch of keys, a pen — usually with ball point — writing paper, a purse, and sometimes a watch strapped round a knife. Everyone wore an iz-zar, with underpants of cotton, and some men wore the baggy Moslem trousers under the iz-zar. Most of the tribesmen went barefoot, but some favoured Japanese ‘flipflops’, and others a type of plastic sandal with studs, such as I used to see displayed in West End London stores at extravagant prices for wear on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

15 September 2020

British 'Fuddling' in Oman

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 63-64:

The proceedings followed the ritual prescribed by Arab tradition, beginning with the conventional exchange of civilities with our host: ‘Ahlan Wa Sahlan’ [Welcome], ‘Salaam Elykum’ [Peace be with you]. We arranged ourselves in a circle on the cushions, contorting our limbs into attitudes that for me at least meant almost unendurable discomfort, and taking care to ensure that the soles of our feet were never facing our host — or any of the guests either. Even when there was business to transact, it was very impolite to mention it for at least the first five minutes, when talk was restricted to irrelevant pleasantries and platitudes. It was also considered very bad manners to speak to anyone during the course of a meal — an excellent convention, in my view — and so all conversation took place beforehand, while the party ate mezze — hors d’oeuvres of bread and goat’s cheese — and drank black coffee poured into small cups by black slaves out of a huge coffee pot from a great height and with unerring accuracy; when we had had enough — it was usual to accept two or three helpings — a guest would shake his coffee cup to show he wanted no more.

Then servants would bring in the meal, a single enormous dish, usually a whole sheep or goat on a vast pile of rice. There were no plates or cutlery, and everyone helped himself with his fingers from the dish, using only the right hand, which he would wash carefully after he had eaten. At the end of the meal slaves would carry round an incense burner, from which the guests would waft the smoke over their beards with their hands; beardless Europeans would make the gestures of wafting it over their chins. As a final ritual the slaves would sprinkle rose water over the guests’ heads. The guests would then rise, shake hands all round, and depart. I must have attended hundreds of these ceremonies, which we called ‘fuddling’, from the Arabic fadal meaning ‘please’; the British troops called them ‘mutton grabs’.

14 September 2020

Foreigners in Muscat

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 31-33:

There were nearly as many foreigners as Arabs in Muscat, and probably more in Mattrah, which was the commercial capital: Hindu and Persian merchants and shopkeepers predominated in the suks, where each trade tended to monopolize a particular street or quarter of the bazaar; there would be a ‘street of the silversmiths’, a ‘street of the spice-sellers’, a weavers’ and a shoemakers’ quarter. Indian paper rupees were the currency in Muscat and Matrah, but in the interior only silver Maria Theresa dollars — in which we paid our troops — or gold were acceptable. Baluchis, too, were numerous in the town, their wives and daughters colourful in bright red, blue or green, with smiling, uncovered faces, in happy contrast to the veiled, black-draped Arab women.

Black features and colouring were not uncommon among the inhabitants, usually a legacy from the slave trade. Although, as I have mentioned, there were still slaves in the bodyguards and households of the Sultan and nobility, they were well-treated — unless they ran away and were caught, in which case they might be whipped or put in shackles — and many were freed by their masters and rose to be rich, or even powerful; at least one of the Sultan’s walis had started life as a slave. Under a curious survival from one of the earlier treaties, if a runaway slave could reach the British Consulate and clasp the flagpole in the courtyard, he became free. My most accomplished bugler was one of these; a bewildered Consul General had turned him over to me, and he served us well and cheerfully for several years until one day he deserted — to turn up later as the leading trumpeter in the Bahrain Police Band, at a much higher rate of pay.

Although both Muscat and Mattrah were good deep-water anchorages, neither had dock facilities or even a pier where ships could unload; liners and cargo boats had to stand out in the bay, while their passengers and freight came ashore in lighters. The little ports teemed with sailing craft of all sizes, from the hollowed-out tree trunks known as ‘houris’ to the ponderous ‘booms’ and ‘sambuks’ that plied up and down the coast; there were the fleets of dhows which traded with Zanzibar, waiting for the seasonal wind to blow them down to Africa, where they would remain until it changed to blow them back again. Once a week a big British India liner would call on its way between Karachi and Basra; this was an important social occasion, as were the visits we received from frigates of the Royal Navy, whose officers would come ashore in smart pinnaces to see the town and drive out to lunch with us at Beit al Falaj. The floor of the harbour at Muscat was littered with old Portuguese cannon, clearly visible through the crystal water — dumped there perhaps by the last garrison before they surrendered in 1660. Another chapter of history stared at us from a cliff face near the harbour entrance, on which were painted in huge white lettering the names of warships and merchantmen which had visited the port since the latter years of the eighteenth century. ‘My visitors’ book,’ the Sultan would call it, boasting to the few Englishmen who were ever allowed to meet him that Mr Midshipman Nelson had commanded a painting party on that cliff when his ship, Seahorse, had called at Muscat in 1775.

Facing the waterfront, which was only a few hundred yards long, were the British Consulate, the Customs building, and the square palace of the Sultan, which he never visited in my time, preferring the cool ocean breezes of Salalah, some 600 miles down the coast — one of his gravest mistakes and probably his costliest. This palace, according to legend, was built on top of the old Portuguese cathedral, whose vaulted columns form part of its foundations. These fine buildings, gleaming white above the deep blue harbour, were overlooked on either side by two great stone forts — Mirani on the north, Jalali on the south — both built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

13 September 2020

British Ties with Oman

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-12:

The British connection with Muscat dates from the early days of the East India Company in the seventeenth century, though the first treaty between Britain and the Sultan was not signed until 1798. An agreement followed two years later for agents of the East India Company to reside at Muscat, but the appalling climate killed off so many of them that it lapsed. Throughout the nineteenth century the British and the Sultan, who was then the most important ruler in the Gulf, collaborated closely in suppressing piracy, and the slave trade ceased in the Sultanate under a treaty of 1822. By a treaty of 1852 Britain (and France) recognized the independence of the Sultan, who still conducts his own foreign policy and maintains his own armed forces. Under subsequent agreements he may call on British help in time of trouble.

The trouble came soon after the old Imam’s death; the principal causes were Saudi ambition and, of course, oil. Ever since 1937 the Saudis had been trying to expand their territory beyond the edge of the Rub al Khali [the Empty Quarter], claiming frontiers with their neighbours — the States of the Aden Protectorate, the Sultanate, and the Trucial Sheikhdoms — which those neighbours refused to accept. After the Second World War the two superpowers, Russia and America, became increasingly involved in Arabia and the Gulf, the former pursuing an old imperial design, the latter attracted by fresh discoveries of oil: both with a common interest in reducing the influence of Britain. Encouraged by the new situation, the Saudis in 1952 suddenly occupied the strategic oasis of Buraimi, owned partly by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, a Trucial State, and partly by the Sultan of Muscat.

The Sultan gathered a force of between six and eight thousand tribesmen and, but for the ill-advised intervention of the British Government, would have expelled the intruders immediately, thus dealing a sharp blow to Saudi prestige and cementing the loyalty of the Omani tribes. When he failed to move, Saudi intrigue began to prosper.

The dispute went to international arbitration at Geneva, where the Saudi method, perfectly respectable in Arabia, of reinforcing their arguments with offers of large sums in gold to the members of the Tribunal caused such scandal that the President and the British delegate resigned in protest. At the end of 1955 the seemingly inexhaustible patience of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government ran out; in a sudden, bloodless coup the Trucial Oman Scouts descended on Buraimi, expelled the Saudi garrison, and established a garrison of their own and another of the Sultan’s in the Oasis. But the three year delay had been disastrous for the Sultan. The Saudis had made good use of the time to spread their influence in Oman, suborning the tribesmen with lavish gifts of money and arms. Moreover, a new Imam had arisen on the death of the Sultan’s old friend: one Ghalib bin Ali. A weak and colourless personality appointed by a cabal of three sheikhs but never formally elected, he was virtually a Saudi puppet; he possessed, however, a valuable ally in his brother, Talib, the Wali [Governor] of Rostaq, a brave, energetic and extremely ambitious leader with considerable military ability, who soon emerged as the driving force of the movement. Immediately after his election Ghalib, with his brother, toured his domain, setting up his own garrisons in his holy capital of Nizwa and in other strategically important towns and villages in the interior.

12 September 2020

Omani Rulers Foreign & Domestic

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 9-10:

Although Omani Dynasties have on occasion extended their territory as far afield as India and Zanzibar, Muscat itself has known a long succession of foreign overlords, from the Persians of Cyrus the Great to Albuquerque’s Portuguese — who behaved atrociously, lopping off limbs, ears and noses to punish or even to prevent resistance. These and other invaders — the hosts of the Prophet, the Caliphs of Baghdad, Turks and Tartars, Wahabis from beyond the Empty Quarter — have swarmed over the country. But although some of them ruled, for longer or shorter periods, over Muscat and the coastal belt, none of them established firm control behind the mountains, in Oman, where the tribes continued in their old way of life, intriguing and fighting among themselves in rancorous isolation from the outside world and deeply resentful of all intruders, Arab or nasrani [Christian].

They followed the Sharia law of Islam, rigorously interpreted according to the doctrines of the Ibadhi sect brought to Oman by the Kharejites [Seceders] — survivors from mutinous soldiers in the army of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law — and proclaimed at Nizwa at the end of the seventh century by Abdullah bin Ibadh. Ibadhis may not drink or even smoke, and must not trim their beards — though they sometimes trim their moustaches. Their puritan creed regards the Koran as the sole source of authority and teaches that it must be read literally, without interpretation; and, more important for the political history of Oman, their tradition requires that the choice of their Imam should be by election among the Faithful.

For nearly a thousand years, until the early seventeenth century, the Imams of Oman, who held both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction over their subjects, were elected on personal merit or popularity; any attempt by a reigning Imam to ensure the succession for his eldest son was fiercely resisted by the fanatical Ibadhi Qadhis — the judges who administered the law. But early on in the seventeenth century there arose a dynasty of Imams, the Al Yaarabah (or Yariba), who from their capital in the ancient fortress town of Rostaq established firm control over the interior of Oman. They not only expelled the Portuguese from Muscat, built up a powerful navy, and extended their influence throughout the Persian Gulf and even to East Africa, but such was their prestige that they were able to modify the elective principle and ensure that the succession to the Imamate continued in the direct line for nearly a hundred years. This last achievement was to have profound significance for the future.

After 1720 the al Yaarabah dynasty began to collapse in a series of disputes over the succession. There followed nearly twenty-five years of civil war, with two rival Imams fighting for supremacy, one supported by a confederation of tribes under the leadership of the Beni Ghafir — the Ghafiri faction — the other by a confederation under the Beni Hina — the Hinawis; these factions, whose rivalry has dominated most of the subsequent history of Oman, exist to this day and any Ruler, to be successful, must be able to control or hold the balance between them. The war ended with the victory of the Hinawi candidate, Ahmed bin Said, Governor of Sohar; this brave and energetic soldier expelled the Persians, who had taken advantage of the confusion to re-occupy Muscat, and founded the present ruling dynasty of Al bu Said.