Sultan in Oman

Jan Morris


Sultan in Oman

Jan Morris


In 1955 the winds of change were beginning to blow across the sul- tanate of Oman, a hitherto truly medieval state. Rumours of subversion mingled with the unsettling smell of oil to propel the Sultan on a royal progress across the desert hinterland, from his southern capital of Salala to the northern capital of Muscat. It was an historic journey – the first crossing of the Omani desert by motorcar. Jan Morris accompanied His Highness Sultan Said bin Taimur as a pro- fessional observer, and was inspired by the experience to write her major work of imperial history, the Pax Britannica trilogy.

‘A minor literary masterpiece.’ - Richard Crossman, New Statesman
‘The book is a hymn to a lost culture and a lost society; romantic without being sentimental, often extremely funny and brilliantly observed. It is the work of a great travel writer incapable of producing a trite or ungainly sentence.’ - Philip Ziegler, Daily Telegraph
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Sultan in Oman
ISBN: 978-1906011-17-8
Format: 168pp demi pb
Place: Arabia/Oman

Author Biography

Jan Morris has been dubbed by Alistair Cooke as the "Flaubert of the jet age" and "perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time" by Rebecca West.

She has written some forty books and says she will write no more. They include a major work of British Imperial History (the Pax Britannica trilogy), studies of Wales, Spain, Venice, Oxford, Manhattan, Sydney and Trieste, two autobiographical works, two capricious biographies, five volumes of collected travel essays, a novel and a short book about her own house in Wales. However she defines them all as really being the "ego-biographies" of a wandering Welsh European.

Extract from Chapter One

ONE FINE Arabian morning in the middle of December 1955, I walked into the palace of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, on the shore of the Indian Ocean in Dhufar. Through the great gate of the outer courtyard I passed, and the slaves bowed low; through the gate of the inner courtyard, with the sea glistening beyond the wall; into the polished hall of the palace, lined with bearded and begowned retainers, their rifles in their hands; until there approached me from the darkened recesses of the building a small dignified figure in a brown and gold aba, a turban on his head, a sword by his side, a soft scent of frankincense emanating from his person.

‘Goodmorning, Mr Morris,’ said his Highness the Sultan Said bin Taimur. ‘I wonder how familiar you are with the map of south-east Arabia?’

I was not familiar with it at all, if only because that distant corner of the Arabian Peninsula remained the least known of all the Arab lands. In the atlas it was shown vaguely, a big brown sandy triangle, bounded by the Gulf of Oman on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other, a smudge of mountains in the centre, a howling desert around its perimeters: and it was marked, as if by somebody not entirely sure of his facts, ‘Muscat and Oman’. Where Muscat began and Oman ended, the cartographer did not seem at all certain; and this was not surprising, for nobody else was either.

My frankincensed Sultan, descendant of a dynasty which had once ruled Zanzibar, and which had been in office since 1744, believed himself to be the lawful ruler of the whole triangle. Dhufar, the southern coastal province, was certainly his; so was Muscat, on the Gulf shore; so presumably was the sparsely inhabited coastline, running around the horn of the peninsula, which connected the two. But the interior of the country, loosely called Oman, was a very different matter. It was a rough, mountainous territory, isolated by deserts and high ranges, inhabited by tough, unruly Arab tribesmen of varying degrees of peaceability: now squabbling with each other, now combining to repel some common enemy; owing diverse loyalties to tribal leaders and misty historical federations; often fierce, rapacious and xenophobic; many of them devotees of an Islamic sect, the Ibadhiya, which had died out everywhere else in Arabia. Was the travelled and urbane Sultan, a paternal autocrat educated in India, the complete and lawful ruler of these difficult people?

The British government, which protected the Sultan’s domains for him and largely handled his foreign affairs – in other words, which was still the basic power in south-east Arabia – was convinced that he was, and recognised him in its treaties as absolute ruler of both Muscat and Oman (as his title implied). Elsewhere opinion varied. The frontiers between Saudi Arabia, which controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula, and the various little states along the Persian Gulf had never been properly defined, and there were those who thought that King Saud of Saudi Arabia had, if anyone, legal paramountcy over the tribes of Oman. Moreover, for many generations the Ibadhis of Oman had elected themselves an Imam, originally a spiritual leader, who had in later years acquired substantial political power too. The present incumbent, Ghalib bin Ali, apparently egged on by his ambitious brother Talib, had tried to set up Oman as a totally independent state, even issuing his own passports and applying for membership of the Arab League. In this intent he had won the support of the Saudis, who supplied him with money and arms and printed the passports for him, and of Egypt, the most powerful indigenous force in the Middle East, whose rulers were dedicated to the eradication of all Western influence in the Arab world, and who therefore preferred a chauvinistic Imam to a reasonably Anglophile Sultan. Their case was perfectly arguable. In 1913 many of the tribes of the interior had rebelled against the Sultan’s authority and had fought a fairly successful war against him. The agreement which concluded it, called the Treaty of Sib, had pledged the Sultan not to interfere with the internal affairs of Oman. Could he still be its legitimate sovereign ruler, with such a limitation on his authority? At the time of the treaty, some British observers believed it to establish, in effect, two separate states: and the Imam agreed with them.

Forty years later the British might not have been very interested, were it not for oil: but the search for new oilfields at that end of the Arabian Peninsula revived the whole vexed question of frontiers and allegiances. Higher up the Persian Gulf the demarcation lines between oil concessions were well defined and generally recognised; but the hazy frontier between Saudi Arabia and Oman, the subject of innumerable diplomatic skirmishes, became an economic battle line. For years an American company had been active in Saudi Arabia, bringing that antique autocracy immense wealth and considerable political power; and if Oman could be brought legally within the Saudi orbit, any oil there might also be exploited by Americans. However, the Sultan had already (pace the Treaty of Sib) granted a concession for the whole of Muscat and Oman to a predominantly British company; and though his right to do so was disputed by the Imam, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and many an American oil lawyer, the British government was supporting him strongly. The truth was that the future of the Persian Gulf oilfields might govern the destinies of Great Britain. The northern Gulf fields had already become the mainstay of the sterling area, and it was vital that any new oil deposits should be controlled by sterling companies. Indeed, according to an article in the New York Times at about that time, ‘whoever controls these new sources of oil may control the main sources of energy of the world until atomic energy becomes available’. To achieve this the British were even willing to risk antagonising the Americans, and Whitehall backed the Sultan and the British oilmen with uncharacteristic force and decision.

The most important gateway to these regions was an oasis (more strictly speaking, a group of oases (called Buraimi, deposited on the junction between Saudi Arabia, the Sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi (linked to Britain by treaty) and the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman. The sovereignty of this place was not very clearly defined. The British claimed it on behalf of the Sheikh and the Sultan, each of whom thought himself ruler of part of it. The Saudis claimed it for themselves. A straggling series of palm groves and villages, Buraimi was a centre of communications and political activity: the power that controlled Buraimi was in a fair way to controlling all that part of the frontier. Through it passed the Imam’s gold and arms from Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis did their best to suborn officials stationed there. According to the British, one man was offered twenty million pounds to declare for King Saud (a figure taken by most people with a slight but sympathetic pinch of salt) and largesse was certainly distributed widely among the local tribesmen. In 1952, the Saudi government, using transport provided by the American oil company, sent forces into the oasis and occupied part of it. The angry Sultan was restrained from marching against them by the British government, which did not then want to endanger relations with the United States; but arbitration failed, and in 1955 the British themselves expelled the Saudi forces. When I arrived in south-east Arabia, Arab troops under British command and control occupied Buraimi firmly and unblushingly; and de facto sovereignty was undeniably held by the Sheikh and the Sultan.

The world, watching these events, and observing the protracted diplomatic squabbles which accompanied them, generally assumed that Buraimi sat bang on top of a fabulous oilfield. In fact, the oil companies and the governments had their eyes chiefly on country away to the south-east. Buraimi was a key to this region: but to the oil prospectors the magic word – a name on a large scale map, no more – was Fahud. Where the Empty Quarter of Arabia met the Oman highlands there was a wide semi-desert plain, speckled with sparse shrubbery, inhabited only by poor nomads: a country of gazelle and oryx, where even the cheetah had been seen. In these steppes stood a small symmetrical cirque of hills, pierced by one narrow pass, which seemed to the geologists to offer chances of very great oil strikes. It was called Jebel Fahud. The oil company had established a small camp outside the cirque, and was taking material there by air and by truck across the desert from the southern coast. Soon the drillers would begin work. It was an exceedingly isolated spot, hardly visited by Europeans before; when I flew over it, on my way to Dhufar, all I could see was a speck of huts, an airstrip and a converging mesh of lorry tracks running in from the desert. But it lay on the edge of territory remoter still. The Fahud country was inhabited by the Duru tribe of Bedouin, who had not subscribed to the Treaty of Sib, and who would therefore find it difficult to contest the concession, even if they knew how to; but the entire mountain range which overlooked it was under the authority of the Imam. It was, moreover, a place of notorious turbulence and ill will. The oil company had been obliged to help the Sultan to finance a new private army, the Muscat and Oman Field Force, to protect its interests: and it was distinctly chary of continuing the work with the political future of the country so unsettled. By the summer of 1955 there was a real possibility that the Imam might join forces with his friends the Saudis, and that the oil concession would at best be difficult to maintain and at worst lost altogether to the Americans (quite apart from the fact that until the sovereignty of Oman was determined the legality of the Sultan’s concession could always be questioned). To the British government this was a most disagreeable prospect. First, a great strike at Fahud could do much to shore up the rickety British economy. Secondly, the War Office planners, deprived of most of their Middle East strongpoints, were especially interested in Oman oil because it could be piped directly southward to the Indian Ocean, avoiding the strategic dangers of the almost landlocked Persian Gulf. Thirdly, the whole British position in the Gulf area, maintained chiefly by a series of treaties with local chieftains, was being threatened by just such Egyptian and Saudi intrigue as the flirtation those powers were conducting with the Imam. The British authorities, though they disliked talking much about their associations either with the Sultan or with the oil companies, were in fact excruciatingly concerned with the situation in Oman.

Nor could the Sultan view it with the aloof and unruffled equanimity expected of such Oriental magnates. He was not a rich sultan, as sultans go. His father had been harassed by severe financial troubles, and he was trying to retrieve the state fortunes by careful husbandry. A half share in Fahud oil deposits might, with luck, make him one of the richest men on earth, and his sultanate one of those little kingdoms whose decisions send a shiver around the treasuries of the world. (The Ruler of Kuwait was already the principal single provider of new money for the London investment market, and his income was estimated at one and a quarter million pounds a week.) Moreover, oil apart, the Sultan naturally did not like the idea of a separate kingdom, under foreign patronage, arising within the territories that were his by heredity. He had never been to Oman, but his family sprang from the interior, and his views were therefore at once economic, political and faintly sentimental. Unlike the cartographer, he had very pronounced views on the relative positions of Muscat and Oman: both were his.

So one day the Sultan, the British government and the concessionary oil company (perhaps in that order, perhaps not) decided that the time had come to settle the matter once and for all. The oilmen were nearly ready to begin drilling in the Fahud cirque. The seizure of Buraimi had, for the moment, quietened the frontier, both the Saudis and the Americans being rather taken aback at so forcible an expression of British policy. The sterling economy was shaky, and all over the Middle East, Egyptian and Communist propaganda, allied often with Saudi gold, was nibbling at the British position. Even the need for a joint Anglo-American policy towards the Arabs seemed to the British less important than the need for new oil resources in stable, friendly territory. As for the Sultan, his four separate private armies were now in good shape under their British commanders, and he had already taken over one or two villages, on the edge of the highlands, whose status, allegiance, opinions, value and intentions all seemed equally obscure. The stage was set. In conditions of elaborate secrecy, plans were completed for the Sultan to impose his authority by force upon the inner mountains of Oman.

Only half a dozen Europeans had ever visited those fastnesses, and even fewer had ventured into the more fanatically xenophobic of the villages. Very little was known about the country. Traders, it was true, did take their wares down to Muscat: there were regular camel caravans from the mountains to the coast; some distinguished English explorers had produced rudimentary maps; aircraft had flown over the range. Politically, though, the region was more or less blank. The local officials were all appointed by the Imam, and the Sultan’s soldiers, judges, administrators, tax collectors and teachers had no writ there. The early European explorers had penetrated the mountains with the Sultan’s blessing, in the days when his authority was supreme in Oman; but the more recent ones had run a decided risk of extinction, and had sometimes travelled in disguise. The Sultan’s strategy, of British inspiration, was therefore carefully considered. Reconnaissance flights were made over Nizwa, the Imam’s capital; the Muscat and Oman Field Force, with its British mercenary officers, was concentrated at Fahud; on the coastal side of the mountains, in Muscat, the Batinah Force (another private army) was alerted. Links were established with friendly leaders in the interior, and a slight coup d’état was encouraged in one of the most influential tribes.

Wavering dignitaries were enticed to Dhufar, where they were handsomely entertained and sometimes given new rifles as suggestive mementoes. The friendship of the Bedouin on the edge of the mountains was consolidated. It soon became apparent, thanks to such preliminary whittlings and subterfuges, that the Sultan was planning a campaign.

The scheme was to advance upon Nizwa from the west, driving the Imam and his supporters into the high mountains that lay between that citadel and the sea. If he tried to escape by either of the two practicable passes over the hills, his way would be blocked by the Batinah Force, which would also have disposed of any enemies on the coastal side of the range. Radio communications were arranged; airstrips were made ready; a pair of clumsy mountain howitzers was acquired; the soldiers looked forward to a healthy old-fashioned little war. But so strong were the Sultan’s forces by the standards of south-east Arabia (where, indeed, everybody goes armed, but generally only with elderly and erratic rifles) that it seemed very unlikely there would be much resistance, when it came to the point. In some ways the Omani mountains were among the most backward places on earth – a truck had never yet been seen, nor had a telephone rung, nor even had a machine gun chattered: the mechanised column of the Field Force would, no doubt, have an instant and profound moral effect. So at the same time plans were laid for the Sultan to make a triumphant and dramatic motor journey through his domains, to ride in triumph through his own modest Persepolis. Before the last echoes of the fighting had eddied away through the hills, he would set out secretly from Dhufar across the great gravel desert called the Jaddat al Harasis, an unknown waste. Then he would travel north along the oil track to Fahud, and suddenly, all unexpected, pounce into the mountains to receive the salutations of his defeated enemies. At Buraimi, he would solemnise the restoration of his sovereignty there by a ceremonial meeting with his colleague the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi; and finally, crossing the hills, he would journey down the Gulf coast for a victorious entry into Muscat, his capital, so demurely tucked away in rocky coves that the old Greek navigators called it ‘the hidden port’.

This journey had never been made before, least of all by motor vehicle. No such crossing had been made of the Jaddat al Harasis; nobody had driven from Dhufar to Muscat; the mountains of Oman were almost unexplored; even the Wadi Jeziz, the pass between Buraimi and the sea, had (until a few years before) been described only by the hardiest of Arabian travellers. Taking a truck from Dhufar to Muscat would, for the first time, prove it possible to drive the whole length of South Arabia, from Aden to the Gulf of Oman. It would not be a journey comparable to the old Arabian travels such as the great explorers of Arabia had undertaken in the past – month upon month of perilous camel riding, plagued by climate and hostility – but it would be blazing a trail still and would be a remarkable royal progression.