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The Dhofar War: Background and History Essay

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Updated: Jan 27th, 2022


Oman lies on the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula with the United Arab Emirates to the North, Saudi Arabia to the west, the Republic of Yemen to the southwest, and the Gulf of Oman to the east connecting it to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Occupying such a strategic position and being a corridor to the Persian Gulf, Oman has long been a prosperous trade center and a city of significant regional influence. Due to its advantageous geographical location Oman, known then as Muscat, was under the reign of many empires, namely Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanids. After adopting Islam in the 7th century, the inhabitants of Oman lived under the Umayyads, Abbasids, Qarmatians, Buyids, Seljuks, and then the Portuguese (“World Atlas: Oman” par 5). In the 17th century, the native tribes pushed out the Portuguese. That was when Oman became a self-governing state – the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman. In the late 18th century, it signed the first friendship treaty with Britain, thus establishing long-lasting profitable military and political relations end entering under the protectorate of Britain.

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Throughout the march of history, the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman witnessed numerous internal conflicts provoked by tribal loyalty and religious factors, not to mention the geography of the country itself. Oman is separated into two parts by the Hajar Mountains: the coastal area of Muscat, the capital, and the interior, Oman. The coastal merchants were ruled by the Sultan and the conservatives of the interior part of the country, Ibadists, were ruled by the religious leader, Imam. These conflicts had only one goal – limitation of the power of the Sultan, who was considered to be the absolute ruler of the country over the inhabitants of the interior part, Oman, and consolidation of imam’s power over them. To cease bloodshed, in 1920, Sultan of Muscat, Taimur bin Feisal, and Imam of Oman, Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Khalili, signed the Treaty of Sib (known also as the Treaty of Seeb or As Sab) promising the Imamate autonomy, free trade and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs (Owtram 50). In such a way, the Sultan was forced to recognize the ruling power of the interior tribes – The imamate, and both sides had to search ways to compromise the peaceful life of their communities.

The Treaty of Sib provided relatively peaceful relations between the Sultanate and Imamate up to 1954 when Sultan Said bin Taimur broke it up granting the Iraq Petroleum Company concessions to explore the oil deposits located mainly within the Imamate’s territory without consultations with the Imam. Doing so, the Sultan implied that the Sultanate would receive all the revenue from oil exploitation instead of leaving it to the Imamate. Such a decision met no opposition until May 1954 when Ghalib bin ‘Ali Al-Hinai became a newly-elected Imam after the death of his predecessor Imam Al-Khalili. He ignited a rebellion against the Sultanate. He tried to break Oman into Imamate and Sultanate by declaring the independence of the Imamate and deciding to join the Arab League, which guaranteed financial and military help from the Saudis and the Egyptians who wanted to weaken the influence of Britain on the Arabian Peninsula, thus initiating a rapprochement with opposing to the British Arab States. Sultanate, on the other hand, kept on seeking help from the British to put down the uprising of the interior tribes (Barrett 33). And so:

The game was no longer that of Imamate against Sultanate but of the old conservative political system against the secular ambi­tions of leaders who sniffed the heady odor of oil politics. (Wilkinson 304)

That said, the main reasons for the Omani Civil War were the Sultan’s breach of the Treaty of Sib and his desire to take control over the oil fields located in the interior territory and receive all the revenue from oil exploitation and the new Imam’s decision to declare the imamate’s independence. The parties involved in the conflict were the Sultanate, actually the British puppet, on the one side, and the Imamate receiving aid from the Saudis and Egyptians, on the other.

On December 15, 1955, the outbreak was suppressed by the military forces of the Sultan backed by the British. As the aftermath, Ghalib bin ‘Ali Al-Hinai abdicated from his title, the Imam, and Sultan Said bin Taimur was declared the Sultan of Muscat and Oman. But the rebellious spirit of the interior tribes was not dampened by such a humiliation. In 1956, the former Imam’s brother, Talib bin Ali Al Hinai, found a way to gain money from the Saudis to create the Oman Liberation Army (OLA). In March 1957, he returned with the well-taught and equipped fighters who used machine guns and mines. Having gained the assistance of the interior tribes, he reunited with his brother who retrieved the title of Imam, and so the rebellion burst out again (Peterson 81).

Just a few months later, all interior tribes and classes supported the rebellion against the oppressions of the Sultanate. The military forces of the Imam gained control over Nizwa, the capital of Oman and the biggest city of the interior territory, taken by the Sultan in 1955, thus reestablishing the Imamate. Within a month, they controlled almost all cities of Jebel Akhdar. And so, on July 17, the Sultan made a formal request for British military assistance. Two days later, on July 18, Britain made a decision to send 300 troops to and officers to contribute to the Sultan’s military forces and the Royal Air Force (Barrett 37).

Later that year, control over Nizwa with the assistance of the British troops was given back to the Sultanate. In August, the Sultan’s Minister of the Interior came to Nizwa to arrest the major rebels, initiate the reorganization of local government and invite oil exploitation companies back to the region (Al-Khalili 29). When it came to arresting Ghalib Bin Ali and other Imam’s people, it appeared that they were lucky to escape to the mountainous region. At that time, the Sultan’s forces controlled the flat area of Oman, while the rebels established on the plateau of Jebel Akhdar. The rebels’ positions were relatively stronger than the Sultanate’s. They managed to keep on receiving money and military aid from the Saudi, water and food from the nearby villages. Blockading the mountains, isolating the rebels from receiving necessary provisions, mining and air bombards, as well as negotiations between the rebels and the Sultanate were totally ineffective.

To win, the British made the decision to send Special Air Service to cope with the problem of the insurgents’ concealment at the beginning of 1959. They managed to deal with the task by working at night and taking the rebels by surprise. Soldiers received necessary supplies and weapons by parachutes once they climbed the plateau. After ten weeks-long operations, the Special Air Service put an end to the stalemate of Jebel Akhdar (Barrett 41). As the result, Ghalib Bin Ali became an expellee and went to Saudi Arabia, and the forces of the rebellion were utterly defeated.

After 1959, the insurgents still received assistance from radical Arab states; they even kept on carrying out their subversive activities within the interior, but they were weak, and the acts of sabotage and road mining never again brought up the new wave of rebellion. In 1960, the British made an official conclusion that there were no chances that the Oman Revolutionary Movement or the Oman Liberation Party could escalate any uprising in Oman (Peterson 187).

So, the five-year conflict between the Imamate and the Sultanate was over. Among its key results, one can name, first of all, the termination of the Treaty of Sib and the abolishing of the autonomous Imamate of Oman. So, The Ibadi theocracy was overthrown. Hundreds of insurgents and the Sultan’s soldiers were killed. The Sultanate’s victory in the Jebel Akhdar War was of great historical significance because from then on the Sultan would concentrate his forces on other enemies with no concern for insurgents in interior Oman.

After his victory in Jebel Akhdar War, Sultan Said Bin Taimur returned to his palace at Salalah located in the coastal province of Dhofar. Oman has unified again, but there was no chance that the Sultan would want to carry out reforms or modernize his country. Nevertheless, he was in his fief, he was rather oppressive towards the inhabitants of Dhofar:

The people of Dhofar, the [UN] Committee was told, were treated by the Sultan as slaves. He was cruel and imposed many arbitrary restrictions on the people. They could not travel outside; they were not permitted to build houses; food could only be bought in one walled market where the quantity that could be bought was fixed; and they were not allowed to import or export goods. Further, there was no work in Dhofar, no schools, no hospital, no economic life, no equality and no right to participate in politics. (Owtram 121)

Dhofaris started leaving their hometowns in search of better lives and jobs. Mostly they went to Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Persian Gulf, so there they joined the Trucial Omani Scouts. Returning home they came with revolutionary ideas and started forming rebellious groupings, namely The Arab Nationalist Movement associated by the Dhofaris who lived in Iraq, Cairo and Kuwait; the Dhofar Benevolent Society – a charitable organization turning later into Arab Nationalist Movement cover organization; the Dhofar Soldiers’ Organization consisting of the rebellious Dhofari; the Hizb al-Zhaf (Party of the Advance) working with the Trucial Omani Scouts; al-Kaff al-Aswad (The Black Palm) and Musallim bin Nufal and the Bayt Kathir tribal grouping eventually turning into the Dhofar Liberation Front (Barrett 47).

The Dhofar Liberation Front was the most influential grouping of the Dhafaris. Its leader, Mussalim bin Nufal, managed to obtain military assistance and vehicles from Saudi Arabia and a former Imam of Oman exiled after the Jebel Akhdar War, Ghalib Bin Ali. In 1964, bin Nufal initiated hit-skip campaign of mining roads, bombarding and mortaring, attacks on government’s positions. Until June 1965, these operations undermined no official nature. But on June 9, 1965, the Dhofar Liberation Front issued a communiqué outlining its nature and goals. It was said that the organization was the union of soldiers, farmers, poor classes and revolutionary intellectuals aimed at destroying any form of imperialist presence whether it be political, military or economic, and abandoning the Said bin Taymur’s regime (Al-Maamiry 115). To prove their intentions were serious they initiated three immediate attacks on the Sultan’s oil company lorry, the Royal Air Force truck and the Sultan Armed Forces’ military camp (Peterson 193). That was what the rebels referred to as the official start of the Dhofar War.

That said, the main reasons for the Dhofar War were the Sultan’s oppressive policy towards the Dhofari, who had no desire to tolerate it and longed for better life in their territory. What is also of significant importance is the former Imam’s ambition to revenge for his defeat in the interior by lifting a wave of rebellion in the coastal areas of the Sultanate and the Arab States’ intent to undermine the influence of the British in the Gulf.

By 1967, the Sultan’s Armed Forces seemed to reach significant progress in combating the Dhofar Liberation Front. But in December 1967, the Communist National Liberating Front came to power in bordering South Yemen. Together with the Soviet Union’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and Britain’s decision to withdraw from Suez, the Dhofar War started internationalizing. What was troubling was the possibility of communist domino effect in the neighboring Arab countries in case of the Dhofar Liberation Front’s victory in the conflict. On a bigger scale, the Dhofar war may be considered “a part of a larger struggle for control of Southern Arabia” (DeVore 442) as well as the West and the Communist Block. So, the main participants are the Sultanate assisted by the United Kingdom and Iran, on one side, and the Dhofari backed by South Yemen, Soviet Union, China and the radical Arab States – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq, on the other.

With the help of bordering South Yemen, the rebels were granted a safe haven for carrying out their operations from which they recruited, received arms and supplies. Together with intense propaganda in Egypt, “Throw off the harness of British Imperialism. Take the wealth that is yours but is stolen by the Sultan” (Thwaites 74), the spirits of rebellion burst out even more. In September 1968, the Dhofar Liberation Front changed its name to become the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) (Barrett 49). By 1970, they controlled almost all coastal cities of the Sultanate. Inspired by such a success, a new rebellious grouping was set up in interior Oman, the National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (NDFLOAG). But just a few months after formation, it was defeated in the Sultanate’s military attack and all its leaders were arrested during their attempt to take control over Nizwa (Al-Maamiry 117).

Revolutionary spirits all over the country demonstrated the necessity of the new leadership. Thus, on July 23, 1970, the Sultan’s son started a revolution. As a result, Qaboos bin Said became the new Sultan and Said bin Taimur went into exile to London. His first political decision was to change the name of the country from the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman to the Sultanate of Oman to represent the unity of the country. Right after coming into power, Qaboos initiated military, social and educational reforms declaring a nation-wide program of development, granting amnesty to all the participants of the Dhofar rebellion and ending the isolation of Dhofar recognizing that Dhofar was not the Sultan’s fief but a province of the state.

Due to carrying out the reforms, the PFLOAG witnessed a wave of defections. It was a well-thought-out psychological operation. As a result, by March 1971, 100 members including the ones who stood at the roots of the revolution defected from the Front arguing that there was no more need for the rebellion because the Sultan wad ready to meet all the Dhofar’s needs (Gardiner 74). The primary goal of this psychological campaign was to turn former Front members against the organization and, as the end result, destroy it and reinforce the Sultan’s control over the whole country. By October 1970, the better-taught and prepared soldiers of the Sultan’s Armed Forces conducted Jaguar Operation and, as the aftermath, took control of the eastern part of Jebel from where the Front could expand. In 1972, they executed aggressive operations in Oman and Dhofar (Barrett 55). The PFLOAG remains mostly inactive up to July 19, 1972, when it launches the biggest attack that became known as the Battle of Mirbat and the first serious defeat of the rebels in an open confrontation with the Sultan’s Armed Forces (Worrall 284).

After the Front’s defeat in the Mirbat, its positions in the central region were weakened, so all that was left is conducting operations in the mountains. At the same time, with the central region in safety, the government could concentrate its forces in the needed area. To change the situation for the better, the Front made an attempt to escalate a conflict in Northern Oman. Nevertheless, it was of no success.

Because the Sultan’s military forces were assisted by Jordan, the United Kingdom and Iran, the Front decides to seek for Yemen’s military and financial support. In 1974, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen started providing both weapons and medical care together with direct tactical support and training, not to mention cross-border bombards. By 1975, the PFLOAG enjoyed support from Iraq, China, the Soviet Union, and Libya (Peterson 325). To remedy the situation and fight against the Front, the Sultan requested additional assistance from Britain, Iran and Jordan. With the foreign aid, the Sultan’s Armed Forces were carrying out successful military operations, and the positions of the Front weakened. By the end of November 1975, the Front kept its only positions in the caved northeast of Rakhyut. Nevertheless, on December 11, 1975, Sultan Qaboos bin Said declared the end of the Dhofar War (Worrall 287).

In fact, the Sultan’s declaration was not the actual end of the rebellion but the PHLOAG had no real forces to continue attacks since the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen ceased to provide any assistance. Such a decision of the Yemeni was motivated by the Saudi Arabia’s proposition of recognition and aid in return for no longer supporting the Dhofari rebels. So, on March 9, 1976, was the end of cross-border operations and assistance of Yemen, and the Front was left to itself. Nevertheless, small-scale attacks had place during consecutive years, the Dhofar rebellion met its finish with the end of the Yemeni support (Gause 391).

So, the Dhofar War was a pretty good demonstration of the fact that political decisions can be of significant importance during wartime. First of all, the Sultanate would not have won without the coup and establishing new leadership. No doubt that if Said bin Taimur kept reigning, no military effort could legitimize him and no one would believe him even if he decided to implement reforms and meet the Front’s requirement. Second, the role of Saudi Arabia and its relations with the People’s Democratic Republic cannot be underestimated. Without this diplomatic stroke, the conflict might have lasted for years. So, among the main results of the Dhofar War, one can name the victory of Sultan Qaboos bin Said and reinforcement of his power over the whole territory of the country. Second, the PHLOAG’s defeat kept further expansion of communism in the Persian Gulf and reinforced the influence of the West. And the last but not the least, the war resulted in hundreds of lost lives from both sides.

Almost 40 years have passed since the end of the Dhofar War. What has not changed is the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. What has changed is the country’s position in the international arena, the level of its economic development and the social environment in the country. Then, the Sultans were dependent upon Britain in internal affairs. Now, the Sultanate of Oman is an independent state having its mindset about its position in foreign policy. Qaboos abides to the policy of neutralism to stay close with the West and at the same time with Iran. Speaking about economic development, under the reign of Sultan Said bin Taimur, oil revenues went straight into his pocket. Sultan Qaboos bis Said is a wise leader, and the country witnessed effective economic reforms resulting in modernization, increase in spending on healthcare, welfare and education, and growth of the Omani’s standard of living. Even though the Sultanate of Oman is an absolute monarchy, not a democracy, it totally corresponds to the way the Omani always have lived because the Sultan is supposed to be the one and only source of power. Of course, the issue of human rights protection in the Sultanate of Oman has always been harshly criticized but the country has witnessed significant progress. Even though in case or riots or the rising of rebellious spirits in society they are quickly suppressed, it is done avoiding massive bloodshed.


So, the history of the Sultanate of Oman was full of conflicts. From the very beginning of its existence, the country was under the reign of different empires and even becoming independent brought conflicts and rebellions. Nevertheless, the Omani have learned a lot from the two civil wars having a place in the 1950-the 1970s and demonstrated a momentous shift in development not only political but also economic and social. Despite the fact that rebellious spirits sometimes hung thick in the air, the conflicts and instability of the last three centuries have almost been suppressed during the last 40 years.


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DeVore, Marc. “The United Kingdom’s Last Hot War of the Cold War: Oman, 1963 –75.” Cold War History 11.3 (2011): 441-471. Print.

Gardiner, Ian. In the Service of the Sultan: A First-Hand Account of the Dhofar Insurgency. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Military Books, 2006. Print.

Gause, Gregory F. Saudi-Yemen Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influence. New York, NY: Columbia Press, 1990. Print.

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Thwaites, Peter. Muscat Command. London, England: Leo Cooper, 1995. Print.

Wilkinson, John C. The Imamate tradition of Oman. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Worrall, James. Statebuilding and Counterinsurgency in Oman: Political, Military and Diplomatic Relations at the end of Empire (Library of Modern Middle East Studies). London, England: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Print.

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