Persian Gulf States Table of Contents


As a regional commercial power in the nineteenth century, Oman held territories on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa, in Mombasa along the coast of East Africa, and until 1958 in Gwadar (in present-day Pakistan) on the coast of the Arabian Sea. When its East African possessions were lost, Oman withdrew into isolationism in the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Another of the gulf states with long-standing ties to the British, Oman became important in the British-French rivalry at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleonic France challenged the British Empire for control of the trade routes to the East. Although nominally a fully independent sultanate, Oman enjoyed the protection of the empire without being, de jure, in the category of a colony or a protected state. With its external defenses guaranteed and its overseas territories lost, the sultanate had no need for armed forces other than mercenaries to safeguard the personal position of the sultan.

In 1952, when the Saudis occupied Omani territory near the Al Buraymi Oasis, a British-led force from the Trucial Coast fought the incursion and retook the territory for the sultan. Later in the same decade, the sultan again called on British troops to aid in putting down a rebellion led by the former imam of Oman, who attempted to establish a separate state free of rule from Muscat. British ground and air forces dispatched to aid the Muscat and Oman Field Force succeeded in overcoming the rebels in early 1959. Nevertheless, instead of a minor intertribal affair in Oman's hinterland, the rebellion became an international incident, attracting wide sympathy and support among members of the League of Arab States (Arab League) and the UN.

An agreement between Sultan Said ibn Taimur Al Said and the British government in 1958 led to the creation of the Sultan's Armed Forces (SAF) and the promise of British assistance in military development. The agreement included the detailing of British officers and confirmed the existing rights of Britain's Royal Air Force to use facilities at Salalah in Dhofar region and at Masirah, an island off the Omani coast in the Arabian Sea.

Sultan Said ibn Taimur was ultraconservative and opposed to change of any kind. Kindled by Arab nationalism, a rebellion broke out in 1964 in Dhofar, the most backward and exploited area of Oman. Although begun as a tribal separatist movement against a reactionary ruler, the rebellion was backed by leftist elements in the PDRY. Its original aim was the overthrow of Said ibn Taimur, but, by 1967, under the name of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf--which in 1974 was changed to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO)-- it adopted much wider goals. Supported by the Soviet Union through the PDRY, it hoped to spread revolution throughout the conservative regimes of the Arabian Peninsula.

Said ibn Taimur's reprisals against the Dhofari people tended to drive them into the rebel camp. In 1970, as the Dhofari guerrilla attacks expanded, Said ibn Taimur's son, Qabus ibn Said Al Said, replaced his father in a coup carried out with the assistance of British officers. Qabus ibn Said, a Sandhurst graduate and veteran of British army service, began a program to modernize the country and to develop the armed forces. In addition to British troops and advisers, the new sultan was assisted by troops sent by the shah of Iran. Aid also came from India, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Trucial Coast, all interested in ensuring that Oman did not become a "people's republic." An Iranian brigade, along with artillery and helicopters, arrived in Dhofar in 1973. After the arrival of the Iranians, the combined forces consolidated their positions on the coastal plain and moved against the guerrillas' mountain stronghold. By stages, the Omanis and Iranians gradually subdued the guerrilla forces, pressing their remnants closer and closer to the PDRY border. In December 1975, having driven the PFLO from Omani territory, the sultan declared that the war had been won. Total Omani, British, and Iranian casualties during the final two-and-one-half years of the conflict were about 500.

Mission of the Armed Forces

After 1970 the Sultan's Armed Forces (SAF; later renamed the Royal Armed Forces) has became one of the more modern and better trained fighting forces among the Arab gulf states. Recognizing its strategic importance guarding the Strait of Hormuz (through which nearly one-fifth of the world's oil transited) and the Gulf of Oman, the sultanate has struggled to maintain a high degree of military preparedness in spite of its limited financial means. Its defense budget in 1992 was estimated at US$1.7 billion, exclusive of the GCC subsidy shared with Bahrain. It has periodically tested the capabilities of its armed forces by engaging in joint exercises with Western powers, particularly in regular exercises with British forces. Oman has taken the initiative in efforts to strengthen regional collective security through the GCC. At the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, it proposed the development of a GCC regional security force of 100,000 personnel.

For many years after the defeat of the Dhofar insurgents, Oman regarded its southern border with the PDRY as the most likely source of future conflict. The PDRY provided the Dhofari rebels with supplies, training camps, and refuge from attacks. Omani ground and air strength was concentrated at Salalah, Thamarit, and other towns near the PDRY border. The threat of PFLO dissident activity supported by the PDRY or border operations against Oman declined after reconciliation with the PDRY, marked by the exchange of ambassadors in 1987.

Apart from its military role, the SAF carried out a variety of civil action projects that, particularly in Dhofar, were an important means of gaining the allegiance of the people. Military engineers assisted road construction in mountain areas. The air force carried out supply operations and provided medical service to remote areas. The navy performed similar duties along Oman's long coastline. The navy also patrolled the sultanate's territorial waters and the 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone to deter smuggling and illegal fishing.

Organization and Equipment of the Armed Forces

Sultan Qabus ibn Said retained for himself the positions of prime minister and minister of defense. The sultan's uncle, Fahar ibn Taimur Al Said, served as deputy prime minister for security and defense. Between 1970 and 1987, the armed forces commander, as well as the heads of the air force and navy, were British generals and admirals on loan. As of early 1993, the chief of staff and the three service commanders were Omanis. As of 1992, personnel strength of the Royal Armed Forces (as they were renamed--RAF) had reached about 35,700, including 6,000 royal household troops--a 4,500 Royal Guard of Oman (RGO) brigade, two Special Forces regiments totaling 700 trained by British air commandos, and 800 miscellaneous other personnel--and foreign personnel, who are believed to number about 3,700. The army, known as the Royal Oman Land Forces (ROLF), is the largest of the service branches with a strength of 20,000. The ROLF is organized into regiments, although each regiment is of no more than battalion size. It includes two armored regiments composed of three tank squadrons; one armored reconnaissance regiment composed of three armored car squadrons; eight infantry regiments, three of which are staffed by Baluchis; four artillery regiments; one air defense regiment of two batteries; one infantry reconnaissance regiment composed of three reconnaissance companies; two independent reconnaissance companies; one airborne regiment; and one field engineering regiment of three squadrons. A small tribal militia of rifle company strength on the Musandam Peninsula is known as the Musandam Security Force.

One divisional headquarters and two brigade headquarters are maintained, within which the independent regiments can be combined into larger fighting units. The separate royal household troops consist of the RGO, the Special Forces elements, and personnel to staff the royal yacht and a number of transport aircraft and helicopters. The RGO, an elite corps with the primary function of protecting the sultan and performing ceremonial duties, has a separate identity within the ROLF but is trained to operate in the field alongside other army formations.

The two tank squadrons are equipped with United States M-60A1 and M-60A3 tanks and with British Chieftains. The armored car squadrons are outfitted with British Scorpion light tanks and French VBC-90s. The ROLF lacks armored equipment for troop movement, depending on Austrian Steyr cross-country vehicles. In July 1991, Oman ordered US$150 million worth of armored vehicles from the United States. The ROLF has a variety of towed artillery pieces; its principal antitank weapons are TOW and Milan guided missiles. Air defense is provided by a variety of guns and shoulder-fired SAMs.

Initially, nearly all the army officers and men were Baluchis from Pakistan, except for senior commanders, who were British. As of early 1993, most of the officers were Omanis, although British involvement continued, especially in the armored regiment. The training battalion of the RAF conducts recruit training for all services at the RAF training center near Muscat. Officer candidates--who must serve at least one year in the enlisted ranks--attend the Sultan Qabus Military College and the Officers' Training School. In 1988 the first class of twenty officers graduated from the Sultan's Armed Forces Command and Staff College near Muscat. This is a triservice school to prepare midranking officers for senior command and staff appointments. Officers of other government security services and some civilian officials also attend.

The Royal Oman Navy (RON), with a strength of 3,000 in 1992, has its headquarters at As Sib, thirty-six kilometers west of Muscat. The principal naval establishment is the Said ibn Sultan Naval Base, completed in 1987, at Wudham Alwa near As Sib. One of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken in Oman, it provides a home port for the RON fleet, training facilities, and workshops for carrying out all maintenance and repair activities. The Naval Training Center, located at the base, offers entrylevel courses for officers and enlisted personnel, as well as specialized branch training. Initially, the navy was staffed almost entirely by British officers and Pakistani NCOs. By the late 1980s, most ship commanders were Omanis, although many Pakistani and British technical personnel remained.

The navy's main combat vessels are four Province-class missile boats built by Vosper Thornycroft. Armed with Exocet antiship missiles and 76mm guns, the last ship was delivered in 1989. The navy also operates four Brook Marine fast-attack craft with 76mm guns and four inshore patrol craft. The navy is well equipped for amphibious operations and has one 2,500-ton landing ship capable of transporting sixty-ton tanks and three LCMs (landing craft-mechanized). Oman has ordered two corvettes with eight Exocet missiles, scheduled for delivery from Britain in 1995-96, and hopes to remedy its lack of minesweepers.

The Royal Oman Air Force (ROAF) had a strength of about 3,500 in 1992. Its forty-four combat aircraft of British manufacture consist of two fighter-ground attack squadrons of modern Jaguars, a ground attack and reconnaissance squadron of older Hunters, and a squadron of Strikemasters and Defenders for counterinsurgency, maritime reconnaissance, and training purposes. The air force is fairly well equipped with three transport squadrons and two squadrons of helicopters for troop transport and medical transport. Rapier SAMs are linked to an integrated air control and early warning network based on a Martello radar system. Skyvan aircraft fitted with radar and special navigational gear conduct maritime reconnaissance and antipollution patrols. The principal air bases are at Thamarit in the south and on Masirah. Others are collocated with the international airport at As Sib, at Al Khasab on the Musandam Peninsula, at Nazwah, and at Salalah. Officer and pilot training takes place at the Sultan Qabus Air Academy on Masirah. Pilots of fighter aircraft receive advanced training in Britain.

Omani Role in the Persian Gulf War, 1991

Oman's perceptions of the strategic problems in the gulf diverge somewhat from those of the other Arab gulf states. Geographically, it faces outward to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and only a few kilometers of its territory--the western coast of the Musandam Peninsula--border the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, sharing the guardianship of the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, Oman's position makes it of key importance to the security of the entire gulf. In its willingness to enter into strategic cooperation with the United States and Britain, Oman has always stood somewhat apart from the other gulf states. In 1980 Muscat and Washington concluded a ten-year "facilities access" agreement granting the United States limited access to the air bases on Masirah and at Thamarit and As Sib and to the naval bases at Muscat, Salalah, and Al Khasab. The agreement was renewed for a further ten-year period in December 1990. Although some Arab governments initially expressed their disapproval for granting the United States basing privileges, the agreement permitted use of these bases only on advance notice and for specified purposes. During the Iran-Iraq War, the United States flew maritime patrols from Omani airfields and based tanker aircraft to refuel United States carrier aircraft. The United States Army Corps of Engineers carried out considerable construction at the Masirah and As Sib air bases, making it possible to pre-position supplies, vehicles, and ammunition. Hardened aircraft shelters were built at As Sib and Thamarit for use of the ROAF.

Oman's traditionally good relations with Iran were strained by Iran's attacks on tanker movements in the gulf and Iran's emplacement of Chinese Silkworm antiship missile launchers near the Strait of Hormuz. The sultanate reinforced its military position on the Musandam Peninsula, which is only about sixty kilometers from Iranian territory.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Oman declared its support for the multinational coalition ranged against Iraq. The facilities on Masirah became an important staging area for the movement of coalition forces to the area of conflict. Oman also contributed troops to Operation Desert Storm as part of the Arab contingent of Joint Forces Command East. A reinforced Omani brigade, along with Saudi, UAE, Kuwaiti, and other forces, participated in the ground assault paralleling the gulf coast that converged on the city of Kuwait. No Omani combat deaths were reported.

Internal Security

Oman has not been exposed to a significant internal threat since the defeat of the Dhofari insurgents in 1975. Tribal dissension, a factor in the past, is considered unlikely to recur because most tribal chiefs and leading families share the advantages of rising oil income. The foreign labor force is large--estimated at 58 percent of the working population--and most foreign workers are Indians and Pakistanis who are not politically active. A few observers foresee an internal power struggle over the succession because Sultan Qabus ibn Said has no designated successor, but others believe that the country is stable enough to avoid strife over the selection of a new ruler.

The sultanate has not been the target of terrorist acts; it faces few problems from the narcotics trade and considers the level of general crime to be remarkably low. The security services are described as large and efficient but not overly intrusive.

The Royal Oman Police (ROP), commanded by the inspector general of police and customs, is under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior. The size of the force was estimated in 1992 at 7,000, but this number is believed to include customs, immigration, civil defense, firefighters, coast guard, and prison service. The principal crime fighting unit is the Directorate General of Criminal Investigation. An oil installation division has responsibility for security of the oil industry, patrolling pipelines, oil rigs, and oil terminals. The mounted division patrols border areas on horseback and camel and also provides security control at airports and border points. The coast guard contingent numbers 400; it is equipped with fifteen AT-105 APCs and eighteen inshore patrol craft.

The home guard (firqat) units had been raised and trained for irregular counterinsurgency operations by troops of the British army's Special Air Services. Armed with small arms, firqat units serve as tribal police and defense forces for the mountain people engaged in herding cattle in areas infiltrated by the Dhofari insurgents during the rebellion. After the insurgency, they remained as paramilitary tribal police, numbering about 3,500 in 1992.

Oman's criminal court system provides for fair trials within the framework of Islamic judicial practice. The defendant in criminal trials is presumed innocent and cannot be detained for longer than twenty-four hours without review of the case by a magistrate, who may then allow the police to hold a suspect up to fourteen days--extended if necessary up to seventy days--to carry out further investigation. Some suits have been filed against police officers for illegal arrest.

The accused can be represented by an attorney, but the government does not pay for a public defender. There are no jury trials and no right to a public trial. The judge can release the accused on payment of bail. Only the judge questions witnesses at the trial. The verdict and sentencing are frequently pronounced within a day. Sentences of more than two months and more than US$1,300 in fines are subject to appeal. No executions have been carried out since 1975 and are, in any event, subject to the sultan's ratification. A rarely used security court system handles internal security cases. The government can search private residences and monitor telephones and private correspondence without warrant but generally confines such actions to investigations of potential security threats and individuals suspected of criminal activity.

According to the Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, torture, mistreatment, and cruel punishment are not systematically practiced, nor are they countenanced by Omani authorities. The traditional punishments authorized by Islamic law, such as amputation and stoning, are not imposed. The Department of State reported that some prisoners had complained of beatings by police in 1991, and other physical abuse had been reported in earlier years. Prison conditions are described as harsh, with extreme temperatures in cells without proper ventilation. However, a practice of punitive hard labor under grueling desert conditions was discontinued in 1991.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress