Applying Counterinsurgency Theory to Oman’s Rebellion

Alexander Schade
Dec 19, 2016 · 6 min read

Peterson, John. 2007. Oman’s Insurgencies: The Sultanate’s Struggle for Supremacy. Beirut, Berkeley, London: Saqi. 447 pages. Appendixes. to p. 487. Maps to p. 497. Bibliography. to p. 508. Index to p. 522.

As Oman struggled with the sudden onset of modernity and state institutions in the 1950’s, a rift formed between the central government and the tribal sheikhs, which escalated into a complex Maoist insurgency. Fought between Soviet-communist supported guerilla fighters and the British-backed Sultan of Oman Armed Forces (SAF), the conflict reshaped the government, the borders, and the future of Southern Arabia. A comprehensive historical account and analysis of the Dhofar Rebellion, which took place in Oman from 1952 until 1975, did not exist until Dr. John Peterson wrote Oman’s Insurgencies: The Sultanate’s Struggle for Supremacy in 2007. Peterson, who served as the official historian for the Sultan’s Armed Forces until 1999, published the book in an effort to provide the first scholarly study of the Dhofar Rebellion and its’ conformity to counterinsurgency theory. Peterson has devoted his academic career to the study of Oman, having received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, and most recently serving as a visiting professor to the Paris School of International Affairs. He argues in his book that the Sultanate’s victory over the insurgency was the result of achieving political legitimacy through modern social reforms in conjunction with covert British funding and military support. (Peterson 2007, 23) Peterson succeeds in presenting a definitive study of the Dhofar Rebellion by first providing a structured historical narrative of the conflict, then examining each stage through the theoretical principles of Britain’s counterinsurgency experts.

Peterson begins the book with a contrast of the various principles of counterinsurgency by three prominent British theorists: Robert Thompson, Julian Paget, and Frank Kitson. His purpose is to reduce their competing theories into a broader framework that he applies during the historical narrative. He goes on to highlight the counterinsurgency principles of (1) political action over military, (2) the cooperation of the state and the military, (3) intelligence coordination, (4) the separation of insurgent from the population, (5) the application of force to induce pacification, and (6) political reform to deny recurrence of a defeated insurgency (Peterson, 2007, 30–31). This section, tied in with the challenges that Oman faced prior to the 1950’s, highlights the preconditions of the conflict and establishes the framework of counterinsurgency strategy which he uses to analyze the conflict. The historical narrative then continues as Peterson divides the war into four periods: the initial war in the north, the outbreak of war in the south, the Sultan’s military and political successes, and the triumph of the Sultanate. By breaking up the chronology along those topics, he demonstrates the initial ineffectiveness of the tribes in mounting an insurgency in northern Oman in 1952. He then details the increase in foreign involvement and the effect that Chinese logistical support and Russian training had on the insurgents in the South. This was compounded by the ineffectiveness of Sultan bin Taimur’s poorly trained army in dealing with the better equipped guerrilla fighters. The book goes on to describe the victories obtained by Sultan Qaboos after he overthrew his father in a bloodless, British backed coup d’état. His training at Sandhurst and the confidence of the British in his ability to gain political legitimacy enable Sultan Qaboos to implement an effective counterinsurgency strategy against the insurgents. Peterson concludes his historical narrative by discussing the political reforms implemented by Sultan Qaboos, to include social programs ranging from education and health services, to general amnesty towards insurgents who laid down their weapons (Peterson, 2007, 249–53). Peterson also details the British implemented operations that established fixed defensive lines which ran from coastal towns north towards the mountains. These control measures were aimed at cutting off insurgent access to logistical supplies and population centers. The structure of the historical narrative presented in the book allows for a comprehensive review of British and Omani government strategy throughout the duration of the campaign.

The strengths of Oman’s Insurgencies are the coherent structure, his comprehensive historical narrative, and the effective manner in which Peterson defends his argument. Peterson efficiently incorporates a variety of sources into a conducive outline that guide the reader through the phases of the conflict and stages of the counterinsurgency. By dividing the conflict into major phases, and structuring each named operation and major tactical decision into separate sections, the reader is able to apply Peterson’s initial counterinsurgency framework and observe the progression of the campaign. The historical narrative he presents is the most comprehensive Dhofar Rebellion chronology to date, with the majority of other available literature being SAS officer memoirs. Peterson weaves together primary sources from the British Foreign Office archival records, military and civilian participant accounts, and officer accounts, as well as regimental histories for the units who participated in the region (Peterson, 2007, 498–501). The most prominent strength is the last section of the book in which Peterson ties together the narrative and his argument, namely that it was a combination of political maneuvering on behalf of the Sultan along with British support that gave way to an Omani victory. He highlights the characteristics between the wars in the north and south of Oman, the various means of British military and logistical support, and examines the specific reforms which the Sultan introduced and how they affected the popular support within the country (Peterson, 2007, 400–11).

Despite its many strengths, the book suffers from one key fault. Oman’s Insurgencies is lacking in the range of sources, both primary and secondary. Included in the bibliography are texts and accounts from British officers, Western historians, and narratives solely from the perspective of the victor. The book does not include sources or accounts by the insurgents, nor are there any sources from Omani officers, members of the firqat mixed platoons, or Omani political elite. Whether these omissions were intentional or due to availability, the lack of Arabic sources limits the objective examination of the conflict. One example of an Arabic language source that could have been referenced is Mohammed Said al Duraibi’s The Oman Revolution, published in 2004, which incorporated accounts from insurgent fighters as well as Omani officers during their struggle in the war. If the author had included a broader sample of available resources, the book would have been a more comprehensive study of the conflict, and would have allowed for the analysis of viewpoints from both belligerents.

While Oman’s Insurgencies would benefit from a broader variety of sources, the magnitude of the impact that the book has had to the study of the Dhofar Rebellion remains significant. Peterson highlights the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency campaign waged by the Omani government with the support of the British, and does so through an extensive narrative and analysis of the counterinsurgent’s actions. He demonstrates how the campaign is a “textbook example” of counterinsurgency strategy, implementing the successful lessons from Kenya and Malaya, particularly the means by which the Sultan gained political legitimacy through social and economic reforms (Peterson, 2007, 31; 400–412). Peterson concludes the book by highlighting the permanency of the Sultanate following its victory. The conflict had reshaped the country, expanding its borders over tribal areas that Sultan bin Taimur had been unable to control during his reign. Sultan Qaboos transformed the central government from a weak Sultanate into a monarchy that has enjoyed immense popular support for nearly four decades. Finally, Peterson points out that Oman has achieved “remarkable” development and continues to enjoy stability in a region plagued with internal conflict and social upheaval (Peterson, 2007, 448). Oman’s Insurgencies fills a valuable gap in the scholarly research of the Dhofar Rebellion and is a succinct examination of developing counterinsurgency strategy in a contemporary conflict.

Alexander Schade

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Arabist, traveler, and avid coffee drinker.

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