The British empire, which once covered vast areas of the globe, ended with the wave of decolonisations back in the 1950s and 1960s. The debacle of Suez finally drew the curtain on the British empire. However, Britain’s imperial role intervening in foreign wars and propping up dictatorships has continued. In fact, long after the guns of both World Wars One and Two fell silent, British troops continued to be deployed – secretly or otherwise – to numerous theatres of conflict.
In a long article for The Guardian newspaper, Ian Cobain elaborates how Britain has been secretly at war almost perpetually since the end of the major world conflicts. Britain’s armed forces have been engaged in armed conflicts nearly continuously, even though its role as an empire-builder drew to a close. These conflicts have all had one thing in common, apart from the use of British military forces. They have all had some strategic military or economic interests that the British ruling elite sought for commercial advantage. Supporting tyrannical regimes is not a purely military exercise – it is also good for big business.
In his article, Cobain states that:
In fact, between 1918 and 1939, British forces were fighting in Iraq, Sudan, Ireland, Palestine and Aden. In the years after the second world war, British servicemen were fighting in Eritrea, Palestine, French Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Egypt, China and Oman. Between 1949 and 1970, the British initiated 34 foreign military interventions. Later came the Falklands, Iraq – four times – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Libya and, of course, Operation Banner, the British army’s 38-year deployment to Northern Ireland.
For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.
Only the British are perpetually at war.
A number of Britain’s wars are well-known, acknowledged by memorials and commemorative activities, and have entered the public domain as examples of the British martial spirit – such as the Falklands war. The horrors and trauma of that war are documented and commemorated, and its British veterans honoured. Other conflicts however, remain mired in secrecy. That is because these British interventions expose the duplicitous nature of Whitehall’s foreign policy, and its willingness to sacrifice human lives for financial gain. One such war, which is worth exploring, is the British involvement in the Omani civil war, sometimes known as the Dhofar conflict.
The Sultanate of Oman, while never formally a British colony, has always remained tightly controlled and supervised by Britain. Strategically located at the south of the Arabian peninsula, Oman sits on one side of the Straits of Hormuz, through which the mass flow of oil traffic takes place. In the 1960s, a mass rebellion broke out in Oman, with nationalist Arab guerrillas attacking the Omani armed forces and seriously threatening the very survival of the Omani sultanate.
Oman at that stage had only one hospital, and millions of Omanis were illiterate. Considering that there were only three primary schools, and no high schools, this was not unexpected. The ageing Sultan of Oman was entirely dependent on British officers and intelligence staff to maintain his regime. Dissidents were savagely punished, torture was routine, and Oman remained technologically backward. In this context, the Omanis role up in rebellion in successive waves, beginning in the 1950s.
Similar to the secretive American war in Laos, Britain waged an equally covert aerial and ground war in Oman. Raids and bombings by the Royal Air Force (RAF) were common in the 1950s. When a serious and organised uprising began in the mid-1960s, the British authorities rushed to the rescue of the beleaguered sultanate. The Omani armed forces were reorganised with substantial British military supplies, training and advice.
The British were ruthless in suppressing this rebellion, an uprising led by Arab nationalists, but among whose ranks also included socialists, Maoist-style Marxists and Dhofari tribes. The Arab nationalist insurgency gained the support (limited and partial as it was) from sympathetic Arab socialist and Marxist regimes on the outside. It looked as if Oman would slip out from British control. The Labour government of Harold Wilson had a problem – while ideologically committed to decolonisation, but sought to hang on to its vassal state. It waged this war in secret.
The conduct of the British forces in Oman provides a lesson in counterinsurgency. British forces burned villages, killed civilians, poisoned wells, shot livestock, and placed the corpses of their victims on display as a salutary lesson in punishment. Civilian areas were turned into free-fire zones, and no distinction was made between rebel fighter and civilian. All were considered adoo – Arabic for “the enemy”. The Labour government was understandably anxious about publicising its role as the guarantor for a slave-owning, torture-friendly sultanate, so the British role in Oman was concealed from parliament, and from public scrutiny.
By the early 1970s, the Omani rebellion showed no signs of abating. The British government, though committed to a military victory, also took steps to ensure that its vassal regime in Oman did not topple over due to its own incompetence. In a coup d’état organised by British intelligence and senior military figures, the Sultan of Oman was ousted by his son, Qaboos bin Said. The latter, a former British soldier, took the reigns of power in 1970 and implemented several modernising reforms. He restructured the irrigation system in the country, abolished slavery, allowed the use of new technologies, and generally permitted a degree of political liberalisation.
By the early 1970s, the Omani rebellion had run out of steam, and the reforms implemented by the new sultan resolved a number of grievances that drove the initial uprising. Though orchestrated by Britain, the details of the coup that brought the current sultan to power remain shrouded in secrecy. It is no secret however, that Britain has retained a close and ongoing relationship with the Omani sultanate, the latter having substantial deposits of oil. Britain maintains spy bases in that country, and the armed forces of both countries train regularly with each other.
The British ruling class, while retaining its commitment to overseas interventions, has overseen the deindustrialisation of large segments of British society, condemning its citizens to social immiseration and rising inequality. British capitalism has moved from traditional manufacturing and industrial production to making consumer spending and financial speculation the main motivators of economic growth. The City of London maintains its international position as a financial behemoth, even though it shares this position with other imperialist countries such as the United States.
The British bourgeoisie has preached cost-cutting and austerity at home, while advocating for greater military intervention outside its borders. Britain maintains it pre-eminent role as an arms exporter to tyrannical and murderous regimes, but somehow cannot find enough money to alleviate the growing social and economic problems of inequality at home. The Grenfell tower inferno stands as an indictment not only of specific council authorities, but of a system that has sacrificed people’s lives for the benefit of corporate profits. Grenfell tower represents not just a slight aberration or maladjustment of resources, but the result of neoliberalism unchained.
The massive funding that goes towards waging wars overseas is better allocated in redressing the serious social consequences of privatisation and deregulation. If investment in the production of weapons and armaments is maintained, why is there no serious effort to improve the crumbling health and education services inside Britain itself? Nostalgia for a colonial empire – a nostalgia that ignores the very real brutality, violence and exploitative nature of that empire – is no substitute for a vision of the future.