Britain’s imperial role, Oman, the current Yemen war and the durability of empire-building delusions

Five years ago, I wrote about Britain’s secret war against a nationalist pan-Arab uprising in the 1960s and 70s in Oman. The latter is a British-backed monarchy, a former colony of the British empire. Knowledge of Britain’s secretive role in suppressing that uprising helps us to understand the continuing durability of imperial delusions in the English ruling class, even though the old Empire is dead.

Well, it is great to have your analysis confirmed. Jacobin magazine has published an extensive article this month explaining Britain’s counterrevolutionary role in suppressing pan-Arab uprisings and revolutionary movements in the Arabian peninsula. Britain’s imperial aspirations can be seen in the ongoing role that the UK plays in supporting the western-aligned petro-monarchies in the Middle East.

While Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and all the gulf petro-monarchies are known for their role as pro-imperialist stalwarts, what is not known is the strong emergence and political influence of revolutionary pan-Arab nationalist and socialist movements. These revolutionary upsurges were suppressed with the crucial counterrevolutionary support of the British military. It is no exaggeration to say that these Gulf monarchies constitute AngloArabia, given how vital the UK’s role was – and is – as an economic and political buttress.

The Sultanate of Oman, a British colony since the 1800s, had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and the majority of Omani people lived in abject poverty. Inspired by socialist ideas, and the example of the Soviet socialist style republic of South Yemen to its west, a guerrilla nationalist insurgency erupted in the 1960s against the British-backed Sultan. Oman became, in many ways, Britain’s Vietnam.

The Dhofar rebellion, as it is known, lasted through to the 1970s. The Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) fought valiantly against an Omani state equipped and trained by the British. The tactics the British army and Air Force used included mass aerial bombardment, free-fire zones where any person resident was considered a legitimate target, the use of strategic hamlets (ie detention camps), and the torture of suspects. British army officers occupied key positions in the Omani military.

In 1970, as the uprising showed no signs of abating, the British authorities engineered a palace coup against the reigning Omani Sultan, and replaced him with his son, Qaboos bin Said. A British soldier, Qaboos remained in power, feted as a moderniser, until his death in 2020. While some political reforms were enacted, the Omani state remained an autocracy, firmly within the British orbit. By the mid-70s, the Arab nationalist rebellion had run out of steam.

While the Dhofar uprising was defeated, Arab nationalism remained a potent ideological force. Britain continued its financial and military backing for the Gulf petro-monarchies; a particular British royal, who now happens to be King, visited Oman back in 2016.

It is quite hypocritical of the corporate media to denounce the supposedly culturally regressive practices of the Gulf monarchies. Those authoritarian regimes, like Qatar, are propped up by British imperialism, the latter then using the ‘backward Arab’ stereotype to condemn the Arabian peninsula for culturally regressive social mores.

Yemen – the target of multiple UK interventions and intrigues

Another nation on the Arabian peninsula that has been – and still is – the subject of UK intervention is Yemen. A former British colony, Yemen occupies a strategic location where the Gulf of Aden leads into the Red Sea. Until today, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are vital for global maritime traffic. The Bab al Mandeb, the strait linking the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, separates Yemen on the Arabian peninsula, and Eritrea/Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa.

In 1962, Arab nationalist officers launched a revolution against the British-supported monarchy. The UK, along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other pro-western governments, started a royalist insurgency to restore the Yemeni monarchy. Britain began its covert military intervention at this time.

The UK government at the time – under Labour Prime Minister Harold Macmillan – knew full well that the royalist rebellion would not win. However, they kept the counterrevolutionary insurgency going in order to sabotage any post-civil war settlement. As Dan Glazebrook wrote:

Yemen is the sole country on the Arab peninsula with the potential power to challenge the colonial stitch-up reached between Britain and the Gulf monarchies it placed in power in the 19th century

Since 2015, the Saudi invasion of Yemen, intended to install a pro-western government in Yemen, has been fully supported by the United States and the UK. Britain not only supplies the bombs for the Saudi military, but provides training for Saudi Air Force pilots. Intelligence gathering and logistical support – Britain makes the ongoing Saudi attack on Yemen possible and enduring.

Yemen and its victims have been relegated to media oblivion. The Ukraine war, with its white Christian victims of Moscow’s aggression, receive saturation coverage and sympathies. The criminal actions of the UK and its allies, and the humanitarian crisis for which we are responsible, are airbrushed from history. Yet, with all of the financial and military muscle of Saudi Arabia and its solid alliance with London and Washington, the Yemeni resistance Ansar Allah movement – popularly known as the Houthis – are winning.

Indeed, the US government has entered into a truce with the Houthis in Yemen; Washington belatedly recognising that its seven year war waged by Saudi proxies is facing certain defeat. The prospect of a Houthi victory in Yemen will hopefully compel a change of strategy in London as well. In many ways, the US/UK intervention in Yemen has become the Vietnam of our times.

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