War InThe Green Mountains

Ruins of Tanuf

Sometimes you arrive somewhere and are completely thrown. A ruined village in Oman destroyed by RAF bombs?

After a relaxing stay at the heavenly Al Bustan Palace Hotel just south of Muscat, on Saturday we stopped for a spot of geocaching on the outskirts of the village of Tanuf. The info supplied about the cache intimated that the deserted village to the north of modern Tanuf had been bombed by the RAF in the early fifties during the Jabal Akhdar (or Green Mountain) War. As this was before either of us were born it was hardly surprising that we hadn’t heard of it so I decided to do some research on Sunday. In fact it turned out I was two years old when this little piece of British-Omani history drew to a close.

The origins of the dispute were in oil, religious traditions and absolute rule. The Saudis laid a tenuous claim to the Buraimi Oasis in Oman close to the UAE/Omani/Saudi borders because Aramco (Saudi’s state owned oil company) believed there was oil to be found there. There was already some dispute between the tribes of the interior of Oman who believed in appointing their religious leaders (Imams) by election and the Sultan who, from Muscat, ruled absolutely over Oman. The country at that time played a role in managing the neighbouring Trucial States established by the British in 1835 to halt piracy in the Persian Gulf. (The Trucial States or Trucial Oman would eventually give rise in the seventies to the modern day UAE with Qatar and Bahrain as separate kngdoms but in the early days of Rock and Roll all that was still in the future.) The Trucial Oman Levies or Scouts were an armed force of Omanis commanded by British Officers and NCOs who kept the peace. The individual states were mostly responsible for their own internal affairs and the poeple ruled by their sheikhs while the British concentrated on foreign business on Trucial Oman’s behalf.

Storm Clouds Over The Akhdars

To understand further this dispute you have to know a little of the geography of Oman. Much of the land mass lies south of the Al Hajar Al Gharbi (Al Hajar) mountain range that runs parallel with the northern coast of Oman from north of the Tropic of Cancer across to the eastern coast separating the coastal lands of Muscat from the southern desert that reaches almost as far south as Salalah on the Arabian Sea. This desert is the Omani section of the Empty Quarter which stretches north into Saudi Arabia, one of the largest sand deserts in the world and one of the most inhospitable landscapes anywhere on earth. Historically the Sultans of Muscat held little influence over the nomadic tribes of the interior where slavery was still practised and the rifle was a badge of manhood. In Muscat they were seafarers and merchants looking to India, Persia and the East for their wealth.

The Sultan asked the British for assistance in removing the Saudis who responded by ensuring that the tribal leaders were their men, providing them with arms. The British were in a quandary and already not popular with Egypt, Syria and the UN amongst others due to previous efforts in the region however wanting to protect their oil interests and relations with Oman they sent in some Trucial Oman Scouts to oust Imam Ghalib Bin Ali and the Saudis.

The Akhdar range includes the highest peaks in Oman including Jebal Shams rising to almost 3,000m. These mountains cause the rains to fall (we saw plenty of thunderstorms and experienced a refreshing downpour ourselves on Saturday) so there are lots of trees and agriculture in the wadis leading down from them, hence the name “Akhdar”, Arabic for green. The range thrusts up from almost sea level with little in the way of foothills, just sharp jutting rock rising vertically. Transits across the range from coast to interior are few and far between even today, so fighting was tough for the Scouts.

Tanuf nestles below the mountains on the inland side. To support the Sultan’s troops the RAF ultimately bombed several sites along the mountains to drive the rebels out, including the town of Tanuf. This small forgotten war dragged on from 1954 until January 1959.

Sand of the Arabian Pennisula gives way to
bare rock in the Hajar Range

The UN was due to to discuss the region and the British had committed to withdrawing their troops by April 1959, before the talks commenced. In January of that year a decisive push was made and in less than three months achieved what the previous five years of skirmishes had failed to deliver. The rebel leaders made their way to Saudi Arabia and laid low. A small number of rebels continued laying mines brought in from there through the summer of 1959 but this ceased as the British and a new Omani paramiltary force reduced the arms smuggling.

At the time Cairo Radio reported that in the attack on the Jebel Akhdar, 120,000 British troops had been employed and Moscow embellished the story further, claiming 13,000 paratroopers had been dropped. In fact, barely 1,000 men had been involved, of which only 250 were British.

Further Reading:
1. SAS involvement: Britian’s Small Wars
2. Background on the Buraimi Dispute: Jebel Akhdar War
3. Laurence Geary’s Oman Blog: The Jebel Akhdar War