Britain Waged a Secret War Against Revolutionary Movements in Arabia

In the 1960s and ’70s, Britain’s dirty war against the revolutionary struggle in Dhofar was hidden from the public. But the successful British effort to prop up one of the world’s most reactionary regimes had a lasting harmful impact on the politics of Arabia.

A British army helicopter dropping supplies and munitions to aid counterrevolutionary efforts in the Arabian Peninsula, 1964. (AFP via Getty Images)

By the time of his death in 2010, the Irish writer Fred Halliday had long since established himself as one of the world’s leading authorities on the politics of the Middle East. Halliday began a prolific career with his seminal work Arabia without Sultans, published in 1974. It was later translated into multiple languages, including those of the Global South.

The analysis put forward by Halliday was not merely a case study of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf in the 1960s and ’70s, as the British Empire lost its political grip in the region and the Gulf monarchies gained formal independence. As Halliday argued when revisiting his book a quarter of a century later, it was also “a document of its time,” adopting the perspective, tone, and language of the revolutionary left during this period.

This was a time of sociopolitical conflicts and struggles resulting from combined and uneven development in the Global South, with revolutionary social forces rising, one after another, to envisage an alternative world, and a pressing need for activists like Halliday to raise awareness of these struggles in the heartlands of counterrevolution like Britain. Halliday wrote as an avowed Marxist who was involved in solidarity work with the revolutionary movements of Arabia.

By revisiting the circumstances in which Halliday wrote Arabia Without Sultans, we can thus shed light not only on a classic work of politically engaged scholarship, but also on one of the crucial turning points in modern Arab history.

Revolution in Arabia

It may come as a surprise to those familiar with the current role of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a seemingly immovable counterrevolutionary bulwark of the Arab world, but there were vigorous political movements inspired by Marxism threatening the Gulf monarchies during the 1960s and ’70s. One of those movements, the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Aden, took power in South Yemen after the end of British colonial rule and established the only Marxist-Leninist state in the region.

Halliday and his comrades were particularly inspired by the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG), which developed from the same political milieu as the NLF and launched a major armed rebellion against the sultanate of Oman in Dhofar. Oman was for all practical purposes a British colony, as the Guardian journalist Ian Cobain recalled in an article uncovering the secret history of Britain’s war:

In the mid-1960s, the country’s tyrannical ruler, Sultan Said bin Taimur received more than half his income directly from London. Only from 1967, when Omani oil was pumped from the ground for the first time, did the country begin to generate most of its own income. Even then, Britain exercised enormous control over the sultan. His defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British. The British commander of the Sultan of Oman’s armed forces met daily with the British defence attache, and weekly with the British ambassador. The sultan had no formal relationship with any government other than that of the UK.

There were also British warders in Omani prisons, where conditions were appalling. Cobain described the nature of the social system for which Britain was responsible:

In the mid-1960s, Oman had one hospital. Its infant mortality rate was 75 percent and life expectancy was around 55 years. There were just three primary schools — which the sultan frequently threatened to close — and no secondary schools. The result of this was that just 5 percent of the population could read and write. There were no telephones or any other infrastructure, other than a series of ancient water channels. The sultan banned any object that he considered decadent, which meant that Omanis were prevented from possessing radios, from riding bicycles, from playing football, from wearing sunglasses, shoes or trousers, and from using electric pumps in their wells.

There have already been rebellions against the sultan in the 1950s, which were put down after massive aerial bombardment by Britain’s Royal Air Force. In 1966, the PFLOAG launched a campaign of guerrilla warfare in Dhofar, which soon developed into a powerful challenge to the sultan’s rule. Yet the British government was determined to suppress it, not least because of Oman’s strategic position on the approach to the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passage through which oil tankers have to pass on their way out of the Persian Gulf.

In 1970, British government officials engineered the removal of the sultan to be replaced by his son Qaboos. Qaboos announced the end of slavery in Oman, which had been the last country on Earth where it was formally legal. But repression played a much bigger part in Britain’s counterinsurgency than reform. One British officer described the methods they used in Dhofar’s free-fire zones, where the entire population were said to be legitimate military targets: “There are no civilians . . . you can get on with doing the job, mortaring the area and returning small arms fire without worrying about hurting innocent people.”

It required a powerful coalition of counterrevolutionary forces, with military backing from Britain and Iran, to defeat the PFLOAG’s uprising. The ultrareactionary cast of political life in the GCC states, with its wider impact on North Africa, the Middle East, and other Muslim-majority countries, owes a great deal to the success of this effort.

The New Left and the Gulf Committee

Fred Halliday came to study at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) between 1967 and 1969, just as the New Left student movement was reaching its crescendo in Britain and elsewhere. He participated in a Marxist discussion forum that brought together students from the Arab world who had diverse ethnic heritages and ideological affiliations with Arab communist parties and nationalist movements.

The forum attempted to conceptually anatomize the roles played by imperialism, Zionism, Arab reactionary forces, and capitalist oppression in the Middle East. Scholars had previously tended to look at the region through an imperialist lens, and colonial gatekeepers controlled the circulation of information about it. During the late 1960s, London was a hub for international solidarity movements and an array of radical publications. This was a mode of knowledge production channeled through students and activists on the street rather than the confines of academia.

As Halliday later recalled, he had been “a rabid Maoist in a first-shaking sort of way at the age of fifteen,” writing very “infantile” things on Marxism. He developed a more sophisticated left-wing political outlook and spent a great deal of time traveling, researching, writing, and participating in the work of publications such as Black Dwarf, New Left Review, and Seven Days. Halliday helped set up Middle East Report (MERIP), which carries on to this day, and worked for research centers such as the Transnational Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

He also took part in the Gulf Committee, a solidarity group dedicated to support for the revolutionary struggle in Dhofar. The Gulf Committee was officially established by the young Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi with Halliday and other figures such as Helen Lackner, Ken Whittingham, and Nigel Disney, as well as students from a number of Middle Eastern countries.

In contrast with some of the other solidarity movements of the time, the Gulf Committee had no formal representatives from any political organizations. It remained a small, independent group that was open to collaboration with others. As Lackner put it in 2016:

We felt that our role was to provide real practical support to them and not to get involved in factional disputes in Britain . . . there was definitely an information blockade. There was a deliberate effort to prevent people from knowing about [Dhofar] because it really was unknown: people didn’t know anything about it.

Britain’s Vietnam

The Gulf Bulletin, the Committee’s periodical, appeared between 1971 and 1975. Its first issue stated that the group’s primary objective was “to give maximum solidarity to liberation forces in the whole Gulf area, to expose the [British] ‘withdrawal’ charade being played out by the Tory government, and to link the revolution in Dhofar with the struggles in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf.”

On the basis of this platform, the Gulf Committee unequivocally expressed its full support for the revolutionary groups in the Gulf as they engaged in armed struggle against British imperialism and the sultan of Oman. As the Bulletin observed, Oman had become “Britain’s Vietnam,” with a counterrevolutionary war “fought and run by Whitehall” that was “shrouded in official lies and the complacent reporting of the bourgeois press.”

Although several Arab sheikhdoms had gained formal independence in 1971, British officials expected to preserve the influence of their informal empire. The committee identified the ongoing presence of British advisers to the local regimes as a necessary move to protect Britain’s imperialist interests in the Gulf, such as the annual profit of over £200 million from Gulf oil operations and financial ties with Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

Halliday and his comrades saw the revolutionary movements in the region as struggles for decolonization and against the consequence of capitalist development in the Gulf. The change in the global economic climate during the 1970s, as the postwar boom came to an end, intensified the contradiction between revolution and counterrevolution. As the committee noted in 1973: “When both imperialism and the [Dhofar] revolution have adopted strategies that are markedly different from those of 1965, the clash is taking a sharper and more extensive form than ever before.”

The Gulf region, with its vast oil reserves, became an essential source for the energy demands of the global capitalist market. The rise in oil prices led to massive financial flows from the advanced capitalist states, although some of this money was soon diverted back into Western coffers to fund massive arms purchases and investment by the Gulf ruling classes in countries like Britain and the United States.

These capital flows were likely to empower the rulers of the Gulf states in both economic and political terms as they sought to defeat the revolutionary movements. The committee affirmed “the need for a joint struggle by Arab and Iranian workers” against the established regional order. They suggested that a successful Dhofar revolution would have implications well beyond the Middle East, as it might “seriously weaken the economics of the capitalist West” and set a powerful example for “revolutionaries throughout the world.”

International Solidarity

In April 1973, the committee sent delegates to the First Congress of Committees in Support of the Revolution in the Gulf that was held in Aden, which also included activists from countries such as France, Belgium, West Germany, Poland, the USSR, Somalia, and Kuwait. When a second international solidarity conference took place in Paris in December 1974, the representatives of the British group again drew a parallel between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where the struggle against the United States and its client states was on the brink of victory:

Oman is the Vietnam, the centre, of the revolutionary struggle in the whole Gulf, the front line in the battle against imperialism and local reaction, both Arab and Iranian. Palestine and Oman are the two most advanced sections of the anti-imperialist movement in the Middle East.

The committee organized fundraising projects for the construction of hospitals and schools in the liberated areas of Dhofar, with invaluable support from the Yemeni Workers Union in the UK. With the wider international solidarity movement, it also attempted to raise global awareness of the struggle that was taking place in Dhofar.

For example, the activists produced pamphlets on the situation of political prisoners in Bahrain, Oman, and Iran. William Wilson, a British Labour MP for Coventry, introduced those pamphlets at a press conference in the House of Commons. In March 1975, a demonstration was held in London with slogans like “British and Iranians out of Oman” and “Palestine–Oman–Iran, One Struggle, One Fight,” demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British, Iranian, and other foreign forces from Oman. The demonstration presented a letter to Harold Wilson, the British Labour prime minister at that time, and marched to the Omani and Iranian Embassies.

International and domestic outreach activities also involved closely working with several overseas Middle East student organizations, such as the General Union of Bahrain Students and the Iranian Students Society in Great Britain. This cooperation produced many of the Gulf Committee’s publications, putting forward a critical analysis of events in the region.

They covered topics such as political prisoners in the oil-producing states, the political context in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the role of women in the revolutionary struggle in Oman, and class conflict in Bahrain. An underground organization, the Popular Front of Bahrain, produced the last of these, which the committee translated.

The Gulf Committee dissolved in 1978, following the defeat of the movement in Dhofar, which was completed by the beginning of 1976. But its analytical lens and stress on the need for “empathetic internationalism,” and “complex solidarity” continued to inform Halliday’s subsequent works on a range of subjects, from Iran to Ethiopia to South Yemen. With a new counterrevolutionary axis in the Middle East hardening before us, the legacy of the Gulf Committee remains profoundly relevant to our own time.