Oman’s Revolutionary Movement Posed a Radical Threat to Arabia’s Royal Dictatorships

During the 1970s, Oman had the most powerful left-wing revolutionary movement in Arabia. A British-organized counter-insurgency eventually snuffed out the movement with massive violence, but its emancipatory legacy still endures in Omani society today.

Queen Elizabeth ll with Qaboos bin Said, the Omani sultan whom the British helped install after the downfall of the Dhufar revolution. (Tim Graham Photo Library / Getty Images)

Today, Oman is known for its conservative, authoritarian monarchy. Yet the country was once home to a liberation movement that fought against the county’s British-backed Sultans.

The liberation front became one of the most significant revolutionary struggles in Southwest Asia during the 1960s and ’70s, before a massively internationalized counterinsurgency arose to defeat it. Despite its violence, this counterinsurgency later acquired a reputation as a “model campaign” for “winning hearts and minds.”

How did Omanis become the vanguard of anti-colonial revolution in an Arabian Peninsula ruled by monarchies? What effects did this “model” counterinsurgency have on them? Did the counterinsurgency prevent the revolution from having a lasting impact — or can a revolution survive defeat?

This article outlines the history, legacies, and wider implications of Oman’s revolution. After addressing the rise of anti-colonialism in Oman, I examine the changing scope of the revolution and counterinsurgency, before sketching Oman’s postwar context. Finally, I highlight the revolution’s legacies, and their implications for rethinking revolution beyond defeat.

A Colony Within a Colony

The anti-colonial revolutionary movement began in Dhufar, where the initial goal was to oust the British-backed al-Busaid dynasty of Sultans. After coming to power in the eighteenth century, the al-Busaids forged an Indian Ocean maritime empire that connected the Arabian Peninsula, Zanzibar, East Africa, and the territory of modern-day Pakistan during the early nineteenth century.

As the British empire was expanding eastwards in the nineteenth century, Britain sought to dominate the Indian Ocean. It oversaw the partition of the al-Busaid empire between Muscat, the capital of today’s Oman, and Zanzibar in 1861. Britain held informal colonial power over a nominally independent, Muscat-based Sultan. In Aden and the future Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Qatar, Britain became the formal colonial authority.

On the margins of the al-Busaid and British empires was Dhufar. Bordering with Yemen to the east, separated from the north of today’s Oman by some eight hundred kilometers of desert, Dhufar prospered in ancient times thanks to the export of frankincense. The resin grows in areas that receive monsoon precipitation between June and September. After the decline in demand for frankincense, an ethnically diverse population relied increasingly on agriculture and mobile herding of cattle, camels, and goats across Dhufar’s coastal plain, mountains, and desert hinterlands.

Although Dhufar’s subsistence economy offered little to British colonialists during the Victorian era, its geographical location promised connectivity between British Aden and India. Britain supported al-Busaid claims to Dhufar in 1879, preventing a rival from acquiring influence there. Dhufar became a “colony within a colony” — the personal dependency of a Sultan who depended for survival on British protection.

Conditions for the majority of the Sultan’s subjects were hard. Material poverty was rife, and British backing enabled the ruler’s authoritarianism. Dhufar’s status as a personal dependency exacerbated harsh rule. For instance, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who was in power from 1932 to 1970, introduced higher taxes in the dependency than he imposed further north.

British backing extended to the task of suppressing dissent. In the 1950s, after the discovery of oil in the northern Jabal Akhdar mountains, Britain participated in a series of conflicts to crush an anti-colonial movement that sought to reinstate the rule of a religious Imam.

Against this backdrop, Dhufaris who had migrated to pursue education and work in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond engaged with left-wing ideas and with anti-colonial decolonization movements such as Arab nationalism. Some were inspired by indigenous ideals of autonomy from outside rule that had motivated previous uprisings in Dhufar. Drawing on these heterogeneous political persuasions for their anti-colonial visions, Dhufaris founded the Dhufar Liberation Front in 1965.

Anti-Colonial Revolution

When it began its guerrilla warfare campaign, the front aimed to liberate Dhufar from British-backed rule. A changing regional and international context saw the movement’s ideologies and ambitions evolve.

After Israel’s defeat of Egypt and Syria in 1967, Arab nationalism was in crisis. In newly independent South Yemen, Dhufar’s neighbor, a left-wing independence movement came to power in 1967. Maoism was also ascendant in liberation movements globally. In this context, front members elected a leftist-dominated leadership in September 1968, taking a new name: the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG).

The front now aspired to liberate the Arabian Gulf from British colonialism, both formal and informal, placing the movement at the vanguard of regional anti-colonialism. Members hailed from Dhufar, Muscat, the northern mountain interior, and Bahrain, while volunteers included sympathizers from Lebanon and Iran. PFLOAG maintained diplomatic relations with supportive liberation fronts and states, running offices in cities such as Aden, Cairo, and Baghdad.

PFLOAG embraced Marxism-Leninism, with many policies taking inspiration from Maoism. Further name changes would follow, eventually reflecting the movement’s focus on liberating “Oman,” which was understood by then to include Dhufar. What persisted was the movement’s socialist-inspired emphasis on combining social emancipation with political and economic liberation from colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.

Accordingly, in South Yemeni bases and in front-controlled areas of Dhufar’s mountains, PFLOAG set about transforming society. These programs confirmed the movement’s prominence among Arab revolutions.

Its goals included the emancipation of women, enslaved people, and others who had been historically marginalized. Female and male guerrillas fought side by side, and girls and boys studied together in revolutionary schools. Whereas previously one’s social background had determined access to resources, the front’s redistribution efforts undermined tribalism.

The movement’s commitments to self-governance and popular participation informed its general republicanism and its program to establish popularly elected committees for local governance. Pursuing a socialist vision of modernization, the front promoted education and literacy for all as well as access to health care. Dhufari revolutionaries created new infrastructure projects, from roads and wells to farms.

Images of the revolution in action circulated globally, despite the remoteness of the “liberated territories,” which were accessible only after a grueling overland journey from South Yemen. Those who made this journey included Lebanese director Heiny Srour and French photographer Jean-Michel Humeau. Their collaboration on Srour’s critically acclaimed documentary The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974) helped make these revolutionaries — especially the female guerrilla fighters — into international icons of revolution.

Colonial Counterinsurgency

The changing regional and international context also transformed the stakes of the counterinsurgency. At the conflict’s outset, Dhufar offered Britain little, as it no longer helped connect British colonies in Aden and India. Nevertheless, Britons serving in Oman’s army and air force reprised their longstanding role, assisting Sultan Said in his efforts to put down the uprising.

However, the regional rise of left-wing ideas, from South Yemen to the neighboring liberation movement, led Britain and its allies to fear a “Red Arabia.” They anticipated threats to western access to the rich hydrocarbon resources of Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait.

As a result, the counterinsurgency became increasingly internationalized. British interventions were strategically significant: planning and leading the campaign; enabling air strikes and aerial supplies of food, water, and equipment so that government troops could maintain a year-round presence in the mountains; and deploying Special Air Service personnel from 1970.

At the same time, Britain mobilized its allies. Jordan deployed pilots and engineers, while Iran — then under the rule of the Shah — provided helicopters, jet fighters, and several thousand “boots on the ground.” By 1974, there were an estimated 11,000 counterinsurgency personnel in Dhufar, facing some 1,800 front guerrillas and militias.

The mobilization of allies limited British material expenditure. It also decreased Britain’s exposure to criticism for military intervention in Oman at a time when the government in London officially denied its colonial role there. Trying to keep its involvement secret, for most of the conflict Britain blocked media coverage in a way that would be unimaginable for a counterinsurgency war today.

The counterinsurgency deployed devastating violence. Air strikes destroyed homes and livelihoods. The campaign forcibly displaced many Dhufaris, and imposed food and water blockades. The impact of these interventions belies claims that this was a “model campaign,” with minimal civilian casualties.

Over time, the counterinsurgency also tried to “win hearts and minds.” As well as disseminating propaganda that condemned revolutionaries as immoral, the campaign recruited Dhufaris into progovernment paramilitary forces. It distributed food, water, and welfare services to these paramilitaries, and to civilians under government control.

These provisions competed with front programs, but had differing impacts. Whereas the front emphasized social egalitarianism, counterinsurgency programs distributed resources through tribal networks, stoking rivalries.

Yet violent coercion in Dhufar was what eventually cut off the front’s supply lines and cleared the mountains of guerrilla fighters. This was ultimately a military counterinsurgency, not a successful example of “winning hearts and minds.” The counterinsurgency declared its victory in 1976.

Enduring Postwar Authoritarianism

The Dhufar conflict forged today’s Sultanate of Oman in several ways. The country took its current name and territorial form during the war in 1970, after Britain orchestrated a coup to install Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who ruled the country from 1970 to 2020.

Historian Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s landmark account of the front, Monsoon Revolution, has shown that Britain came to see Said bin Taimur as an obstacle to counterinsurgency success. Once it learned of revolutionary plans to assassinate him, London removed him before the revolutionaries could do so.

British backing for Qaboos established an absolutist, authoritarian style of government that continues today. The Sultanate allows no political opposition and crushes perceived or actual dissent.

The rival wartime welfare provisions from the front and counterinsurgency established a developmentalist agenda. Under Qaboos, and benefiting from increasing oil production at favorable prices, postwar Oman underwent vast social and economic changes. Welfare and infrastructural programs for citizens included free education and health care, housing support, land distribution, and access to public sector jobs.

Over time, however, budget constraints required the government to scale back support. The erosion of state provisioning — combined with the growing difficulty of securing employment and discontent at authoritarian repression — inspired Omanis to join their peers across Southwest Asia and North Africa in taking to the streets in 2011.

The massive protests in cities from Muscat to Dhufar’s capital, Salalah, were unprecedented in Oman. The demonstrators demanded political freedoms, government accountability, and redistributive economic justice.

Government responses echoed the patterns of the Dhufar counterinsurgency: coercion and resource distribution. With aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies, the government promised more jobs and welfare. However, when protestors in Salalah continued demanding deeper political and economic change, the government arrested hundreds and deployed tanks in the streets. The sight of army personnel from northern Oman on Salalah’s streets left “a bad taste in the mouths of Dhofaris,” according to one blogger.

The high levels of participation by Omanis in elections for the Sultanate’s consultative council in 2011 reflected the initial optimism of many citizens about political openings after the protests. Government repression and crackdowns on dissent have nevertheless continued.

Revolutionary Legacies

Amid persistent authoritarianism in Oman, how did the legacies of the revolution survive? The postwar government expunged the revolution from official history, along with other episodes of dissent and the state’s violence against protestors. Meanwhile, the counterinsurgency’s international reputation as a “model campaign” suggests success in undermining revolution.

Nevertheless, Oman’s revolution and its revolutionaries created lasting legacies on multiple scales. One national legacy is the country’s welfare state. Although conventional narratives within and beyond Oman credit Sultan Qaboos for the country’s socioeconomic development, it was the revolutionaries who helped establish a developmentalist agenda. The counterinsurgency and the postwar government subsequently embraced that mandate.

While less visible to external observers, revolutionary legacies infuse the everyday lives of former participants. Some ex-revolutionaries in postwar Dhufar reproduced revolutionary values in their daily lives, as my book Afterlives of Revolution, based on fieldwork in Oman in 2015, explores.

Some named children, even those belonging to postwar generations, after revolutionary figures of Dhufari or international fame, or maintained friendships that practiced social egalitarianism along lines of gender, tribe, ethnicity, and racialized identities. Some found ways, despite official silence, to unofficially commemorate the revolution — for example, by attending the funeral of a deceased former participant.

The enduring impact of revolutionary values brings into question the idea that revolution ends with military defeat. In Dhufar, these legacies show how counterinsurgent violence, and the distribution of resources to “win hearts and minds,” fall short of erasing long-term engagement with revolutionary values.

Revolutionary values were also key to delivering postwar development. Most Dhufaris working in early postwar development projects were graduates of revolutionary schools, where they had learned to value the common good. By contrast, Dhufaris with greater experience of tribalizing counterinsurgency policies were reluctant to participate in projects that would benefit tribes other than their own.

These same values have also animated later platforms for progressive politics. The protests in Salalah in 2011 became the longest-lasting in the Sultanate, stretching from February 25 to May 12. Commenting on the Salalah demonstrations in March, an anonymous blogger praised the values of social inclusivity promoted by the demonstrators, which echoed the egalitarianism of an earlier generation of revolutionaries.

The Significance of Oman’s Revolution Today

When anti-colonial revolution gripped Oman, it did not merely become a landmark of revolutionary activism in the 1960s and ’70s. Drawing on longstanding aspirations for freedom and justice, both political and economic, revolutionaries produced lasting legacies for Oman and Omanis. Although counterinsurgent violence and the distribution of resources both shattered and reshaped Dhufari lives, those strategies could not wipe out engagement with revolutionary values over the long term.

The story of Oman’s revolution did not end with its military overthrow. Revolutionary legacies and values can survive defeat, influencing former participants and later generations. As such, the significance of Oman’s revolution grows, rather than recedes, with time. As revolutions elsewhere meet with backlash, repression, and defeat, producing new generations of disappointed revolutionaries, we should question whether those revolutions have really ended, and ask what legacies they, too, might be producing.