Since the 18th century, British imperialism has maintained control over the principalities of the eastern and southern coasts of the Arabian Peninsula; but this imperialist hegemony is now dissolving. As British forces retreat from the Gulf,footnote1 new contradictions are exploding which threaten the position of world imperialism and the local ruling classes.
The present centre of these contradictions is Oman, with its population of 750,000. The Sultan of Muscat, on the coast below the Omani mountains, entered into treaty relations with Britain in 1798 and since then has accepted British control while formally remaining an independent state. The British have helped him to consolidate his realm. In the Omani mountains, a purist Shi’a Muslim sect, the Ibadhis, held a traditional tribal autonomy, centred on the town of Nizwa and the
The Sultan has a force of several hundred slaves, a personal Baluchi bodyguard, and an army and air-force financed and officered by the British. Britain carries out all his foreign relations and is represented locally by a Consul-General. In return the Sultan has allowed Britain to build four bases on his territory. The base at Salala is reputed to have underground chambers stocked with nuclear weapons and has been frequently attacked by local guerrillas, but by far the most important is on Masirah island, off the Omani coast; the Sultan has sold this to the British and the local shepherds and fishermen have been cleared off. It is virtually impregnable, and with the loss of the Libyan bases will form a major link between the centre of imperialist military forces in the area, Cyprus, and points further east. In the event of a successful revolutionary movement in Oman, the island could serve as a refuge for defeated imperialist agents and become a Taiwan of the Arabian counterrevolution.
In the 1950’s the Omani Ibadhis, led by their Imam, staged a series of risings on the Green Mountain, but were suppressed by British troops. The Imam of Oman received the backing of the Saudis who were involved with the Sultan of Muscat in the Buraimi dispute. In addition the Egyptian and Arab states as a whole supported the Imam and attacked the Sultan. At the time this was a relatively progressive development, but the Omani risings of the 1950’s were limited both by their reliance on traditional tribal conflicts and by their subservience to the Saudi and other Arab States. Since then three major new developments have altered the co-ordinates of the Omani revolution.
First, the discovery of oil in Oman and Dhofar has served to awaken the consciousness of the population, previously sunk in pre-capitalist particularism. This showed the possibility of increased wealth and revealed the exploitation of the Omani masses by the Sultan and the oil companies; the development of oil has provided the political context for class conflict. Secondly, the victory of the revolution in South Yemen in 1967 has provided the Omani revolution with a friendly hinterland that is naturally far more militant and anti-imperialist than the Saudi State ever was. Thirdly, a group of young Omanis studied the lessons of the defeats of the 1950’s and set up a new revolutionary organization independent of the old Imamate clique. These formed the Liberation Front of Dhofar in 1964 and began a guerrilla war in July 1965 by attacking the Salala base.