A Close Relationship: Britain and Oman since 1750

Dr Francis Owtram

Author

Gulf History Specialist, British Library
Played out against Oman’s imposing geographical position, the British relationship with Oman has changed from that of allies against common foe, through informal British imperial influence to an important trading and strategic partner today.

Composed of a range of mountains and encompassing a coastal plain, Oman has often been likened to an island, cut off on its western border from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula by the great desert of al-Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarter. Its eastern border, the al-Batinah coastal plain, faces out to the Indian Ocean. It is therefore not surprising that Omani culture has looked outward to the maritime environment of the Indian Ocean as well as inward to the mountainous interior, and in doing so has become a rich comingling of the two. 

Omani Trading Presence in the Indian Ocean

The Al Bu Sa’id has been the ruling family of Muscat and Oman since 1749. During this time they have benefited from the trading opportunities – including slave-trading from East Africa – facilitated by their Indian Ocean coastline.

In the eighteenth century the Omanis expanded into the Indian Ocean. Sources of revenue from cloves and slave-trading had become so important to the Sultanate that in either 1832 or 1840 (dates vary according to different sources) the court was moved to East Africa. The British were also plying the seas and, during the course of the nineteenth century, they gradually became the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean. 

British Protectorates and Rival European Powers

Part of this dominance involved excluding European powers who would seek to rival that dominance, and forcibly driving back the spread of the Omani empire. Thus, the Trucial System in the lower Gulf was established during the period 1820–53, under which Britain controlled the foreign relations of the Trucial States. In Oman’s case there were various proposals for the establishment of protectorates, particularly in the 1890s at the high point of Viceroy Lord Curzon’s ‘forward policy’ – a grand strategy, which involved denying European rivals any influence in the Gulf. However, the 1862 Anglo-French agreement on the Sultanate’s independence following its separation from Zanzibar meant that the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman’s independence was maintained at least in a legal sense.

Increasing British Influence

Nevertheless, Muscat came increasingly under the influence of Britain towards the end of the nineteenth century through a series of treaties in which the sultan agreed to consult Britain on all ‘important matters’. Successive sultans’ frustration at this decision was evidenced by their desire to live away from Muscat – in India or the region of Dhofar, five hundred miles away from Muscat.

The kerbing of Omani sources of revenue (slave-trading and guns) by the British meant successive sultans were unable to pay subsidies to the influential tribal sheikhs of the interior. This led to a series of rebellions and attacks on Muscat by the tribes of the interior. As a result, in 1895, the British committed to protect Sultan Faisal bin Turki in Muscat and Muttrah from tribal attack. Thus, by maintaining the sultans’ positions in power, the British were able to exert informal imperial control.

Extract of original letter (in Arabic) from Sultan Taimur bin Faisal to the Political Resident Hugh Biscoe, 17 November 1931. IOR/R/15/1/446, f. 20
Extract of original letter (in Arabic) from Sultan Taimur bin Faisal to the Political Resident Hugh Biscoe, 17 November 1931. IOR/R/15/1/446, f. 20

Bertram Thomas and Dependency on the British

Following the siege of Muscat, 1913–20, the British-brokered Treaty of Sib in 1920 recognised the Imamate as the de facto authority in the interior of Oman, because at this point, the British had no interest in the territory.

In the 1920s, as the sultans became more dependent on loans from British Indian subjects, the British instigated reforms, creating a Council of Ministers with Bertram Thomas as Financial Adviser. In effect, Thomas ruled the Sultanate during the long absences of Sultan Taimur bin Faisal (r. 1913–32), who continued to express a desire to abdicate and reside in India, visiting Muscat only sporadically. 

It was only until the rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur (r. 1932–70) that the coast and interior of Oman was reunited with British-organized military forces. 

Extract of English translation of the letter from Sultan Taimur bin Faisal to Biscoe. IOR/R/15/1/446, ff. 21-22
Extract of English translation of the letter from Sultan Taimur bin Faisal to Biscoe. IOR/R/15/1/446, ff. 21-22

Rebellion and Unification under the Sultanate

In the 1950s, in order to allow for continued oil prospecting in the interior, British officials helped create and coordinate military forces to reinforce the Sultanate’s authority in those regions, culminating in the military occupation of the mountainous interior. Specifically, the British firm Petroleum Development (Oman) helped finance the Muscat and Oman Field Force which occupied Nizwa in December 1955.

Although Said bin Taimur conducted a tour of the interior in December 1955, which was intended to assert his authority in the region, once he returned to Dhofar he was never to return to Muscat or the interior again. Meanwhile, his presence in Dhofar made the lives of the inhabitants particularly difficult and eventually a rebellion against his rule broke out there in 1965. 

Oil Revenues and Eventual Coup

Although, in 1967, oil exports finally came on-stream, it was already too late for the rapidly disintegrating regime. Said bin Taimur’s cautious approach to development had already engendered ill-feeling amongst the population and that, combined with nationalist and Marxist-Leninist ideological influences, led to further rebellion against his rule in the southern province of Dhofar in 1968. The rebellion spread to the North, triggering the various forces opposed to his rule to seek to overthrow Sultan Said bin Taimur. The pressure of the rebellion was too much for the regime: with British support, his son, Sultan Qaboos, replaced him in 1970. Following the effective end of the Dhofar conflict in 1975, in 1977, the RAF air bases at Salalah and Masirah Island were officially handed over to the Sultanate. However, Britain retained a great deal of influence, with British personnel continuing to command the Sultanate’s armed forces as late as the 1990s. Even today, the relationship with Britain remains important. 

Secondary Sources

  • J. E. Peterson, ‘Britain and the Gulf: At the Periphery of Empire’ in Lawrence G. Potter, ed., The Persian Gulf in History (New York: Palgrave, 2009), pp. 277–93