The sun is setting on the heights of astonishing hills in the vastness of Oman’s Dhofar region, when two young men stop their white 4×4 vehicle to smoke a cigarette and have a talk. Ali and Said al-Mashali, 29 and 22, are the grandchildren of Musallam bin Nufl, one of the founders of the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF).
“We remain proud of him and those who resisted,” Ali told Asia Times.
From 1962 to 1976, a Marxist insurgency rooted in poverty ran in southern Oman. At that time, Dhofar was a backward area suffering from underdevelopment – roads, hospitals and schools were almost non-existent.
Twelve of Mashali’s ancestors, frustrated, enrolled early on in the rebellion against the former sultan, Said bin Taimur, father of the current ruler.
“What did we fight for? We wanted freedom, education and more modernism,” 85-year-old Mabroot al-Mashali, a former DLF sniper, said in a barely audible voice.
Today, public services and infrastructure in Dhofar Governorate are developed, thanks to oil wealth deployed during the reign of Sultan Qaboos. Yet, Oman strictly curtails the rights to freedom of expression. Family members of human rights defenders face harassment from authorities and the death penalty remains in force, Amnesty International reported.
Gulf liberation movement
Wearing a dishdasha, the traditional Arabian clothing for men, the two brothers point out the last remaining signs of the conflict: a cave where fighters used to shelter during offensives and a wall used by an uncle at the time to perform guard duties.
Sitting at the top of a hill next to a fire where camel milk boils up, Sheikh Mabroot al-Mashali claims there was a common dream for political change.
A turning-point occurred after 1968 when demands from some factions expanded to the liberation of the Gulf region from British imperialism. This shift was fueled by the proclamation of independence and Marxist governance in the neighboring People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, also known as South Yemen, on November 1967, which survived until 1990.
Dhofar turned into a crossroads of international political protest involving nationalists, communists, Guevarists and Marxists. China and the Soviet Union sponsored the insurgents, the United Kingdom and the Shah’s Iran supported the Omani authorities.
Abdul Nabi el-Ekri, a Bahraini agricultural engineer who joined the revolutionaries in 1971, recalled an underdeveloped area under a severe blockade. “We had to content ourselves with only one meal a day … Aerial bombardments targeted caravans of camels and our water source,” he wrote in his book, From Dhofar to Bahrein, a memory of struggles and hopes.
Military action to defeat the insurgents involved control over the food supply, which alienated the population against the sultan, according to former fighters.
On July 23, 1970, the British backed a coup in Oman “to change the Sultan to his younger, more modern son, Sultan Qaboos,” said Thomas Leveritt, a British documentary director who researches the Dhofar rebellion.
“[The British] considered that Sultan Said bin Taimur was at the origin of these revolts,” said Nasser, a former revolutionary who prefers to remain anonymous.
Regarded as a pivotal event, the Battle of Mirbat took place in July 1972, when British military men defeated more than 250 insurgents. From then on, Omani and British military forces gained the upper hand over the insurgency.
In 1973, Iran joined the intervention, sending its military units, warplanes and ships. “Sultan Qaboos fought the insurgency with the help of the Shah of Iran,” said Nasser.
In parallel, Qaboos initiated negotiations with some rebels, facilitated by divisions within the insurgency. He promised many better living conditions and a more egalitarian nation to dry up the essence of the rebellion.
In January 1976, the Sultanate of Oman declared peace.
Aiming ‘too high’
According to Nasser, the insurgency aimed too high. “The leaders of the rebellion had no military education to win the war. Yet, the revolution changed Oman’s present and built the future,” he said, seated at a café in Muscat, seemingly monitored.
Since Sultan Qaboos rose to power, southern Oman has been politically stable. Rapid economic development has largely calmed social discontent in the country. Leveritt asserts that Oman has massively invested in infrastructures such as schools, hospitals, roads, electricity and water networks to ensure that Dhofaris benefited from the oil wealth.
The number of primary school pupils increased from 909 before 1970 to 77,000 in 1979. The descendants of the rebels still see their actions as having pushed the ruler to make such changes. “Dhofar developed thanks to my grandfather,” Ali al-Mashali said.
Eye of the storm?
Although the Dhofar Rebellion is downplayed in the country’s archives, it remains lively in the minds of the older generation. Nasser whispered that it is still called the national democratic movement.
Marc Valeri, an Oman expert at Britain’s University of Exeter, believes that the taboo imposed by the regime on this insurgency has aroused curiosity among the youth.
“This was particularly evident in 2011 when the demonstrators explicitly referred to the 1970s during the protest,” he said, referring to demonstrations that came in parallel with Arab Spring uprisings from Egypt to Syria.
Who will be the successor of Sultan Qaboos, the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, is one of the major questions on the minds of Omanis, amid the 78-year-old’s prolonged absences for medical treatment abroad.
The Mashali brothers say they are largely satisfied with the improvement of living conditions since the 1970s. For them, like most young Omanis, the primary concern is economic.
“Qaboos is an intelligent man. Yet, I don’t know the name of his successor and if he is as cruel as Qaboos’s father, we will consider making another revolution. Many still have a Kalashnikov,” Mabroot al-Mashali warned, his hand on his knife.
According to Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy, the biggest challenge to Oman’s stability in the post-Qaboos period will likely come from youth unemployment.
“Providing enough jobs for young Omanis will be difficult, especially with Oman’s economy remaining hydrocarbon-dependent.” Failure to achieve this objective could lead to new tensions, “with grievances from decades ago coming back into play,” Cafiero said.