Saturday, January 10, 2009

Colonel Smiley, ex-Commander of Oman's Armed Forces, and the man who defeated the Nizwa rebellion, dies age 92

One of Oman's most famous military commanders, Colonel David Smiley, British Soldier and Spy, died age 92. His life story is pretty amazing.

He was responsible for helping the previous Sultan of Oman, Said bin Taimur Al Bu Said(the current Sultan's father), defeat the Saudi-backed armed rebellion of Ghalib bin Ali, the former Imam of Nizwa, and Talib bin Ali, Ghalib's brother, in the late 1950s centred in Nizwa and Jebel Akhdar.

Col. Smiley played a key role in making Oman the modern unified and peaceful nation state that it remains today. If it wsn't for him, Oman would likely be a very different place today.

He published an account of his experiences in Oman and Yemen in his book, ‘Arabian Assignment’ in 1975. You can also read an interesting short account of the Jebel Akhdar war here.

A wonderfully detailed warts-and-all account of the 'Green Mountain' war can be found here. This report also provides a fascinating overview of Omani political and cultural background. I encourage my younger Omani readers to look at it. (I'm not sure how much of this stuff is actually taught in the schools here. I suspect not at all).

Here is a key quote from the latter review of the rebellion that highlights how crucial Smiley's leadership and victory was to making Oman what it is today:
... Oman later faced a much more serious threat in the late
1960's and early 70's than the minor tribal rebellion of the
1950's. In the 1960's the Dhofar Rebellion, heavily
supported by the Soviet Union and the Peoples' Republic of
China, came close to toppling the regime. Had the Dhofar
rebels been successful, a peoples' democracy would have been
established within Oman. A Yemeni style peoples' republic in
control of the Strait of Hormuz would be an incalculable
complication on the international scene today.

The victorious resolution of the Jebel Akhdar War
insured that the Sultan of Oman could concentrate his forces
and efforts against the enemy in the Dhofar Province without
concern for a rebellion in central Oman. The necessity of
actively prosecuting a war in Dhofar while being required to
isolate rebels in central Oman would have seriously
jeopardized the successful resolution of the more serious
threat in Dhofar. Therefore, Oman's victory in the Jebel
Akhdar was an important ingredient in the successful
conclusion of the Dhofar Rebellion and a stable, progressive
government remains firmly in place in this important
strategic area.

At ease, Colonel Smiley. Rest in peace.

Thank you.

Photo: Colonel David Smiley in Yemen, 1963 (front, 3rd from right)

Daily Telegraph Obituary

Colonel David Smiley
Special forces and intelligence officer renowned for cloak-and-dagger operations behind enemy lines on many fronts.

09 Jan 2009

Colonel David Smiley, who died on Thursday aged 92, was one of the most celebrated cloak-and-dagger agents of the Second World War, serving behind enemy lines in Albania, Greece, Abyssinia and Japanese-controlled eastern Thailand.

After the war he organised secret operations against the Russians and their allies in Albania and Poland, among other places. Later, as Britain's era of domination in the Arabian peninsula drew to a close, he commanded the Sultan of Oman's armed forces in a highly successful counter-insurgency. After his assignment in Oman, he organised – with the British intelligence service, MI6 – royalist guerrilla resistance against a Soviet-backed Nasserite regime in Yemen. Smiley's efforts helped force the eventual withdrawal of the Egyptians and their Soviet mentors, paved the way for the emergence of a less anti-Western Yemeni government, and confirmed his reputation as one of Britain's leading post-war military Arabists.

...But the pinnacle of Smiley's post-war career was his three-year tenure as commander of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman's armed forces during a civil war which threatened to bring down one of Britain's more reactionary allies in the Gulf.

By now in his early forties, Smiley ran a gruelling counter-insurgency which gradually drove the guerrillas back from the scorching plains into their mountain retreat, the 10,000ft high Jebel Akhdar, which had never been successfully assaulted. With two squadrons of the SAS under his command, Smiley planned and led a classic dawn attack on the mountain fastness, finally crushing the enemy.



  1. At the time Omani was split into two countries in all but name. The Sultan basically ruled the coast and the Imam ruled the interior. This was part of the Seeb Treaty of 1920. The country itself was called Muscat and Oman, whereas Muscat was basically the coast and Oman the interior. The Imam was an elected position, not hereditary, and the Imam's "government" was more organized than the Sultan's. While the Sultan closed up the country, the Imam's dignitaries went around the Arab world meeting leaders and setting up offices in Cairo and Saudi Arabia. They kept pushing the Arab League to bring up the subject of Oman for discussion at the world stage and the United Nations. It was an extremely embarrassing situation for the British government. The Imam broke the Seeb Treaty and Sultan Said brought in the British to support him.

    If the Imam had won that war, unlikely as that was, Oman would probably be an extremely unique Ibadhi Imamate, where the ruler is elected. However, I seriously doubt that the Yemeni-backed insurgency would have been able to defeat the Imamate and take over Oman. The Imam's people were better educated than Sultan Said's people and they had better diplomatic relationships. They would have taken help and support from a strong military just like Sultan Said did.

  2. It's not taught at all in schools. Believe it or not many young Omanis aren't even aware that these rebellions and wars took place. I only found out about them by poking through the Oman section in my (American) university's library.

    -Omani in US

  3. Put those two stories together and you get the real picture: as per usual, the Empire backed the dictator to defeat an open and democratic government in exchange for access to the precious black gold :)

  4. Muscati,

    Nice comment, and really interesting hypothetical. Thanks especially for that, because I hadn't thought about it even though I should have, and now I have. Still, I for one am happier it remains a hypothetical.

    Better off ending up like Yemen, or Saudi? Some Ibadhi rump of Wahibism? Or some combination of the two? (even putting together the few good bits really sucks).

    Plus, the 'Imam' was really a tool of his nationalist/communist brother and the medieval/feudal Jebal Akhdar guy (you know, the one who would take the right of first night of marriage, kept slaves in 1959, sort of guy). I suspect those elections may have been a rather limited affair as time wore on, don't you? Great.

    But a good point none the less.

    Thought so. But luckily today's youth have the internet, and that gives Oman a real opportunity. Teaching them how to properly use the internet, to exploit it, and avoid the hazards, is one thing Oman could so do with. It will allow Oman to compete on the same playing field in the virtual business world as anyone.

    The only examples that tend to get the press are the failures.

    And that is also why, in so many regards, Oman was very very lucky HM ascended to power and managed to sail between the twin 'rock and hard places' of:
    (1)bat-shit crazy backward religious anarchic tribal nuts-ville-land (see Yemen, Saudi, Iran, Pakistan), and
    (2)Vassal of the great powers with a true aristocracy, (aristocracy in the old French way rather than the modern European way; see Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar).

    As for the other shallow stereotypical characterisations you jest with: No. Its not the Hollywood version Boxster, this is the real and messy Middle East.

    The Imam and his associates would have been totally incapable of getting the oil out themselves. Therefore under such a rule there would be only a few outcomes (especially as there never were lashings of oil there anyway, in a ME sense).

    The potential results:
    - total incompetence, retrenchment, no development, continued war between interior and coast (because Interior would never conquer coast)
    - sell out to someone nice like the Russians (see Caucasia), or Chinese (see Nepal)
    - sell out to the Americans (see Saudi, Kuwait)
    - become a rump or either Saudi or UAE

    So, stop selling the idea of the noble savage.

    If it wasn't for this man, I think Oman would have had a much, much lower chance of being the stable place it is today; and a much, much higher chance of being run by people like Ahmed and (gosh I even sort of miss him), er , whats his name, oh!!! kickass!

  5. UD, a clarification.

    While that 'first right of marriage' story is popular whenever the 'Jabel Akhdar' guy you mentioned comes up, it's worth noting that when the rebellion got underway, he 'repented' (partly as a result of re-discovering religion) and actually compensated a whole load of people to make up for past transgression.

    -Omani in US

  6. Its really not a big issue what this guy has done. Its like Isreal Vs Hamas now days. Britsh with support by airplanes and advanced weapons Vs very poor group of army with limited weapons. They also bombed ( like isreal now ) villages from sky above and i am sure some civilians died.

    Well, poor Smiley is now answering for all of that to the One he never thought he will meet. Amen.

  7. It is funny how some people are so educated like UD but yet blind.

  8. It is even funnier how some people are so un-educated, un-like UD, but yet not blind.


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