Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

A Proxy War in Arabia: The Dhofar Insurgency and Cross-Border Raids into South Yemen

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

A Proxy War in Arabia: The Dhofar Insurgency and Cross-Border Raids into South Yemen

Article excerpt

This article examines a hitherto obscure aspect of the conflict in Dhofar, Oman (1963-76), the Anglo-Omani covert operation (Operation Dhib) to send Mahra tribesmen to conduct cross-border raids into South Yemen during the early 1970s. Using declassified British government papers, this article outlines the origins of Operation Dhib, and the contrasting objectives of the Sultanate of Oman and the United Kingdom in instigating and sponsoring this covert action.

The war in Dhofar, Oman, between 1963 and 1976, which pitted the insurgents of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) against the monarchical regime, has received renewed scholarly attention, thanks in part to the declassification of papers from the archives of the Sultanate's principal Western ally, the United Kingdom.1 The fact that the PFLO's principal source of external assistance was the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, otherwise known as South Yemen) is well-established in the historical record,2 while in contrast covert action conducted by the Omani royal government and its British allies has received scanty coverage, aside from a few references in secondary source literature.3 However, declassified material from British government archives, notably from the Ministry of Defence (MOD), demonstrates that both the UK and Oman raised and trained groups of exiled Mahra tribesmen - exiled from the PDRY - to launch cross-border raids into South Yemen between late 1972 and early 1975.

Covert action can be defined as clandestine activity conducted by a government to influence political, economic, and strategic conditions in a foreign country, in which the former's involvement is intended to be both concealed and plausibly deniable. Proxy warfare - defined here as a country's use of non-state paramilitary groups either as a supplementary means of waging war or as a substitute for overt use of force against an adversary - can be classified as a type of covert operation, being carried out by states either as a means of coercing an adversary, dismphng the latter militarily, or indeed for a transformative objective such as regime change in, the promotion of separatism within, or the annexation of a territory from a state subjected to proxy attack.4 As Andrew Rathmell observes, covert operations and proxy warfare have been characteristics of Middle Eastern politics since the mid-20th century, with Arab regimes using subversion and clandestine support for terrorism and insurgency in their own internecine struggles.5 Yet external powers have also used similar means to pursue their own regional interests; prime examples of such activity include the UK Secret Intelligence Service's (SIS) involvement alongside the CIA in both the successful August 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran and a failed one in Syria in November 1956, as well as Britain's clandestine backing of royalist rebels fighting the Egyptian-backed republican regime in Yemen between 1962 and 1967.6 As was the case with British and Omani covert operations against the PDRY, two or more states can collaborate in proxy warfare against a common enemy, although in these cases the sponsor states had differing political objectives for doing so.

Using material from British archival sources, this article seeks to describe the origins and the scope of the Mahra raids into the PDRY in the latter phases of the Dhofar war (which were given the codename Operation Dhib by the British), examining in particular the reasons why the UK and Oman sought to employ these tribesmen as proxies. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive account of the Dhofar war, but to highlight an aspect of this conflict which has hitherto received very little academic study. The declassified evidence in the UK National Archives does not provide the basis for a complete account of Operation Dhib, yet there is sufficient archival material to outline when the British and Omani governments raised the Mahra tribal militias (known collectively as the firqat, with each individual formation a firqa7) for cross-border incursions, what the objectives for proxy warfare were, and what challenges British civilian and military officials faced in managing this covert operation. …

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