Revealed: How the British military supplies ‘mercenary’ forces to a Gulf dictatorship

Britain has 91 troops ‘on loan’ to Oman, where serving UK military pilots are flying Omani fighter jets, helicopters and military transport planes under a secretive scheme designed to bolster the repressive monarchy, Declassified UK can reveal.

20 July 2020

UK leader Boris Johnson with Oman’s new Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq in January 2020 (Photo: Oman News Agency)

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New evidence has emerged of the extent to which the UK military is supporting the autocratic rule of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq in Oman — a country in which political parties and independent media are banned. Haitham holds absolute power – acting as the country’s unelected prime minister and minister of defence, finance and foreign affairs.

Several peaceful protesters in Oman are serving life sentences in prison for sharing articles on WhatsApp, while in February dozens of books were banned from a state-run literature festival.

The British delegation of “loan service personnel” to Oman, which includes a two-star general, is the largest the UK provides to any of its allies around the world, freedom of information requests reveal.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) loans 285 personnel to 15 different militaries around the world, but nearly a third of the personnel are based in Oman. The supply of British forces to the sultanate dwarfs its nearest rivals – Saudi Arabia receives 33 British personnel in this way, Kuwait 30 and Brunei 27.

Rooted in an agreement that has endured for half a century with little or no public scrutiny, UK forces wear Omani uniforms, are funded by the sultan but remain part of the British military.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is refusing to tell parliament what the current rules of engagement are for British troops on loan to Oman. Previous secret agreements between the two allies appear to permit UK military forces to aid the sultan against Omanis should they rise up against his rule, as Britain has ruthlessly done in the past.

British military on ‘loan’

Although not all the locations of British forces in Oman are known, Declassified has mapped out many of the sites below for the first time, based on a list obtained from the MOD.

Half of the UK troops on loan are drawn from the British army. These include the Senior British Loan Service Officer, with the rank of major general and believed to be Tom Vallings, who used to command the British barracks in Kenya.

Other influential appointments include a lieutenant colonel, who is a military adviser to the secretary general of Oman’s powerful National Security Council, which is connected to the Diwan, the sultan’s court. This officer appears to have visited Belfast in 2015 along with Omani military and police officers for training in riot-control tactics.

Another controversial position involves a British army sergeant working for Oman’s Director of Military Intelligence. The Royal Signal Corps, which has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, appears to have a four-man contingent based in Oman led by a captain.

Meanwhile, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers have eight men posted to Oman, who help service artillery, tanks and other armoured vehicles. Oman uses similar heavy weaponry to the British army, having purchased 38 Challenger II tanks from BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms corporation, in the 1990s as part of arms deals worth nearly $400-million. The MOD “gifted” tank spares worth £1-million to Oman in 2018.

The loan service team also comprises 22 personnel from the Royal Navy, including a Fleet Air Arm helicopter pilot and officers experienced in warfare and engineering.

These are spread across Omani naval vessels and shore facilities, where their roles include “advising the commandant of the Sultan Qaboos Naval Academy on all aspects of training and training management”. One has served as “upkeep manager” at the Sultan Bin Said Naval Base in Wudam, where he has given a “weekly briefing” to the commander of Oman’s navy.

A pair of Royal Navy helicopters, which monitored oil shipments in the Straits of Hormuz, were permanently stationed at Musannah, an airbase north of the capital, until they were withdrawn last year. A Royal Air Force (RAF) Sentinel spy plane is reportedly still kept at Musannah, a secretive base where a Royal Navy lieutenant had sexually assaulted a woman, it emerged in 2016.

The UK’s maritime relationship with the sultan is set to become even closer with the Royal Navy establishing a permanent base in the Omani port of Duqm. The British army is also being given access to a permanent “joint training area” located 70km further south at Ras Madrakah, which it has used for tank firing practice.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson refused to answer any of Declassified’s questions about the UK’s loan scheme agreement with Oman and instead issued this statement: “Oman is one of our closest allies in the Gulf, with whom we have a deep partnership that stretches back 200 years and shared interests across diplomatic, economic and security matters.”

Flying Typhoons

Among the loan team’s most sensitive roles is that of a Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron leader who flies a Typhoon jet, Declassified can reveal. Oman purchased the plane in 2012 from BAE Systems in a £2.5-billion deal supported by David Cameron and Prince Charles, but lacks enough skilled pilots of its own to operate the Typhoon.

Typhoons refuel while flying over Oman in 2019. (Photo: UK MOD)

Although the deal is known to include “in-service support” to Omani air force operations, both BAE and the RAF refused to tell Declassified if the loan pilot was part of the arms sale. The Typhoon pilot is just one of two dozen RAF personnel on loan to Oman, including a helicopter instructor and crew for a C-130 military transport aircraft. None of their emails are accessible under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act because they use Omani military accounts.

While RAF personnel in Saudi Arabia stop short of flying that country’s Typhoons, which are being used to bomb Yemen, there appear to be no such restrictions in Oman where RAF pilots act effectively as mercenaries for a monarchy which has previously bombed its own people to prevent popular uprisings.

Haitham’s uncle, Sultan Said bin Taimur, permitted slavery and allowed RAF Shackleton planes to drop more than a hundred 1,000-pound bombs on opposition forces in a single week in 1958. The onslaught was intended to ensure Oman’s newly discovered oil fields, located near a rebel stronghold, would be controlled by British companies.

To that end, the RAF strafed date gardens to “inconvenience” farmers and bombed wells in opposition-held villages on Jebel Akhdar (“The Green Mountain”) to cut off their water supply and starve them into submission, under the watch of wartime hero Colonel David Smiley.

Sultan Said bin Taimur of Muscat and Colonel David Smiley in 1958 (Photo: Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

Smiley openly confessed to using tactics which were classed as war crimes by the 1949 Geneva Convention, such as the collective punishment of the village of Muti in retaliation for an attack by rebels. He wrote in his memoirs: “We went systematically from house to house, setting each alight with paraffin until nothing remained but smouldering ruins.”

The following year, in 1959, Smiley and the RAF set up the sultan of Oman’s air force. It comprised British-made planes and expatriate pilots who went on to bomb domestic revolutionary movements against Said bin Taimur in the 1960s and his successor Sultan Qaboos in the 1970s.

Respectable mercenaries’

Presently, the British government is refusing to inform parliament about the current rules of engagement for UK troops on loan to Oman. Defence minister James Heappey would only say that they “deliver advice, capability development and training” to the sultanate.

The UK government has also refused to tell parliament when the directive, which governs the loan service team, was last revised. Heappey said in June that disclosing any details about the directive could “prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and another state”.

However, previously secret agreements appear to permit British personnel to take military action against Omanis should they rise up against the Sultan’s autocratic rule. The agreements originated in the 1970s, when the Labour government briefly considered banning mercenaries.

At that time, the Foreign Office noted privately: “There are a number of ‘respectable’ British mercenaries active e.g. in Oman, some recruited by Her Majesty’s Government.” One diplomat asked: “Would we for example wish to stop the embassy of a friendly government recruiting British mercenary pilots for their air force?”

Some Whitehall officials feared a ban on mercenaries would also inhibit the supply of loan service personnel to Oman, of which there were 225 in 1977. Partly as a result of these concerns, the UK did not pass a domestic ban on mercenaries and continued to provide loan service personnel to Oman.

A secret exchange of letters then took place in 1978 between Sultan Qaboos and Foreign Secretary David Owen to agree rules for the loan service team in Oman. Their agreement – which Declassified is now publishing – may still be in force today, more than four decades later.

Exchange of Letters and Directive

In the letters, the pair foresaw that “there might conceivably be circumstances in which the use of British personnel provided on loan … could prove embarrassing”. In those circumstances, both parties agreed that they “should consult together before British personnel are committed”.

This deal, which does not define what would be considered “embarrassing”, was followed in 1981 by a secret directive which Britain’s MOD issued to its most senior loan service officer in Oman.

This directive went further and said the loyalty of British loan service personnel “to the sultan of Oman must never appear to be in doubt”, instructing them to protect the Gulf monarchy “against external and internal threats”.

No regrets

Owen told Declassified he stood by the wording in the exchange of letters, which he felt was compatible with the subsequent directive, and saw no reason why it should have changed.

“On the delicate question of reserving the right to use force there is a need to recognise amongst friends and allies what it is to consult, what it is to decide and what it is to avoid embarrassment,” Owen said.

Owen believes the loan service arrangement should remain unchanged. “I would see no harm and some benefit if the new sultan and the present foreign secretary exchanged similar letters,” he told Declassified.

Owen, who has sat as an unelected peer in the House of Lords since standing down as an MP in 1992, staunchly defended Britain’s relationship with Oman’s monarchy and his own role in agreeing UK military support for Qaboos.

“The facts are there for all to see: the historic friendship with Oman remains a very close one. Furthermore Britain has had other similar friendships over the years mostly with voting democracies but also with ruling kings, queens, shahs and sultans,” Owen said, with an approving nod to Britain’s support for the repressive shah of Iran during his tenure as foreign secretary.

“Some things are anachronistic but not established trust between nations even though its nature takes many forms,” he continued. “Working with democracies is easier and better but we cannot exclude friendships and forming alliances with other forms of government.”

Sultan Qaboos died in January after 50 years in power and appointed his cousin Haitham as his successor. The day after Qaboos died, British flags on government buildings across the UK were flown at half mast to commemorate him.

Johnson, Prince Charles, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and head of the British military General Sir Nick Carter promptly flew to the Omani capital, Muscat, to give international recognition to the new sultan.

The high-level British delegation did not appear to demand democratic change from Haitham, who has continued to arrest bloggers and journalists if they tweet even the mildest criticism of his rule.

Smiley’s godson

Britain’s “friendship” with Oman did face a serious threat early in 2011 when the Arab Spring (or Thawra revolution as some participants prefer to call it) shook Gulf monarchies with a wave of mass protests.

The then prime minister David Cameron moved quickly to bolster the UK’s key regional allies with a tour of Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman in February 2011, promoting arms sales.

Hundreds of peaceful protesters in Oman were arrested in the following months as Qaboos sent in the army to crack down with live ammunition. With activists jailed, the sultanate took steps to ward off further unrest by recruiting 10,000 Omanis into the military and purchasing more powerful weapons.

This included a request in January 2012 for BAE Systems to prepare a proposal for the supply of the company’s sophisticated Typhoon jets. Cameron was uniquely placed to capitalise on these developments. Among his coterie of defence ministers was one of his wife’s relatives by marriage, hereditary Conservative peer Lord John Astor.

Lord Astor superimposed on Jebel Akhdar ruins (Photo: Parliament / Iain Overton)

One of Astor’s first trips abroad in 2011 as a defence minister had been to Oman, following in the footsteps of his godfather – none other than Colonel David Smiley, the commander who oversaw the 1958 blitz of the Jebel Akhdar. Astor described Britain’s collective punishment of Jebel Akhdar’s farmers as a “truly remarkable military operation”.

Months after Qaboos’ Arab Spring crackdown, Astor praised the autocratic sultan as a “progressive” who laid the “foundations of the modern, peaceful and prosperous Oman the world sees today”.

His charm offensive paid off when, by the end of 2012, Cameron was able to visit Oman and agree on the £2.5-billion deal for the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) to buy 12 Typhoons. 

The deal also included eight Hawk advanced jet trainer aircraft from BAE, which also undertook to provide “aircraft spares, training and ground equipment” as well as “long term, in-country support of the aircraft”, according to its accounts.

The price paid by Oman was so high that UK Export Finance had to lend Oman £2-billion to cover 80% of it. Economic data shows that successive sultans have been so focused on preventing an uprising that Oman’s military spending is now the highest per capita in the world, representing almost 12% of GDP.

A BAE Systems spokesperson told Declassified: “We provide support services to the Royal Air Force of Oman as part of a contract signed in 2012 for the purchase of Eurofighter Typhoon and Hawk jet training aircraft. We comply with all relevant export control laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate.”

Lord Astor did not respond to Declassified’s request for comment.