Britain’s coup in Oman, 1970

The British files remain largely censored on the SAS overthrow of the Sultan of Oman, Said bin Taimur, in July 1970, and the placement in power of his son, Qaboos. But some of the files from the National Archives that are available are outlined below. Qaboos, consistently backed by Britain for the past 47 years, remains in absolute control of Oman and is now one of the world’s longest serving rulers.

J.Gibbon, Head of DS 11, Defence Intelligence Staff, APS/S of S, 8 July 1970

‘You will already know’ from Bahrain telegram of 1 July that the Sultan’s son Qabus [Qaboos] ‘may attempt a coup in the near future’. The file attaches a telegram from Muscat reporting that a coup is planned for between 8 and 11 July. Notes that the Foreign Office agrees that ‘if a change of ruler occurred this would be on the whole less disadvantageous to British interests, and to the maintenance of peace and stability within the Sultanate, than a continuance of the present situation’.

Memorandum signed ‘JG, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff’ to Defence Secretary Peter [later Lord] Carrington, 16 July 1970, marked secret UK eyes only

‘As you will be aware a change of ruler in Muscat and Oman offers the best hope of winning the war in the Dhofar and of checking the deterioration of the situation in Oman. Such developments are important in order to preserve our position in Masirah. In his minute of 9 July the Head of DS 11 informed you that there was a possibility of a coup by Qabus against his father the Sultan of Muscat and Oman. You will recall that a signal was sent to the Commander British Forces Gulf authorising him to tell the Commander Sultan’s Armed Forces that should the coup fail Qabus was not be to handed over to the Sultan but to be held by the Sultan’s armed forces pending instructions from HMG. If for any reason this were to become too difficult, he was instructed to pass Qabus on to OC RAF Salalah for flying out. Colonel Oldham, the Military Secretary to the Sultan, was not to be told of these instructions. We have now heard that Colonel Oldham knows that we are ready to fly Qabus out of the country should the coup fail. Colonel Oldham now believes that in view of this, and the time it would take to accomplish, he cannot see how either he or the Sultan’s Armed Forces could maintain a viable relationship with the Sultan. A situation could arise where the coup fails and the Sultan remains in control expecting his instructions to be obeyed, and Qabus flees to the sanctuary of the Sultan’s armed forces or RAF Salalah. To meet this contingency Colonel Oldham has instructed the Commander, Sultan’s Armed Forces to prepare a plan to assist Qabus in gaining control of Salalah town and in deposing his father. Such a plan would include the suppression of any disorder or fighting which might follow a failed coup. PRPG [?] has recommended that we should support Colonel Oldham’s views on the need for a contingency plan in this eventuality. The Foreign and Commonwealth office are advising their minister to agree to this plan, subject to your agreement also…. Despite our misgivings at the possible use of British officers to assist in deposing a ruler to whom they are seconded, we have agreed to support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office approval of Colonel Oldham’s contingency planning…However, since our meeting yesterday, we have heard [ref to telegram from Muscat to Bahrain 16 July] that the coup against the Sultan may take place next Sunday 19 July. This means there is no time for us to examine the contingency plan… You will wish to know that, subject to your concurrence, we have agreed to the course of action set out above’.

Illegible signature on file, PS/Minister of State, MoD to PSO/CDS, 16 July 1970

Notes that it is established that Foreign Office Minister Joseph Godber ‘has agreed’ to the course of action outlined in the above provided that Lord Balniel, the Defence Minister, ‘is content’.

The coup went ahead on 23 July

P.England, Defence Intelligence Staff, to AUS(P)(Air) [?], 3 August 1970

Notes that the now former Sultan, Said bin Taimur, is in RAF hospital Wroughton. It adds that he has various wounds, the most serious being a bullet wound in his left foot which damaged the bones. The Sultan said he wished to stay in the UK ‘and asked Mr Mayall [head of protocol dept of FCO, who visited the Sultan on 1 August in hospital] to find him a house with a staff, including some English staff’. The former Sultan and his four retainers have an upstairs floor room in a two- storey wing of the hospital. ‘The security arrangements are very tight… No public announcement has been made of the Sultan’s whereabouts’.

Source: National Archives, DEFE 31/40