1970-1979 | Instigating coups | Oman

Britain backs Oman coup

Map of Oman showing the Dhofar region
Adapted from public domain map (Sardon) via Wikimedia.

23 July 1970

On 23 July 1970, the British government backed a coup in Oman to install the Sultan’s son, Qaboos, after they became increasingly worried of ‘loosing’ the oil rich Dhofar province of Oman to a popular insurgency by leftist rebels.  In the worst scenario, they feared a domino effect, with the virus of independent secular nationalism spreading across Oman, which might then infect the rest of the Gulf monarchies.

The Whitehall policy makers and planners were not of course making their own policy in a vacuum. One corporation in particular had a decisive influence on events. Historian Rory Cormac observes that British officials ‘came under pressure from the Shell Oil company’ to instigate the coup. The British military had been initially reluctant, since the plan required British soldiers in the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) to topple and, in the event of resistance, possibly murder their own commander-in-chief.  A blatant and embarrassing crime should it be exposed, which is why it was eventually decided that the SAF only be used in the last resort if Qaboos’ coup failed.  However, British military officers were still hesitant and the Foreign Office was eventually forced to promise that any action would not be traced back to London in order to secure approval from the Ministry of Defence.1

Fortunately for Whitehall, the plan was executed with near perfection. Robert Kane, a British officer, led a small group of Omanis into the palace and although the sultan was able to escape into a locked room,  Kane was able to shoot his way through the door.2 The sultan, who by now was suffering from four bullet wounds, agreed to be flown out of the country into a forced but comfortable exile in London’s Dorchester Hotel. In 2005 a secret Foreign Office memo was briefly made public. It explained that the old Sultan’s British Defence Secretary, Colonel Hugh Oldman, had authorised the coup which deposed him in order to protect British access to Omani oil and military bases.  The Foreign Office then withdrew the file, declaring that its release had been ‘an unfortunate error.’3


  1. Rory Cormac, Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018, p. 190.
  2. Rory Cormac, op. cit., p. 191.
  3. Ian Cobain, The History Thieves: Secret, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation, Portobello Books, London, 2017, p. 91.

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