x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A force armed with skill and tact

It was 60 years ago that the Trucial Oman Levies, a mix from the British army and local tribes, was raised by the UK foreign office to keep peace in the region. Their history is one of distinguished service.

Veterans of the Trucial Oman Scouts prepare to take part in Remembrance Sunday ceremonies on November 11, 2007 in London.
Veterans of the Trucial Oman Scouts prepare to take part in Remembrance Sunday ceremonies on November 11, 2007 in London.

It was a highly precarious situation. An armed stand-off had developed on Oman's Batinah coast between two groups of tribesmen, arguing over the ownership of a diesel-powered water pump.

The two sides had taken up positions on opposing hillocks and shots had been exchanged by the time word of the incident reached the base of the Trucial Oman Scouts at Masafi.

"We went down to have a look," recalls Michael Curtis, then a 24-year-old squadron commander seconded from the British Army's Royal Hampshire Regiment and now living in retirement in the UK.

Deploying his men between the two factions, he gave his orders. "I said: 'Right, start cooking coffee'."

Drawn by the smell, the leaders of the two groups were soon sitting around the coffee pot, resolving their differences with words rather than bullets.

Such "field diplomacy" was typical of the Scouts, a body of men founded by the British Foreign Office in 1951 as the Trucial Oman Levies, "to protect Political Officers touring in areas outside the Rulers' control" and "to assist the Rulers to maintain law and order".

Over the next 20 years the force would grow in role and numbers, bringing vital security to a region facing the countless challenges to its ancient, traditional way of life presented by the discovery of oil.

In 1964, Britain's Soldier magazine paid tribute to the achievements of the Scouts in a region where "arguments are often settled by the simple expedient of one party shooting the other". This solution, noted the magazine, "while quick and decisive, is not always final. It can lead to a prolonged, full-scale shooting match between whole tribes".

It was a tribute to the skill and tact of the Scouts "that overall peace has been established in the Trucial States - an unusual situation, which even the Arabs living there are beginning to enjoy".

But it wasn't all about preventing fights, recalls Curtis, now 72. "We had all sorts of neo-government jobs to do, as well as going around with rifles in Land Rovers and keeping the peace."

After a half-day course with an army medic, "I used to go up wadis on a donkey patrol on the Batinah coast looking for smallpox - we had special kit for checking water - and if I found it I inoculated men and women."

Now, as the dwindling number of survivors celebrate the Scouts' 60th anniversary, plans are under way to document for future generations of Emiratis every aspect of the work of a group of men - Britons and local Arabs - whose ultimate triumph was to create the secure environment that made possible the very foundation of the UAE.

"I would say that looking back from 1971 there were a number of institutions that we should now regard as pillars of the federation," says James Onley, a senior lecturer in Middle East history at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. "The Trucial Oman Scouts was definitely one of them."

Onley is the academic director of the Trucial Oman Scouts Project (TOS), which aims to create a comprehensive online database of images, amateur film footage and voice recordings and, ultimately, to gather together material and memories for a specially dedicated museum planned for Abu Dhabi.

The TOS, says Onley, "had an impeccable record over the course of its 20-year existence: it defended the emirates against hostile forces, peacefully settled tribal and territorial disputes, policed the land, served as a stabilising influence and provided an honourable career and valuable training for thousands of Emiratis."

From a starting strength in 1951 of just one British major, two officers and 32 other ranks from the Arab Legion - which had been set up by the British in 1921 to help to protect the new kingdom of Trans-Jordan - by the eve of the foundation of the UAE in 1971 the Levies, renamed the Trucial Oman Scouts in 1956, had grown to number 2,500 men.

Oil would not flow from Abu Dhabi for more than another 10 years but, according to a paper published in the journal Asian Affairs in 2006, the British had already concluded by 1950 that "the economic development of the territory could only succeed properly within a secure and stable environment".

"The entire region was absolutely tribal in nature and almost totally undeveloped," wrote Col Tom Walcot, who served as an intelligence officer with the TOS from 1962 to 1964, "but with tremendous hopes for the future, as large quantities of oil were beginning to be exploited within its uncertain boundaries".

Guarding those uncertain boundaries was one of the first priorities for the TOS, says Curtis, who believes the force played an "absolutely vital" role in protecting future Emirati interests.

"There were all sorts of outside influences knocking about," he recalls. "The Saudis used to come in through Liwa. The border was marked by oil drums. They'd move the oil drums five miles back into Abu Dhabi territory, because they knew that was where Abu Dhabi was going to get its oil from. It was our job to put them back."

It was the issue of oil that led to the long standoff between the Saudis and Abu Dhabi and Oman at Buraimi, which began when a small Saudi force occupied one of the Omani villages of the oasis in 1952.

At the time, it was believed that oil would be found in the area and, after years of attempts to resolve the border dispute through international arbitration, in October 1956 two squadrons of Scouts were sent in to evict a Saudi force of about 40 men. Nine died that day, including two local TOS soldiers, but the Saudis surrendered.

In 1959, several squadrons of the TOS saw action in Oman, fighting in support of the Sultan against the rebels in the Jebel Akhdar campaign. It cost the lives of one British officer and three Arab soldiers, while another 10 suffered wounds.

The force faced a range of other formidable challenges in a region described by the Sunday Times journalist David Holden in his 1966 book Farewell to Arabia as suffering from "unrelieved poverty and barrenness".

Outside the larger settlements such as Dubai, he reported, "few … inhabitants are ever seen without a rifle and a belt full of bullets; and in spite of the efforts of the Trucial Scouts, travellers are still ambushed in the desert, and blood feuds and tribal wars are still pursued in the mountains of Musandam".

Smuggling was a major headache for the Scouts in their early days - guns destined for the rebels fighting the Sultan of Muscat in Oman and gold to India - which meant constant patrolling. But of even more concern to the authorities was the fate of duped Muslim pilgrims from Pakistan and India, "eager for the solace and the glory of the Haj", but abandoned on the Omani coast by unscrupulous ships' captains.

"Destitute of everything but their faith", they were told that "Mecca is just over the horizon". In fact, it was more than 1,500 kilometres away. In the desert on the western fringes of Abu Dhabi, wrote Holden, "the Trucial Scouts bury two or three of these pilgrims on every patrol through the winter season, and many other bodies probably are never found".

For the young British officers who joined the Scouts, the posting offered adventure, responsibility and experience beyond the expectations of their rank. It also offered some hardship, as Curtis recalls.

Commanding A Squadron from late 1966, he finally went home on leave at Christmas 1967, by which time he was "very tired. The only sort of break we got was the squadron commanders' conference in Sharjah, which lasted two or three days".

The Scouts had bases at Mirfa, Buraimi, Masafi and Manama, but only at Sharjah was "everything air-conditioned - absolutely smashing. Even the toilets, and that was bliss".

Curtis, who served two years in the TOS, from 1966 to 1967, applied for the posting at the age of 24, after serving as a lieutenant with the Royal Hampshire Regiment in Germany. Flying out from Gatwick one chilly January day in 1966, he found himself studying Arabic for three hot months in Aden, before flying to Sharjah, the headquarters of his new unit, in a four-engine Armstrong Whitworth Argosy RAF transport aircraft.

He was quickly promoted to captain and made a lot of friends - he still receives Eid cards from Emiratis with whom he served, some of whom went on to form the core of the Union Defence Force, which replaced the TOS with the foundation of the UAE in 1971. He has fond memories of a body of men he remembers as "highly professional … If they trusted you and you were fair and decent to them as individuals, they would do anything for you."

And, on a fateful day in August 1966, Curtis and the TOS also helped to make history.

Throughout the early 1960s, Abu Dhabi's ruling family, along with the British and the leaders of the neighbouring emirates, were becoming increasingly concerned about the apparent reluctance of Sheikh Shakhbut, the Ruler of the emirate, to spend the millions pouring in from oil revenues on improving conditions in his country. In the end, Sheikh Shakhbut's younger brother, Zayed, was asked by the family to assume the leadership.

It was not, as Sheikh Zayed recalled in a unique account published in 1976, a step he took lightly.

"Frankly I didn't wish, or desire, the responsibility," he told Claud Morris, author of The Desert Falcon, a biography of the founder of the UAE based on a series of personal interviews by the British journalist.

"What made me accept it? It was only my realisation of the losses the people were suffering. I felt in the end that I should allow myself to be convinced that I accept the responsibility."

On August 6, 1966, a meeting was held at the Al Hosn Palace on Abu Dhabi island between Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Shakhbut, with a detachment from the Scouts stationed outside. After considerable discussion, Sheikh Shakhbut agreed to hand over the leadership to his brother. At about 3.30pm, the now-former ruler was driven out of the palace in his white Mercedes, an honour guard from the Scouts presenting arms as he passed.

It was a new beginning for Abu Dhabi and the TOS had played what was perhaps its most vital single role in the story of the UAE. "That day was the turning point in the future prosperity of the Trucial States," says Curtis, who returned last year to give a talk about the events of the historic day at Abu Dhabi's National Centre for Documentation and Research.

"It led to hospitals, schools, roads and everything you see out of your window now in Abu Dhabi. In my day, it was just a row of barasti."

Next month, a record 20 veterans of the TOS are expected to gather for the annual Remembrance Day parade in London. A handful always go, and their distinctive red-and-white shemaghs always turn heads.

Recovering from an illness, Curtis will not be among them this year. "Most of us are now over 70," he says. "I suppose the total left alive is about 90 at most."

It is, he says, "quite nice that somebody at long last has recognised that we used to do all sorts of extraordinary things".

But most of all he is delighted by the plan to open a TOS museum in Abu Dhabi, that "youngsters can go there, sit down with their laptops, plug in and find out what happened in their country right from the word go".

The second edition of Michael Curtis's book, Arabian Days - The Memoirs of Two Trucial Oman Scouts, co-authored with Antony Cawston, will shortly be available in the UAE at Magrudy's