x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'My grandfather the sea captain and his role in an Omani rising'

Grandson tells how mariner inadvertently found himself helping the leaders of the Jebel Akhdar rebellion escape to Saudi Arabia in 1959.

Amr al Hassan stands outside the room of his grandfather's house where he said Ghalib and Talib bin Ali al Hinawi were hidden in 1959.
Amr al Hassan stands outside the room of his grandfather's house where he said Ghalib and Talib bin Ali al Hinawi were hidden in 1959.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Amr al Hassan remembers his grandfather, Yousef Abdulla, as a distinguished sea captain, a quiet and respected family man who travelled from Basra to Zanzibar so his family could lead a good life.

"But there was a dark side," Mr al Hassan said. "There was some kind of rebellion." These days, visitors to Mr al Hassan's door shop in the old Maaridh souq are treated to rosewater tea while they admire heirlooms of the captain: a hand painted Quran from India, a string of perfumed prayer beads, a photo of his grandfather's ship on the African coast sailing past skinny coconut palms. But behind the heirlooms lies a story of intrigue in which leaders of a 1959 rebellion in Oman were spirited away to refuge in Saudi Arabia - aboard a ship skippered by Mr al Hassan's grandfather.

Until a few weeks ago, Mr al Hassan was reluctant to speak of his grandfather's role in the rebellion. But now he tells the following story: His grandfather, like other men in Oman, was secretly active in the Jebel Akhdar rebellion against the British and an unpopular Sultan who discouraged any trace of modernity in his country. Yousef Abdulla, an orphan raised by his uncle, had worked hard to rise to the role of captain on the Wasna, or "Lazy Woman", a powerful Kuwaiti ship that made the traditional annual journey from Ras al Khaimah to Iraq, Pakistan, India, Zanzibar, Somalia and Oman.

He had survived three shipwrecks, once clinging to a piece of driftwood until he and his crew were saved by a passing ship. But none of this prepared him for the adventure in 1959, when Oman was split by rebellion. The rebellion did not end well for the Imamate, led by Ghalib bin Ali al Hinawi, a little known sheikh of Bani Hinna. The Imamate, governed by the religious Ibadi leaders of Oman's interior, had been in armed conflict with the Sultanate for its political independence since at least 1895. After the rebellion of the 1950s it fell to the Sultanate.

Ghalib and his brother Talib, the wali of Rustaq, were relatively powerless in Oman but were backed by Saudi Arabia, which had interests in Oman's oil, and Egypt, which supported Arab nationalism against the British-backed Sultan. When the rebellion collapsed, the brothers fled to Saudi Arabia. The story of their escape has remained undocumented until today. And this, Mr al Hassan says, is where his grandfather stepped in.

The captain, about 40 at the time, found himself on the Omani coast as the Imamate fell. "The imam and his brother were looking for a way to escape to Saudi," Mr al Hassan said. "They couldn't go by desert because they would be caught. They were in the port while my grandfather was getting ready to leave. "As he told me, their faces were covered because they were too famous and they asked the leader of the ship, the nakhouda, to carry them to Saudi, to Dammam."

Mr al Hassan said his grandfather agreed and then found himself responsible for their welfare. "When he learnt of their identity they were in the middle of the sea where they could not return," he said, "and then he had to avoid the Sultan's ships." It took the captain more than 10 days to reach RAK. "The British ports were all looking for Talib and Ghalib," Mr al Hassan said. When they arrived, the fugitives were ushered secretly into his grandfather's home near Maaridh harbour. Because of Ras al Khaimah's allegiance with the British, they could not stay in RAK for long.

The British agency, a fort that still stands, was within a kilometre of Captain Abdulla's house. He had not taken them over such treacherous waters only to be discovered in his own land. He had to keep moving. Furthermore, Mr al Hassan said, Sheikh Saqr of RAK did not want problems with the Sultan, and was close with Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Saqr sent his special guards to the house to get information, Mr al Hassan said. "This was before SMS and e-mail. They knocked on all the doors to tell people that these men were the guests of Yousef Abdulla and they were not to say anything.

"They stayed here for maybe four days and then started a trip to carry them from Maaridh to Dammam. It was a very dangerous area; all that area was under British protection and they could not go near Bahrain, which was a military station." Dammam is on Saudi Arabia's Gulf coast, near Bahrain. The trip was successful, and the imam and the sea captain gained each other's trust. "He didn't tell anybody about them," Mr al Hassan said. "After Talib and Ghalib stayed in Dammam they started sending some, I don't want to say guns, but military items, to their people in Dhofar.

"My grandfather returned the boom to the Kuwaiti owner and started using the imam's boat, the jalbut - it is small and faster and they can change its shape." Mr al Hassan told the story at his workshop, just across from his grandfather's old house. The tiny room where the fugitives slept is now used for storage, littered with buckets and shoes. It is something Mr al Hassan has long kept a secret because a man from the RAK Government involved in the hiding was alive until a few months ago. But he said many gun smugglers from RAK helped rebels in Oman. Now that a half-century has passed, more people are ready to share their family history.

Mr al Hassan remembers his grandfather being proud of his role in the uprising but understanding the importance of discretion. "When he was an old man, he liked to remember his travels," Mr al Hassan said. "The history books write that Ghalib travelled to Dammam, but they don't write how. " Some details are still in question. Dr Hasan al Naboodha, the head of history at UAE University and a specialist in Ibadi history, believes the journey must have happened with the approval of the British.

"After the army was defeated, most of the army were killed so they had no choice but to surrender," he said. "They decided to leave Oman, and Saudi Arabia opened the door for them. It was just an agreement between them and the Sultan. I don't think they escaped." It is certain Emiratis were involved in the conflict, but more worked for the British and the Sultan's forces than for the rebels. "For the people here, they are all Sunni and they didn't care much about what is happening in Oman because they were Ibadis," Dr al Naboodha said.

"They didn't pay any kind of attention to this sort of war. Most of the people at that time, they just wanted to live. Maybe he accompanied them to RAK. I know they came to Sharjah." The mystery remains whether the story of Yousef Abdulla is the colourful embellishment of a sanctioned journey of Oman's last elected Ibadi imam or if the strangers were indeed two political fugitives escaping the Sultan and the British. Perhaps it is a secret that the captain took to his grave.

Whatever the facts, his family is proud and knows the tale well. Yousef Abdulla made his last trip from Basra in 1967, on a motorised ship named the Mumtaz. "He didn't care about money," Mr al Hassan said. "He cared about the sea. After more than 40 years from the sea, he felt tired." @Email:azacharias@thenational.ae