Dr Geraint Hughes
Fifty-two years ago the Arabian Gulf was experiencing its own End of Empire. Britain was withdrawing its garrisons from the region, and was preparing Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States (now the United Arab Emirates) for independence by December 1971. Behind this backdrop Headquarters British Forces Gulf (BFG) planned and executed what was in effect the United Kingdom’s last unilateral military operation in the Arab world, which the Ministry of Defence (MOD) codenamed Operation Intradon. This took place from 17th December 1970 to 30th April 1971, and while overshadowed by wider events it had lasting implications for the post-imperial order in the Gulf.
Athol Yates and I have co-authored an article in Small Wars and Insurgencies that examines this under-studied operation, using archival evidence declassified from the UK National Archives. Due to the participation of the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22SAS) Intradon has been discussed in the secondary literature, although these accounts are sketchy and inaccurate. This post provides the historical context for this operation, describes why it was launched, and examines its outcome.
The focus of Intradon was the Musandam Peninsula, a mountainous enclave that was nominally part of the Sultanate of Oman, but which had been left to its own devices. Its local community – mainly of the Shihuh tribe – lived at that time in a subsistence economy, and the Musandam was also of great interest to three of the sheikhs ruling the Trucial States, those of Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Ras al Khaimah. Oman itself was beset by a rebellion in its Southern province, Dhofar, which had turned into a revolutionary struggle to overthrow Sultanic rule. On 23rd July 1970 a British-supported coup overthrew the Omani ruler, Said bin Taimur, in favour of his son Qaboos bin Said; in its aftermath, the UK committed 22SAS as part of a wider effort to help Qaboos defeat the Dhofar insurgency and stabilise his realm. Officials in London and the Political Representative’s Office in Bahrain (which oversaw Britain’s Gulf policies until its closure in December 1971) feared that their ‘East of Suez’ withdrawals would create a political vacuum. Eventually, this could lead to a takeover by pro-Communist or radical nationalist regimes dominating a region of vital economic and strategic interest for the UK by threatening its access to oil supplies.
The genesis of Intradon dates from April 1970, when local British intelligence sources claimed that an insurgent cell was being established in the Musandam. By November 1970 BFG was reporting the potential presence of twenty trained guerrillas (supposedly from Iraq, Bahrain, and South Yemen) who had recruited a force of seventy Shihuh sympathisers, and were reportedly planning a series of attacks across the Trucial States, including one aimed at overthrowing Sheikh Khaled of Sharjah. Oman was in no position to act. Its British-commanded armed forces were overstretched both by the war in Dhofar and internal security tasks across the Sultanate, and its navy was too small to support an operation to impose Qaboos’ authority over this enclave. By default, the Musandam Peninsula was going to become a British responsibility.
On 23rd November 1970 the Commander BFG, Major General Sir Roland Gibbs, presented a plan to the MOD and the UK Chiefs of Staff. It would become known as Operation Intradon which for operational security purposes was characterised as a BFG military exercise, thus its cover name ‘Exercise Breakfast’. Gibbs’ proposal was for the Royal Navy to blockade the Musandam, and then for the peninsula to be subjected to a ten day cordon-and-search operation carried out by the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS). This was a British-officered force raised as a gendarmerie for the UK’s client states in the Gulf, but which had also been involved in the suppression of the Jebel Akhdar Rebellion in Oman in 1957-1959. A battle-group from the British Army would be positioned in support in the Trucial States, and RAF Hunter fighter jets were also available for any close air support if the TOS ran into trouble.
In London, the Chiefs of Staff greeted Gibbs’ draft plan with concern. They were firstly worried by the lack of solid intelligence on the situation in Musandam, and baulked at the scale of the operation Gibbs proposed. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office argued that an intervention on this scale was bound to cause uproar among the non-aligned states in the UN, and the Arab world in particular, as a blatant act of British imperialism. There was also the possibility that this operation would provoke an armed revolt by the Shihuh. In discussions with the Chiefs on 30th November Gibbs agreed to a scaled-down action which would be largely carried out by 22SAS and the TOS, the aims being the disruption – rather than the elimination – of any insurgent activity, and preparation for the introduction of the Omani Gendarmerie to impose the Sultanate’s claim on the enclave. Intradon was approved by the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and was scheduled for mid-December.
In its implementation, the takeover of the peninsula proved to be anti-climactic. The SAS landed on the East coast of the Musandam on 17th-18th December, and two Squadrons of the TOS were flown in by RAF helicopters to seize their objectives, although due to poor intelligence one unit was landed in the wrong location. Intradon was carried out with only one fatality, with a soldier from G Squadron, 22SAS, being killed on 22nd December during a free-fall drop into the peninsula due to an accident with his parachute. What was also striking was the disparity between the intelligence assessments that contributed to Intradon and the actual outcome; neither 22SAS nor the TOS encountered any guerrillas, or any armed resistance, during the operation. Any embarrassment was mitigated by the fact that BFG’s operation in the Musandam was largely unnoticed by the international community. The focus of anti-colonial anger was on Portugal’s raid on Conakry (Operation Mar Verde) as a reprisal for Guinean aid to the insurgency in the Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau.
According to the report to the Chiefs of Staff 22SAS and the TOS subsequently carried out ‘hearts and minds’ work with medical and humanitarian assistance to the Shihuh, but the introduction of both the Sultan’s wali (governor) and the gendarmerie proved to be more contentious. Sheikh Saqr of Ras al Khaimah was also reportedly angry with the establishment of Omani authority in the Musandam, and there were a series of clashes between the Shihuh and the Sultan’s security forces between 23rd and 26th November 1971, ending with the deaths of two tribesman and the wounding of five others, in addition to an injured Oman gendarme. Tensions between Oman and the UAE over Musandam persisted and there was a stand-off between both states between 1977 and 1979 that threatened to end in a border war. It was not until 22nd June 2002 that Muscat and Abu Dhabi delineated their frontier between the enclave and the remainder of the UAE.
The frictions that followed the Sultan’s control over Musandam reflected the fact that the Shihuh were not given a say in their own political future after the British withdrawal in the Gulf. Even today there are alleged tensions between the local community and the government in Muscat, arising from complaints of socio-economic neglect, human rights abuses, and the erosion of indigenous culture under Omani authority, although it is unclear to what degree these grievances are being exploited by external parties. In strategic terms, although it was based on faulty intelligence Intradon had the indirect effect of ensuring Omani control over the Musandam enclave, and ensured that the Southern coastline of the Strait of Hormuz at least was under the control of a pro-Western polity. The operation also deserves to be recorded as the last one conducted by the TOS before its incorporation into the Emirati armed forces, and as an example of a successful but non-kinetic one conducted by Britain’s special forces. The popular fascination with the SAS and the glamorisation of its activities is such that an accurate book on Intradon is unlikely to be a best-seller, but it does serve as a reminder that special forces activity does not have to lead to bloodshed to be effective.
Map source: Perry Castaneda Library, University of Texas