Home Features Soldiering in the Sharqiya before the birth of modern Oman

Soldiering in the Sharqiya before the birth of modern Oman

Photographic memories from serving with B Squadron, Oman Gendarmerie in the nineteen seventies...

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A few months ago Flickr sprang to life and I received a curious email: 

Hello sir .. and I also thank you very much… I am very happy. I saw my grandfather who died before I was born .. and there is no picture of him… Now I saw it from among the group of these pictures… I thank you very much… I live in Qalhat. My family also lives in Qalhat—Regard, Abdullah”

The photograph in question was taken in 1977, in the remote mountain village of Hilm in the Sharqiya area (meaning Eastern area) of Oman when I was serving with B Squadron, Oman Gendarmerie (OG).   

A small group of us was undertaking so-called “hearts-and-minds” village patrols in Wadi Hilm, an area up in the mountain range, north of our camp at Sur. 

We used an air force helicopter for these patrols because the only other way to get to these villages was by foot or donkey. At every village, local issues were discussed, and coffee was drunk. 

There is a particular ritual to drinking coffee in Oman, and the nature of this practice is one of many interesting Omani customs. However, at one such village meeting at Hilm, I snatched a photograph of proceedings. Coffee is being drunk, and the patrol leader is making his notes. Abdullah’s grandfather can be seen on the photograph’s far left; his legs are partly covered by a rifle barrel. 

I subsequently sent Abdullah a digital image of this photograph via email. No doubt he and his family will treasure the picture for many years. 

The incident reminded me that both technology and Oman have changed remarkably in these past four decades. Indeed, the whole of Wadi Hilm is now accessible by vehicle and is marketed as an adventure expedition for tourists.

Oman and Britain

So I now need to set the context of how I came to be serving at that time as a British officer in the Oman Gendarmerie and then my continued spell in the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces  (SAF) in different roles for a total of seven years.

The author aged 29 (now 72) wearing a shemagh and agal headdress

Britain has had close military and political ties with Oman for over 200 years.

The Jebel Akhdar War of 1957 is but one example and the Dhofar Rebellion, which officially ended in 1976, is another. Success was not assured.  General Perkins, the British Commander of the Sultan’s Armed Forces, noted in December 1976 that; “Without the assistance and sacrifices of the 4,000 Imperial Iranian Forces, the Dhofar war would not have been won”. 

Historians may like to ponder how the Gulf area’s political map would have changed with the defeat of Oman in the early 1970s. The West’s oil supplies through the Straits of Hormuz would, without a doubt, have been threatened.

Notwithstanding the official end of hostilities, the internal security situation was still taut in Oman, with sporadic enemy actions continuing until around 1978.

Once the Dhofar war was won, it was time for Sultan Qaboos to develop his country’s infrastructure and start the process of Omanisation within his Armed Forces. 

Until Omanisation was complete, the British supplied loan service officers to SAF and the Omanis also continued to advertise for contract officers such as me. Omanisation was mainly achieved by 1988, and both loan service and contract officers served in increasingly smaller numbers until that time.

I had previously served in the British Army for ten years and, in common with Qaboos himself, I had also been to Sandhurst. However, the depressing tours of duty in Northern Ireland were one motivator for seeking different employment. 

My first deployment in Oman in January 1977 was as second in command of B Squadron OG, based at Sur. It was my role to support the newly promoted Omani Commanding Officer. Previously, all command positions in the army, navy and air force of SAF had largely been British.

The Oman Gendarmerie, with headquarters near Seeb, was responsible for the military security of all northern Oman and the Squadrons were responsible for different areas or sectors. South Sector, which coincided with the Sharqiya region, was about the size of Wales.

However, this is enough of the military and political story; let me now deal with photography, which is the theme of this article. 

Before my appointment in Oman, I attended adult evening classes on photography, which I found invaluable. I also had my British Army gratuity, and I was able to buy a brand new Minolta SRT303b camera, together with a really sturdy metal carrying case. 

When I arrived in Oman in that January of 1977, I hoped to take what would prove to be memorable photographs. I wonder whether readers would consider that the photograph above has the impact to invoke the atmosphere of Arabia.

My seven-year photo odyssey in Oman

During my seven years in Oman, I used slide film, initially Kodachrome 25 and unfortunately later, some Agfa film that has not stood the test of time. 

I was able to take photographs over the whole of Oman, from the border of Yemen in the south to Omani islands in the Straits of Hormuz in the north. Later, I scanned about 350 decent images. The scanning was done in 2011 using a Plustek OpticFilm 7300 machine and SilverFast software. Of these, I uploaded about 330 images to a Flickr album in 2014.   

My Minolta is still in good working order

To date, this album has had more than 181,000 viewings with a surge from Omanis in the summer of 2020.  It was a result of this surge that young Abdullah was able to spot his grandfather, though no doubt it was his relatives who pointed him out. 

So why would you, the reader, be interested in these half century old photographs? 

All my images, I believe, are “record photography” with only perhaps a couple I would have been happy enough to have as prints on my wall at home. However, in my view, many of these shots are historically important because they show Oman on the cusp of modern development. 

There are already two excellent articles on this Macfilos website with their outstanding modern photographic images. They give an insight into Oman now:

Far from the madding crowd by John Shingleton

A special country and a magnet for photographers by William Fagan

Oman in 1977 had a population of under one million. Now it stands at five million. Road infrastructure was just being developed and, when travelling to my first camp in Sur, our party used a dirt road. We also had daily flights into our adjacent dirt airstrip to bring in mail and passengers. Now there are dual carriageways all over Oman.

To preserve this moment of development, I have lodged copies of all my digital images at the Middle East Centre Archive at St Anthony’s College, Oxford. 

It was during the first six months of my time in Oman, soldiering in the Sharqiya, that I consider I captured some of my most striking photographs before the infrastructure development really took hold.

Later that year, after one month’s leave back to the very green UK, I moved with B Squadron to Buraimi Oasis, on the border with UAE, to carry out duties in “West Sector” rather than “South Sector”. My experiences there is another story… Such as the day we went to war with the UAE but then realized the intelligence branch had got it all wrong! The UAE weren’t mobilising their forces to attack Oman after all. We learnt later they were just preparing for an exercise.

Photographic challenges

My key photographic challenges in the desert were sand, high temperatures, the local population’s sensibilities, and taking crystal clear aerial photographs. I would also mention avoiding the X-ray machines at airports where possible.

As regards sand and high temperatures, common sense prevailed. My sturdy camera box proved extremely useful when heaving it in and out of helicopters and bumped over rough terrain in a Land Rover.

As the films were developed back in the UK some months later, there was no way to learn to improve one’s technique in the short term.

The Omanis are charming and very friendly people, but taking photographs of Omani women without permission was against their culture.

I took all my aerial images, either from helicopters or small aeroplanes and for nearly all of them I used an open window and a willing pilot. I set my shutter speed to the camera’s fastest setting of 1/1000s and used what aperture as was available. However, the light always tended to be intense.

Sur and Ras al Hadd

These photographs of the Sur and Ras al Hadd areas really speak for themselves. However, you may like to research Sur’s history with its supposed connections to Sinbad the Sailor and its trading routes to Zanzibar. 

Also, on the web there are numerous photographs of Sur as it is now, many of which I am sure I would have difficulty recognising. Now, modern decorative lighthouses and a new bridge across the inlet have been built. The fishermen will also appreciate the new harbour. Dhow building is a huge tourist draw and, even when I was there, small model dhows were being commissioned by some expatriates.

Ras al Hadd also has a fascinating history. In the Oman Gendarmerie headquarters at Seeb, there was a large brass bell with the inscription, “Imperial Airways”, hanging on the guardroom wall. The story I was told was that it came from the flying boat station at Ras al Hadd. On Google Earth, the old fort can still be seen, as can the outline of the former Second World War Royal Air Force airfield’s runways.  

Wadi Hilm and Qalhat

The village patrol up Wadi Hilm by helicopter was an exhilarating experience. The intense light, staggering visibility and jagged mountains are hard to portray, and my old photographs are a poor substitute. Without them, though, that journey would be a distant and fading memory.

My photograph of the old villager with his khanjar shows how happy these villagers seem to be even though they lived in very tough and basic conditions. The trachoma eye disease was prevalent in the Sharqiya, and the old villager can be seen to have been suffering from this malady. 

The ruined city of Qalhat at the seaward end of Wadi Hilm is another beguiling subject to research. Qalhat flourished in the eleventh and sixteenth centuries CE and exported horses, dates, incense and pearls. 

Following Portuguese attacks, it was abandoned in the 1500s. The only building remaining is the mausoleum. The modern town of Qalhat, where young Abdullah and his family live, is north of the ruined city.  

South of the Sharqiya

The patrol with a government official, again with Khanjar, to the southern area of the Sharqiya, was particularly memorable. Our route took us over the Wahiba Sands, the aim being to visit the Bedouin in this very sparsely populated area. The long journey meant we had to call at RAF Masirah to refuel the helicopter.  The RAF vacated the base a few months later and handed it over to the Omani air force.  

Looking Back

Without my Omani photographs, I would have had difficulty remembering many of my extraordinary experiences. One such experience was being involved with the devastating floods which hit the Sharqiya in May 1977. 

For a time I was the only British officer in B Squadron, and I was one of about six other resident British expatriates within 40 miles. I learnt the Omani way of life and their culture, as it then was in 1977. Humour was always at the forefront of their demeanour. One British officer made the cutting remark, “Chris, the Omani soldiers will follow you anywhere… only to listen to your appalling Arabic”. 

On New Year’s Day 1978, Oman Gendarmerie ceased to exist and converted into a regular infantry battalion, the Oman Coast Regiment. Out went the grey shirt and distinctive headdress of shemagh and agal and in came a black beret and green shirt. I do not believe any other British officer in the Middle East has worn that Arab headdress as part of their military uniform since that date. 

Previous articles on Macfilos, with their stunning photographs, give an insight into modern Oman.  Perhaps my old photographs will tempt future travellers to take their cameras to the Sharqiya area and compare the old and the new.


20 COMMENTS

  1. Good Evening Chris,

    What a wonderfully informative article, I love the aerial images as they are something I have never had the chance to do before.

    Thank you for sharing with us.

    Best

    Dave

    • Good Evening Dave,

      Thank you for your kind comments. I was privileged to have friendly pilots, not only from the Sultan’s Air Force but also from the French Dumez Islander Plane. The Dumez pilot was English and had been in the RAF. We had much in common as he was a keen photographer as well.

      Unfortunately Mike had a real problem formatting the photographs and half of them do not expand. This is not an issue as readers will get enough of a sense of Oman from the photographs which do expand.

      I understand that you are ex-military and if I mention that all the “first line ammunition” was taken out of depots on our so-called “mobilisation” for the Buraimi incident, then you will understand in military terms, what a “flap” there was.

      Kind regards

      Chris

  2. Chris, thank you for a fascinating account of your service life in Oman. Your old photographs have survived well; well enough for Omani descendents to recognize their forebears.

    The arid scenes are almost monochromatic in style, apart from the dyes in new wool being woven. Kodachrome has a wonderful claim to longevity. How I wish we had known that when spending hard-earned money on expensive colour films and budget processing by post. Thankfully, black and white films did not suffer this fate.

    • Good evening David,

      Thank you for your kind comments. I was pleased I used Kodachrome. As I mentioned previously, a lot of my Agfa slide film CT21 wasn’t half as good as Kodachrome.

      I have just been scanning some Velvia today of 2008 and even that has got some mould on it. I have stored the majority of my slides in slide boxes in a book case against an outside wall. That was a big mistake because the first few slides in all the slide boxes have mould on them.

      However, all my Oman slides are stored in a different cupboard.

      Kind regards

      Chris

  3. Great article Chris and your photos are wonderful. I feel that photographs always improve with age. We cannot go back to that time again and Oman has moved on, but what you captured can never happen again. Moments in time are precious and photography can preserve them for us. I am sure that Abdullah was elated to find that photo of his grandfather on Flickr. That alone is priceless.

    A friend of mine was in Yemen at the same time as you were in Oman and the impression I have that is that if Oman was wild, Yemen was even wilder, certainly based on his stories. He shot thousands of slides on a Nikon F2 (which I have now) with a motor drive. We had been talking about doing a big scanning exercise on the slides, but Covid put paid to that. Maybe we might get around to this post -Covid if I do not have too many other photographic projects on the go. Looking at the slides I would say that Yemen was about 50 years behind Oman in the 1970s.

    I not only visited Oman but I met a lot of Omani officials during my time in the Gulf. They were some of the most likeable people that I met in the Gulf region and were some of the most gentle and inclusive people around. They are well liked by the people of other Arab nations. In Doha we watched the Omani news in English very night and there were a lot of references to the wise leadership of the Sultan Qaboos. When I got to Oman I saw what that meant, with beautifully clean streets and no high rise buildings above 4 stories in Muscat. I met a former British Army Officer in Doha who had been at Sandhurst with the Sultan and he spoke very highly about him.

    I look forward to seeing more of your Oman photos.

    William

    • William,
      Thank you for your comments above. If it hadn’t been for your article on modern Oman, then I wouldn’t have been prompted to write my article. I must also thank John Shingleton for his Oman article.

      I agree, from what I have heard, Yemen was a very wild country. My wife, as a service child, lived in Aden for a short time before all dependents were evacuated because of the rising level of violence.

      I am sure the Middle East Centre Archive would be interested in your friend’s slides and experiences. The archivist is very approachable and details of her can be found on the web.

      It is sad Qaboos died earlier last year. Perhaps what is not known is that he spent 2 years living with an English family near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, near where I live, before going to Sandhurst. It was whilst he was in Suffolk the story goes, that he wandered into an old church and heard the organist practising. Thereafter he had an interest in western music. His interest in Scottish Pipe Bands was formed by his posting to the Cameronians Regiment for a few months after he left Sandhurst. It was the wish of his father (the old Sultan) that he went to the Cameronians as they were the regiment which participated in the 1957 Jebel Akdhar campaign.

      As to seeing more of my Oman photographs, that would be up to our hard working editor, Mike.

      Kind regards

      Chris

      • Thanks Chris. If my memory does not do me a disservice, I believe that I met the former officer who had known the Sultan at a Burns Night Supper, so he may have been with the Cameronians. The Qatari Army has a pipe band and a couple of photos I took of the pipers are in an article called ‘A Tale of Two Horse Shows: From Dublin to Doha and back’ which appears on this site. The nice thing to record is that after they had played at a Horse Show in Doha, an Irish rider won the next event. The other thing I was not able to figure out was the ‘Irish’ engraving on the fort at the mouth of Old Muscat harbour, which featured in my article. Maybe an Irish regiment was there at one time.

        William

        • William
          The “Irish ” engraving at the entrance to Muscat harbour refers to the ship ” Irish Alder Cork”. It is/was a tradition of sailors to paint the name of their ship on the rocks on the entrance to Muscat harbour. If you Google “Ships’ names Muscat Bay” there is a 25 page pdf listing all the names of the ships. There are 107 names and the first date was 1876. It was Qaboos himself who instigated this article. If you can’t find the article then please come back to me.

          Chris

          • Thanks Chris. I found it. The Irish Alder was built on Teeside in 1957 and must have visited Muscat in 1959. The ship went on fire in 1977 when it was en route from Rotterdam to Durban with a cargo of chemicals. It was broken up in Bremen the following year.

            Thanks for solving a little mystery that has been puzzling me for years.

            William

  4. First, thank you for your service. As close as I came to Oman was Ethiopia after VietNam. That is an amazing part of the world and that sand gets in your blood. Your photos are just drop dead fascinating. Thank you. I bet you want go back.

  5. Thank Chris for sharing this wonderful article. your camera of the time reminds me of my first serious camara, a Minolta SRT 100X with its pancake 45mm lens. I fnd the images of Omani people and those of dhows truly amazing. look foward to your next article
    Jean

    • Jean,

      Thank you very much. I have been looking at some of your articles and the ones of Normandy and Brittany are particularly interesting to me. My wife and our family, together with my parents when they were alive, had many enjoyable holidays in Normandy and Brittany. I was able to recognise many of the photographic scenes you had taken.

      I have couple ideas for future articles, which are currently with our Editor for consideration and perhaps approval.

      Kind regards

      Chris

  6. A great read and images Chris.
    The “feel” of the images is great. I finished scanning my 1970s images about a year ago, and agree that they can show unique age effects (similar to a well cellared red wine?).
    You’ve now motivated me to blow the dust off the Fuji XE3, then set the film simulation to Chrome and get out and use it.

  7. ……..but I guess that Fuji Chrome simulation digital images will not mature with age. Digital rot will take them in the other direction 🙂

    • Hello Wayne,

      Thank you for your comments and I am pleased you enjoyed reading my article.

      Perhaps you can elaborate on the subject of digital rot. Is this when the files start to corrupt with age? What can we do about it apart from storing our files on different media?

      Your article on your visit to the North Face of Everest was truly awe inspiring. You mentioned the British explorers of the 1920s and 1930s travelling the same route.

      I was fortunate to know a member of the 1933 Everest Expedition. He told me, when he was alive, about his personal recollections of travelling across the Tibetan Plain in spring time returning from Everest. The recollections of this journey is the subject of a proposed article for Macfilos and is in draft with our Editor Mike for consideration.

      Kind regards

      Chris

      • Cheers Chris.
        What I meant by digital rot was that there will be potential for physical degradation of digital files in whatever storage medium we might choose to store them, let alone technical obsolescence in whatever storage medium that we use for them. I still have some files from early digital days on 3.5 inch disks, but don’t have a disk drive to read them, let alone a couple of old hard drives that are stored away but probably wouldn’t be readable or functioning in a couple of decades from now.
        Just not the same as going to a box of slides and voila, there the images are.

        Interesting that you are preparing an article on the north side of Everest. It’s a very special part of the world, and this Oman article of yours shows that you will present it in a special way. I very much look forward to it.

  8. Thanks Chris for this entertaining article. I agree with William that Abdullah’s finding of your photo is priceless, I expect it has brought much satisfaction to you both. What more can one want from one’s photography than such connection and understanding.

    Oman; where do I start? Camping trips to the Mussandam and around Nizwa, a multi-day trip to the coast south of Sur to watch a turtle digging a hole to lay her eggs? So many memories. I’ve been fortunate. One day perhaps I’ll return. Or I’ll only relive my trips by writing articles for Macfilos – probably as close as I’ll get in these times.

    Thank you for taking me back, albeit briefly.

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