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In Oman's war-torn Dhofar region . . . today only 39 rebels remain

By Mark N. Katz, Special to The Christian Science MonitorThe writer is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., specializing in Soviet policy in southern Arabia. / January 18, 1983



Muscat, Oman

In 1965 there were five cars, three primary schools, one 12-bed hospital, and 18 kilometers of paved roads in all of Oman. Those facts helped fuel a 10-year rebellion in the rugged southwest Dhofar region of this desert Gulf country where local villagers opted to fight for a better life. Eventually, the rebellion was transformed into a Marxist crusade by neighboring South Yemen, which hoped to spread socialism throughout southern Arabia.

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Today, there are only 39 Marxist guerrillas left in the Dhofar and rebellion is the last thing on villagers' minds.

Oman is developing economically, thanks to the discovery of oil and to continued government emphasis on building roads, schools, and hospitals, especially in Dhofar. Although some worry that rebellion might return in the future, at present the people of Oman seem genuinely enthusiastic about Sultan Qaboos, under whom they have enjoyed relative prosperity and freedom from the harsh oppression of his father, the previous ruler.

The Dhofar rebellion broke out in 1965 in reaction to former Sultan Said ibn Taimur's repressive domestic policies and unwillingness to allow economic development.

The Dhofaris, who are ethnically distinct from the Omanis of the north and speak a separate dialect of Arabic, intended to make the region independent from the rest of Oman.

When the Marxist government took power in Aden in 1967, South Yemen came to dominate the guerrilla movement through its ability to supply arms to Marxist-oriented guerrillas called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). Under South Yemeni influence, the guerrilla war was transformed from a non-Marxist provincial rebellion into a crusade to bring Marxism to all of Oman and the rest of the Gulf sheikhdoms.

The non-Marxist rebels grew to resent the increasing domination of the Marxists. In 1970 the old sultan was ousted by his son.

Qaboos ibn Said al-Said is hopeful for improved security in the future with the help of the British. (Britain has had a strong presence in Oman for more than a century, though Oman was never officially a colony or protectorate.)

The new sultan offered the rebels amnesty and promised to build Oman's economy. Many of the rebels accepted this offer and then fought with the sultan's forces (as well as British and Iranian troops) against the Marxist insurgents.

One of these ex-guerrillas - Yusuf al-Alawi - is now the Omani minister of state for foreign affairs. He was instrumental in negotiating a normalization agreement with South Yemen in November. It was the first formal improvement in relations between the two states since before the rebellion.

Although no significant internal opposition to the government exists at present, military officers are concerned about Oman's domestic security.

As long as the 39 remaining PFLO guerrillas are inactive, government forces do not pursue them. The sultan's offer of amnesty remains open, but Omani officers speculate the reason these last few guerrillas do not surrender is that they fear retribution from other Dhofaris whose families they have injured in the past.

In the Dhofari mountains, internal order is maintained primarily by ex-rebels in small units known as firqats. These small armed groups are spread throughout the jebel (hill country) and have a thorough knowledge of the region.

The continued existence of the firqats is also a reminder that the sultan's government must be responsive to the needs of the Dhofari people. Should the government institute unpopular policies, these armed ex-rebels could quickly become rebels once again.

The economic growth since 1970 has been effective in ensuring domestic tranquility both in Dhofar and the rest of Oman. The nation's prosperity has reached the majority of the citizenry.

The markets in Muscat, Nizwa, and Salalah are filled with Western and Japanese goods. Automobiles are everywhere, and there are car dealerships even in the interior. Health standards are very high, and substantial progress has been made in education.

The relative prosperity of the Omani people is largely due to the sultan's policy of seeing that the country's oil wealth is spread generally via development projects, education, and government jobs. The economic well-being of the country, though, is at present due solely to the presence of oil.

Oman currently exports 360,000 barrels per day of oil, a relatively small amount compared to the millions that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states export.

According to an official at Petroleum Development Oman, Oman has been fortunate in that so far new discoveries of oil have been greater than what has already been pumped. It is estimated, however, that Omani oil will run out in the next 30 years.

Depletion of oil reserves in the future could lead to economic decline and domestic unrest unless Oman uses its limited oil reserves now to build a viable economy not dependent on oil.