Activism & Solidarity

“Britain’s Vietnam”: Remembering Dhufar

In 1975, the tenth anniversary of the Dhufar Revolution, launched on 9 June 1965, was celebrated in solidarity actions across the world. In Britain, three public meetings were organised in Birmingham, London, and Sheffield, bringing together students, activists, workers, parliamentarians, and supporters of the revolution who opposed a secret war in Dhufar and condemned the role of Britain, Iran, and other forces in its making. Dubbing the war “Britain’s Vietnam,” solidarity activists in London highlighted that Britain was fighting and steering a counterinsurgent war from Whitehall while hiding its role from the public.

This little-known revolution in a distant part of the Gulf attracted supporters from across the world, in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States. These solidarity networks were made up of small groups of activists whose roles and activities are best understood through micro-historical accounts of their work in organised committees. Britain was a significant base of support and solidarity with the revolution, and the archives of the London-based Gulf Committee shed light on the entanglements of students, trade unionists, members of the New Left, migrant communities, and political activists who opposed the war. This archive contains a largely forgotten chapter in the history of political activism in Britain, and the wider history of British imperialism.

The war in Dhufar was a colonial counterinsurgency which took place between 1965 and 1976 in the southwestern region of Oman bordering Yemen. The Dhufar Revolution, led by the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf (PFLOAG), fought for the liberation of Dhufar and the region from foreign intervention. In doing so, Dhufar became the epicentre of revolutionary activity in the Gulf, an area of the world scarcely associated with socialist revolution today. This was the era of decolonisation and the Cold War, and the international coalition of forces that ultimately defeated the revolution was motivated by imperial and anticommunist interests. Revolutionary guerrilla forces struggled against a counterinsurgency commanded and orchestrated by British SAS officers who led the Sultan of Oman’s troops, while Iran provided thousands of soldiers who fought alongside Omani, Pakistani, Indian, Jordanian, Baluchi and other mercenary soldiers.

Oman Solidarity Campaign booklet. Fred Halliday Archive. Courtesy of LSE Archives.

Beyond the Gulf, Dhufar was one of many hubs of revolution among the broader map of Third Worldist networks in the Middle East and across the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The international solidarity movement with Dhufar was widespread with numerous committees formed in countries such as Bahrain, Denmark, France, West Germany, Somalia, and the Soviet Union. From each location, solidarity committees engaged in activities to support the liberation movement and to work against the counter-revolution, united in anti-imperial opposition to the British-led counterinsurgency.

The Gulf Committee in Britain included British, Iranian, Arab, and Kurdish students and activists. Its central committee was formed of New Left figures such as Fred Halliday, Helen Lackner, Fawwaz Traboulsi, Ken Whittingham, and Nigel Disney. The documents of the Gulf Committee were collected and kept by Halliday and Lackner, and are now housed in the London School of Economics and the University of Exeter.

The 1975 public meeting in Birmingham, organised as part of the tenth anniversary of the revolution, brought together 200 people. The London meeting was attended by 130 people. In the meeting, Stan Newens, a left-wing MP and chairperson of the anticolonial campaign group Liberation, called for supporters of the revolution to work within the British labour movement to build an effective opposition to the British presence in Oman. He was joined by the Secretary General of the Yemeni Workers Union, an organisation founded by steelworkers from Birmingham and Sheffield which, by its peak in 1975, had almost 2000 members, and formed a strong base of support for the revolution in Dhufar.

From Grosvenor Avenue in Islington, where the Gulf Committee’s work began, committee members maintained direct communications with the PFLOAG in Dhufar and engaged in a variety of solidarity activities. In addition to hosting public meetings, the committee fundraised, collected medical equipment and medicine, created and distributed informational materials and publications, wrote media articles, worked with MPs, sent representatives to congresses, meetings and conferences in places such as Aden and Paris, and established connections with students, workers, and migrants from the Middle East. The Gulf Committee published the Gulf Newsletter with the Iranian Student Societies of Great Britain, an informational newssheet to “provide a digest of information … of use to those engaged in solidarity work with the Gulf, with particular emphasis on news that has not been adequately reported in the rest of the press.” Published between 1975-77, it monitored, gathered, and translated information on the revolutionary movement in Dhufar, and shared recently published items of interest to its readers. Liaison members of the PFLOAG sent magazines and publications in Arabic to London via post and translated sources from Arabic into English.

Gulf Newsletter, No. 1, May 1975. Gulf Committee Archive. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Exeter.

While Britain’s role in Dhufar remained a marginalised and well concealed issue in British politics and media, some challenges to this silencing were made through parliamentary channels, thanks to the coordination and activities of the activist solidarity network in Britain. In 1974, Stan Newens and 6 MPs published a letter in The Times calling for British withdrawal from Oman. Despite being objectively small in number, government records and diplomatic cables from 1975 show how Newens’ advocacy caused panic for the British government, and the SAS whose officers were stationed in Dhufar. Newens again raised objections to the British presence in Oman in a House of Commons Defence Debate in 1974. He was one of the very few voices to do so, and his speech was cited as the reason why a government public relations campaign was required in Dhufar to report favourably on the British role.

The revolution in Dhufar came to an end in 1976 when the international coalition of forces including Britain and Iran declared victory over the PFLOAG. Whilst the revolutionary struggle was defeated, the Gulf Committee’s archives contain the important story of a counter-alliance of global political actors – students, activists, workers, and progressives – who strategically organised a solidarity network with a place in the history of political activism in Britain.

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