Britain and the Education of Sultan Qaboos of Oman, 1958-1964
by Gerald Power
Although the subject of British-Gulf relations during the era of the Cold War and independence is a topic well served by history, political science and other disciplines, there is one aspect which has so far eluded detailed study: that of educational links. This is an area I have begun to examine in terms of British attempts at contributing to Gulf education during the 1950s and 1960s. In this discussion, I would like to branch out to a related but separate issue: British attempts to educate future Gulf rulers and other elite members in the UK itself. Given the symbiotic relationship that existed between the ruling families of the Gulf territories and Britain before and following the independence in 1971 it is odd that few scholars consider how Gulf elites were trained and what exposure they had to the West before assuming positions of authority. It is assumed here that education and training in early years can be a formative influence upon later attitudes of elites and are therefore worthy of study. This approach does not seek to push education ahead of other salient influences such as oil, tribal politics and regional dynamics; but it does suggest that additional, and potentially very valuable, insights into UK-Gulf relations can be gained by inquiring into the educational demands of the ruling families of the Gulf, the extent to which the UK was able to meet that demand, and the ultimate results of this exchange.
A brief case study is offered to serve as an example of this contention: that of the British education of Qaboos bin Said, the Sultan of Oman between 1970 and 2020. It is widely accepted that Qaboos had crucial links with Great Britain during his early life. In particular, Qaboos’s education had a high degree of British input. Aged eighteen, Qaboos was sent by his father, Sultan Said bin Taymour, to a small private school in rural Britain where he was tutored between 1958 and 1960. He then trained at the military academy at Sandhurst, and this was followed by an attachment to a British regiment in West Germany. 1963 was a busy year. Qaboos returned from Germany, conducted a world tour, then a tour of Britain, completed a training course in public administration in London and was attached to two local municipal authorities in Suffolk to learn public administration and accounting. In March 1964 he returned to Oman, where his father kept him in isolation, a frustrating period for Qaboos. However, with his father demonstrating a lack of good judgement in the eyes of his British civil and military advisors, and with a regional Marxist rebellion in the Dhofar province going badly, thirty-year-old Qaboos assumed power with British approval and assistance, beginning a long reign which blended personal authoritarianism with a globally-esteemed concern for promoting internal development and friendly and pacific external relations.
There is much evidence to suggest that Britain deliberately attempted to cultivate young Qaboos into a friendly and dependable future ruler of his country. Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s important book Monsoon Revolution (Oxford, 2013) offers a compelling portrait of this. Takriti’s discussion of Qaboos’ education in Britain between 1958 and 1963 shows how the British Foreign Office, the Shell Oil Company and the British advisors to the then Sultan, Said bin Taymour, cooperated to ensure that the future Sultan was exposed to conservative, imperialist British influences, encompassing military experience, high Western culture, administrative training and introductions to a range of individuals and institutions that helped to constitute the so-called ‘British establishment’.
Takriti’s central thesis: that the British seized what opportunities they had to influence the development of young Qaboos bin Said seems irrefutable. But it may be that closer analysis of the full corpus of primary source material on this issue – many of it now freely available via the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive – will reveal a more complex picture. For instance, it is clear that there were significant challenges for the Foreign Office in finding a school for Qaboos to prepare him for entry into Sandhurst. Overtures were made to various private schools but the future Sultan’s lack of formal educational qualifications and his obscurity made it difficult to find a place. Ultimately, a teacher named Philip Romans agreed to take on Qaboos at his small private school in Suffolk. Romans was to prove a fortunate choice, and he and Qaboos forged a strong bond. But this seems to indicate luck and ad hoc management rather than the workings of an integrated and effective British ‘colonial’ educational apparat. Far more significantly, examination of the sources reveals that that the single greatest educational influence on Qaboos was not the British but his father, Sultan Said. Said made every significant decision regarding Qaboos’ curriculum and treatment while in Britain. No initiative of any importance could take place without the Sultan’s approval.
Thus, Qaboos was something more than a ‘product’ of a late-imperial British education. Much of his ‘British’ education was in fact directed by his father, with British officials and institutions striving to respond to the Sultan’s demands. And this, in turn, makes the eventual fate of Said and Qaboos all the more intriguing. For in facilitating Qaboos’ acquisition of a rich fund of cultural capital, formal training (including military) and connections with a range of Britons, Said bin Taymour ultimately opened the way for his own ouster by in July 1970. Qaboos’s coming to power was a very satisfactory development from a British perspective: the man they had trained now held power. But it was also an ironic final chapter to a deeply complex and erratic father-son relationship.
*Gerald Power is Chair of the Department of History and Philosophy, Anglo-American University Prague.
29 March 2022