Mutual interests, adaptability key to British-Omani relations


Robert Alston, ambassador from 1986 to 1990, and Stuart Laing, ambassador from 2002 to 2005, researched more than 300 years of British-Omani relations and compiled their findings in a book.

Muscat: Since the first treaty was signed between the British and the Omani people in 1646, the key to this lasting relationship has been common interests and adaptability, according to two former British ambassadors to the Sultanate.

Robert Alston, ambassador from 1986 to 1990, and Stuart Laing, ambassador from 2002 to 2005, researched more than 300 years of British-Omani relations and compiled their findings in a book, Unshook Till the End of Time: A History of Relations Between Britain & Oman 1650-1970. They found that ties between the two countries were built on mutually beneficial agreements and partnerships that have lasted until today.

"We tend to think of the British protecting Oman in a way, but actually, Oman was extremely important to the British. Britain was a great power, but nevertheless, it needed relationships with people, such as His Majesty the Sultan," Laing told Times of Oman when he was in Muscat to launch the book in the country recently. 

Alston and Laing carried out extensive research using primary sources, such as memoirs from previous diplomats and historical documents from the British government and the East India Company. Laing also spent time at the Omani National Archives, while Alston interviewed Omanis who lived through various events of the mid-20th century.

"The research throws light on an entire series of fascinating insights into very important episodes in Oman's history," said Alston.

First encounters

As their book recounts, the first encounters between the countries took place between representatives of the East India Company and people in Sohar.

Their 1646 treaty focused on trade and security in the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, two areas that are still important to Omani-British relations.

"Both of those nations had huge interests in security and trade in the Indian Ocean. Both countries had markets there," Laing noted.

Even when Oman became a British protectorate, it was a mutually beneficial agreement, since the British needed Muscat to be peaceful and operational for the maintenance of its interests in India.

For much of the period covered in the book, Britain had a rather exclusive relationship with Oman.

While there were some ties between the Sultanate and France and the USA, the British were the primary link between Oman and the rest of the world, especially during the time of Sultan Said bin Taimur Al Said.

"Until 1970, Oman had very few formal relationships with other nations. In effect, the British diplomatic mission of the time was the only functioning mission, and the British were the only people the rulers of the day dealt with," Alston added.

Though both men spent several years in Oman as ambassadors, they admitted that it was only after retiring from their diplomatic posts that they found time to reflect on Omani-British relations. Their research also led to some interesting conclusions for each of them.

Alston was intrigued by Sultan Said bin Taimur Al Said. He may not have kept up with changes that were taking place in Oman and internationally, but he was a strong politician who would often negotiate agreements with the British himself, Alston explained.

"One thing that struck me quite powerfully while writing the book was that Sultan Said was quite a significant figure. He had, in effect, no administration. He was a one-man ruler. He would face a battery of British ministers and still manage to drive a very hard bargain," Alston pointed out.

Laing, meanwhile, found it interesting that for many years, the British viewed Oman from the perspective of being located further east and their interests in India. Only in 1947 did that perspective change, as did Britain's ties with Oman, which shifted to a different set of security interests, centering on oil and the Cold War.

While the authors have included the period up to 1975, which marks the end of the Dhofar War, they decided not to include much information about His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said's reign,  leaving that, instead, for future historians to study. But they admit the ties between Britain and Oman are still of great importance, especially regarding relations with Iran.

"Oman has been extremely helpful to us and to other countries in our somewhat difficult dealings with Iran," Laing explained.

According to Alston and Laing, the ties between Oman and Britain show that when there are mutual interests, a close working relationship is always possible.

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