I was very lucky early in my tour in Lebanon to be seconded to the Trucial Oman Scouts in the Trucial States, now called the United Arab Emirates. When I arrived there it was just a collection of 7 emirates all protected and indirectly ruled by the British. Of course Abu Dhabi was the biggest and strongest but Dubai was the richest based on a brisk trade legal and illegal, mostly from Iran. One state, Ras al Khaimah, received its only income from postage stamps.
The Trucial Oman Scouts was an Arab organization with British Officers seconded from their regular army…a lucrative assignment, in that they were much more highly paid. The Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS) kept the peace and were a bulwark against Saudi expansion into the Gulf.
Shortly after I arrived I was sent out on a 5-6 day patrol in to the desert called the Liwa. It was the highpoint of my 8-9 years in the Middle East or at least one of them for sure. I really played Lawrence of Arabia for that summer. The desert can be entrancing, mesmerizing, refreshing. It gets into your blood.
The purpose of the patrol was to check the level of the wells in the Liwa among the many small villages of settled Bedu. The real purpose of course was to keep a presence in the outer limits of the British empire and keeping the Saudi Wahhabis at bay.
The soldiers picked out an older female camel for me as they are supposed to be less ornery. Actually camels are mean-spirited and unlovable…of any gender. They have a habit of reaching back trying to bite your legs. The worse aspect is that in this part of the Gulf there is very little for camels to eat and they frequently eat the salt water plants in the subka…a salt marsh part of the coastal area. The camels get explosive diarrhea. Woe to anyone who stand too close to their rear. They are everything to the bedu…food milk, transport, money, etc but they are an abominable animal, dirty and ugly.Riding them takes time to get used to. First of all you can’t ride them like a horse. Your legs stick out at a 45 degree angle after a sort time and it becomes very uncomfortable, it is also hard on the rear end. So after a while I did as the soldiers did I sat on my haunches. After a while in the heat and with the gentle swaying motion of the camel one becomes very sleepy. You do not use spurs…you use a kind of switch which swish over the head of the camel to make it move faster.
once as I was dozing off my camel suddenly lurched and I fell off. All the soldiers laughed. Seems a scorpion stung the camel and she took off…without me.
We traveled to the Buraimi oasis which in those days was just a collection of a few straw huts…called Burustis. The Buraimi oasis had been in dispute between Saudi Arabia and the british which had led to a couple of skirmishes. The Brits with their Arab soldiers pushed the Saudis out and kept a hold on since that time.
We stopped and had tea with the locals and checked a well. Drinking well water is not fun. It consists of dropping a sort of inner tube down a 30 Ft well and letting water and mud ooze over the tube and then hoist it up…brush aside the mud and put it in a goatskin canteen. The goat skin flavors the water to taste like….goat. It is horrible but if you are thirsty you drink it happily.
That night the soldiers bought a goat from the villagers and cooked it over a small fire. The cooking consisted of putting hunks of meat on a wood stick and roasting it. The soldiers offered me the choice bits. In this case it was the goat intestines, cleaned by squeezing them to empty the contents and then cooking. I tried to eat the stuff but it was like rubber and I decided to put under my cot. I was using the Brit style cot which is about 3-4 inches off the ground…just enough to keep the scorpions off. So I dug a hole in the sand and as it was dark by then I buried them without the soldiers seeing me. unfortunately later that night I heard dogs digging around and I feared they would uncover the guts. Luckily they did not. I did not want to insult my hosts by refusing their hospitality.
The next night we were near the Musandum mountains,sitting by the fire when a local tribesman came to visit. As always he was offered coffee and dates and I noticed he was a Shuhui tribesman. They carry a unique long-handled hatchet in their belt. It has a very small head on a handle about 3 ft long. It is a prize. I bought it after some haggling and I kept it for many years until it disappeared during on of my many moves. By this time we had been joined by two SAS NCO’s in a Landrover which continually got stuck in sand. We also used a dodge power wagon which worked great on the sand dunes.
The Musandum peninsula is sort of Shangri-la. It has vegetation. running streams, fruit and some very primitive people…at least back then.
The Trucial Scouts have three Battalion size squadrons with a total of about 800 men at that time. I was assigned to X squadron which had mostly soldiers from Dhofar…a mountainous region of eastern Yemen and Western Oman. They spoke “soldier Arabic” their native language was a mixture of Arabic and some Hindi language influence. They are very good soldiers.
The Trucial Oman Scouts also had district Intelligence Officers (DIO) who lived out in the desert with the villagers. The team consisted of an officer, an Arab NCO and a driver with a Landrover. Every Friday the officers came into TOS HQ to get smashed, their beloved lemon squash and Pimms or something like that. Lots of gin in any event. One particular Irishman had been doing g this duty for years. He was a ruddy faced Lt. Don’t know how he did it but he did living for so many years in the middle of the desert. The desert at night has great charm,. almost magical. Serene, quiet, beautiful in many respects but a couple of weeks was enough for me..
I spent a number of weeks in the desert on various patrols but always for only a day or so. I always looked forward to them. I enjoyed working with the Arab soldiers and the SAS enlisted men but not so much with the TOS officers. As Brits so often do they were a bit contemptous of US officers. At that time we were not doing well in Vietnam and the U S Army had massive problems with race, drugs, and a thriving left wind movement undermining our efforts in VN. Previous to my tour in the Middle East I has spent a year with the 1St Inf Div in Vietnam and I experienced none of those problems but explaining that to people who only know that war from phony Hollywood movies…they ddid not believe me. Of course the Brits always think they can do better…..One thing I noticed being with the Brits was the wide social chasm between officers and enlisted men. But I am a bit of an an anglophile, having read every book written or about Winston Churchill, the leadership of the western world and especially the U.S.
looks so pathetic compared to the Churchill era.
But again I digress. One of my patrols was the TOS in a small boat. Obtensibily we were looking for smugglers from Iran to the smaller Gulf states bringing in cigarettes and gold. After about an hour of bobbing about in the Persian Gulf I was extremely seasick and asked the soldiers to just dump me on the beach. I lied motionless on the sane for a least an hour before I could move. Every now and then the Arabs checked for a pulse and went away smiling about my infirmity. The Persian Gulf can be rough..at least in a small Dhow.
While on a desert patrol I did some wind surfing which was fun. Using a parachute with a tow rope tied to the land rover in a salt flat, the Rover would putt the person rigged with the parachute until he lifted off. I was anb le to get uo about 200 ft and get a very fine view of the desert, The SAS guys say they use it for surveillance and it would seem to be an effective way to do it.
All in all it was one the best tours of my career and I got paid to do it. But that Arabia is no longer. The Brits are gone and now we have the artificial mini-states of the UAE. The Trucial Oman Scouts still have reunions and maintain a web site but that is the last legacy.
Thanx for the interesting article.