The Duqm Landing

Opening Oman to oil exploration in the 1950s

In Oman, as indeed in any other part of the world, the appearance offshore of three World War II-era tank landing craft and a British frigate was an exceptional event. But the Omani fishermen preparing their nets on Duqm beach seemed unperturbed by their arrival and, in due course, they clambered into their boats and set sail for their fishing grounds. Some among those watching from the bridge of the approaching TLC held their breath in apprehension as the fishing boats came straight toward them, for they had been warned to expect trouble. However, the moment soon passed and the fishermen sailed straight past and headed for the open sea. Smaller landing craft were then dispatched from the Jamila, which was the lead TLC, to land a contingent of troops and the oil company’s general manager onshore. As the craft ran onto the beach, it came to an abrupt halt and sent the general manager tumbling into the water. And so, the expedition began with a moment of slapstick and one rather dampened oil man.

Operation DEF

It was Feb. 15, 1954 and the operation known as “DEF” was in full swing. Today, no one is sure why it was so named. Some say it was because the company’s last operation of note, the construction of an oil pipeline in Syria, was titled “ABC,” so it was logical that the next one should follow alphabetically; others say it was the acronym of Duqm Expeditionary Force, referring to the bay where the troops were to be landed. The latter explanation at least hints at the military flavor of the landing. Unusual for a geological survey party, the geologists were accompanied by 100 men of the Muscat and Oman Field Force, although that number was another bad omen, since it was an ancient Omani belief that a force of 400 men was destined to win, whereas any lesser number invited ill-fortune.

The force was funded by the Iraq Petroleum Company, a consortium of British, Dutch, French and American oil companies, with a small stake held by the oil magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian. It was a measure of IPC’s determination to penetrate central Oman that it paid for the troops and equipped the force with the latest modern conveniences, such as the fleet of Land Rovers and trucks that was now lined up along the shore. Quite what effect they might have had on the local tribes was anyone’s guess. As the geologists reflected, they were entering a world where tire marks had never been seen before.

Knowledge of the interior was sparse. As the expedition was being planned, one of the reference books consulted was “Slave Catchers of Oman,” written in the 19th century and telling the story of a captain in the Royal Navy who had been shipwrecked off the coast of Oman and made his way overland to safety. The book was especially valuable because it contained maps – a rare commodity in those days for that part of the coast. But, it was precisely for its remoteness and ease of landing that Duqm Bay was chosen. Apart from being the haunt of birds and fishermen, it was deserted – the perfect place for landing a small army away from the prying eyes of the outside world, especially at a time when nationalism was rising in the volatile Middle East. The only feature of note was a rocky headland at one end of the bay, known locally as Ras Hamra, which the oil men christened “Stinking Fish Rock,” because that was where the fishermen laid out their fish to dry in the hot sun.

Image Caption

The tank landing craft, Jesoura, beached on the Duqm shore, February 1954. (D.M. Morton)

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In Oman, as indeed in any other part of the world, the appearance offshore of three World War II-era tank landing craft and a British frigate was an exceptional event. But the Omani fishermen preparing their nets on Duqm beach seemed unperturbed by their arrival and, in due course, they clambered into their boats and set sail for their fishing grounds. Some among those watching from the bridge of the approaching TLC held their breath in apprehension as the fishing boats came straight toward them, for they had been warned to expect trouble. However, the moment soon passed and the fishermen sailed straight past and headed for the open sea. Smaller landing craft were then dispatched from the Jamila, which was the lead TLC, to land a contingent of troops and the oil company’s general manager onshore. As the craft ran onto the beach, it came to an abrupt halt and sent the general manager tumbling into the water. And so, the expedition began with a moment of slapstick and one rather dampened oil man.

Operation DEF

It was Feb. 15, 1954 and the operation known as “DEF” was in full swing. Today, no one is sure why it was so named. Some say it was because the company’s last operation of note, the construction of an oil pipeline in Syria, was titled “ABC,” so it was logical that the next one should follow alphabetically; others say it was the acronym of Duqm Expeditionary Force, referring to the bay where the troops were to be landed. The latter explanation at least hints at the military flavor of the landing. Unusual for a geological survey party, the geologists were accompanied by 100 men of the Muscat and Oman Field Force, although that number was another bad omen, since it was an ancient Omani belief that a force of 400 men was destined to win, whereas any lesser number invited ill-fortune.

The force was funded by the Iraq Petroleum Company, a consortium of British, Dutch, French and American oil companies, with a small stake held by the oil magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian. It was a measure of IPC’s determination to penetrate central Oman that it paid for the troops and equipped the force with the latest modern conveniences, such as the fleet of Land Rovers and trucks that was now lined up along the shore. Quite what effect they might have had on the local tribes was anyone’s guess. As the geologists reflected, they were entering a world where tire marks had never been seen before.

Knowledge of the interior was sparse. As the expedition was being planned, one of the reference books consulted was “Slave Catchers of Oman,” written in the 19th century and telling the story of a captain in the Royal Navy who had been shipwrecked off the coast of Oman and made his way overland to safety. The book was especially valuable because it contained maps – a rare commodity in those days for that part of the coast. But, it was precisely for its remoteness and ease of landing that Duqm Bay was chosen. Apart from being the haunt of birds and fishermen, it was deserted – the perfect place for landing a small army away from the prying eyes of the outside world, especially at a time when nationalism was rising in the volatile Middle East. The only feature of note was a rocky headland at one end of the bay, known locally as Ras Hamra, which the oil men christened “Stinking Fish Rock,” because that was where the fishermen laid out their fish to dry in the hot sun.

The Sultan’s Decision

My father, the geologist D.M. “Mike” Morton took part in the original landing, being the leader of the geological field party. He traveled up from Aden on the third TLC, Jawada, which rendezvoused with the others just before the landing. The real object of the expedition was Jebel Fahud, a promising anticline some 300 kilometers to the northwest, but accessing the jebel would be easier said than done. Britain and Saudi Arabia had an ongoing dispute over the Buraimi Oasis, which ruled out an approach from the north, and the sultan of Oman’s rule in central Oman was being challenged by an imam who held sway over the inland tribes. The sultan, Said bin Taimur, had authorized the expedition to proceed to Duqm Bay, but was horrified by the appearance of the troops when he visited the camp a month after the landing. He restricted the geologists’ activities to below the latitude 20 degrees north, which effectively prevented them from reaching Fahud.

Although disappointed, the geologists kept themselves busy. One problem that occupied them was establishing a reliable water supply for the tented camp. Although drinking water could be drawn from sea distillation units, the monsoon broke the sea line and supplies had to be found elsewhere. Water wells were sunk in the vicinity and these would be later handed over to the local tribes, providing them with a valuable source of water to be used for drinking and agriculture.

Another problem was finding a suitable place for an airfield. A short landing strip was established along a patch of hardened mud, or “sabkha,” a few hundred meters from the camp. This was adequate for small de Havilland Doves, except when the ground-water level rose with the tides. On one occasion, an aircraft sank into the mud and needed full power to get airborne. As a result, landings were restricted to low tide until a new site could be found.

Among the uninvited guests at the Duqm camp were shipwrecked mariners and pilgrims heading for Mecca – men women and children who had been abandoned by unscrupulous captains and told to find their way by foot. Bearing in mind that Mecca was almost a thousand miles away across some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, this was tantamount to a death sentence. Indeed, they lived in nearby caves and, without the supplies cadged from the company camp, they most certainly would have died. While the oil men were happy to accommodate them for a while, there came a time when their rising numbers put too much pressure on their resources. They arranged for trucks to take them all – about 50 to 60 souls – to a watering hole up the coast, from where they could make their way to safety. However, events did not go to plan and they were robbed of their food as soon as they arrived. They traipsed back to Duqm camp and stayed there until the end of the monsoon season, when they departed in dhows.

For the remainder of that season, the geologists had to console themselves with exploring the surrounding area. There was the Jiddat al-Harassis, a vast waterless plain stretched out before them, and the Hugf, “a lunar-like landscape devoid of human life,” as one of my father’s colleagues described it. They chose to venture south toward the province of Dhofar. Mike had already explored Dhofar with the French geologist René Wetzel in 1947, carrying out a preliminary survey which resulted in IPC surrendering that concession, leaving the field open to Wendell Phillips. Although he was an archeologist rather than an oil man, Phillips engaged Dhofar-Cities Services to develop the Dhofar concession. The result was a degree of rivalry between the two outfits, with Wendell Phillips in the south and the IPC geologists in the north.

The boundary line between the concessions was ill-defined and the geologists, being curious folk, made a beeline for it, heading for a set of geologically interesting features known as the “Alphabeticals,” which straddled the two areas. It was hard work mapping them in the blistering heat. The geologists worked early and late in the day, spending the hottest part in what little shade they could find on the desert plain. Most followed Mike’s example of finding a space beneath a parked truck and passing their time by reading a book. In Mike’s case it was Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

“We were all slightly unbalanced,” wrote Don Sheridan, one of the geologists in the party.

The Move on Jebel Fahud

After spending his summer leave with his family in the UK, Mike returned to Duqm in the autumn to find that the political situation had changed. The imam had passed away and his successor had moved against the Duru tribe, whose lands included Jebel Fahud. When the Duru sheikhs flew to Duqm to seek the assistance of the MOFF to retrieve their territory, they found a sympathetic ear. The sultan lifted his ban on travel to the north and, on Oct. 19, 1954, the expedition was on its way. It started at 4 a.m. with the Land Rovers and trucks warming up, and men criss-crossing the camp in search of supplies and equipment. Drums of water, jerry cans of fuel, food, tents and equipment were loaded, and then it was time to load the rather more sensitive human cargo: the sheikhs who insisted on sitting on the front seats of the Land Rovers for a better view.

The subsequent story of Fahud is perhaps better known than the story of the Duqm landing, nevertheless the latter is important for several reasons.

It was from Duqm that the sultan’s men set off to liberate the Duru villages and sparked an armed conflict that ended five years later with the British Special Air Services defeating the imam, thus laying the foundations of the modern state of Oman.

It was from here that oil exploration in central Oman began, providing the launch pad for the subsequent wildcat well at Jebel Fahud. But the geologists’ hopes of finding oil were dashed after the well was abandoned at a depth of 14,000 feet with no significant shows. It was only later – after Shell had taken over the concession – that oil was struck at Fahud less than 100 meters from IPC’s dry well. It was described as the “unluckiest” well in the history of Middle Eastern oil.

Duqm Lives On

Duqm remained an important supply depot base until 1960 when the interior of Oman was safer and a more modern facility could be opened at Azaiba near Muscat. Today, Duqm is an industrial city and major port at the forefront of Oman’s drive to develop and diversify its economy. In 2006, I was fortunate enough to visit the area with geologist Alan Heward and his wife before construction of the dry dock began, and we saw the bay in an almost pristine state. Sure enough, there were fishermen with four-wheel-drives and trailers drawn up along the shore, but it was essentially unchanged from the days when my father first landed there. And, as if to remind us that life at Duqm was not always a tale of hardship and woe, we found nearby a rubbish dump of discarded glass bottles and IPC blue-rimmed china, and inland the old Fahud derrick, standing alone and strangely defiant in its desert fastness. In future time, these artifacts will, like the rock carvings and stone-age tools of old, tell the story of oil exploration in Oman.

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