Obituary: Sir Erik Bennett, Oman’s second White Sultan

After a life in the shadows, more details are emerging about a secretive British air force officer who advised the Middle East’s longest-serving dictator. The Times and Telegraph wrote puff piece obituaries, but who really was he?

Erik Bennett and Sultan Qaboos of Oman (Photo: SOAF)
Erik Bennett and Sultan Qaboos of Oman (Photo: SOAF)

One of Britain’s most influential military officers in the Middle East has died. Sir Erik Bennett, who passed away last month aged in his nineties, was godfather to the King of Jordan.

But his real influence lay in Oman, where he spent three decades secretly advising its Sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al Said. He set up the Sultan’s Privy Council, a cabal of British politicians, generals and spy chiefs. It held annual late night meetings at a palace in Muscat.

Bennett was buried in County Laois, Ireland. Former UK foreign minister Sir Alan Duncan spoke at the funeral. Members of the Omani Embassy in London and a UK military attache attended.

Erik Peter Bennett was born in Ireland in the 1920s to an Anglo-Irish protestant family. He joined Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in the 1940s and served as a pilot in Egypt and Iraq. 

In 1958, Bennett went on loan to Jordan’s newly formed air force. There, he became an air adviser and close confidant to King Hussein of Jordan. The King gave Bennett a yellow Ferrari and a rare Breitling watch. He also made him godfather to his son Abdullah, the country’s current ruler.  

In 1974, Bennett moved to Oman at the recommendation of Conservative foreign minister Julian Amery. The country’s Sultan, Qaboos, had been installed by a British coup several years earlier. Effectively still a UK colony, Qaboos relied on western pilots to suppress a Marxist revolution in the Dhufar region of southern Oman.

Bennett took charge of the Sultan’s fledgling air force, which used Strikemaster planes to fire rockets at the rebels. He promptly organised an upgrade, transfering 16 Hunter jets from Jordan that could drop bombs at lower altitude.

The uprising was largely defeated by 1976, although isolated skirmishes continued into the 1980s. Bennett received an award from the Queen in 1984 and was knighted in 1990. He retired from the RAF in 1991 as an Air Vice-Marshal, having remained on loan to Oman until the end of his military career where he ensured Qaboos purchased UK-made jets. 

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Dictatorship

Despite the end of the Cold War and total defeat of Marxist rebels in Dhufar, the 1990s saw no steps towards democracy in Oman. Political parties remained banned and carefully vetted independent candidates could only run for a powerless advisory council.

Amid these sham reforms, there was a heavy crackdown on supposed Muslim Brotherhood activists. There are also rumours that soldiers involved in a coup plot were summarily executed. What is certain is that some Omani officers were angry at the ongoing presence of Britons in senior positions.

The most prominent was the so-called ‘White Sultan’: Tim Landon. A former British army intelligence officer, he had been Qaboos’ right-hand man since the coup. In 1992, Qaboos effectively made Bennett into a second White Sultan, appointing him as his principal adviser amid total secrecy.

Qaboos and Bennett were both unmarried and grew even closer after they survived a car crash while travelling together in 1995. A large truck smashed into the Sultan’s vehicle, in what some suspect was an assasination attempt. Bennett was hospitalised and his presence in the car was not publicly acknowledged.

The following year, Qaboos’ introduced the Basic Law, effectively Oman’s first written constitution, which made it an imprisonable offence to criticise the Sultan. John Major described the new law as “clearly a most imaginative and constructive step forward.”

By 1997, Bennett was making “all the arrangements for official visits to the UK by Omani ministers”, a function normally undertaken by British diplomats.

Arab Spring

Such was the secrecy surrounding Bennett’s role that it only emerged at his funeral that he had run a “London office” for Qaboos, which Sir Alan Duncan described as “a special link with politics, government and Buckingham Palace.”

In this role, Bennett was “the glue between the Sultan and the Queen”, and would remark: “I am in the service of two monarchs.” His opaque position received a rare public reference in November 2010 when the Queen visited Muscat and gave him an honour. 

Months later, Arab Spring protests broke out in Oman as demonstrators voiced anger at corruption and unemployment. Hundreds were arrested and several shot dead. Despite the crackdown, Bennett and Qaboos attended lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace the following year, in June 2012. 

Two days before their meeting, Human Rights Watch had warned that Oman’s unelected regime was carrying out a “sweeping crackdown on political activists and protesters arrested solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly.”

Some of the activists had been arrested and allegedly tortured for specifically protesting against the Queen’s friendship with Qaboos, amid anger at him spending lavish sums on flying 110 horses to her Diamond Jubilee pageant.

Privy council

Bennett’s most controversial role in Oman was the creation of the Sultan’s Privy Council, which met annually to advise Qaboos on economics, security and foreign policy from the 1990s, last sitting in 2019.

It was attended in total secrecy by some of the most senior figures in the British establishment, including heads of MI6 and the military, senior politicians, the ex-governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King and Boris Johnson’s standards adviser Lord Christopher Geidt.

The Sultan’s Privy Council, from left: Mervyn King, MI6’s Alex Younger, Christopher Geidt, Erik Bennett (also inset), MOD chief Stuart Peach, Alan Duncan, Mark Sedwill and an unidentified Omani.
The Sultan’s Privy Council, from left: Mervyn King, MI6’s Alex Younger, Christopher Geidt, Erik Bennett (also inset), MOD chief Stuart Peach, Alan Duncan, Mark Sedwill and an unidentified Omani.

They flew into Oman on the Sultan’s private jet for midnight meetings in the ruler’s palace. Their sessions were followed by lavish banquets that lasted until 4am. The existence of this Privy Council, on which almost no Omanis sat, only came to light after Qaboos died in 2020.

When Declassified exposed the cabal, Nabhan al-Hanashi, chairman of the Omani Centre for Human Rights, commented: “Qaboos was always trying to pretend that he was an independent ruler, when in fact he was an agent of the British empire.”

He added that advisers from “a country like Britain, which usually claims to respect human rights and people’s freedom of choice, were involved directly in humiliating the citizens and depriving their rights”.

Wealth

Qaboos was known to lavish gifts on his advisers at the expense of ordinary Omani citizens. Landon, who died in 2007, reportedly received million pound cheques as birthday presents.

The scale of Bennett’s income from the Sultanate is more opaque. He could afford to fly a helicopter to Ireland fairly frequently, and he kept a regular table at Wilton’s, an exclusive oyster bar in London. 

He had a chauffeur-driven Bentley and appears to have owned land in Berkshire, where Alan Duncan would join him for Sunday lunch at The Fat Duck, a Michelin starred restaurant in Bray. The pair also had “quarterly lunches with Margaret Thatcher at the Ritz”. In later years, Bennett is said to have given his address as a palace in northern Oman.

He died from a heart attack last month in Oman, where he had remained after the Sultan’s death. As such, he would have seen the major protests that broke out in May 2021 against unemployment and corruption. The demonstrations were suppressed by British-trained riot police using UK-made tear gas.

Sound advice?

Since his death, the Times and Telegraph have published obituaries marvelling uncritically at Bennett’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ lifestyle. One astute Times reader bravely asked in the comments section: “Is Oman a democracy?” 

To which another reader breezily replied: “No but it is the most wonderful country and the Omani people are delightful. When I first visited there was a desperate attempt to try to get them to work…They had everything provided for them and could not see the point of working – but they all had wonderful smiles.”

More serious analysts will wonder why Oman, a neutral nation, has one of the world’s highest levels of military spending per capita – and what role Bennett played in Qaboos making such decisions? 

Much of Oman’s dwindling oil wealth has gone on buying state-of-the-art military equipment from Britain, to buttress a ruinously expensive internal security apparatus.

Protests against unemployment and corruption in 2011 and 2021 were largely placated by increased recruitment to the military, only adding to public sector spending. Qaboos’ hand-picked successor has made no steps towards democracy or press freedoms, as questions mount over how much of the country’s money has been syphoned off and stashed overseas.

Meanwhile the Foreign Office continues the charade of keeping Bennett a state secret, only telling Declassified: “We assisted with the repatriation of a British man who died in Oman.”



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