A couple of kilometres beyond Bin Ali’s Mausoleum lies personable MIRBAT, one of the Dhofar’s most interesting smaller towns, and another in the chain of erstwhile frankincense ports which line the coast. Two miniature statues of prancing horses atop columns flank the entrance to the town – a whimsical memorial to its history as an important breeding centre for Arabian steeds. A short distance further you’ll see the town’s small fort just off the road on your right, standing proudly above the waves, with fine views of the coast, beach and mountains beyond. The building is currently fenced off for renovations, though you can make out the unusual hexagonal tower at one corner and neat shuttered windows in square stone frames.
Immediately below the fort lies the old harbour, a picture-perfect little sandy cove, dotted with boats and enclosed by a low rocky headland at the far end. Walking across the sand brings you to Mirbat’s old town, a wonderful area of old Dhofari-style houses. Most are simple one- or two-storey cubist boxes, painted in faded oranges, blues and whites, their minimalist outlines enlivened with distinctive wooden-shuttered windows. There’s a particularly grand trio of large three-storey structures (one ruined) next to the main road, with diminutive towers and battlemented roofs, like miniature forts, strikingly similar to the domestic architecture of nearby Yemen. The one right next to the main road is particularly fine, with a couple of intricately carved wooden shutters, spiky battlements and a picture of a dhow etched into the plasterwork at the top of the small corner turret at the rear. Beyond here lies Mirbat’s prettier-than-average main street, with shops painted in cheery pastel pinks and oranges and decorated with big green shutters.
The Battle of Mirbat
The Battle of Mirbat
Mirbat Fort was the scene of perhaps the most important single conflict of the entire Dhofar Rebellion, and what is also frequently claimed to be the finest moment in the history of the British SAS. The Battle of Mirbat began early in the morning of July 19, 1972, when around 300 heavily armed fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLOAG) attacked the town’s small garrison, based in the fort and surrounding buildings, guarded by just nine SAS soldiers and thirty-odd Omani troops, all under the command of Captain Mike Kealy, aged just 23.
The aim of the rebels was simple: to disrupt Sultan Qaboos’s new policy of rapprochement; to demonstrate the weakness of the government’s control even over towns close to Salalah itself; and to execute as many local government supporters as they could find in Mirbat itself once they had overwhelmed the garrison. The fact that this major political setback, and the potential murder of innocent civilians, was averted is mainly down to the skill and courage of the soldiers defending the garrison. The bravery of Fijian sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba in particular – who somehow succeeded in holding large numbers of PFLOAG fighters at bay by single-handedly operating an old World War II 25-pound artillery piece (a job normally requiring three men) despite severe injuries – has become the stuff of military legend. After hours of bitter fighting, but with the loss of just two men (including Labalaba), air support and SAS reinforcements arrived from Salalah, after which the rebel forces were driven back into the hills.
The battle was a major setback for the rebels, who lost perhaps as many as 200 fighters. Their failure to seize Mirbat, even with vastly superior forces, also boosted the morale and standing of government forces, and the peace effort in general. Sadly, the UK government’s anxiety to keep the fact that British fighters were involved in Dhofar secret meant that the battle received little attention overseas, and those involved largely failed to receive the recognition many people feel they deserve. Campaigns to have Sergeant Labalaba awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross have so far come to nothing.