Born: September 3, 1928
Died: January 28, 2022
Erik Bennett, who died at the age of 93, made an extraordinary circular life journey from his home in County Laois, where his father, Robert, and mother (née Roe) were farmers. He included a turbulent and very colorful life in the Middle East, culminating, after 76 years, in a final trip home for his funeral in his home village of Donoghmore last week.
Leaving Ireland after his studies at King’s Hospital, Dublin to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1946, his remarkable life saw him retire from the force in 1991 with the rank of air vice-marshal. He had then become one of the most influential people in the Sultanate of Oman; first as commander of his fledgling air force, for 17 years from 1974 (while remaining an officer in the RAF), and, thereafter, remaining in Oman as one of most trusted advisors to its then ruler, Sultan Qaboos.
The territory of Oman directly adjoins the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, giving it enormous strategic importance globally. Bennett played a crucial role in the country’s development of credible air defence, which, starting from scratch in 1974, became what Britain’s former Minister of State for International Development, Sir Alan Duncan, speaking at his funeral, described as “one of the most operational” in the world. Arabian Gulf region.
Operating between the Omani capital, Muscat, and an office in London, Bennett also became a key intermediary between the British and Omani governments, an active connection that lasted, his close friend and Omani colleague Mohammed bin Suleiman Alyazeedi told The Irish Times. this week, “until the last minute” of the Irishman’s life.
Bennett had first served in the Middle East in 1951, having received his commission as a pilot officer in 1948, in the Canal Zone of the Suez region. This experience of the Arab world was reinforced when he was posted to Jordan in 1958 to help develop its air force, where he quickly struck up a close friendship with the late King Hussein, another fighter pilot. Bennett was a witness at the king’s marriage to Antoinette Gardiner, herself British, who thus became Princess Muna. Subsequently, he was the godfather of Prince Abdullah, the current King of Jordan.
When, in 1974, Sultan Qaboos asked King Hussein for his advice on creating his own air force, the king immediately replied: “If you want a real air force, I would advise Erik”
After another RAF service elsewhere from 1962 to 1971, during which he attained the very high rank of air vice-marshal, Bennett returned to Jordan to serve as King Hussein’s personal pilot. Mohammed bin Suleiman Alyazeedi recalls that when in 1974 the young and new Sultan Qaboos (who had overthrown his father in a palace coup in 1970) asked Hussein for his advice on creating his own army of the air force, the king answered immediately: “If you want a real air force, I would advise Erik.”
Duly appointed, Bennett brought with him to Oman that year two enormous advantages: fluency in written and spoken Arabic (which Alyazeedi describes as with “a Jordanian accent”) and several former Hawker Hunter jets from the Jordanian Air Force, to which were added from 1977 Anglo-French Jaguar fighters, then among the most advanced military aircraft in the world.
Inevitably, there was a political dimension to Bennett’s work in Oman. In its early days, the Omani Air Force played a crucial role in the eventual suppression of the secessionist rebellion in the south-west of the country at a time when these wars were effectively part of the West’s proxy conflicts with Russia during the Cold War.
A very important aspect of Bennett’s life and work in Oman was his active promotion of the protection of the country’s delicate eco-structure.
Bennett was also undoubtedly crucial in the very close working relationship that was subsequently established between the UK and Oman, and the awarding of the British honors of Companion of the Bath (CB) and Knight (KBE) are proof of that. Notable in this regard was the awarding by Queen Elizabeth, during her visit to Oman in 2010, of the honor of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (RVO) to Bennett. This honor is bestowed by the Queen personally, not as a recommendation from the British government, and lends credence to Sir Alan’s remark at his funeral that Bennett was the “glue” between the Queen herself and the Sultan. .
A very important aspect of Bennett’s life and work in Oman, often completely overlooked, was his active promotion of the protection of the delicate eco-structure of the country, which until 1970 was an impoverished but pristine wilderness.
Beginning with Bennett successfully securing funding for four geographers from the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) to conduct field research in the famous and unique Wahibi Sands in 1986-87, he later secured support from Oman to d other field work by the Earthwatch organization. This resulted in the Wilfred Thesiger Prizes, annual fellowships in memory of the famous British explorer of Arabia, awarded to scientifically qualified personnel to carry out research on the environment of the country.
Nigel Winser, former deputy director of overseas research for the RGS, and from 2005 to 2015 director for Europe and the Middle East of Earthwatch, told The Irish Times that Bennett was “a very passionate naturalist …who saw an opportunity to foster a culture of field science in Oman. This has contributed to a large number of field scientists in Oman today.
Bennett, elected as a member of the RGS in 1993, also personally paid for the bust of Sir Wilfred Thesiger which now hangs in the society’s entrance hall in London.
Erik Bennett remained single and is survived by his sister, June Powell. His brother Robert and his sisters Betty (Lalor) and Rita (Hearnden) predeceased him.