Saturday, 27 October 2018

When Britain wooed Arab hearts and minds — the story of Voice of the Coast

The story of Voice of the Coast is little known. I hope this post will serve as a source of reference on the station and that I will be able to update it as more information becomes available. Comments and updates are welcome.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Lee Richards and Mike Barraclough for pointing me towards this story.

The Trucial States were a quasi British protectorate until independence in 1971
Voice of the Coast was based at Sharjah (marked on the map as Ash Shariqah)

Objectives and techniques

Summary: Voice of the Coast (Sawt al-Sahil) was a British-operated Arabic-language radio station on the air between 1964 and 1970, targeting audiences initially in the British-controlled Trucial States and then in the wider Arab world. [1]

Objective: The aim was to support British influence in the region, drawing listeners away from hostile stations, notably Voice of the Arabs (Sawt al-Arab), the dominant presence on the region's airwaves at that time. Voice of the Arabs was pan-regional Arab nationalist radio station operated from Cairo by Nasser’s Egypt since 1953. Its operations were a major concern to the British government for many years. The British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) said in 1958 that broadcasts from Cairo had "played a large part in fomenting almost every recent crisis in the Middle East".

Technique: Any planners of British political radio activity in the Middle East in the 1960s would have been only too aware of the shambolic failure of such British operations during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Accordingly, it seems that Voice of the Coast adopted a light touch, which included playing plenty of music (as did Voice of the Arabs), as well as airing news. 

In the jargon of psychological warfare, it was a relatively "white" operation, not concealing in any way its place of origin (though not being explicit about its anti-Nasser message). The full station identification was: "Voice of the Coast from the Trucial States" (Sawt al-Sahil min al-Imarat al-Mutasaliha  صوت الساحل من الإمارات المتصالحة). And listeners were invited to write to the station, particularly with their music requests, at Post Box 201, Sharjah.

British control

Geopolitical background: Voice of the Coast was based in Sharjah, one of the so-called Trucial States on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf. Although they were not formally British possessions, all the Trucial States had treaties that gave Britain substantial rights in exchange for military and diplomatic protection.

London's authority on the ground was exercised by the Foreign Office through a British "political residency" in the Gulf, which in turn used a number of "political agents" in various sheikhdoms. Sharjah's affairs were looked after by the British political agent in neighbouring Dubai.

The UK's local military presence in the Trucial States was a paramilitary/gendarmarie force called the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS). The TOS was headquartered in Sharjah, initially at a site next to RAF Sharjah airbase. [2]

The men in charge

Command and control: Voice of the Coast was a joint political-military operation, involving both the British Foreign Office [3] and Ministry of Defence. Political and military control was exercised by, respectively, the British Political Agent in Dubai and the commander of the TOS.

According to the book Britain's Secret Propaganda War 1948-1977 by Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, the initiative to set up Voice of the Coast came from the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), in liaison with major oil companies. The IRD was the part of the Foreign Office responsible for countering communist and Nasserite propaganda.

Station management: Voice of the Coast's first commander was Tim Ash (who died in 2012, aged 79), an Arabic-speaking member of the Royal Signals who had volunteered for service in the TOS. Ash later recalled:
The station’s main aim was to provide listeners with Arabic music as well as supplying local news. The world news was taken from the BBC, but it had to go to the [British Political] Agency in Dubai first for checking before being broadcast. The station broadcast about six hours a day and had its own transmitter.
Denys Johnson-Davies (1922-2017), an Arabic-speaking civilian, took over as director of Voice of the Coast in 1969.

Johnson-Davies was offered the chance by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid, to remain as head of the station after independence in 1971, but turned it down"I said, ‘Here you are, an independent Arab country  what do you want an Englishman for?'"

Tim Ash was Voice of the Coast's first manager
Photo (undated): The National, Abu Dhabi

Expansion and closure

Expansion of the station's transmission coverage: Voice of the Coast was launched in 1964, operating from the HQ of the Trucial Oman Scouts in Sharjah. The station initially used a low-powered mediumwave (AM) transmitter that only provided local coverage. 

By August 1966 this had been replaced by a 10-kilowatt shortwave transmitter and a 1-kW AM one, which were giving reception in areas well beyond the Trucial States. The following year it was noted that a 10-kW AM transmitter had been obtained for the station. 

An increase in the strength of the shortwave transmitter (on 6040 kHz) was reported in 1970. This allowed the station to be heard by shortwave radio enthusiasts in Europe. Reception in the UK was also reported that year of the station's AM (737 kHz) signal.

Shortly before independence in 1971, after the station had moved to Dubai, it was operating with a 10-kW AM transmitter (on 1250 kHz) and a 10-kW shortwave transmitter (on 6040 kHz). It was on the air for 11 hours a day at 0700-1100 and 1600-2300 local times. (Source: World Radio TV Handbook, 1972 edition)

Closure of the station: By the end of the 1960s the regional political climate had changed. The UK's interest in running such media operations in the region had waned. Britain had left Aden in 1967 and the following year Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced a general withdrawal of British forces east of Suez. 

The need for Voice of the Coast had also declined as the reputation and influence of Voice of Arabs never recovered from Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war.

In 1970, Voice of the Coast was transferred from Sharjah to neighbouring Dubai. It was eventually renamed Dubai Radio and handed over to the local authorities, as the Trucial States gained independence the following year. The exact date it stopped using the name Voice of the Coast is not known. It was still using that name immediately before independence in December 1971.

After independence the Trucial States joined together to form the United Arab Emirates, UAE.

The station launches a successful career

Along with Tim Ash and Denys Johnson-Davies, an interesting personality at the station in the early days was a young female presenter, Hessa Al Ossaily. According to a 2014 article in the UAE newspaper The National:
Hessa Al Ossaily was only a teenager when she took the first step towards becoming a broadcasting legend. In 1965, a representative from the newly launched Sawt Al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), an Arabic broadcast radio station in Sharjah that was operated by the British military, was looking for new talents. Just 15, the Emirati, who had a reputation as a star speaker at her school’s morning assembly, was determined to take up the ­challenge.
“I always had an adventurous kind of soul, where I like to try new things and always try to do them well,” says Al Ossaily, now known as the “mother of UAE ­media”.
With a heavy fringe, fashionable at the time, and a big smile, her voice was heard on the radio waves introducing the latest social affairs, celebrity talk and entertainment. As well as the chance of a lifetime, it was a way to help support her family.
“I would present light segments, depending on the requests of the listeners who would write in, and we would sit and read the letters and see what they would like to hear,” she recalls.
Mostly listeners wanted legendary Arab singers and the latest releases by a new generation of singers, especially from the Gulf.
“It was a very simple time: people just wanted a break from work, to listen to something light and fun, as the time for news and politics was announced by the males and adults at the radio station,” she says. 

Hessa Al Ossaily was a teenage recruit to the staff of Voice of the Coast
Photo (2014): The National, Abu Dhabi

[1] I've not been able to confirm the exact dates for the start and end of broadcasts. There are conflicting reports on the start date (it may have been in 1965 rather than 1964). The timing of events when the station closed and was moved to Dubai is also unclear.

[2] RAF Sharjah was home to a separate radio station, Forces Radio Sharjah, which served British service personnel. It had a low-power (0.05 kW) AM transmitter on 1480 kHz. Unlike other such stations around the world, it does not seem to have been part of the BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) network. (Source: World Radio TV Handbook, 1968 edition)

[3] In 1968, the Foreign Office became the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) at the end of a series of reorganisations over previous decades which brought together the Foreign Office, the Dominions Office and the Colonial Office in a single department.

© 2018. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.


  1. Is the map at the top of the post taken from a historical atlas? Do you know which?

  2. I took the map from various ones available online. I'm afraid I don't know the original source. If someone can locate that, I'll credit the image accordingly.