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Oman and Beyond

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MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

Oman and Beyond (Part 1)

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Photo By: Jasmine Bourgeois
VIRIN: 170217-F-ZZ999-008

Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Oman to discuss strengthening U.S.-Omani relations. If you’re the average American reader you may be wondering to yourself, where is Oman? You’re not alone and Omanis don’t mind this anonymity.

Thanks to the support of the team at the Air Force Culture and Language Center and the Language Enabled Airmen Program, I journeyed to Oman to learn about Omani culture and Arabic language by engaging in language study and field work in the capital, Muscat. Oman is home to a rich history and unique sensibility that differs from even their closest neighbors such as Saudi Arabia or Yemen. In a series of articles, I would like to explore Oman and discusses modern Omani society; its history, and its place in the region nested in the framework of various cultural domains such as Political and Social Relations, Religion and Spirituality, Economics and Resources, and Sex and Gender.

The intrigue and complexity of experiencing new cultures is in part due the fact that no single domain of culture can be separated from the others. A culture encompasses language, religion, politics, ethnicity, etc. and exists in a time and place. A culture is a living, breathing, evolving web that confounds any attempt at upload/download learning.

As a Middle East-North Africa scholar with research field experience in North Africa and the Levant (Bilad al-Shams, namely the Mediterranean area such as Jordan, Syria, Iraq, etc.), I study the history, politics, and cultures of the greater Middle East region. However, this region is home to many distinct cultures, languages and dialects, and religious and ethnic communities. For instance, one might distinguish between trends of Gulf or Levant countries but even this specification over-simplifies the great deal of diversity among the sub-regions and individual nation-states themselves.

Cultural Domain: Political and Social Relations

In this unfortunate time when much of the Middle East is connoted with war, terrorism, and intractable conflicts, Omanis are known to many as the “Arab Swiss” with a purposeful reputation of neutrality. As a result, we rarely hear or read about Oman in the U.S. Oman, for its part, under the reign of Sultan Qaboos since the 1970s, has been undergoing rapid economic, infrastructure, and social transformation.

Situated in the south-eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and bordered by Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Oman has similarly benefited from oil production and natural gas supply. In social relations, Oman shares cultural similarities with fellow Arab ethnic communities such as a high context, collectivist focus on relationships. For instance, tribal affiliation is still significant alongside nationality, homes are multi-generational with large extended but close-knit families under one roof, and sense of self is found in and from the community rather than the “I am the master of my own destiny” outlook more prevalent in the West. Regional geography impacts group identity such as being mountain, desert, or valley folk and this is reflected in language dialects as well. Nevertheless there is a sense of being Omani first regardless of African, Arab, or Indian descent.

Oman’s coastal location helps explain its interesting background and reputation for being welcoming and tolerant of foreigners. Due to the Portuguese colonial legacy (roughly 1515- 1650), Oman came to be a sea-faring commercial power in the early 19th century. It  controlled the island of Zanzibar and parts of the East African coast down to Mozambique as well as neighboring lands across the Arabian Sea in what is today Pakistan and Iran. This is a much-simplified, brief telling of a complicated history which profited greatly from the slave trade and competing European colonial interests and claims.  The 21st century consequences of this history include an ethnically and linguistically diverse and tolerant Omani society with pride in its Swahili links and heritage and great reverence for Sultan Qaboos who is credited with improving the health, wealth, and education of Omanis.

One of his most significant policy decisions has been neutrality and abstinence from regional conflicts with the aim of focusing on domestic improvements. In my time there, I heard only praise and respect for this stance from taxi drivers and university professors alike. As an outside but informed observer, it seems that the policy of neutrality has afforded the country great versatility in the region. Oman is unique in maintaining diplomatic ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran simultaneously, a fact that demonstrates the complex, intertwined web of location, religion, history, and culture. The strategic sensibility of close geographic proximity, a distinct Ibadi view of practicing Islam (to be discussed in following posts), and a sea-faring history that brought into contact people from different ethnic backgrounds and languages, are all influences on the mainstream narrative of Omani culture. This is evident in Oman’s absence from the recent Gulf-Qatar crisis and its essential, but quiet, role in the U.S. – Iran Nuclear Deal.

Oman and Beyond (Part 2)

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Photo By: Jasmine Bourgeois
VIRIN: 170217-F-ZZ999-007

The global Muslim community is a diverse, multi-faceted population of approximately 1.6 billion people comprised of many different cultures, ethnicities, languages, styles, foods, politics, customs and traditions of practicing their faith. Islam is a monotheistic religion in the Ibrahimic tradition (from the tradition of Ibrahim along with Judaism and Christianity) and whose scripture, the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE. Uniting all Muslims are the five pillars of faith, the Qur’an, and the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (Sunnah), yet there are many different schools of thought, exegesis, jurisprudence, and opinions and traditions among and between communities.

The main schism in Islam is between Sunni and Shia Islam and originates from the question of leadership following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Among his companions, some believed that a new leader should be chosen by community consensus while others thought that only the Prophet Muhammad’s direct descendants should lead. While the seed of this divide was planted in 632, a period of relative peace known as the four Rightly Guided Caliphs followed and the community remained united until the death of the fourth caliph, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, in 661. The struggle over Ali’s successor was the catalyst that cemented the schism between Sunnis (Ahl al-Sunnah, people of the Prophet’s sayings and teachings) and Shias (Shi’at Ali, or followers of Ali).

As Islam continued to expand in followers and territory, various threads of doctrine and schools of jurisprudence appeared, many of which are still traceable to today. The majority of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis while about 10% are Shia. It can be difficult to separate disagreements in schools of Islamic jurisprudence from contemporary political conflicts; the larger Saudi (Sunni) vs. Iran (Shia) battle for power is a nation-state, political conflict and not indicative of the shared solidarity among diverse traditions and customs of Islam in various communities. A key example of this is found in Oman where the majority of Muslims are members of a third, less-discussed branch known as Ibadis (Ahl al-Istiqama, people of equality).

Cultural Domain: Religion and Spirituality

Ibadi Islam arose in Basra (Iraq) among those who opposed the principle of dynastic succession. What had started as the Prophet’s companions selecting a leader by consensus (Sunni) had become a dynastic succession (Shia) where the people’s consensus was ignored in favor of progeny. Establishing themselves as a distinct group around 745CE, Ibadi Muslims sought to establish a practice and jurisprudence stressing equality of all Muslims to be sustained by choosing the leader of the community by consensus (shura). Although named after Abdulla bin Ibad, its leading intellectual founder was Jabir bin Zaid who had grown up in Nizwa, Oman before settling in Basra. It’s this link to Oman that brought the first Ibadi Imamate to Oman in 747CE.

Although minority communities of Ibadi Muslims live in Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, Oman is the only majority Ibadi country today. In Oman, Ibadis, Sunnis, Shias, and other religious groups such as Hindus and Christians can freely practice their religions. Ibadi Muslims prefer to avoid discussion of sectarian differences and reject the use of force as a way of settling disputes. It’s common for Sunnis, Shias, and Ibadis to worship together in the same mosque. This accommodation of religious practice while promoting modernization is considered a great accomplishment of the Omani government by the Omanis with whom I spoke.

This tolerance is also a clear example of the intertwined nature of the domains of culture: Ibadi doctrine contributes to a culture of tolerance and non-violence which is evident in Oman’s political and social policy such as diplomatic ties to both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Oman’s perspective on the Sunni-Shia divisions that power the conflict in Iraq and Syria was expressed by Badr bin Hamad al bu Said, Secretary General in the Ministry of Foreign affairs in 2007, “there is no real religious basis for this division that it existed only as a basis for the pursuit of political objectives: There is not a profound religious conflict at the heart of Islam. The idea that such a conflict exists is a myth…” (al bu Said, 2008).

Although Ibadi doctrine emphasizes the election by consensus of the Iman, its contemporary expression in Oman has become effectively dynastic under the Al Bu Said rulers. However, the Al Bu Said rulers have conducted political and economic business with due regard for Ibadi principles and sensibilities wherein people vote for the lower house, called the Majlis ash-Shura, while the Sultan appoints people to the Majlis a-Dawla. The latter is envisaged as a complementary source of advice, more technocratic in nature, not influenced by tribal affiliations. The Sultan announces his appointments after the elections of the Majlis ash-Shura, and makes marginal adjustments to the composition of the whole. For instance, in 1997 only two women were elected, and the Sultan appointed five. In subsequent years he has appointed nine, fourteen, and fifteen women, for sessions during which Majlis ash-Shura either had only two or (for the 2000-2003 session) no female members.

This is, of course, a brief and simplified version of a vast history and complex levels of doctrine and schools of jurisprudence. I’ve included some links in the preceding paragraphs and some suggested readings below if you’d like to learn more. Religion seeps into languages, cultures, and politics throughout the world. The unique pride in tolerance and neutrality as well as a purposeful balance of modernity and tradition is a vivid dialogue between Ibadi Islam and Omani culture.

For a more in-depth and technical discussion and explanation of doctrine check out R. Gaiser, Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibadi Imamate Traditions. Oxford University Press, 2010 and Badr bin Hamad al bu Said, Untangling Religion and Politics in the Middle East. Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, 2008. 

Oman and Beyond (Part 3)

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Photo By: Jasmine Bourgeois
VIRIN: 170217-F-ZZ999-010

Just as culture and language reverberate with religion, history, kinship, and all aspects of life, this reciprocating cause and effect exists in the domain of economics and resources as well. I had the opportunity to visit the Jabal al-Akhdar mountain, a spectacular, impressive landscape only 45 miles inland from Oman’s coast.  This area is visited by Omanis and tourists alike for hiking, camping, and exploring its many valleys. It was a beautiful escape from the scorching late summer (?) heat of Muscat- the temperature dropped nearly 45 degrees Fahrenheit as we climbed up the mountainside!

Beyond a weekend adventure, Jabal al-Akhdar and the surrounding area is special for its extensive aflaj irrigation system. The aflaj system is a sloping grid, similar to aqueducts, that transport water. Rain water is collected at the top of the mountain and gravity, controlled by a system of channels, irrigates the mountain side. (see pictures). Also known by the name qanat, this technology originated in Persia (Iran) in the early first century CE. Its introduction, success, and endurance in Oman is one example of the intertwined connections of culture, economics, and resources.

Cultural Domain: Economics and Resources

While scholars debate the extent of direct Persian control in Oman, it is clear that the Persian influence was responsible for developing viable agriculture through the aflaj irrigation channels. This system goes beyond agricultural benefits. For instance, “the social interaction encouraged by the use of aflaj, which require the development of complex systems for the management of a scarce and essential resource, has given Omani culture a strong material basis for cooperation, which… contributes to a more general cultural preference for non-confrontational and consensual decision-making” (Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout, A History of Modern Oman, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 8-9). This point highlights the cultural, agricultural, and commercial influence of Persia.

Another key economic relationship with lasting economic and cultural effect is the 17th century connection with the British East India Company. Beginning in 1624 this relationship established trade between Oman’s ports across the Indian Ocean from Iran down the East African coast to Zanzibar. Not only would this prove advantageous financially through trade and regional influence, the British partnership also helped Oman expel the lingering Portuguese colonial port control. On the one hand, British consolidation of power in India, their defeat of the French, and their monopoly of trade across the Indian Ocean was a threat to Oman as they fought to keep their sovereignty in a time of empire. On the other hand, the British-Oman alliance was significant in holding back Ottoman, Persian, and Arab aggression from those who saw Oman’s Ibadi Islam as infidel beliefs.

It’s important to note that Oman benefited greatly in terms of economics and regional standing due to the profitable slave trade. This is also why Zanzibar and Muscat served as the two centers of power despite being nearly 2,000 miles away from one another. By 1699, the Omanis had taken control of Mombasa and had appointed an Omani-Arab ruling elite called the Mazrui to govern there. The Omanis employed slaves on plantations to grow dates for export primarily to India. “East Africa was the primary source of this new slave workforce.  Saif bin Sultan (1692-1711) was reported to have owned thirty thousand date palms and to have employed seventeen hundred slaves on his plantations in Oman” (Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar, London: James Currey, 1987, p. 19). The source of this power and profit eventually resulted in the Omani capital being moved to Zanzibar in 1832. However the British domination of trade between India and East Africa cut out the business and profits of Omani merchants. And later, the development of steamships, introduced into the Britain to India routes in 1862, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further enabled British dominance of sea trade, and reduced the economic opportunities of Omani merchants. Finally, the British outlawed the slave trade, which greatly hurt Oman’s economy. As a result, Oman fell into severe economic decline beginning in the 1860s.

A new powerful global interest was discovered in the region in the 1930s: oil. In September 1932, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud unified the provinces of the earlier Saudi state, creating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Because of the shared conviction by Sultan Said of Oman and the British that there was also oil in Oman, Sultan Said found himself balancing the need to limit British influence to forge an independent state while drawing upon British military and economic support to secure its unity and independence. In 1937 Sultan Said gave the British Iraq Petroleum Company a seventy-five year lease. His largest struggle was to unite the exterior of Oman, the center of power Muscat along the coast, with the interior, controlled more by religious leaders and scholars in Nizwa and Jabal al-Akhdar. These struggles escalated in 1954, only complicated by Zanzibar independence in 1964, and the Dhofar province revolt, also known as the Omani Civil War, 1963-1976.

With British and Iranian support, Sultan Said Qaboos deposed and exiled his father in 1970, and was able to reconquer the interior territory. Jones and Ridout refer to this as a model counter-insurgency because the government, now well-funded with oil money established government centers to provide water, healthcare education, and social and economic opportunities. The government established these centers with the cooperation of local tribes and operated by local tribal leaders, thereby bringing tribes into allegiance with the government and making them responsible for security and development. Production of oil began in 1967, and by 1973 an export reaching 106 million barrels in that year increased the price from $3 per barrel to more than $12 a barrel.

Under the reign of Sultan Said Qaboos since 1970, changes in economic diversification, human resource development, and privatization have successfully signaled to external audiences that Oman is “open for business.” Traveling around Muscat and the interior today, one can see the result of this rapid development in the last 40 years. The transformation has included advancements in education and skills yet a cultural vision of employment roles and status where Omanis are white-collar, skilled labor, has resulted in many Indian and Bangladeshi blue-collar labor migrants with Omanis supervising. Several people I spoke with shared the notion that there are jobs that Omanis just don’t do. The oil industry reinforces this idea that Omanis invest in commerce and supervise the project; they are not typically the laborers involved in the production.

This is slowly changing because of projections that Oman will run out of oil around 2030. There are government efforts to reshape the economy and to invest in property development and tourism. Recent university graduates I spoke with mentioned that there are tuition incentives for certain academic disciplines with the aim of encouraging students to go into high-demand fields. Future economic and resource stability will also inextricably rely on stability in the region (GCC members) and balancing global powers’ interests and influences including growing investment from China.

Previous blog posts have discussed the domains of religion and spirituality and political and social relations and demonstrated the intertwined, overlapping nature of culture. Oman’s Ibadi majority and their geographic location between the Gulf and Iran on major sea-trade routes have led to a neutral, diplomatic, welcoming state of relative stability amongst its neighbors. Its history of trade and interaction with diverse communities across continents (Persian, Zanzibar, Indian, British, etc.) and the discovery of oil are all informed by one another and continue to inform the culture as it develops today.

مَع السَلامة (with peace, goodbye)