Recent Views on Oman

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Risse, M. “Recent Views on Oman,” British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh; July 6, 2017.


The impetus of this discussion comes from a moment in 2012 when I was doing research for a presentation about the Dhofar War (1965-1975) for the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference. I was reading Halliday’s take on the Dhofar War and its aftermath in my local café in Salalah, where I have lived and taught since 2005. Halliday writes

Within a few years, the Omani regime will be in serious trouble…The country will come to resemble North Yemen, a poor Arabian state with a neglected agriculture and dominated by the oil-producing regimes… In this perspective, the PFLO and others hostile to the Sultan will have definite political opportunities… while the objective conditions for the destruction of the Sultanic regime appears to be maturing again, the emergence of political organizations capable of taking this opportunity in Oman remains to be seen.  (“Economic Decline” 1978 20)

I read this, then looked up and around the café, glancing at the people having quiet discussions at various tables: Dhofari men from various tribes, a table of expat Arab women and children, two Indian businessmen – this peace, THIS peace, would it have come if Halliday’s predictions had come true? Would Halliday’s wished for future been better than this?

That question has stayed with me through the years as I have taught literature and cultural studies at a small university in Salalah. From my own readings in travel writing, anthropology, history, culture and literature; formal and informal interviews and interactions with various groups of Gibali women and men outside my university; and observations of and discussions with Dhofari friends, neighbors, students and co-workers, I have built up an understanding of Dhofari culture, over the last 10 years. I am particularly interested in one group of tribes who speak Gibali/  Jibbali (also known as Shehri/ Shahri), an unwritten, Modern South Arabian language. Gibali/ Jibbali is used both as a noun for the language and the groups of people who speak the language.

Most writing about Oman is gushingly positive, as seen in Jones and Ridout’s works History of Modern Oman (2015) and Oman, Culture and Diplomacy (2012), for example:

perhaps the most important aspect of the Omani social and political micro-climate is the pervasiveness of tolerance as a social, moral and religious value (2005 379)

Charles Cecil, who was the American deputy chief of mission in Oman, writes

Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Busaid, has gradually enfranchised his people, established a bicameral advisory council, prepared the way for a supreme court to be the arbiter of the laws, and worked tirelessly to promote tolerance and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. The result is a peaceful and secure nation, tolerant of other religions and customs, unthreatened by internal conflicts.  (2006)

But there is also a, minority, counter-narrative put forth, for example, by Halliday:

The elements of a future crisis of the Omani Sultanate can already be discerned in the present economic and social conditions (“Economic Decline” 1978 19)

Davidson (2015) also seems to welcome the imminent collapse of Oman’s ruling structure with his screed on “almost medieval entities” (1). Three books which are part of this counter-narrative are:

  • Besant’s Oman: The True-life Drama and Intrigue of an Arab State (2002/ 2013)
  • Valeri’s Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State (2009)
  • Takriti’s Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans and Empires in Oman 1965-1976 (2013).

These stand out from other writings in that they have a more negative view of Oman and all are critical of Sultan Qaboos and the government, ministers in particular. As I talk about these books, I am talking not only about Oman, but about the interplay between the knowledge gained and circulated by historians, anthropologists and political scientists; between the kind of knowledge acquired by academics based elsewhere visiting and writing about a place and the kind of knowledge I have acquired from over ten years living in Oman; and between the insights gained from formal interviews and those I have gained from more than a decade of teaching and talking with Omanis. I don’t think any of those kinds of knowledge are privileged or closer to the ‘truth’ – it is in the interplay and overlap that the clearest image of a culture is discerned