Oman: Jewel of Arabia

Perched precariously on the eastern tip of Arabia, Oman seems to cling to the very edge of the peninsula, as if at any moment it might fall into the Arabian Sea.  Remote and mountainous, it is by far the most beautiful of the oil-producing Persian Gulf states.  In the north of the country tower the Hajar Mountains, a rugged limestone spine of bare rock that millions of years ago was pushed up from the sea bed by an incredible tectonic force.  Although the mountains themselves are bare, they are riven throughout by valleys and canyons, or wadis, where rainwater flows during rare downpours.  Some wadis hold water year-round, providing a source of water for plants and sheltering small wildlife. In the south of the country, the desert turns green every summer as seasonal monsoon storms batter the coastline.

Ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said since 1970, the country has come from rags to riches in the last forty years.  Formerly as poor a country as Bangladesh or Haiti, rumor has it that the previous sultan (Said bin Taimur) kept the entire treasury of the country beneath his bed. Since then, the development of Oman’s significant oil reserves has brought banks, six-lane highways, a plethora of five-star hotels, and one of the world’s highest-rated health systems. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of guest workers.

The view from Fort Nakhl, near the town of Sohar. Note the contrast between the irrigated date palm plantations and the bone-dry mountains. Credit: User arminwiegel at panoramio.com

The view from Fort Nakhl, on the northern Batinah coast of Oman. Note the contrast between the irrigated date palm plantations and the bone-dry mountains.

Forts are one of Oman’s major tourist attractions, along with pristine beaches and lush wadis. There is a fort in virtually every single town or village.  Most are built on the highest point in the settlement, and like medeival European forts are well-protected and boast thick walls. Many have their own water supply.  In addition to the forts, one can comfortably view old, mud-brick watchtowers situated on the tops of mountains, as one drives down the highway at high speed in an air-conditioned car.  It must have taken an amazing feat of logistics and engineering to construct an edifice in such an inaccessible place.

Yet these structures were not built for aesthetics or pleasure any more than the Crac des Chevaliers in Syria was built for its refined architecture.  Oman’s past is a turbulent one, full of tribal wars and fratricide.  Until the 1960s, many forts were still in use, some as prisons and some in their original capacity. The watchtowers served as lookouts, to alert one tribe of imminent attack from its neighbors.  For millenia, tribalism has reigned supreme in Oman.  The current Sultan, a firm but benevolent absolute monarch, has managed to keep the lid on the low-level conflict typical of tribal societies, but forty short years are unlikely to erase history. Tribal family names and distinct geographical tribal areas are still very much present in Oman.

Plenty of evidence testifies to the measures necessary to hold such a fragmented society together.  Two hours’ drive south of the capital, Muscat, lie the mudbrick ruins of the village of Tanuf.  The villagers of Tanuf were part of a tribal connurbation that had loosely supported a rival leader to the Sultan in Muscat.  During the 1950s, they joined a movement later named the Imamate rebellion, refusing to accept the sultan as their ruler on the grounds that he had no religious credentials.  (Most Omanis belong to the Ibadhi sect of Islam, which maintains that the political leader of the nation should also be its spiritual leader, or Imam.) In response, Qaboos’s father bombed their village to pieces. Source: Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE, by Anthony Cordesman

One cannot afford, in Middle Eastern tribal society, to show weakness or softness.  If the Sultan had “gone easy” on the rebels, he would have shown weakness.  New challenges to his authority could have arisen from other, more powerful, rival tribes.  But by asserting his authority and crushing the movement before it dragged the nation into bloodier tribal wars and civil disarray, the Sultan created the conditions whereby he could develop Oman into a modern country.

Was he justified? Perhaps in realpolitik terms. One can at least understand the rationale behind his actions, if not agree with them. (The British, who supplied him with the planes, were very understanding.) Oman, under the rule of the sultans, is today one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.  And yet, in Western terms, the underlying “problem” of tribalism in Oman has not yet been solved. If the source of central authority were to disappear, one could fully expect tribalism to reassert itself in full force.

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