Of all the twenty plus countries I have visited or lived in over the years, one of the most interesting is the Sultanate of Oman. Certainly it is the most interesting of all the countries, emirates, etc in the Arabia peninsula. The diversity of people, cultures, topography, history and strategic location make it a singularly important small nation that few, even American Middle East “experts” know much about.( Digression…more and more I put parenthesis around the term Middle East “experts,” particularly after their whining and idiotic reactions to the elimination of the “Che Guevera” of the Middle East, Qassem Suleimani. Also I needed refuge from the fake “impeachment” show trial.
I visited there with an officer student in about 2000 or earlier and I was very impressed with the possibilities of the country with the right leadership. Since 1970 until January 2020 they had that leadership, under the Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said who died on 10 January 2020. Qaboos was gay and had no children. He was married briefly for cosmetic reasons but divorced a few years ago. He selected his cousin Haitham bin Tariq al Said as the new ruler.I know very little about Haitham but had a chance to observe the Sultan while visiting Salawah, the western- most city in Oman. Amid the blaring of horns and a lot of yelling we watched a caravan of the Sultan in a convertible followed by a number of pickup vehicles with a bunch of young men packed into them. Unlike the rest of the Arab world, he had little or no security escort. The young men did not appear to be armed. How different from every other place I had visited or lived in during my time in the Middle East over the years.
Sultan Qaboos sent his father Sultan, Said Bin Taimur, 1932-1970 packing after Qaboos returned from the British Military Academy (Sandhurst). Bin Taimur was a larger than life character. He was the very embodiment of a reactionary and feudal leader. He told the British commander of the Sultan’s forces, Colonel David Smiley, that he did not want any more health clinics, saying,
“ We are a very poor country which can only support small population. At present many children die in infancy, and so the population does not increase. If we build clinics many more will survive- but for what? To starve? “
When British officials pressed him to educate his people he replied,
“Where would the teachers come from? …They would come from Cairo and spread seditious ideas among their pupils. And what is there here for a young man with with education? He would go to the university in Cairo or the London School of Economics, finish in Moscow and come back here foment trouble.” The Sultan may have been reactionary but he was no dummy. His only son, Qabuus returned from Sandhurst and sent his father to London for good, assuming the rule of Oman.
However Oman has never been an easy country to rule. It’s history is replete with brutal factional and tribal warfare, dating back to the original division of the Arabs, the Adnani and Qatani tribal confederations. In fact there are some 200 tribes that reside in Oman, which coalesce around two main factions, the Ghafiri and Hinawi confederations. This rivalry is magnified by the fact that the Hinawi strongly identify with the Ibadis and the Hinawi with the Sunni.
The Ibadis are one of the three main sects of Islam, the Sunni, Shi’a and Ibadi. The Ibadis have a long and bloody history. They originated with the Kharajites, the most militant of the various forms of Islam. The Kharajites originally formed as the result of the Battle of Siffin in which Ali, the son in law of the Prophet Mohammed was vying for the leadership of the Umma ( the Muslim Community). Ali unwisely chose to negotiate with the pretender Muawiyya, and came out the loser. The Kharajites, ( also known as the seceders), believing that Allah did not accept arbitration, withdrew from the support of Ali and became his most implacable enemy. One of them assassinated Ali near Kufa in Iraq.
The Kharijites evolved into many branches, mostly very violent , and influenced the leader of the Zinj revolt in Iraq, who led the black slaves ( originally imported from East Africa) of the Abbasid regime, employed in the saltpeter mines of southern Iraq, in one of the bloodiest revolts of all history. According to the German orientalist, Theodore Noldeke, the storming of the last bastion of the Zinj rebels, “Thus ended one of the bloodiest and most destructive rebellions in the history of West Asia records.”
The branch of the Kharajites who settled in Oman evolved into a rather inoffensive branch and in practice their day to day religious activities differ very little from the Sunni. however they generally do not intermarry with the Sunni and zealously guard their identity.
At one time Oman was a vast empire, stretching from east Africa to Western India and the Omanis were intrepid seamen, ferrying goods from the Middle East as far as Indochina. One of the principal commodities were humans…the slaves from east Africa. This was one of the principal slave trade routes from Africa to the Arab world and East Asia. It was a trade involving human suffering not exceeded in any epoch of history. A full and gut wrenching description of the Arab slave trade and its effects can be found in Oman: a History by Wendell Phillips, (Longmans, 1967). This aspect of the Arab slave trade has been largely ignored by modern writers, one of the many baleful effects of being “politically correct” ( dishonest, being a more truthful description).
Since 1750 the Al Bu Said family has ruled Oman and lived in near isolation, invaded by the Portuguese,( for over a hundred years), the Persians, and their Arab neighbors, the Saudis. When not under foreign rule, the Omanis were at each others throats, leading the most renown historian of the Persian Gulf region, J.B. Kelly, Arabia, the Gulf and the West, to write. As an aside perhaps it should be mentioned that none of the European imperialists could possibly approach the brutality of the Portuguese who routinely slaughtered women, and children, burning down the towns. The Portuguese era in the Arabian peninsula is a very interesting one. I need to read more about them. Any way the quote by JB Kelly,
“Centuries of feuding have bred in them ( Omanis) a rancorous disposition , and long isolation has made them intensely suspicious of strangers and foreign influences. The contentiousness which is so marked a feature of Omani life is due in large measure to the inveterate religious discord and factional rivalry that exits within Omani society.”
I found that to be true. They were not of the generally welcoming nature one finds in Arab culture. Most Omani individuals seemed very dour and reserved but not as bad as their neighbors the Yemenis. There were some great exceptions but these mostly turned out to be Indians, or Persians. Most of the shops were managed by Persians and Indians, both Hindu and Muslim but the shop owners were Omanis, who largely eschew work as something real men don’t do. The oil wealth of the Omanis, not approaching anywhere near that of the Persian Gulf emirates, nevertheless has exacerbated the lack of a work ethic. However, what they lack in civic virtues they more than make up in martial qualities. The Dhofaris of the Dhofar region of western Oman are justly renown for their soldierly qualities. as are the tribesmen of the Green mountain region of north east Oman..
I had the distinct pleasure of spending some time with the Trucial Oman Scouts in 1968, the British officered, Arab defense force of the Emirates ( now UAE). I was with the Squadron that was almost entirely Dhofaris. They were excellent tough soldiers and I very much enjoyed my time with them.
Oman under the wise and benevolent rule of Sultan Qabuus leaped from the 15th Century several hundred years ahead. The society is still fairly primitive but the progress made under the late Sultan is truly remarkable. He is the example of what could happen in the Arab world if they had decent leadership…….leaders who actually cared about the people instead of pursuing glory, quest for more power and personal wealth. It is probably the most peaceful nation in the Middle East , boasting of many years of stability. He had maintained a miraculous degree of neutrality in a region wherein it is almost impossible to do so, amicably working with the Arab nations, Iran, and Israel. He had not become embroiled in the useless and self defeating Palestinian issue.
To be sure the British have played an important part in the stability of the Sultanate, very visible in the government since about 1891, when Oman became a British protectorate. In 1958 the Omanis and the British concluded an agreement in which the British assumed control and training of the armed forces of the Omanis. The Commanders of the British advisory in Oman have been some very famous British Officers. Brigadier Pat Waterfield , and especially retired Colonel David Smiley were among them at the time most crucial to the survival of the Sultanate.
Almost all the equipment of the Omani military is of British origin, including the main British battle tank, the Challenger II and Typhoon fighters. British support has been critical in supporting the Sultan. The reign of Sultan Qabuus’s father, Said bin Taimur, was not always peaceful as the Marxists, Arab nationalists, and the Saudis of Saudi Arabia have tried to overturn the regime. The first attempt was called the Jebel Akhdar rebellion which lasted from 1954 to 1959. One can get the left wing view of the war from wikipedia or the British view from J.B. Kelly and Wendell Phillips. The former depicts it as a war over oil discovered in the region, eagerly sought by the rapacious Sultan and pushed by the greedy British imperialists. The British saw it as a war to consolidate the rule of the Musqat Sultan al Said over the rebellious interior which was involved in tribal warfare fanned by ambitious tribal sheikhs, amply supported by Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia with arms and training. After some serious losses by the Sultan’s forces, the British began deploying regular units to defeat the rebels. In 1959 the British deployed major Special Air Services units ( SAS) and air force assets to decisively defeat the rebels.
The more serious revolt fanned by Arab nationalism and Marxist expansionism was the Dhofari revolt, which dragged on from 1963 to 1976. In this war, the British, the Shah’s Iran, Jordan, and Egypt assisted the Omanis, while the Soviet Union, China, South Yemen, and Iraq supported the Dhofari rebels. Again it was the British SAS which made the difference and finally defeated the Dhofari rebels in 1976.
Oman is polyglot of different people, including Arabs, Persians, Baluchis, Indians, East Africans, and a substantial number of British expatriates who are very involved in every aspect of Omani life. In fact, the Dhofaris have their own own dialect of Arabic which sounds very different to the ear from Arabic, including traces of Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. In the Musandem peninsula, live a tribe called the Shihuh, who also speak a different brand of Arabic mixed with Farsi. They are famous for a long handled axe which they use in an upper cut fashion to slash the throat of their opponent.
I bought one off a Shihuh tribesman who showed up at our campfire when I was with the TOS soldiers. Unfortunately in one of our many moves it disappeared.
But the most fantastic part of the visit to Oman was the time spent in Salawah, on the further most western tip of Oman. Flying from the city of Musqat to Salawah we flew over hundreds of miles of sun-baked desert with practically no vegetation, and then suddenly we flew into a fog shrouded mist that covers a good part of the region around Salawah and everything below turned green. It reminded me of the movie Shangri La. This drastic change of scenery is the result of the tip of the Indian Monsoons reaching Salawah and the surrounding mountains to the north keeping the dry hot winds from Arabia from burning up the terrain.
Many Brits go camping in Oman and if properly equipped it is very enjoyable…… I was told. I chose to camp out in the Salawah Holiday Inn.
So in conclusion I am wondering why anyone with a choice would prefer stumbling around cathedrals and crumbling ruins in “old” Europe, fighting their way through throngs of other tourists and being cheated by every surly arrogant shop owner the guide brings you to. I prefer being cheated the Arab way…with smiles and proffered coffee and tea. But there is no accounting for tastes!!!