Guest Author: Corien Hoek
Although Oman normally appears to be a very quiet country the spirit of the revolutions seemed to have reached this country a few weeks ago, putting it at the center of attention in the Netherlands because of a scheduled visit of the Dutch queen at that time. In this media attention a lot of time and effort was devoted to explain that Oman is a tribal society. “Tribal societies lead to civil war when the central authority declines. Tribal leaders become war lords who seize power and tribal wars are imminent. Thus there is little hope that these societies will be successful in transforming their institutions, once they have ousted their dictator.” This bogy dooms large in the media and blur our understanding of the current uprisings when the revolutions and concomitant transformations are discussed that take place in the Middle East. However if one looks at these societies from an anthropological perspective a different image of this social phenomenon, not typical for Middle Eastern societies alone, may arise. Based upon my research in Oman, I will show that in this country, state and nation building over a long period of time has thoroughly transformed the tribal organization even though tribes still constitute the back-bone of society at grass-roots level. These social formations have an important integrative function, whereby seeking consensus, and negotiating with representatives from all groups concerned are well-proofed methods and conditions for the success of authority and stability within and between the tribes. Moreover equality of the families, their leaders and the members is a guiding principle, in which the Islam has its role too.
Oman: A Confederacy of Tribes
Oman enjoys one of the longest statehoods in the Arab world, only rivaled by Egypt. The state is based on the tribal organisation, which the Arabs brought into the country about two millennia ago. However, in the course of time the state transformed from a confederacy of semi-autonomous tribes headed by the supra-tribal ruler to a nation state with a national government, laws, judicial powers and civil services. State formation has been the important factor in diminishing the power and significance of the tribal system.
The tribe in Oman is made up of clans or factions (fakhdh, pl. fukhudh) which are groups of people bound to each other by obligations deriving from their common descent. While the family is the minimal descent group, the clan represents the intermediate level and the tribe is the maximal descent group with a sense of corporate responsibility and solidarity (asabiya). Members of this kinship system acknowledge a common forebear, whether fictitious or real, who gives them their identity and often the common name. The tribal system is patrilineal and hierarchical even though the leaders (shaykh pl. shuyukh and rashid pl. rushada) elected from specific lineage groups at the various levels, are seen as more equal among equals. The tribe is agnatic endogamous (marriage within patriline c.q. tribe) through the preference of eligible parallel cousin partners. Tribes used to organize their own authority and judicial power through councils (majalis, sing. majlis) and religious courts (al-qada` al-shar`i) on the basis of consensus building and negotiations by representatives of various groups. Thus they functioned as relative autonomous social formations.
Tribes would form regional confederations through alliances with other tribes for example in contiguous areas. The hierarchical organisation of confederations of tribes throughout the country used to determine the national power balance. National leaders in Oman, whether religious or secular, were elected from core tribes, resident in certain areas in the interior provinces of Oman. Since 1744 the Al Bu Sa’id tribe established a ruling dynasty through hereditary succession. The present Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id Al Sa’id is the fourteenth ruler.
Traditionally, the tribe structured territorial and economic links besides kinship and social political relations. A tribe has a distinctive territory (dar, pl. dira) which constitutes its home- and rangeland. Tribal members used to depend for their source of subsistence primarily on the natural resources of the tribal territory. This also determined in a sense their life-style. Thus in the desert and mountain areas, where water is limited, people practiced pastoral nomadism i.e. animal husbandry by natural graze of goat and camel, moving with their livestock to grazing pastures. In areas where water was available, the inhabitants cultivating dates and vegetables could lead a sedentary life in oasis settlements. Finally, people who lived close to the sea could take up fishing. In addition to these subsistence activities (other) members of the tribe were occupied with trading, craft work or other maritime activities, to supplement the income. Depending on the range of territorial lands tribes consisted entirely or dominantly of pastoral people (bedu), or sedentary people (hadhar) or comprised a large variety of occupational groups. When territories did not offer enough opportunities to make a living, members, families or factions could split off, move, or take up other occupations which offered more perspective. The tribal organisation may still consist of occupational groups related to the presence of natural resources, but modern economic activities, not directly related to natural resources, have become a dominant source of income for individual members. Employment in the government (administration, army), the oil- and other industries is pursued by the sedentary and bedouin alike.
From this perspective the tribal organization constituted a flexible, multi-resource and multi-occupational group offering the tribal members a variety of economic options when necessary. Less fortunate members, families or factions of the tribe could depend on the solidarity and common responsibility of others. This proved vital to survive in the unpredictable environment of a desert climate. Similarly on a higher level, forming coalitions between tribes, merging or even subjugation of tribes, or tribal factions, served as much the economic needs of the people, as it was induced by sheer political motivation.
Omani people converted to Islam in the seventh century. The allegiance of the Islamic community (umma) to one God provided the members of the independent tribes with a principle of social and moral integration. Under the Ibadhi doctrine, developed and professed in Iraq and Oman, the religious leader (Imam) had to be locally elected, which based the formation of the state as early as the 8th century. The religious authority for the state’s leadership was in the hands of representatives from tribes which guarded the Ibadhi principles.
The Imam was nominated and elected by a council of chiefs, while other representatives of the tribes and provinces swore allegiance to him. If the leader did not adhere to the religious principles, he either had to repent or else he could be deposed. The democratic concept of the Ibadhi leadership had parallels with the elected leadership of the tribes in Oman. The ruler depended on the allegiance of the tribes, but the physical power remained with the tribal representatives in their homelands. This gave them a position of relative independence and the possibility to restrict the ruler’s control over the region.
In the course of history the semi-autonomous tribes were integrated into one political entity under a religious power (Imamate), or under a secular power (Sultanate) at times when the religious community did not have the power to provide for the leadership. These periods were interspersed with periods when the more dominant tribes pursued their own autonomy thereby opposing central power.
Political stability as a factor for a beneficent period depended on the balance between the tribes and the national power. A ruler who was powerful enough to unite the tribes, who succeeded in securing the wealth the country derived from its strategic location in the profitable maritime trade (i.e. gaining access to the ports, thereby safeguarding a neutrality towards the commercial activities in the ports, expanding Oman’s maritime empire etc.), and who reinvested the revenues in the country’s development to secure allegiance of the tribes, opened the door to prosperity. Oman’s modern history is a repetition of a successful interplay between these main determinants, whereby the introduction of the new asset: oil, further contributed to the prosperity and stability of the country.
Since the 1970s oil revenues secure a steady income for the state. Under the rule of the present sultan and his government these revenues are continuously invested in further development of the state and the country. Existing institutions at the national level are strengthened and new ones, related to governing the nation state, added. Moreover the oil wealth is relatively equally distributed throughout the country. Roads, electricity, water, schools and hospitals have been laid out at a high speed and reach even the most remote areas and isolated hamlets.
The significance of the tribal organisation in the context of the modern nation state formation decreases. All tribes co-operate with and participate in the central state organization. Central interests transcend tribal interests. In the beginning of the rapid development process, the tribal system played its part in the distribution of state owned amenities and services throughout the country; all tribes being keen to have their share of the state owned wealth in their own territories. The government, in which tribal representatives participated, naturally underlined this principle of equal distribution, though not necessarily distributing goods only along tribal lines. At the same time representation of the tribe at the national level is losing its significance too. Whereas in the 1980s, the tribes assigned their representatives for the State Consultative Council, since 1991 members for the Consultation Council are elected by the people and represent municipalities (wilayats) rather than tribes. On its part, the government has its representation in the region such as the wali (mayor) police, army, judicial courts and local branches of ministries.
On the other hand, at the grass-roots level of Omani society the tribal organisation still plays its role in matters of kinship, affiliation and as a social network for its members. Tribal leaders often function as mediators between the members of the tribe and between members and the administrative representatives at various levels of society. The chiefs continue to take counsel with the male members of the tribe in their sabla (council hall) in their territories to discuss a wide variety of subjects relevant to the tribe, ranging from tribal history, religious and judicial matters and national and international affairs, to local and economic issues such as palm cultivation, water distribution in the oasis, trade opportunities and last but not least marriages and other family themes. Supporters, advisors and guests are always welcome to join in the sablas. In addition, kinship affiliation and -loyalty bring members informally together on social and cultural occasions such as birth, marriage, death and other celebrations. The tribe therefore is still a strong cohesive force for families and individual members whether close by or living dispersed in the country or abroad. Thus, it supports the integration of people within the region and the country at large.
The society at large however, is clearly transforming from an “ascribed” to an “achieved” society where the individual qualities and achievements gradually obtain more weight than the tribal position and personal status therein of its members. Education, mobility and the process of individualisation play their roles in this development. Individuals join affiliations other than the tribal ones such as social formations based on occupational, ethnic, religious or other identities. These have their own autonomy and integrate themselves in the society through economic, social and cultural participation, playing their role in the development process in the country.
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Lancaster, W., 1988. ‘Fishing and the Coastal Communities: Indigenous economies- decline or renewal’, Journal of Oman Studies Special Report, No. 3, 485-494. Muscat.
Wilkinson, J. C., 1972a. ‘The Origins of the Omani State’, in D. Hopwood ed., The Arabian Peninsula: Society and Politics, 67-88, London: George Allan and Unwin.
Corien Hoek is board member of the Dutch Anthropology Association. She did extensive fieldwork in al Sharqiyah region in Oman and in 1998 defended her PhD “Shifting Sands, Social economic development in Al Sharqiyah region, Oman”. Besides her work on socio-economic issues in the Middle East (from an anthropological perspective) she is also board member and co-founder of the MECART Foundation (Middle Eastern Culture and Art) for the exchange of Middle Eastern art and artists and the promotion of better knowledge of the Middle Eastern societies and cultures in the Netherlands.