African Affairs, 106/424, 479–496

doi:10.1093/afraf/adm020 Advance Access Publication 13 June 2007

# The Author [2007]. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved

NATION-BUILDING AND COMMUNITIES IN OMAN SINCE 1970: THE SWAHILI-SPEAKING OMANI IN SEARCH OF IDENTITY
MARC VALERI

ABSTRACT Since 1970, building a new national identity by reunifying Oman’s ethno-linguistic groups has been at the heart of Sultan Qaboos’s political project. This paper focuses on the place of Omani who returned from the former colonies of Zanzibar and East Africa, responding to Sultan Qaboos’s call to ‘nationals’ abroad. While they played a leading role in the modernization process of the Sultanate, these Swahili-speaking Omani faced prejudices from the population who stayed at home and were forced to give guarantees to the others of their full belonging to the nation. As a consequence, despite their internal differences, they have progressively developed a new collective identity, which has its raison ˆ d’etre within the framework of the modern Omani State, and can only be explained by the necessity to find their place in it.

WHEN QABOOS BIN SA‘ID OVERTHREW HIS FATHER IN JULY 1970 and took up the title of Sultan of Oman, the isolated state emerged from more than 15 years of civil war with many social and political divisions.1 In order to maintain his authority and gain acceptance, the new ruler had to position himself as the only person able to pull together all the ethno-linguistic groups present on the Omani territory and create a new collective

Marc Valeri (marc.valeri@gmail.com) received a PhD in political science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques of Paris in 2005. He is now Lecturer in political science and constitutional law at La Rochelle University (France). He is the author of Le sultanat ´ d’Oman: une revolution en trompe-l’oeil (2007, forthcoming). His current work deals with authoritarianism and political legitimacy in Oman and the Gulf. He would like to thank Jean-Francois Bayart for his support and the confidence he placed in this research. He is also ¸ grateful to four anonymous referees of African Affairs for their encouraging comments or insightful critiques of earlier drafts of the paper. Responsibility remains exclusively with the author.

1. John Peterson, Oman in the Twentieth Century: Political foundations of an emerging state (Croom Helm, London, 1978).

479

480

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

identity.2 In pursuing this objective, Qaboos used the homogenizing power of the central state, drawing on the exploitation of newly significant oil rents. First, the state-controlled oil subsidies made possible previously unknown economic and social development, while the public sphere became an inexhaustible bank of jobs open to all levels of skill. The new civil servants in the national army, police and governmental administrations were less inclined to question the system because they directly depended on it. Sultan Qaboos thus endeavoured to make the Omani people dependant on the state for their daily life, rather than on kinship or ‘group feeling’ (‘asabiyya).3 This trend went along with a symbolic process of national unification via a new historiography, which reframed identities by being centred on the person of the Sultan. Any reference to the pre-1970, 20th century history has remained taboo until now. Presented as a ‘dark period’, it is never mentioned other than in contrast with the ‘national awakening’ that happened on the glorious 23 July 1970, the date of Qaboos’s accession to ˆ the throne, renamed ‘Renaissance Day’ (‘aıd al-nahda). This ‘made to measure’ historiography is embedded within a broader frame that reinvents the national heritage (al-turath al-watani ). In this way, Sultan Qaboos worked to establish his own legitimacy by building both an Omani state and an Omani nation. Through a national identity reshaped in connection with an omnipresent state apparatus, the paternalist authority of Qaboos was legitimized. In order to benefit from material (royal subsidies, economic contracts, etc.) and symbolic (civil servant positions) rewards in the new political order, all Omanis had to participate in this competition for allegiance to the nation and loyalty to the chief. Group solidarities, whether based on ‘primordial ties’4 (like tribes, clans or ethnic groups) or not, are socio-political constructions; their structure and relevance depend on the context in which they evolve and the multiple actors they interact with. The most important factor is how the group members view themselves or wish to be viewed. As Dale Eickelman has observed, ‘there is no natural tie of obligation between men and groups, but [. . .] these must be maintained. [. . .] The obligations that derive from
´ 2. Marc Valeri, Le sultanat d’Oman: une revolution en trompe-l’oeil (Karthala, Paris, 2007 forthcoming). ˆn, 3. Introduced by Ibn Khaldu the notion of ‘asabiyya, usually translated by ‘group feeling’ or ‘esprit de corps’, is understood as populations tied by blood links or behaviours, acting as a group or defining themselves as such, and most of the time—but not necessarily—organized to achieve ˆn, common goals (like taking positions of power). See Ibn Khaldu The Muqaddimah: An introduction to history, chapter 2 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1980). 4. Clifford Geertz, ‘The integrative revolution. Primordial sentiments and civil politics in the new states’, in Clifford Geertz (ed.), Old Societies and New States: The quest for modernity in Asia and Africa (Free Press of Glencoe, London, 1963), pp. 105– 57.

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

481

identity are not necessarily binding in and of themselves. This is one of the reasons that identities can be so flexible in practice’.5 Given that the modern state provides a framework that shapes and constrains sociopolitical strategies in post-colonial societies,6 group solidarities need to be studied in relation to the state and the actors who control it. In this perspective, the experience of the ‘back-from-Africa’7 Omani brings a valuable contribution to the study of the modern state-led process of Omani national identity building. These populations are the descendants of Omani who migrated to the East African coast, mainly within the framework of the colonization of Zanzibar (since the 17th century), but also later for more socio-economic motivations (since the end of the 19th century). They belong to the large expatriate Omani community whom Sultan Qaboos called upon in 1970 to join forces in order to develop the country. Owing to the modern Omani Arab ancestry they claim, they are clearly distinct from the populations descending from former indigenous African slaves (sing. khadim; servants), now living in Oman. This article focuses on the identity-building process of these nationals who moved back to Oman, and their position within the nation imagined by Sultan Qaboos. Despite being foremen of the technical and industrial modernization of the sultanate and key cogs of the new state, the Omani of East Africa were immediately expected to justify their full belonging to the nation, in a context of competition in which everyone endeavoured to show greater loyalty to the Sultan than the other. While a deeply heterogeneous group, this population has developed a group feeling (‘asabiyya) based on their shared vernacular language—Swahili. Far from challenging ˆ the national unity, this solidarity extracts its raison d’etre from the more or less conflicting confrontations with other collective actors in the modern state, but has, in the end, contributed to the integration of the returnees and anchored them within the Omani socio-political game.

5. Dale Eickelman, The Middle East and Central Asia: An anthropological approach, 4th edn. (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2002), pp. 131 –2. 6. Frederick Bailey, Stratagems and Spoils: A social anthropology of politics (Blackwell, ´ ´ Oxford, 1969); Jean-Francois Medard, ‘L’Etat patrimonialise’, Politique africaine, 39 ¸ (September 1990), pp. 25 –36. 7. For the whole paper, as the actors themselves do in the three languages (Arabic, English and French), the vocabulary of ‘return’ will be used to account for the settling process in Oman, from the 1960s until now, of individuals and families who claim Omani ancestry and who previously lived in East Africa. Yet, this lexique dealing with the ‘return to the native country’ only partially covers the facts, as most of them had personally never set foot in Oman before their ‘come back’. Nevertheless, we keep this explicit vocabulary which witnesses both their will to appear distinct from the African societies (especially their former slaves) where they lived for decades and the complexity of their symbolic ties with Oman since their re-settlement on this territory.

482

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

The Omani footprint in East Africa The Swahili-speaking populations have formed a ‘middlemen mercantile’8 Muslim society whose historical shaping is intimately linked to its geographical position, at the interaction between mainland African civilizations on the one hand, and the continuous waves of migration among the Arab world, Asia and the East African coast on the other.9 Over the past two millennia, southern Arabia made an obvious contribution to the formation of Swahili identity.10 In particular, it played a leading role in Swahili historiography and narratives of origins. For instance, the Swahili elite have long-claimed descent from Arabian ancestries—and indeed, considered themselves as Arabs—to legitimize their social status and to strengthen their differences with other Swahili populations—especially those they viewed as ‘African’.11 The history of the exchanges between south-eastern Arabia and the Swahili coast goes back to the first centuries of the Islamic era, but it was given a new shape when the al-Ya‘rubi rulers supplanted the Portuguese on the Oman coast in 1650. The Omani sultanate of Zanzibar was erected in the middle of the 18th century, under the newly established al-Busa‘idi dynasty. Nevertheless, the Swahili businessmen maintained their economic pre-eminence on the coast. Until Sa‘id bin Sultan’s rule (1806 – 1856), the Omani rulers did not succeed in implementing enough political stability to effectively take profit from their African colonies and to subdue local populations. The major disruption of the Swahili socioeconomic system can be traced back to the 1830s. Given the increasingly tough British commercial and military competition in the Persian Gulf, Sa‘id resolutely turned his mind to the growing commercial potential of East Africa. He raised Zanzibar as his capital in 1832, then conquered Mombasa, which had been ruled by the Omani-native Mazru’i dynasty, five years later. Sa‘id tightened his grip on the Swahili coast both politically and economically, which turned the economic balance in favour of
8. John Middleton, The World of the Swahili: An African mercantile civilization (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992). 9. Mark Horton and John Middleton, The Swahili: The social landscape of a mercantile society (Blackwell, Oxford, 2000); Derek Nurse and Thomas Spear, The Swahili: Reconstructing the history and language of an African society (University of Philadelphia Press, Philadelphia, 1985); Thomas Spear, ‘Early Swahili history reconsidered’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 33, 2 (2000), pp. 257– 90. 10. Bradford G. Martin, ‘Arab migrations to East Africa in medieval times’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 7, 3 (1974), pp. 367– 90; John Middleton, ‘The immigrant communities (3): The Arabs of the East African coast’, in Donald A. Low and Alison Smith (eds), History of East Africa, vol. III (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976), pp. 489 –507. 11. This phenomenon took a special dimension under the rule of the Omani Sultanate of Zanzibar: see Jonathon Glassman, Feasts and Riot: Revelry, rebellion, and popular consciousness on the Swahili coast, 1856– 1888 (James Currey, London, 1995).

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

483

the Muscati Arab and Hindu merchant classes, whose interests were historically linked to the al-Busa‘idi rulers.12 The prosperity of the 19th century Sultanate of Zanzibar is mostly the prosperity of Sa‘id’s Omani ´ ´ proteges who gained control over a great part of the commercial networks between Africa (source of spices, slaves, precious stones, ivory), India (manufactured articles and textiles) and Oman (dates and frankincense). If the first modern wave of Omani settlements in East Africa had begun under the al-Ya‘rubi dynasty, the hegemony of the Zanzibar Sultanate came with a sharp rise in immigration from Oman, since the authorities of the Sultanate firmly encouraged such settlers. This new political configuration soon allowed many of the immigrants to reach top political positions and to build economic supremacy on the Swahili coast, together with the import of a huge number of people from the mainland to serve as slaves in the plantations.13 Under the Omani sultans in the 19th century, a new aristocracy based both on protection of and close relationships with the authorities and on recent Omani lineage appeared. The former Swahili elite, who considered them as parvenus, was constrained to accept a new social order in which their positions were dramatically weakened. At the same time the trade with the African mainland (western Tanganyika, Buganda and the Congo basin) developed dramatically, under the impulse of Omani-owned companies.14 After Sa‘id’s death, the inability of his sons Thuwainy and Majid to regulate the succession led, under British pressure, to the dismemberment of the Omani possessions into two political entities of Muscat and Zanzibar in 1861. If Barghash’s rule (1870 – 1888) marked the apogee of trade for, as for trade matters, of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, the Omani political power in Africa was already in decay. The growing British influence in the region led to the establishment of a protectorate in Zanzibar in 1890. Nevertheless, the waves of Omani migration to Africa did not dry up, owing to the dreadful living conditions in unproductive Inner Oman. Flows of emigrants looking for attractive revenues followed one another all through the first half of the 20th century, not only to the Swahili coast, but still deeper and deeper into the mainland as well. Yet this second wave of Omani-native settlers never enjoyed the
12. Frederick Cooper, Plantation slavery on the east coast of Africa (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977); Glassman, Feasts and Riot; Mohammed Reda Bhacker, Trade and Empire in Muscat and Zanzibar: Roots of British domination (Routledge, London, 1992); Abdul Sheriff and Ed Ferguson (eds), Zanzibar under colonial rule (James Currey, London, 1991). 13. Edward A. Alpers, Ivory and Slaves in East Central Africa: Changing patterns of international trade to the late nineteenth century (Heinemann, London, 1975); Cooper, Plantation slavery on the east coast of Africa; Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, spices and ivory in Zanzibar (James Currey, London, 1987). 14. Norman Bennett, A history of the Arab State of Zanzibar (Methuen, London, 1978), p. 85 et seq.; Cooper, Plantation slavery on the east coast of Africa.

484

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

same possibilities to upgrade their social and economic positions as their predecessors had encountered: as Colette Le Cour Grandmaison has shown, the later the immigrants arrived, the fewer opportunities they had to access wealth and prosperity, which led to a hardly acknowledged but nevertheless actual ‘stratification’ among the Omani Arabs in East Africa.15 Given that they usually did not possess more than a low level of education and a very poor knowledge of Islam, the ‘Manga Arabs’16 could not aspire to much more than filling low level economic positions, like small land cultivators, plantation overseers, caravan managers or small traders. This dividing line among the Omani in Africa is well illustrated by the disparity of the matrimonial strategies they adopted. As far as Manga Arabs were concerned, men usually came alone to find jobs, which led to polygamous marriages with African women,17 since a large proportion were already married in Oman before migrating. With time passing, and Omani women and families joining men in Africa, marriage networks of the Manga Arabs stabilized among the ‘asabiyya members, whether the latter were born within the Omani settlement in Africa or in Oman. At the same time, the decision to choose partners from among the richest families of the coast was not based on tribal affiliation or kinship, but their position in the society18 and the purity of their Arab lineage. A clanism of social class grouping families of equal social, cultural and economic status thus served as a substitute for traditional ‘asabiyya. Later British and German classifications of East African populations into census categories such as ‘African’, ‘Arab’ or ‘Indian’ gave an overly homogenized view of ‘Omani Arabs’ on the Swahili coast. Not only were the social and economic cleavages among the different ‘Omani’ populations relegated into the background, given that all the Omani were identified with the generic term of ‘Arab’, together with Yemeni or Comorian, but moreover these categories tended to overlook the varied stages through which the Omani in East Africa had been integrated within the Swahili society, or viewed themselves as ‘Swahili’.19 By the middle of the

15. Colette Le Cour Grandmaison, ‘Rich cousins, poor cousins: Hidden stratification among the Omani Arabs in eastern Africa’, Africa 59, 2 (1989), p. 178. 16. If the loaded term ‘Manga’ has borne various meanings since the 17th century, in the 20th century it referred to the most recent Arabic-speaking immigrants of Omani origins who enjoyed lower status than the Omani who had settled several generations before and who considered themselves at the same time as an Arab aristocracy and as an integral part of the Swahili society. 17. Marriages between Omani men and African women were so frequent that in Oman nowadays the Arabic word khal (‘maternal uncle’), used in a derisive way, designates an Omani who lived in Africa. In that sense, khal indirectly refers to the notion of externality, as opposed to ‘amm, the paternal uncle. 18. Le Cour Grandmaison, ‘Rich cousins, poor cousins’.

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

485

20th century, all the Omani, whatever their social classes, including the clans who belonged to the Zanzibar aristocracy, used Swahili language, while only a few, except among the most educated circles or the traders who maintained seasonal migrations between Africa and southern Arabia, had a good command of Arabic. Indeed, many Omani Arabs in East Africa were ‘swahilized’ to such a point that ‘it was frequently uncertain as to whether individual men were “Arab” or “Swahili”’.20 But if the wellestablished Omani in Zanzibar and the islands have usually been compared with a creolized elite, who could enjoy the protection of the Sultanate authorities, and later received rather good consideration from the British administration, this parallel hardly works for Manga Arabs, who migrated to Africa basically for socio-economic reasons. Contrary to what happened to their predecessors, these migrants did not benefit from a state-led colonization process, as they settled in territories under European protectorates, which proved reluctant to welcome migrants from southern Arabia after the 1920s. Key allies of the new Omani ruler In 1964, the revolution in Zanzibar put an end to the local al-Busa‘idi dynasty.21 The Omani Arabs were summoned by the newly independent state to ‘go back home’, because of their supposed foreignness. Yet no collective repatriation process was organized by the sultan of Muscat. It is alleged that around 17,000 Arabs died during the events.22 Oman received 3,700 refugees only and many other families were forced to settle in Dubai, Kuwait or Cairo.23 A second wave of return followed the call launched in 1970 by Sultan Qaboos to the Omani elite abroad, inviting them to contribute to the ‘awakening’ of the country. Around 10,000 Omani from Zanzibar are thought to have moved back to Oman by 1975. Despite the fact that most of the expatriate Omani did not speak Arabic fluently, Qaboos had no option but to grant them Omani citizenship, as soon as they returned, without any consideration of the time their family had spent abroad.24
19. Different identity feelings usually coexisted. Many considered themselves at the same time ‘Omani’, ‘Arab’, ‘Zanzibari’ and ‘Swahili’. 20. Horton and Middleton, The Swahili, p. 186. See also Cooper, From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation labor and agriculture in Zanzibar and coastal Kenya, 1890– 1925 (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1980). 21. Michael Lofchie, Zanzibar: Background to revolution (Oxford University Press, London, 1965). 22. John Peterson, ‘Oman’s diverse society: northern Oman’, Middle East Journal 58, 1 (2004), p. 46. 23. Ibid. 24. The decree n.1/72 established that the child whose father was Omani would automatically get Omani nationality, but also the child whose mother was Omani and the

486

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

First, the Omani abroad were relatively more educated than those at home. Many of them spoke English fluently and had been trained in technical fields in Europe, East Africa or other Gulf countries, so they made a significant workforce for the ruler’s planned modernization. Besides, given his political isolation when he came to the throne, the Sultan understood that since the Omani abroad had neither been involved in the internal political and tribal issues in Oman nor on the best of terms with his father’s regime, they could be an asset to him. All these factors account for the fact that the returnees soon filled many positions in key fields such as intelligence, police and security. Their Arabic language handicap was outweighed by their skills in administrative organization and political control. An example of the Sultan’s dependency on these Omani during the first years of his rule is given by the Interim Planning Council, established in March 1972 to shape development achievements. Of its 10 members, six had been educated in eastern European countries, while two had been born in Zanzibar and had never been in Oman prior to the 1970 coup.25 Yet, in a society like Oman where personal relationships play such a role, the fact that marriage patterns of most Manga Arabs had been limited to their kin in Africa, and that they had been kept out of the political affairs of the sultanate in Zanzibar, dramatically narrowed the networks on which they could rely when they returned. The cumulative effect of this lack of social intermediation (wasta) with their lower level of education was a tremendous handicap. If the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani in general were unquestionably advantaged compared with the nationals who had stayed at home, nobody was better positioned to benefit from the opportunities offered by the developing Oman than the descendents of the aristocracy of Zanzibar. Today, the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani population is thought to number about 100,000,26 out of a total of more than two million Omani citizens. Locally they are called ‘Swahili’ (referring to their vernacular language) or ˆ ˆ ˆ ‘Zanzibari’ (Zinjibariyyin; ‘Umaniyyin min Zinjibar).27 Most of the tribes

father unknown, and the descendent of an Omani who had never had another nationality. The latter case applied directly to the Omani who lived in Africa before 1970, as, most of the time, the decolonized states did not bestow citizenship rights on them. 25. John Townsend, Oman: The making of a modern state (Croom Helm, London, 1977), p. 127. 26. These figures are estimates based on fieldwork in Oman, since the official documents never mention figures dealing with religion and tribal or ethnic groups. 27. To give a comprehensive name to all the Omani who moved back from Africa is rather problematic, as there is no official or widely accepted term in the Sultanate at the moment. As a consequence, in the following pages, the neutral ‘Swahili-speaking Omani’ will be used most of the time, together with ‘back-from-Africa Omani’. Even if the term ‘Swahili’ is unambiguous in Oman, its use here might bring some confusion with the Swahili

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

487

and ethno-linguistic groups contain within them so-called ‘Swahili’ individuals or clans—including among the royal tribe, the Shia communities and the Omani groups native to Baluchistan28—but in varying proportions. The greatest numbers are found within tribes from Inner Oman, like Habus, Hirth, Bani Kharus, Kinud, Mahariq, Masakira, Bani Riyam or Bani Ruwaha. Families, or even individuals, descended from the same clans can be considered ‘Swahili’ (or not) whether they are tied (or not) to Africa. The Omani who came back from East Africa thus constitute a highly heterogeneous group, which cannot be defined solely on genealogical or geographical criteria. The most important dividing line is the one inherited from the hierarchization in East Africa. This combination of social, cultural and economic divides was a determining factor of the position these returnees found in Oman. In addition, every member has remained closely linked to his native tribe. Sheikhs who had stayed in Oman played a key role in validating the genealogies of members who came back after three or four generations. The vivacity of the tribal affiliation is highlighted by the huge amounts of financial transfers made by expatriates both to their native villages in Oman before 1970 and to the poorest clans of the tribe in Africa itself. Another major dividing line is the African place of settlement. Here, there is a division between the ‘anglophone Swahili-speaking Omani’ who had lived in Zanzibar, Kenya or former Tanganyika on the one hand, and the francophones who had travelled to Central Africa (Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo) on the other. The latter, who are estimated to be about 10 percent of the whole Swahili-speaking Omani population, were usually Manga Arabs. Most of them only came back to Oman at the beginning of the 1990s, when Rwanda and Burundi exploded into crisis. Finally it is necessary to keep in mind that a strict and well-known distinction is established between the back-from-Africa Omani, who can lay claim to a patriarchal genealogy in southeast Arabia and are the proper subject of this paper, and the Omani citizens who are descended from slaves brought forcibly from Africa (khadim) and who are considered not to be of Arab blood. As Mandana Limbert has put it, ‘Through the paternalizing care of the Arab-Omanis, [they] could become brothers, however, who would never be allowed to forget that they had been slaves, that they had known nothing and that they had had to be cultured’.29 Hence, many families with noble

populations of East Africa themselves. As for the word ‘Zanzibari’, it appears too restrictive, even though it is used widely in the Anglophone literature on Oman. 28. Throughout the 19th century, Sultan Sa‘id had chosen Baluchi contingents in order to assert his control on the East African coast. 29. Mandana Limbert, Of Ties and Time: Sociality, gender and modernity in an Omani town (University of Michigan, unpublished PhD dissertation, 2002), p. 263.

488

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

ˆ (qabıli) Arab lineages, who lived in Africa and are nowadays viewed as ‘Swahili’ in Oman, have always taken care to keep their Arab lineage ‘pure’. Down to reality For these expatriate families, Oman represented a mythical place. Very few Omani who settled in Africa had been able to make the journey to Oman and back to have a more realistic perception of the ‘native country’ than the one passed on by phantasms and dreams. Therefore, the trauma they experienced upon finding a poor and desert territory is easily understood, but it was nothing compared with the gap they felt between the welcoming they expected to receive and the distrust they faced. First of all, the infrastructure was not prepared for such an influx. Many low and middle class returnees, unwilling to go back to the villages in Inner Oman, were invited to stay in precarious accommodation in remote Muscat suburbs (al-‘Amrat, wadi ‘Aday). While officially considered to be temporary, these conditions of life turned out to be permanent, until the inhabitants, helped by their kin, found money to build their own homes in better quality neighbourhoods. New waves of expatriate Omani replaced them in a turnover that continues until now and in which the newcomers encounter more and more difficulty in finding their place in contemporary Omani society. More broadly, mutual frustrations soon developed. The native Omani complained about the sudden inflation, imputed to the arrival of a richer population, thought to have ideas above their status. On the contrary, the returnees reproached their co-nationals for their ingratitude, and for not acknowledging the role they played in the social and economic ‘take-off ’ and improvement in living conditions, as this woman from low social status who reached Oman from inland Tanzania in 1972 highlights:
People from [the town of ] Ibra were not happy when we came back. They did not help us, they said that we had gone away, that we had fled. . . But they forgot that, if we had not sent them money, they would have all died! [. . .] My father had told my brother: “If you come back to Oman, there will be nothing for you!” [. . .] When we came back, we went to see the sheikh to know where were the family’s properties. But the cousins said that henceforth all belonged to them, that we ought not to have gone, that themselves had stayed to take care of the family’s assets and cultivate the lands. They held that they had the right to keep it. My father was right: we got nothing when we came back.30

As the years passed, the mutual prejudices intensified. The returnees were accused of having brought sorcery (sahr) back from Africa,
30. Interview, Muscat, 23 May 2003.

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

489

notwithstanding the fact that mystical forces (magical use of Koran, spirits, evil powers. . .) have long played a key role in explaining and solving many day-to-day social and behavioural phenomena in Oman.31 Nevertheless, such practices may have assumed a further dimension following the upheavals provoked by the ‘return’ of their African cousins, concomitantly with a technical and material modernity, which has penetrated daily lives within the space of a generation. Hence, in May 2003, more than 7,000 people gathered in Ibra to collect flasks of a remedy supposed to treat pathologies as different as cancer, diabetes or asthma, and prepared by an old Swahili-speaking Omani woman.32 This anecdote throws light upon a widespread quest for ‘traditional’ values, which would serve as socio-cultural ‘lubricants’ for the integration of symbolic and material elements, which are perceived as ‘coming from abroad’. The back-from-Africa Omani were also reproached about their allegedly less formal mores, especially regarding the relations between males and females, compared with families which had not migrated. Many young Swahili-speaking Omani, whose ‘creolized’ way of life was the consequence of the time their family spent abroad, have experienced difficulty in complying with the strict rules governing relations between the sexes observed in Oman. On the other hand, the home Omani commonly attack what they view as a ‘lack of decency’ (haya’) showed by the back-from-Africa Omani women. The more the Swahili-speaking Omani benefited economically from the opportunities offered by the new Oman, the more they were able to remove themselves from this kind of social rejection; but it has not faded away completely. As a consequence, marriage between Swahili-speaking Omani of low or middle social class and other Omani is uncommon. Omani who did not live in Africa will rarely agree to allow their son to marry a young woman who is perceived to be ‘independent’ in her lifestyle and less ‘well-behaved’ from a religious point of view. As a single 30-year old civil servant from khadim origin explains, this suspicion towards back-from-Africa Omani about marriage is widespread:
My mother once told me: “You marry whoever you want, except a Swahili girl. A Swahili girl is not responsible, she is a free-mannered girl”. [. . .] She has been educated, she works and is very independent. She will tell me: “Do this, do that, don’t go out at night, don’t see these people. . .” Moreover, my mother says that the Swahili girls are not disturbed if they think the best solution for them is to divorce”.33
31. Most of the Ibadi scholars of the early 20th century were renowned for their knowledge in ‘secret sciences’ (‘ilm al-sirr): see Valerie Hoffman, ‘The articulation of Ibadi identity in modern Oman and Zanzibar’, The Muslim World, 94, 2 (2004), pp. 201–216. 32. Al-Shabiba (Muscat), 6 May 2003. 33. Interview, Muscat, 8 January 2003.

490

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

The argument usually used by sheikhs in refusing to let their daughter marry a non-Arab man lies in the absence of Arab-established genealogy. While the Omani who came back from Africa usually originate from Inner Oman Arab tribes, the criterion of their Arab lineage is nevertheless challenged by the fact that they are alleged not to speak Arabic fluently: a new ethnic category has thus emerged, which is no longer based on genealogy but on the place of birth and the vernacular language. More broadly, for three decades now, Arabic language mastery as a basic marker of contemporary ‘Omanity’ went hand-in-hand with the state’s focus on the Arab identity of Oman. This linguistic criterion has been all the more difficult to overcome for the majority of the families who came back from Africa because they could not counterbalance it with a good socio-economic position or with the ability to register their children in English-language schools. A young Omani whose family moved back from Rwanda in 1994 and who lives in al-‘Amrat explains his linguistic difficulties:
When I arrived, they made me come down four school levels. Being 21, I sit for the secondary school certificate only now. Compared with a French or an English text, for which I need 30 min to understand it, in Arabic, it takes me 2 or 3 h. I know that people who have been unemployed for seven or eight years stopped going to school early as Arabic was too difficult and they did not understand anything. The only solution for me to get the certificate is that the marabouts cast a spell on me!34

Even if the arabization of the young generations improved, thanks to their education in Oman’s Arabic-speaking public schools, Swahili remains the vernacular language for the Omani who lived in Africa, including among the members of the royal family of Zanzibar. This induces complex situations within families, as this 50-year-old entrepreneur who spent much of his life in Congo explains:
My daughter does not speak French at all; she came from Rwanda to Oman when she was three, she is thirteen today. Personally, I am able to think in French only. On the contrary, my daughter is the only member of the family to be really good at Arabic, because she has been educated in the Arabic system. I am forced to speak Swahili with her, or sometimes, English. With my wife, it is half French, half Swahili.35

Thus, the Swahili-speaking Omani were reproached for their inability to express themselves in Arabic and for their way of life which was not in keeping with the social and religious conservatism which prevails in Inner Oman. Whatever the social positions they held in East Africa, prejudices
34. 35. Interview, Muscat, 29 January 2003. Interview, Nizwa, 27 May 2003.

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

491

and social tensions towards Swahili-speaking Omani focused especially on Arabness and Islamic observance. These two issues powerfully reinforced the other social and economic grievances towards Swahili or Omani citizens native to Baluchistan, since they were identified by Qaboos as key elements of the identity of the new sultanate. Therefore, it directly contributed to an oblique but active process of challenge to the migrants’ ‘Omanity’ by the non-migrant community. In addition, it can be noticed that the attendance at mosques in low and middle class ‘Swahili’ areas of Muscat is on the rise, and increasing numbers of young Omani of Manga origins show signs of ostentatious religiousness like full beards or ankle-length dishdasha. Moreover, several of the most prominent Omani religious personalities were born in Africa, like the Mufti of Oman, Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalili, who came back in 1975 or Sheikh Khalfan al-‘Asry, a young and modern preacher who is particularly popular among the younger generations. Perhaps this display of religious practices is an external sign of a desire to see the other Omani fully acknowledge their belonging to the nation. The immigration policy implemented by the Omani authorities towards the returnees from Africa following the call launched in 1970 by Sultan Qaboos did not last. If the authorities relied heavily on them to take part in the country’s development in the 1970s, they have never welcomed this workforce with excessive enthusiasm. Indeed, they feared that the back-from-Africa Omani’s cosmopolitism, their Western education and even their possible politicization, could threaten the socio-political stability in the near future.36 Since the 1980s, lots of them have had to settle in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as it was already impossible to get residence permits in Oman. UAE authorities estimate the number of stateless residents in their country at 10,000, half of them being ‘Zanzibari’ Arabs.37 For 10 years now, the economic difficulties faced by the sultanate have only increased these restrictions. With more than half of the national population below the age of 15, a new generation is entering the job market, which is not prepared to endure sacrifices from which their parents were exempted. This sensitive conjuncture affected the immigration policies. At the moment, a de facto moratorium on the return of Omani from Africa seems in force, in order to ‘avoid “unfair” competition with locals’.38 The government limits the regularization of Omani who live in Africa, as they are thought to be likely to compete with young
36. Muscat waited until 2005 to establish official diplomatic relations with Tanzania, since the latter’s ‘African socialism’ ideology served as a foil to Oman. 37. ‘Nearly 1,300 stateless residents to get UAE citizenship’, Agence France-Presse, 28 December 2006. 38. ‘Back Cover: Letter from Muscat’ available at http://meionline.com/backcover/print256. shtml (11 February 2005).

492

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

home Omani job-seekers, just when the sultanate is implementing ambitious policies of economic diversification and the nationalization of jobs.39 Indeed, young and unskilled Swahili-speaking Omani have taken advantage of their language aptitudes combined with their lesser aversion towards manual positions and gender mixing at work and seized the opportunities offered. Many semi- or unskilled occupations, like taxidrivers or shopkeepers, but also jobs created in the tourism sector or in the huge industrial projects (like Sohar Port), are filled by young—usually female—Omani of Manga origin. Since they were not able to gain a good diploma in the Omani Arabic school system or to pay for study abroad, they choose to enter the job market early and bring an additional salary to their family. One of our informants, of middle class status, who himself endeavours to have his Tanzania-passport nephew come to Oman, complains:
To get an Omani visa is like getting a visa for paradise; it is even more difficult than for Europe! As for the paradise, I hope it looks like something else than here. . .40

Emergence of a modern ‘asabiyya Before arriving in Oman, the returnees had no real esprit de corps. And even after successive waves of return, perceptions of old cleavages inherited from the ‘African’ period remain acute, both in the collective conscience and in actual social practices. For instance, an old woman of Manga origin who came back from Burundi at the beginning of the 1990s gives her perception of the dividing lines among the Swahili-speaking Omani:
The main difference is connected to education: in Burundi, we have been brought up like Belgians, while the Zanzibari have been like English. Our parents dealt in commerce, we travelled all over East Africa and to Oman, and saw many things. The Zanzibari travelled only after independence, but as refugees. When they came to Oman, they behaved like parvenus. Moreover, we don’t speak the same Swahili as the Zanzibari, theirs is more refined. Thus they laugh at us because of our accent. While their Swahili is like English, slow and indolent, like when they eat coconuts! [. . .] We laugh at them because we say that this makes them easy-going!41

On the contrary, a Zanzibari Omani top civil servant, after having extensively emphasized Zanzibar’s social and political history, states:
People who are native of the islands are more educated, more intellectual, while we are certainly more traditional and conservative regarding our way of life: we have always been aware that we have the duty to preserve the heritage and the values of
ˆ ´ 39. Marc Valeri, ‘Le sultanat d’Oman en quete d’un second souffle’, Les etudes du CERI, 122 (December 2005), pp. 1 –35. 40. Interview, Muscat, 30 May 2003. 41. Interview, Muscat, 9 June 2003.

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

493

the sultanate [of Zanzibar]. The people who are native of Rwanda and Congo are more aggressive, they are more plain-spoken. They work hard, they are brave and tough, sometimes a bit too much. . .42

Similarly, a sheikh who was born in Tanzania and belongs to a tribe from Sharqiyya region, thinks that the word ‘Zanzibari’ had been introduced by the Shia in the seventies in order to stigmatize these descendants of Inner Oman who came back from Africa:
The Shia controlled the whole trade in Muscat, they were well-educated and many of them came back from Zanzibar too. It is the reason why they were the first to designate us like that, because they wanted to make us appear unreliable in the eyes of the whole society.43

Thus the gathering together of these different Omani populations, who only shared the fact of having lived in East Africa and bringing back with them ‘Swahili’ cultural referents, was certainly not voluntary or spontaneous, but the consequence of the post-1970 Omani socio-political context. This led to the constitution of a new esprit de corps, the criteria of which are established by the others—the home Omani. The old woman quoted above bewails this assimilation:
We were all called ‘Zanzibari’ (with a contemptuous motion of the hand) and could not do anything about it. It hurts, it is difficult to accept. But the Omani say that we are all Black people, so. . . What can we do?44

Here, the interviewee has brought up an underlying but fundamental issue in the debate over the place occupied by the Swahili-speaking Omani in the nation. Sometimes categorized as ‘Black’, these Omani, especially when they belong to low social classes and find difficulties in integrating in modern Oman, are suspected by the other Omani populations of having adopted patterns and behaviours which are traditionally viewed in Southern Arabia as slave-like, or at least un-Arab. This helps explain why intermarriages of Omani who came back from Africa remain by far predominant. Yet the allegation of being even partially assimilated to indigenous African populations is all the more difficult to accept for these low and middle class Omani since they took care to maintain a strict social and symbolic hierarchization while in Africa. It is thus as a consequence of their—peaceful—confrontations with the other Omani populations that a particular group feeling emerged among those who were collectively called, in the common discourse, ‘Zanzibari’ or ‘Swahili’—in reference to the language the others could not
42. 43. 44. Interview, Ibra, 2 June 2003. Interview, Muscat, 9 June 2003. Interview, Muscat, 9 June 2003.

494

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

understand. This new group identity, which has taken care to exclude the descendants of slaves without Arab ancestry, crosses over the cultural and economic dividing lines and encapsulates the descendents of the Omani elite in East Africa together with the more recent immigrants of lower cultural and social status. Since 1970, this new group has adopted survival strategies which are comparable to those used by other Omani ‘asabiyya’. From a social point of view, the Swahili-speaking Omani consolidated their positions thanks to nepotism, which is prevalent in much of the Omani public sector. Through their client networks, people in charge of a bureaucratic department have been inclined to favour the recruitment of relations from their group. As a lasting consequence of the conjunction of both these factors—skills acquired before 1970, on the one hand, and socioprofessional clientelism on the other—the Swahili-speaking Omani occupy key positions in the national oil company Petrol Development Oman (PDO), where for lower positions they favour the recruitment of poorer, Swahili-speaking Omani youth. In 2004, a majority of PDO young employees and trainees spoke Swahili. Moreover, Swahili-speaking Omani weddings are not only ‘community’ gatherings but also occasions for the assertion of a ‘Swahili cultural particularism’, regarding music and festivities. The ceremonies, mixing families from various social classes, most of the time take place in prestigious Muscat hotels and are entertained by musical groups invited from Tanzania or Congo especially for the occasion. In addition, the customs that regulate contact between the young couple, until the wedding night, differ from that of the other Omani. Another strong beat of males’ life is that many back-from-Africa Omani enjoy gathering on Thursday night in places like ‘Swahili bars’, which remind them of the ‘good old days’ and are devoted to ‘African’ food, music and dances. Finally, this ‘Swahili’ solidarity extends to the political sector, as the first universal suffrage polls organized in October 2003 gave an illustration. In the Muscat-outskirts wilaya of Bawshar, the territory of which includes the most important quarters of the capital with Swahili majorities, a female candidate whose family lived in Zanzibar succeeded in capitalizing upon two characteristics in order to attract votes. The first was her vernacular language and the second, her exemplarity as a woman who found her place in modern Oman and embodied the expectations of a population in an awkward social situation. Through their economic role, but also their political harmlessness for Qaboos, in a society deeply divided among multiple local allegiances, the Omani who came back from Africa soon imposed themselves as allies the new ruler could not do without. In the 1970s and the 1980s they filled many civil service and state-dependent positions linked to the

NATION-BUILDING IN OMAN SINCE

1970

495

tremendous development of the country. They thus have been a key wheel of the nation-state building process. But at the same time, they had to face an Omani national identity very different from that which they expected. Confronted with the questioning of their own ‘Omanity’, the Swahili-speaking Omani were asked by the other groups to give guarantees of their full and sincere belonging to the Omani nation. The cold reception they met when returning and the need to prove their ‘Omanity’ were all the more difficult to accept in that they had never ceased to view themselves as fully ‘Omani’ (even if they had emigrated for several generations), and as the worthy heirs of the glorious Omani empire. As Olivier Roy has observed in a comparative study based on Algeria and Tajikistan, the fact that the competition for resources takes place within the modern state, and not at a regional or local level, leads the actors to organize themselves in solidarity groups which go beyond the tribe or the clan, in order to become more visible on the national scene.45 The study of the ‘return’ process of the Africa-expatriated Omani populations borrows from this model. This article highlights the formation of an ‘asabiyya which is independent from genealogy or region, but relies instead on a single criterion, which is easily mobilized at a national level: the practice of a vernacular language. The ‘Swahili Omani’ group feeling has been shaped within the historical context of Oman under Qaboos, in which the establishment of both a modern national identity and the allegiance to the ruler were intimately linked in the authorities’ minds. This ‘Swahili Omani identity’ extracts its raison ˆ d’etre from this particular conjuncture and can be fully understood within it. Even if the emergence of a ‘Swahili’ social classification category is not the consequence of a voluntary process, even if this category was shaped in confrontation with the Oman society to help these people be accepted as Omani like the others on the territory, even if it has not removed the social and cultural fault lines inherited from the East African period, it is not possible to deny that it perfectly works as an identity reference in the contemporary Sultanate of Oman, as much as a pole of attraction for the Omani who speak Swahili as a foil for other socio-political actors. From this perspective, neither the Swahili-speaking Omani nor the other nationals from Baluchistan or from Inner Oman question in any way the validity of the nation as the political reference point. On the contrary, while the enrichment opportunities that the State makes available have started to be scaled back, everyone seeks to consolidate their
45. Olivier Roy, ‘Patronage and solidarity groups: survival or reformation?’ in Ghassan ´ Salame (ed.), Democracy Without Democrats? The renewal of politics in the Muslim world (I. B. Tauris, London, 1994), pp. 270– 81.

496

AFRICAN AFFAIRS

own anchorage into the Omani nation. At the heart of this strategy lies the shared purpose of strengthening the political or economic positions of power within the State apparatus and then, benefiting from the material and symbolic dividends (administrative posts, financial advantages, public contracts, etc.) these positions entitle them to. Yet the economic difficulties experienced by the sultanate over the past 10 years, following the diminution of oil production and the delays in economic diversification and employment nationalization, are likely to do nothing but increase this trend in the years to come.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful