Dhofar: The Other Arabia
The Arabian Peninsula is a relatively coherent region, tied together by a number of common features. In terms of physical geography, it is noted for its harsh desert landscapes. Even the highlands of Yemen, which receive enough precipitation for rain-fed agriculture, are relatively dry, covered with vegetation that could hardly be described as lush. In terms of cultural geography, the peninsula is the homeland of the Arabic language and hence the Arab people. Most language maps show Arabia as entirely Arabic speaking.
A relatively small area in south-central Arabia, however, differs significantly from the rest of the peninsula on both measures. Designated in a general sense as Dhofar, this distinctive region includes the southwestern portion of Oman’s Dhofar (Ẓufār) Governorate and the southeastern corner of Yemen’s Al Mahrah (Al Mahra) Governorate. Most rural people here speak non-Arabic “Modern South Arabic languages,” although Arabic is more common in the cities and is spoken everywhere as a second language. In the Middle East, the region is most famous for its seasonally humid climate. From late June through August, the Khareef season, the moisture-laden winds of the southwest monsoon catch a limited portion of southern Arabia, turning the landscape a verdant green.
The Modern South Arabian Languages are distantly related to Arabic, but they are more closely linked to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as Amharic and Tigrinya. (They were formerly believed to be descendants of the Old South Arabian languages, such as Sabaean, but this is no longer the case). The two most important mainland Modern South Arabian Languages are Mehri, spoken in both Oman and Yemen, and Shehri (or Jibbali), spoken in southwestern Oman. Mehri has roughly 125,000 speakers and Shehri some 45,000. The other languages in the group are spoken by only a few hundred or a few thousand people, and are thus regarded as severely endangered. Even Mehri may be at some risk, due to pervasive bilingualism and the fact that it has no written form. Locally, these languages are sometimes incorrectly regarded as aberrant dialects of Arabic, and thus of no great significance. The Wikipedia reports, however, that, “Jibbali [Shehri] pride and sense of separateness has contributed to a strengthening of speakers’ attachment to their minority language.” And even if these languages were to disappear, a degree of linguistic separation would persist, as the local Dhofari dialect of Arabic is limited to the region and is distinctive enough that it is sometimes regarded as a language in its own right.
Intriguingly, the climatic peculiarity of the Dhofar region is not apparent on most climate maps or in most climatological tables. The rainfall map of the Middle East posted here shows it as receiving less than 10 inches (254 mm) annually, the conventional cut-off for a desert climate, whereas the precipitation map of Oman depicts it as extremely arid, getting less than 100 millimeters (3.9 inches) per year. Climate data for Salalah, the largest city in Dhofar, gives a slightly higher figure of 131 millimeters (5.1) inches. But total rainfall is not the only pertinent measurement when it comes to potential vegetation, as such features as seasonality and relatively humidity also play important roles. As can be seen in the Salahla data, rainfall here is concentrated in July and August, a period of extremely highly relatively humidity and very little sunshine. Even so, Salalah remains a dry place, marked by desert vegetation. But if one travels to the mountainous escarpment just to the north of the city, rainfall totals are significantly higher. In the 2014 Khareef season, one station near Salalah received 499 millimeters or rain (around 20 inches). Although 2014 was a wet year, a sizable strip of land in this area turns a lush green every year, owing to the almost continual light rain and drizzle carried by the southwest monsoon winds.
I have not been able to find any maps of the seasonally humid lands of Dhofar. But Google Earth does allow crude mapping of this distinctive region, as the local vegetation is so much denser than that of neighboring regions that it clearly stands out in satellite images, even those captured at the end of the long dry season. Photographs attached to the Google Earth site further allow one to visually assess the vegetation, and hence get a rough sense of precipitation. As can be seen from the maps that I made and posted here, one part of the humid zone is limited to a narrow coastal strip in far southeastern Yemen and the adjacent portion of Oman. A little to the east around Salalah, a drier coastal plain is encountered, with the (seasonally) humid zone found a bit to the north in the uplands and along the mountainous escarpment. Elevation is not the crucial factor, however, as in the loftier heights slightly further to the east the humid zone is attenuated and appears to support scantier vegetation. What really matters is the existence of uplands situated at the correct angle to catch the saturated winds of the southwest monsoon. But as weather stations are few in this part of the world, it is difficult to make conclusive statements.
Tourists flock to Dhofar to enjoy the green landscapes of the khareef season, and Oman is eager to enhance the flow. As a recent promotional article in the Times of Oman put it, “World-class hotels, villas, furnished apartments and accommodation areas are also ready to receive the growing number of tourists visiting the governorate during the tourist season.” Oman’s government, along with private organizations, are also interested in conserving the region’s unique environment. The Muscat Daily recently reported that the “Environment Society of Oman (ESO) has planted 900 saplings of indigenous species in Dhofar as part of its Native Tree Planting Campaign.” Particular attention is being given to the endemic Dhofar baobab, which has been reduced to some 200 individual trees.
Despite the Khareef rains, Dhofar in general is still a dry region, often beset by water shortages. As a result, plans have been made to collect some of the region’s ample fog drip. As reported in the Muscat Daily in 2013:
To tackle desertification in the governorate of Dhofar, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), in cooperation with the Directorate General of Environment and Climate Affairs, is implementing fog collection project.
According to a press release, the directorate on recently received a delegation from Mitusbishi Company, which is implementing the project in the niyabat of Qyroon Hayrty. ‘It is one of the most important projects of the ministry to prevent desertification in Dhofar governorate. The project is being implemented in partnership with several international and regional organisations,’ the release stated.
Under the project, net traps, also called moisture traps, trap fog and condensate to produce water. ‘This water is expected to support the growth of vegetation in nearby areas and recharge groundwater.’
The next post will examine the political evolution of Dhofar and neighboring areas.