Dhofar: Religion, Rebellion, and Reconstruction
As mentioned in the previous post, Oman’s Dhofar region is highly distinctive in terms of both language and climate. It is also differentiated from the rest of Oman in regard to religion. Most Omanis follow Ibadi Islam, a branch that is said to predate the Sunni/Shia split, whereas most Dhofaris are Sunni Muslims. Dhofar also has a distinctive political history, and was essentially an imperial possession of Oman until 1970. From the early 1960s until the late 1970s, a major although largely forgotten Marxist revolution in Dhofar shook the foundations of the Omani state, forcing the country at long last to enter the modern world. Today Dhofar, like the rest of Oman, is generally quiet and peaceful – quite in contrast to the situation in neighboring Yemen. Yet it remains in many ways a land apart; as the Dhofari feminist blogger Nadia recently put it, “Our society in Dhofar is dismissive of outsiders, be it someone from another part of Oman or someone from another country…” (Nadia’s website, Dhofari Gucci, also has the best photo that I have seen of the region’s wet conditions during the monsoon season, reproduced here.)
Most sources claim that roughly 75 percent of the people of Oman follow Ibadi Islam, the faith of the country’s ruling establishment, although some state that the figure could be as low as 50 percent. Historically, Ibadis have often tended to stand apart from other Muslims, as those of Algeria’s M’zab oasis still do, but that is not the case in Oman. Most observers stress modern Ibadism’s unusual combination of strict orthodoxy and tolerance: as the Wikipedia article puts is, “Ibadis have been referred to as tolerant puritans or as political quietists due to their preference to solve differences through dignity and reason rather than with confrontation, as well as their tolerance for practicing Christians and Jews sharing their communities.” Dhofar at one time evidently had a significant Ibadi presence, but the region has long been dominated by Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (madhhab), which extends across most of the Indian Ocean realm. The Wikipedia map of Muslim sects and school of jurisprudences posted here, although excellent overall, overlooks the non-Ibadi nature of Dhofar. Mike Izady’s map, on the other hand, does capture it, although it misses the substantial rural population of the humid upland belt located to the north of Salalah.
Over the course of the past few centuries, Dhofar has sometimes been independent and sometimes under the rule of neighboring powers, particularly those based in the Hadhrahmaut (to the west) or in northern Oman. In the ancient and medieval periods it often enjoyed marked prosperity based on the trade in aromatic resins, as it was, and is, the core area of frankincense production. Dhofar definitely came under Omani rule after 1750, when that sultanate created a remarkably powerful maritime empire. (The map of the Omani Empire posted here, however, exaggerates the extent of this realm in many areas, although it perhaps downplays the reach of Omani power in the Great Lakes region of central Africa). The website British Empire provides a useful overview:
Between the 1750s and the 1850s, Oman re-established its authority over the islands of the Strait of Hormuz, leasing them from the Persians, secured more than 100 miles of the Makran coast of Baluchistan, reasserted its claims to Dhofar and to the ports of East Africa, and even attempted to take Bahrain. The Mazrui rulers of Mombasa were repeatedly attacked and finally submitted in 1837. The Omani fleet once again became the most powerful local force in the Indian Ocean, if not throughout the East. The architect of this remarkable Omani expansion in the early nineteenth century was the Sultan Seyyid Said, who reigned from 1804 to 1856. He ordered vessels from Indian shipyards, including, for example, the 74-gun Liverpool, launched in 1826, which from 1836 became the Royal Navy Imaum. He possessed in all fifteen western-style warships, as well as a vast fleet of Arab vessels, which could be used for both commercial and military purposes. He could probably embark as many as 20,000 troops. When the Sultan arrived at Zanzibar in East Africa in 1828, his fleet consisted of one 64-gun ship, three frigates of 36 guns, two brigs of 14 guns, and 100 armed transport dhows with about 6,000 soldiers. [Emphasis added regarding Dhofar.]
By the time the Sultan moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840 he had established a highly successful economic system there: an Omani emigrant plantocracy was cultivating cloves, successfully introduced into Zanzibar in 1828, and Indian agents and capitalists, for centuries familiar in Oman and on the East African coast, were capitalising the ivory and slaving caravans which tapped the animal and human resources of the far interior of East Africa.
After the mid-1800s, however, Omani power withered in the face of British expansion, and Oman itself eventually became a protectorate of the United Kingdom. It did maintain a few odd corners of its empire, however, not relinquishing the port of Gwadar in what is now Pakistan until 1958. It also held firmly on to Dhofar; Said bin Taimur, sultan from 1923 to 1970, even based his court in Salalah, the main city of Dhofar. But, as noted in the Wikipedia, “Dhofar itself was a dependency of Oman and it was subjected to severe economic exploitation. Moreover, the population of Dhofar …were subjected to even greater restrictions than other Omanis.”
The restrictions faced by Dhofaris and other residents of Oman were at the time exceptionally harsh, and the country had one of the world’s lowest levels of socio-economic development. As Chris Kutschera, writing in the Washington Post in 1970, described Oman of the 1960s:
Everything, it seemed was forbidden. The inhabitants of the coast were forbidden to travel inland, and those of the inland valleys could not go to the coast, or even from one valley to another. No one was allowed to go to Dhofar, in the extreme southwest.
There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.
No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.
No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours.
Dissatisfaction in Dhofar with the rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur steadily mounted, especially among the Shehri-speaking (or Jibbali-speaking) indigenous population of the mountains. In 1962, an open rebellion broke out, aided initially by Saudi Arabia. Within a few years the sultan retreated to his palace, ordering his troops to burn villages and destroy wells in rebel-held areas. The rebellion gradually took a more leftist direction, receiving support from Nasser in Egypt and after 1967 from both the People’s Republic of China and the communist-run People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (or South Yemen, which was actually eastern Yemen in strictly geographical terms). By the end of the decade, Omani forces in Dhofar controlled little more than the city of Salalah, with the entire upland region having fallen into rebel hands.
1970 saw the deposition of the Sultan by his son Qaboos bin Said Al Said in a British-orchestrated palace coup. With substantial British aid, the new government immediately changed tactics, embarking on a “hearts and minds” campaign to win the support of the Dhofari people. Dhofar itself was transformed into a regular province of Oman, and appeals were made to both Islam and traditional tribal values in order to counter communist ideology. Rebels who surrendered were give cash bonuses, and some were reorganized into counter-insurgency squadrons. Oman’s newly upgraded air force was also effectively used against rebel positions. Military assistance was provided by Jordan as well as the UK, and in 1974 Iran sent a contingent of some 4000 troops. Oman also recruited troops from Baluchistan in Pakistan. The rebellion was officially defeated in 1976, although skirmishes persisted until 1979.
Although the Dhofar Rebellion was largely forgotten in the West, memory of the struggle is now being revived through film, memoirs, and blogging. As noted in the blogsite MySecretWarDhofar :
“Only those who have been to Dhofar can fully appreciate the severity of the conditions in which the polyglot force fought and flew; at times extreme heat; at others cold, wet, permanent cloud and rugged terrain, the equal of which it would be hard to find anywhere…Those who fought there, including those who were wounded or died, did not fight in vain.” Michael Carver – Field Marshal
Sultan Qaboos did far more than merely defeat the Dhofar rebellion. Using oil money he launched Oman on a crash-course modernization drive, which proved extraordinarily successful. Some Omanis no doubt chafe at their lack of freedom and worry about corruption and absolutist rule, and numerous protests broke out during the Arab Spring of 2011 and subsequently – although most were apparently focused on wages and the cost of living. But Qaboos is widely revered, and great concern surrounds the issue of succession. The sultan is ailing, allegedly from cancer, and he has not named an heir. He has no children and is widely believed to be homosexual. The future of Oman is thus quite uncertain, as is that of the country’s monarchy.
The mood of the country is perhaps best captured by the blogger Nadia, mentioned above, who writes at Dhofari Gucci. As she wrote on November 11, 2014:
But you must understand one thing if you are not Omani. You must understand what this man [Sultan Qaboos] means to us. He resembles the only form of true leadership we know. He is the only person we feel our country is safe with. He is the one person Omani trust. Did Oman promote diverse leadership over the past four decades? Not really. We have been dedicated to him as a leader and only him.
I’ll tell you why. People like my family will tell you why. My father was born in a cave. He lived a primitive and difficult life until he was an adult. No electricity, no running water, no warmth, living in the mountains of Dhofar sharing his shelter with animals. At times he was very hungry. There was never enough food.
Today, he has a career, a big car, several houses, children, and a very comfortable life. No matter how happy he is now, he will never forget where he came from. People will never forget what Sultan Qaboos did for them and how he led this country from the darkness to where we are today. You need to understand that. …
For 44 years this man has paved the way for our future. He had a vision. He still has a vision. The past few months have been so difficult for Omanis. We have been walking around with heavy hearts. There are no other visible leaders in Oman. There is no clear successor. We don’t want a successor. Not now. Not yet. None of us, young and old, can imagine Oman without him. None of us can even begin to comprehend our reality without this great human being in our lives.