Book Review

Oman, Culture and Diplomacy

Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout

Summer 2012, Volume XIX, Number 2

This is a fascinating book, investigating relatively new ground by linking a nation's culture to its diplomacy. This broadens its audience to readers beyond those simply interested in Oman.

The authors are ambitious. Early on, they state: "It is one of the central claims of this book that Omani diplomacy derives some of its underlying characteristics and its approach to human interaction from a long history of cosmopolitanism." They then go into this history in great detail, delving into trade, particularly by minorities in Oman such as Indian merchants, and its role in fostering cosmopolitanism. They make a case for this as a factor long before the arrival of the British, French or Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. They make extensive use of Frederick Barth's description of Omani "cultural pluralism," pointing out that this "significantly predates the period of European colonial intervention in the Indian Ocean."

Their central thesis is that "enduring and developing features of Omani social life have shaped the ways in which Omanis tend to interact with each other" and that "Omani diplomacy may be understood as a practice, as a kind of social activity that cannot be separated from other social activities." Further, they write, "the key features of Omani social life that contribute to the formation of this culture of diplomacy…are traditions of tolerance and non-sectarianism characteristic of Islam in Oman, the well-documented prevalance of politeness as a social virtue," the necessity of cooperation in managing the complicated falaj system of providing water, and "traditional methods for political conciliation based on the principle of Shura."

The authors then link this to what they see as the key characteristics of Omani foreign policy:

a tendency (1) to focus on enduring geopolitical considerations (hence the priority given to maintaining good relations with Iran); (2) to abstain from ideological or sectarian conflict (which…arises in part from Oman's unique religious heritage); (3) to work towards achieving consensus…and (4) to emphasize tolerance for the customs and practices of foreigners (a function of a long history of cosmopolitan interaction).

The authors provide by far the best account I have ever read of Ibadhism and how its tolerance fits into Omani culture and helps shape the Omani approach to foreign policy. Their explication of Omani culture is brilliant. It explains why the Omanis are so "comfortable in their skin," an observation I have heard from many foreigners — and Arabs — who have interacted with them. There is a calmness, a groundedness, tact and centeredness about Omanis that almost immediately strike the observer.

The brilliance of this book lies in its linking of culture to the conduct of foreign policy. I cannot imagine Oman, even if it were a so-called great power, engaging in "my way or the highway" foreign policy. And one can see how a U.S. culture of "shoot first and ask questions later" led to Vietnam, Iraq and other debacles.

The authors largely avoid the period from 1860 to 1970, which I fear does not fit so well with their thesis. Oman became the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, a name reflective of the struggle among tribes in the interior, led by the imam, and the sultan in Muscat, only able to remain there because of British military force. Said bin Taimur, closeting himself in Salalah to avoid the world, hardly fits with the picture of an Oman open and interacting with the world.

When I first visited Oman in 1972, it took me nine hours in a Landrover to get from Muscat to Nizwa, going the only way possible, up a dry river bed, since there was no paved road either to Nizwa or anywhere else in the country. The break between coast and interior was stark. To be fair, the authors point out that, during this time of poverty and isolation, many Omanis went abroad, particularly to work in the Gulf after the discovery of oil, continuing a tradition of moving from the coast to far away places.

I found the chapters on Zanzibar, the United States and the slave trade did not do much to support the book's thesis and was surprised at the lack of criticism of the slave trade's part in Omani cosmopolitanism. That said, the authors' basic point about the importance of Omani character in relation to the conduct of foreign relations, especially in the modern era, remains valid.

The book is particularly strong in describing the remarkable way Oman has managed to maintain good relations with both the United States and Iran, even now, when the United States is leading the charge to pressure and isolate Iran. This is even more unusual, considering that Oman has a close military relationship with the United States and was the staging area (unwittingly) for the aborted hostage rescue attempt. The authors' chapter on Oman's balancing act between the United States and Iran is one of the best in the book.

The authors rightly credit Sultan Qaboos (who has always been his own foreign minister) and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusuf al-Alawi for the continuity and steadiness of Omani foreign policy over the past 40 years. How things might change should the sultan pass from the scene without any specific member of the royal family viewed as a likely successor is something the authors can perhaps address in a future article. Stating, as they do, that the Omanis will deal with this through "shura" has a reassuring sound that I don't think fully addresses the issue.

Finally, the war in Dhofar, which required intervention by British and Iranian forces, the long battle with the imam, and the firebombing of an Indian supermarket and demonstrations last year in Sohar indicate that Omanis are not always nonviolent. As the authors point out, last spring the sultan moved quickly and adeptly in response to demonstrations about corruption and other failings and has wisely permitted election to part of Oman's Consultative Assembly.  A May Washington Post headline stated, "Beneath the civility, Jordanians simmer."  Gauging the number of Omanis simmering beneath their long and well-documented tradition of civility may be an impossible task. That said, given issues such as the high number of young Omanis, all looking for work, corruption, and Omani firms' continued reliance on cheap foreign labor, the subject calls for further research, perhaps by these seasoned and insightful observers of Omani history, culture and identity.