The other Side of Omani Life

Tribal Society in Oman

The other Side of Omani Life

When Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970 he became the ruler of a “living museum”. Outside of the Sultanate the national governments of other Arab states had long since broken the political power of the tribal princes. Not so in Oman.

The old tribal structures were alive and powerful in Oman as nowhere else in Arabia. In order to establish a new state Qaboos first had to peacefully unite the tribes, put an end to ancient feuds and persuade the leaders of the individual groupings to hand over their traditional powers to the Omani state and to actively cooperate in the building up of the new country – a difficult task for a young ruler if ever there was one.

The head of the tribe is the eldest of the tribe, the sheikh, which literally means “old man”. He shares this title with the remaining elders of the tribe, who have gained this distinction through their experience of life and through the respect that comes naturally with age. As “sheikh” can also denote any man of honour, sometimes younger people are also addressed as “old man”. As a group of tribal members of rank and honour the sheikhs make up the council or Majlis. The head of this tribal council is primus inter pares, first among equals, who draws his authority from age, respect and competence.

Some Omani tribes elect their chiefs. If the candidate holds himself aloof from the nomination this is taken as a sign that he is prepared to accept the election and also possesses the moral qualities necessary for the office. The good and bad qualities of the candidates are minutely weighed against one another in heated discussions until agreement is reached as to who is best-suited to lead the tribe. He is confirmed in his office as sheikh by the personal agreement of the tribal members. In the past it sometimes happened that no agreement could be arrived at when one part of a tribe could not be persuaded to subject itself to the favoured candidate. In such cases the tribe would split. The individual groups would then join up with other tribes which would require an oath of allegiance in return for offering them protection. The leading sheikhs of such tribal groups are called Tamima. Amongst the Bedouin the individual tribal branches are led by a rashid. Members of the tribal councils in towns and communities are called wali. Jurisprudence is administered regionally by the wali, in conjunction with the qadi, a judge who has attained that position either by graduating from an Islamic law college or by taking advanced study with local religious experts.

The Majlis system is of primary significance for the modern Omani state because it represents a form of democratic direct representation due to its nearness to the people. Everyone with a problem has the right to speak directly to his sheikh. He will then bring the matter before the next higher tribal council. In this way the problem is passed through a hierarchy of Majlis to the level at which justice can be dispensed. The supreme sovereign, the Sultan, is the ultimate guarantor of this hierarchical system. This is also the key to understanding how a loosely coupled confederation of tribal areas could be united into a national state. It is not for nothing that the political organisation of modern Oman contains elements of this traditional Majlis system.

Oman’s populace is made up of two groupings. In the 2nd century AD parts of the Al Azd tribe from the wadi Jawf in east Yemen under the leadership of Malik bin Faham migrated into Oman. This migration went on for over 200 years. These people apparently left their former settlement in Marib as a consequence of the collapse of a dam. The bulk of the tribe migrated in the direction of Mecca and Medina. The home of the Yemeni migrants was to be called “Oman”, named after Oman bin Ibrahim al Khalil or Oman bin Saba bin Yafthan bin Ibrahim, a descendant of Abraham. Later the Nizari moved into Oman from central Arabia. In the first quarter of the 18th century the two ethnic groups polarised into the political factions of the Hinawis, named after Bani Hina of Yemen and the Ghafiris, named after Bani Ghafir of the Nizaris.

This division is eclipsed by a tension which is completely independent of tribal affinity. While the people of the interior tended towards isolationism, the occupants of the coastal regions, especially the wealthy port towns, demonstrated an openness to the outside world. The deep-rooted, highly complex conflict between the two groups can be starkly simplified as a division between the desert tribes, the Bedouin, and the city tribes, the Hadr – a conflict between settlers and nomads, rich and poor, town-dwelling confinement and the limitless freedom of the desert.

These conflicts stretched well into the twentieth century, tribes often changing their positions, collapsing into tribal offshoots or forming alliances under the leadership of an Ibadi Imam against outside aggressors, whether Portuguese, Persians, Sunni caliphs, Qarmatians, Wahhabi or British. An atmosphere of tension lasted over centuries during which the structure of society was constantly changing. Geographical isolation led to the continuance of feuds which lasted for generations.

The Al Harithi and the Al Maskery were shooting at each other in Ibra up until 1970. Rights to a well were the basis of this ancient dispute. The fighting was interrupted for a few hours each day to allow both sides to go shopping in the communal market. Even today the old town displays signs of the division of the settlement.

In the 1980s there was a marriage between members of the two tribes – a kind of Romeo and Juliet story with a happy ending. The union was respected by both sides and today the family lives peacefully with its children in Seeb.

The everlasting senseless feuding proved too much for many Omanis and many emigrated to East Africa, Baluchistan or to other regions, mostly to places where Omanis had long had trading relations. They first returned to their land of origin after 1970, when it was possible to make a new beginning in peace. All tribes are equally represented in the current government in the form of a Majlis system and Oman has become a country remarkable for being peaceable.

Weapons principally have a symbolic and aesthetic value. One has the impression that after centuries of fighting the Omanis would now like to enjoy at least as long a peace.

Excerpt from OMAN ( ) - the travel guide by Georg Popp, Arabia Felix Synform GmbH

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