Gulf News bookworms in general, and Omani readers in particular, will enjoy this highly accessible volume on the sultanate. Jeremy Jones, a senior research associate at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and Nicholas Ridout, a reader in Theatre and Performance Studies at Queen Mary University, set out to examine Omani foreign policy from an original perspective, to test if the country’s social life shaped the ways in which Omanis tended to interact with each other as well as with outsiders.
Their thesis revolves around the theme that “Omani diplomacy derives some of its underlying characteristics and its approach to human interaction from a long history of cosmopolitanism” (page 19), which is entirely accurate. To buttress their assertions, the authors provide necessary historical background, focusing on trade relations, the fate of minorities, including powerful Indian merchants, and various incursions into Asia and Africa that fostered successive leaders’ cosmopolitanism. What is remarkable is that they developed much of these global preferences before the Portuguese, French, and finally, British conquests. Based on solid theories, Jones and Ridout define Omani “cultural pluralism” as a feature that “significantly predate[d] the period of European colonial intervention in the Indian Ocean” (page 27).
The book is divided into three parts, with the first (chapters 1 and 2) linking a variety of characteristics. Those unfamiliar with the country’s cultural diversity — yes cultural diversity (northerners and southerners, tribal and seafaring, as well as puritanical and non-sectarian believers) — will appreciate this discussion of how intrinsic Omani values surfaced over time: the virtues of settling disputes in the context of consultation (Shurah), along with obsessive desires to distance oneself from extremist visions.
Part II (chapters 3–7) tests this culture of diplomacy during the period 1792–1840, when Oman faced increased challenges from Western incursions into the Indian Ocean commercial system. Again, those unfamiliar with this background will appreciate the analysis of this period that saw trade expand under Sayyid Sultan Bin Ahmad and the growing relations with Mysore ruled by Tipu Sultan. Likewise, the authors cover Sayyids Sultan and Sa‘id Bin Sultan’s responses to piracy and Wahhabi expansion, along with the narrative provided by marine surveyor James R. Wellsted when he travelled throughout the area. The details on Sa’id Bin Sultan moving his capital from Oman to Zanzibar might appear unnecessary, but the examples buttress the book’s central thesis.
In Part III (chapters 8–13) the authors turn their attention to contemporary foreign relations with Iran (a “delicate balance”); the impact of the Cold War that threatened to rip the country apart during the Dhuffar civil war; the Arabian Peninsula, with a focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council; the United States (“a key strategic ally”); the Palestine/Israel peace process; and the growth of public diplomacy that, inter alia, involved the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assuming sponsorship roles as was the case with the “Jewel of Muscat” project with Singapore or the establishment of various academic chairs in leading Western universities.
Truly tolerant and non-sectarian Muslims, Omanis are by their very nature practitioners of Ibadhi traditions. Although Jones and Ridout avoid the 1860-1970 period, when serious internal schisms led to a major crisis between the imamate and the sultanate, which necessitated British military intervention, the thesis holds. Still, and while Sultan Sa‘id Bin Taymur closeted himself in Salalah, he simply could not isolate the nation that, in turn, led to the forced accession of Sultan Qaboos in 1970.
The authors credit His Majesty for the remarkable continuity of Omani foreign policy that provided unprecedented stability for more than four decades. They also imply that successors will continue with similar outlooks because of the Oman’s geopolitical priorities — the discussion on Iran is especially good in this respect — that distance the sultanate from ideological or sectarian conflicts. Still, it remains to be seen whether Qaboos’s successors, who will rule in the post-oil era, will continue to emphasise tolerance when regional and global powers fail to reciprocate.
In fact, Jones and Ridout recognise that Oman’s active re-engagement with the economic dimension of its “Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism” (page 263) may require the kind of cooperation that is not always prevalent in the international system. Moreover, significant internal pressures, especially those of an economic nature, underscore the point that, beyond their genuine civility, Omanis are like their Arab brethren as they also search for transparency and equitable opportunities.
Of course, Muscat handled its own “Arab Spring” rather well, though the three most important challenges facing the sultanate — jobs, jobs and jobs — cannot be met with the genius of cultural diplomacy. Observers of Omani history and culture know that commercial, territorial and diplomatic expansions will need to be replaced with increases in knowledge, skills and productivity, which are certainly within reach. Oman has accumulated a rich cultural history, but it now needs economic prowess.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the recently published “Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia” (London: Routledge, 2013).