Dr. Kristin Hissong

Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Assistant Professor of Regional and Cultural Studies (Middle East North Africa)

Just as culture and language reverberate with religion, history, kinship, and all aspects of life, this reciprocating cause and effect exists in the domain of economics and resources as well. I had the opportunity to visit the Jabal al-Akhdar mountain, a spectacular, impressive landscape only 45 miles inland from Oman’s coast. This area is visited by Omanis and tourists alike for hiking, camping, and exploring its many valleys. It was a beautiful escape from the scorching late summer heat of Muscat- the temperature dropped nearly 45 degrees Fahrenheit as we climbed up the mountainside!

Aflaj system

Beyond a weekend adventure, Jabal al-Akhdar and the surrounding area is special for its extensive aflaj irrigation system. The aflaj system is a sloping grid, similar to aqueducts, that transport water. Rain water is collected at the top of the mountain and gravity, controlled by a system of channels, irrigates the mountain side. (see pictures). Also known by the name qanat, this technology originated in Persia (Iran) in the early first century CE. Its introduction, success, and endurance in Oman is one example of the intertwined connections of culture, economics, and resources.

Cultural Domain: Economics and Resources

While scholars debate the extent of direct Persian control in Oman, it is clear that the Persian influence was responsible for developing viable agriculture through the aflaj irrigation channels. This system goes beyond agricultural benefits. For instance, “the social interaction encouraged by the use of aflaj, which require the development of complex systems for the management of a scarce and essential resource, has given Omani culture a strong material basis for cooperation, which… contributes to a more general cultural preference for non-confrontational and consensual decision-making” (Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout, A History of Modern Oman, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 8-9). This point highlights the cultural, agricultural, and commercial influence of Persia.aflaj system zoom out big picture

Another key economic relationship with lasting economic and cultural effect is the 17th century connection with the British East India Company. Beginning in 1624 this relationship established trade between Oman’s ports across the Indian Ocean from Iran down the East African coast to Zanzibar. Not only would this prove advantageous financially through trade and regional influence, the British partnership also helped Oman expel the lingering Portuguese colonial port control. On the one hand, British consolidation of power in India, their defeat of the French, and their monopoly of trade across the Indian Ocean was a threat to Oman as they fought to keep their sovereignty in a time of empire. On the other hand, the British-Oman alliance was significant in holding back Ottoman, Persian, and Arab aggression from those who saw Oman’s Ibadi Islam as infidel beliefs.

It’s important to note that Oman benefited greatly in terms of economics and regional standing due to the profitable slave trade. This is also why Zanzibar and Muscat served as the two centers of power despite being nearly 2,000 miles away from one another. By 1699, the Omanis had taken control of Mombasa and had appointed an Omani-Arab ruling elite called the Mazrui to govern there. The Omanis employed slaves on plantations to grow dates for export primarily to India. “East Africa was the primary source of this new slave workforce. Saif bin Sultan (1692-1711) was reported to have owned thirty thousand date palms and to have employed seventeen hundred slaves on his plantations in Oman” (Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar, London: James Currey, 1987, p. 19). The source of this power and profit eventually resulted in the Omani capital being moved to Zanzibar in 1832. However the British domination of trade between India and East Africa cut out the business and profits of Omani merchants. And later, the development of steamships, introduced into the Britain to India routes in 1862, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further enabled British dominance of sea trade, and reduced the economic opportunities of Omani merchants. Finally, the British outlawed the slave trade, which greatly hurt Oman’s economy. As a result, Oman fell into severe economic decline beginning in the 1860s.

Wadi Shab, Oman
Wadi Shab, Oman

A new powerful global interest was discovered in the region in the 1930s: oil. In September 1932, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud unified the provinces of the earlier Saudi state, creating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Because of the shared conviction by Sultan Said of Oman and the British that there was also oil in Oman, Sultan Said found himself balancing the need to limit British influence to forge an independent state while drawing upon British military and economic support to secure its unity and independence. In 1937 Sultan Said gave the British Iraq Petroleum Company a seventy-five year lease. His largest struggle was to unite the exterior of Oman, the center of power Muscat along the coast, with the interior, controlled more by religious leaders and scholars in Nizwa and Jabal al-Akhdar. These struggles escalated in 1954, only complicated by Zanzibar independence in 1964, and the Dhofar province revolt, also known as the Omani Civil War, 1963-1976.

With British and Iranian support, Sultan Said Qaboos deposed and exiled his father in 1970, and was able to reconquer the interior territory. Jones and Ridout refer to this as a model counter-insurgency because the government, now well-funded with oil money established government centers to provide water, healthcare education, and social and economic opportunities. The government established these centers with the cooperation of local tribes and operated by local tribal leaders, thereby bringing tribes into allegiance with the government and making them responsible for security and development. Production of oil began in 1967, and by 1973 an export reaching 106 million barrels in that year increased the price from $3 per barrel to more than $12 a barrel.

Under the reign of Sultan Said Qaboos since 1970, changes in economic diversification, human resource development, and privatization have successfully signaled to external audiences that Oman is “open for business.” Traveling around Muscat and the interior today, one can see the result of this rapid development in the last 40 years. The transformation has included advancements in education and skills yet a cultural vision of employment roles and status where Omanis are white-collar, skilled labor, has resulted in many Indian and Bangladeshi blue-collar labor migrants with Omanis supervising. Several people I spoke with shared the notion that there are jobs that Omanis just don’t do. The oil industry reinforces this idea that Omanis invest in commerce and supervise the project; they are not typically the laborers involved in the production.

This is slowly changing because of projections that Oman will run out of oil around 2030. There are government efforts to reshape the economy and to invest in property development and tourism. Recent university graduates I spoke with mentioned that there are tuition incentives for certain academic disciplines with the aim of encouraging students to go into high-demand fields. Future economic and resource stability will also inextricably rely on stability in the region (GCC members) and balancing global powers’ interests and influences including growing investment from China.

Previous blog posts have discussed the domains of religion and spirituality and political and social relations and demonstrated the intertwined, overlapping nature of culture. Oman’s Ibadi majority and their geographic location between the Gulf and Iran on major sea-trade routes have led to a neutral, diplomatic, welcoming state of relative stability amongst its neighbors. Its history of trade and interaction with diverse communities across continents (Persian, Zanzibar, Indian, British, etc.) and the discovery of oil are all informed by one another and continue to inform the culture as it develops today.

مَع السَلامة (with peace, goodbye)

Did you know? Jabal al-Akhdar is part of the al-Hajar mountain range of which its highest point, Jabal al-Shams rises nearly 10,000 feet above sea level!