I recently spent a weekend in Oman’s ash-Sharqiyya region – the easternmost part of the Arab world – collecting wind-polished rocks in the desert, sleeping on an isolated beach (a turtle crawled up the sand to bury its eggs before dawn), and passing through small coastal villages.
This area remains – for a short time still – unspoilt. Although the inhabitants of the Sharqiyya enjoy the basic amenities which modernisation can and should provide – sanitation, electricity, health services – the state’s footprint is soft in the sand. I saw no sign of police. Institutional buildings are few and far between. The corporations have not yet arrived. None of the fast food outlets and coffee factories that homogenise the globe from the tropics to the tundra. So the settlements are handsome. The doors of the simplest houses are carved and patterned wood. Recent building may have been done with breeze blocks, but it’s been finished with mud.
The region wobbles on the edge of misnamed ‘development.’ It would be unwise in this water-scarce area to install flush toilets, but there will be worse. Emirati money is buying up the shoreline. Painted rocks mark the outlines of future residential complexes and hotels. I prayed as I passed that these were markers of dreams that would remain unfulfilled.
We stopped to drink tea in a low-slung village inhabited by shoeless people ‘undeveloped’ enough to sit in the road, in the shade of the mosque, talking and laughing. Goats nibbled at occasional rubbish. Children squealed. And in the tea house we met … a worker from Kerala state, south India. Even here in this unmonied corner of the Gulf, a member of the imported working class. Down the street a black man crouched, racially African, by culture and language an Arab.
When Oman was new to me I thought that Zanzibari Omanis could be recognised by the colour of their skin. I soon learnt things were more complicated. Many Omanis went to work or trade in east Africa, and many of them intermarried with the people there. At one point Zanzibar was the political capital of Oman, and well before the current bout of globalisation the trade in perfumes, spices, gold and slaves moved capital and people around the Indian Ocean and deep into Oman’s mountainous interior. Zanzibari ‘Arabs’ – usually Swahili-speakers, black, brown and white – claimed Omani nationality in the post-1970 passport age, and helped to build the modern state. Distinct from the Zanzibari community are Arabs of African descent, from every part of Oman, but particularly from the old slave ports of Sur and Salalah.
The Prophet Muhammad did not explicitly ban slavery, but he worked against it by example, freeing slaves and encouraging his followers to seek God’s pleasure by doing the same. Notably, the first muezzin in Islam (the man who calls the faithful to prayer), Bilal, was a freed slave. Given this example, it’s somewhat shameful that slavery lasted as long as it did in the southern Arabian peninsula (and still exists today in Muslim as well as Christian and animist areas of Sahelian Africa).
Unlike its Euro-American variant, slavery in the Arab world was not associated with rigid racial ideology, and slaves were not so totally dehumanised. Omani slaves were African, but slaves in Syria or Egypt were often brought from the Caucasus or the Balkans. Slaves quickly became assimilated into Arab society. In the peninsula they were adopted by the tribes they worked for. Slaves could marry, do business, buy their own freedom, own property. They were sometimes – like the pre-Islamic Antar – the heroes of epic and romance, and ex-slaves – like the Egyptian Mamluks – even formed their own ruling dynasties. None of that justifies slavery, of course, nor alters the fact that there are some very un-Islamic attitudes to blacks in the Arab world, attitudes which have their roots in the institution of slavery.
In the old days, Gulf Arabs herded animals, dived for pearls, traded frankincense, and often relied on slaves to do menial work. In the oil age, menial work is done by the imported working class, mainly Indians. While the Africans became Arabs, and changed the Arabs, the Indians are sent home at the end of their contracts. One result of oil wealth has been that Oman, by importing workers, has preserved its tribal social system in which all are strong – whatever their skin colour or personal wealth – because all are backed by the solidarity of their tribe. Omanisation, which aims to replace foreign workers with locals, is necessary, and has a better chance of succeeding in Oman than its counterpart programmes in other Gulf states. One result, however, will be to replace tribal equality with a savage internal class system.
Welcome to capitalism, Oman. Eight kilometres of beach front in the capital area which were previously used by locals and foreign workers for picnics, swimming, walks and football have become eight kilometres of private land. A gated community is being built there, the unbuilt houses already sold to rich foreigners – Indians, Arabs, Westerners – and a private road being built from the nearby airport. The mineral spring in the town of Rustaq also seems to have become private property overnight. Public access to the spring is under threat, as are the old houses built over the channeled spring water. There are rumours that a luxury hotel is to be built in their place. A five-star ‘Shangri-La’ hotel has been built on the previously free-access beach at Jussa. Yitti beach, Muscat’s favourite day trip, is slated for further developments – luxury housing and yet another five-star hotel.
The social and environmental disaster that is Dubai crawls closer.
In a region short of water and increasingly long on population, in an economy built on that most dangerous and outdated product, oil, in an Arab world groaning under the weight of American military bases, with Iran staring back at the bases, with depleted uranium wafting down from Iraq-Kuwait, with hatred of foreigners rising, none of this development is in any way sustainable. Part of me wants the collapse to come soon, for the sake of the Sharqiyya and all those regions of the world happily still undeveloped.