Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Oman's Diverse Society: Northern Oman

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Oman's Diverse Society: Northern Oman

Article excerpt

Although the majority of Oman's population is Arab and either Ibadi or Sunni Muslim, the country exhibits a wealth of diversity in ethnic groups and native languages. While these other groups are often small in total size, they are represented in such areas as politics and commerce in numbers disproportionate to the weight of their communities and, although distinctive, are more or less woven into the social fabric of the country. Ethnic identity seems likely to decline as the various communities increasingly mix in education, the workplace, residential areas, social functions, the military, and elsewhere. This article provides brief "snapshots " of these groups and assesses their changing status in Omani society.

Oman, in the view preferred by its government, is an Arab, Muslim country. Its people are Ibadi or Sunni Muslims - there is not much difference in practice between the two sects - who speak Arabic and belong to a tribe.' For most Omanis, this perspective is true. At the same time, however, it tends to obscure a wealth of additional diversity in languages and ethnic groups. Although such groups are often small in total size, they are represented in such areas as politics and commerce in numbers disproportionate to the weight of their communities and, although distinctive, are more or less woven into the social fabric of the country.2 This diversity is nowhere more profound than in the southern region of Dhufar, but the groups there differ from the Arab majority only in language and thus are not directly comparable to the north.3

These self-ascriptive ethnic groups distinguish themselves from the majority Arab Ibadi/Sunni community by language and/or religion. Their ascription by the majority as separate communities is also sustained by their non-participation in the Arab tribal framework.4 Ethnic boundaries in Oman are not, generally speaking, defined by territory, occupation, or even class, but rather by language or sect, or both. Where language is lost and sectarian differences disappear or are not present, assimilation may occur, as in the case of the 'Ajam, to be discussed below. Conversely, the Baharina retain their uniqueness because of their Shi'ism, despite their shared Arab identity. Not all groups exhibit the same degree of ethnic identity. Social networks increasingly overlap in contemporary Oman and identities transcend boundaries. Members of these groups are not precluded from sharing Omani national identity. Indeed, most wear Omani national dress.5 Ethnic identity may decline as the various communities increasingly mix in education, the workplace, residential areas, social functions, the military, and elsewhere. The following discussion provides brief "snapshots" of these groups while recognizing the fluidity of ethnic boundaries and ethnic identity.

To a certain degree, the Omani national discourse also embraces the country's history of overseas empire and connections to the Indian Ocean rim and thus reinforces the Omani identity of some of these groups (especially the Zanzibaris). Conversely, some groups of immigrant origin (even if immigration occurred centuries ago) have sought to strengthen their claim to Omani identity by asserting Omani Arab tribal origins. In addition, the social fabric of Oman has become considerably more complex with the sizeable influx of expatriates during the past 30 years - who emphatically do not wear Omani national dress. Nevertheless, limitations of space preclude discussion of the various expatriate communities and their impact on Omani society.

A British Political Agent in Muscat, writing at the turn of the century, spoke of 14 languages that might be heard every day in the suqs of Muscat and Matrah.6 Although less than half of these were spoken by Oman's permanent inhabitants and a few are no longer heard, many more languages can be added to the list today as a result of Oman's recent economic development and influx of expatriates.7 More to the point, however, it can be said that at least 12 languages are spoken as a first language - or as the language of parents - by indigenous Omani citizens. …

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