Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History and Future of Tribes in Oman

Oman population tribes traditional song
Tribesmen sing a traditional Omani song. Photo Ron Dev/Flickr


Since Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id came to power after the overthrow of his father in 1970, and the establishment of what can be described as the rule of law and institutions, the Sultanate of Oman has limited the presence of the tribe in political life, but it has been unable to eliminate it completely. Instead, the state has kept the tribal element on the shelf and used it only when necessary. This is because Omani policymakers, who are themselves tribesmen, did not want to end the role of tribes in social institutions and a network of relationships and cultural values ​, no matter how much these policymakers claimed to be modern.

So, can the tribe coexist with the modern civil state in Oman? The general theoretical answer to this question is no. The modern civil state cancels out the tribe and incorporates tribal affiliations, tendencies and terms of reference into that of the state and citizenship.

However, the practice is less simple, especially when the modern state does not address political, economic and social requirements, most prominent of which are the enforcement of the Constitution, political participation and the separation of powers. In this case, the absence of the state of citizenship, as in the case of Oman and many other Arab countries, the tribe remains the key to affiliations, tendencies and identities that existed well before the establishment of the state. At the same time, the tribe poses a threat to the existence and unity of the modern state and its modest achievements, as evidenced by the situation in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

However, the relationship between the tribe and the state raises questions as to how genuinely civil and modern Arab states are, and to what extent these states in their current national forms can play the role of the custodian of all citizens. Oman is no exception, and perhaps it demonstrates one of the most prominent examples of unity between the tribe and the state.

Although the state has institutions and bodies dominating the various segments of society, the tribe has a role and a presence, although it has been limited in the past 20 years. Tribes in the Arab world have contributed to the formation of the general features of the state and to shaping the future of its alliances, but this contribution is not necessarily a positive one.

Tribes and the birth of the state

Historically, Oman is rooted in the al-Azad tribe, which fled Yemen along with its leader Malik bin Fahm to escape the al-Aram flood and the collapse of Ma’rib Dam in 532 AD. According to numerous accounts, people of several civilizations lived in Oman at that time, including Arabs, Phoenicians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans and Persians. However, the Persians dominated and governed parts of the country, especially the cities overlooking the Arabian Gulf.

History tells us that Bin Fahm consulted with Arab Omanis who lived in what was known as al-Jawf – a reference to the areas surrounded by mountains, known today as Nizwa and Bahla – on fighting the Persians, liberating areas that the Persians had occupied and establishing a purely Arab state. And so a war, known as the battle of Salott, erupted between the two sides. The al-Azad tribe led by Bin Fahm conquered the Persians led by Marzban, the king of Oman at the time.

After Bin Fahm and his allies gained control, other Arab tribes relocated to Oman and settled there. However, the Omanis continue to view the al-Azad as the mother of the tribes from which several other tribes and clans branched out and eventually established their own areas of influence in Oman. These later became like states within a state, with their own rulers and networks of political and economic alliances.

With the emergence of Islam, the Tayy tribe led Oman’s conversion, paving the way for the religion to spread peacefully across the country. The tribe had played an important political role in the establishment of the Omani state, and it had now played another significant role in the peaceful conversion to Islam. This contrasted with the many peoples and nations that resisted the message of Islam and only converted by the sword.

The tribe's political role in the modern age

A look at Oman’s political history over the past 1,500 years makes it apparent that the tribe is the incubator of the state, not the other way around, and that Oman, throughout its different stages of development, has been strongly connected with the ruling tribe. Over the centuries, Oman has been ruled by a number of tribes, including the Alyahmad, Bani-Kharus, al-Nabhanah, al- Ya’aribah, al-Khalili, and, since 1744, al-Bu Sa’id.

It can be said that the state of Oman, born of the tribe, continues to be cradled by the tribe, but that the relationship between the state and the tribe has experienced many changes, especially during the last 200 years as other players, notably international powers, have influenced that relationship.

A thorough reading of the development of the state of Oman within the structure of the tribe and the various alliances, reveals that the positive aspects of the relationship between the two are almost equal to the negative aspects. There are several reasons for this. If the tribe as the incubator of the state helped the latter – through the ruling tribe – to form alliances with other tribes and achieve a level of national unity, this has made Oman a state of tribal elites, not citizens. Therefore, when tribal leaders share state institutions, citizens become mere nationals and followers. When there is a high level of understanding between the leaders of tribes and clans, stability, economic growth and security can be achieved.

Conversely, when these leaders are in disagreement, state and society become vulnerable to conflict, unrest and wars. The history of Oman can be divided into stages that prove this argument.

First stage: the al-Nabahinah tribe (1183-1617)

At the beginning of its rule, the al-Nabahinah tribe managed to build a political system and defensive fortifications to protect the country from a series of Persian invasions, the most important of which was led by Prince Mahmoud bin Ahmed al-Kouchi of Hormuz in 1261. However, the power struggle between the leaders of the tribe, who were also leaders of the state, weakened the state and its ability to repel successive Persian attacks.

In 1461, the Hormuz King Fakhruddin Turan Shah successfully occupied Oman and exiled its ruler Suleiman bin Muzaffar bin Suleiman al-Nabhani to the Ahsa region. According to historical sources, one of the main disadvantages of the tribe’s control of the political system was that power was limited exclusively to tribal members. Apart from the advisory role of some religious scholars, the people of Oman remained excluded from any political participation, and the power struggle of brothers and sons within the al-Nabahinah tribe helped to weaken Oman.

Numerous history books suggest that Oman descended into civil war as a result of conflicts between the sons of Sultan Muzaffar bin Sulaiman al-Nabhani. Besides, corruption among political decision-makers and the preoccupation of the tribal rulers with accumulating wealth contributed to the isolation of the ruling tribe from the remaining tribes, weakening the tribe’s ability to protect the homeland against foreign military ambitions. Foreign interference in the 15th and 16th centuries was stronger than before, especially with the Persian invasion, followed by the Ottomans and then the Portuguese.

One of the main disadvantages of the al-Nabahinah was its lack of interest in establishing a political system and governance institutions similar to those established by the two tribes that succeeded it. The al-Nabahinah had revelled in the glory of power without paying sufficient attention to politics and history. Therefore, although long, the tribe’s rule was not stable, mainly due to a series of foreign invasions and the monopoly of power by other tribes in a number of regions.

Second stage: the al-Ya'aribah tribe (1624-1749)

The al-Ya’aribah tribe laid the foundation of its rule by unifying Oman’s tribes under the banner of the young Nasir bin Murshid al-Ya’rubi. Abadi clerics, who were at odds with the al-Nabahinah tribe, were instrumental in this unification and in declaring al-Ya’rubi Oman’s new ruler. Unlike his predecessors, al-Ya’rubi established a system of governance based on partnership with other tribes, created a robust judicial institution, built a strong national army and, by the end of 1652, had expelled the Portuguese and begun to construct the state’s first fleet, paving the way for the rise of the Omani empire that included areas of Persia and eastern Africa. He later established Omani rule in Zanzibar, which lasted until 1965.

Third stage: the al-Bu Saíd tribe

The rule of this tribe began with the swearing of allegiance to founder Ahmad bin Sa’id in 1744 and continues to this day under Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id. The al-Bu Sa’id tribe had inherited many achievements from the al-Ya’aribah tribe, the most prominent of which was a state with a strong presence in the international arena, political influence, a powerful naval force and a clearly defined ruling system. At the same time, the tribe had also inherited internal disintegration and conflicts as a result of wars that had broken out at the end of the al-Ya’aribah era and the return of the Persians to parts of Oman, particularly along the coast. Al-Bu Sa’id thus had to work hard to unite the tribes, maintain control, strengthen the reach and dominion of his own tribe, and liberate Oman from the Persians.

Bin Sa’id succeeded in reuniting the tribes and liberating the country, heralding the start of a new era of tribal influence. The tribe played a key role in consolidating the status of Muscat as the national capital following centuries of multiple capitals. However, the tribe’s main political achievement was its ability to preserve the cohesion of the Omani empire in both its Arab and African parts. This was particularly the case when Sa’id bin Sultan came to power in 1807.

He made Zanzibar the African capital of the sultanate while keeping Muscat as the Arab capital, at the same time establishing an economic system that led to prosperity. However, the political status of the al-Bu Sa’id tribe declined significantly after Bin Sultan’s death in 1856. And the dispute between his two sons Thuwaini and Majid over who would succeed him paved the way for the disintegration of the Omani empire when Majid decided unilaterally to rule Zanzibar while his brother Thuwaini ruled Oman. This rift was exacerbated when Oman came under the direct control of Great Britain and was only healed when Qaboos bin Sa’id seized power from his father Sa’id bin Taymur in 1970.

This marked a new era for the al-Bu Sa’id tribe and an intelligent handling of the institution of the tribe as a whole by limiting the role of the ruling tribe and reducing the influence of its members in running the affairs of state and community. Moreover, the al-Bu Sa’id tribe managed to achieve and maintain national unity despite periods of unrest, especially in the first half of the 20th century and during the tribal uprising of 1913.

In 1996, for the first time in Oman’s history, a written constitution, ‘the Statute of the State’, was drafted, marking a significant decline in the political role of the tribe. In 2011, following the popular protests that local writers and activists described as the Omani version of the Arab Spring, the state made further legislative amendments granting the Council of Oman (consisting of the elected Shura Council and the appointed State Council) monitoring powers, a move that aimed to curb the dominance of the ruling tribe and other tribes allied to it on the political and economic fronts.

However, despite marginalizing and limiting the political role of the tribe in Oman over the past 20 years in favour of state institutions, the tribe may still restore its position following any changes in the country’s leadership. This, of course, depends on the next sultan and how he decides to consolidate his power. It also depends on any structural legislative reforms that the current sultan may make to pave the way for the establishment of a constitutional sultanate where the tribe has only cultural and symbolic significance and a folkloric presence.