- Oman, Culture, and Diplomacy
Jeremy Jones, a senior research associate at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and Nicholas Rideout, a reader in Theatre and Performance Studies at Queen Mary University, whose previous work focused on democratic development in Oman, turn their attention to Omani foreign relations. Drawing on a wide range of secondary sources, archives of the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and interviews with ministry officials (although only Secretary General Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Al Bu Sa‘id is mentioned by name), they argue that the practice of diplomacy in Oman has developed from a history of cosmopolitanism combined with characteristics inherent in Omani culture.
Part I (chapters 1 and 2) examines the historical and cultural characteristics that shape Omani diplomacy, focusing on the country’s cultural diversity as well as its interaction with its Indian Ocean neighbors and aspects of everyday life, such as tolerance and non-sectarianism, politeness as social virtue, preponderance of settled, urban centers dependent on the falaj irrigation system, and the shura (consultation) system that all combined to create a “cosmopolitan” culture of diplomacy. Part II (chapters 3–7) provides a case study of this culture of diplomacy during the period 1792–1840, when Oman faced increased challenges from European and American entry into the Indian Ocean commercial system. Specific topics covered include trade expansion under Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad and his relations with Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Sayyids Sultan and Sa‘id bin Sultan’s responses to piracy and Wahhabi expansion, J. R. Welsted’s travels in Oman, and Sa’id bin Sultan’s shift from Oman to Zanzibar. In Part III (chapters 8–13) the authors turn their attention to contemporary foreign relations with Iran; the Cold War, mostly related to the Dhofar civil war; the Arabian Peninsula, with a focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council; the United States; the Palestine/Israel peace process; and the growth of public diplomacy as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has assumed a greater role in sponsoring cultural initiatives such as the Jewel of Muscat project.
Jones and Rideout present an intriguing argument about the influence of Oman’s history of international trade, ethnic diversity, and cultural characteristics on the practice of Omani diplomacy. Central to their argument is the notion of habitus, a concept derived from Pierre Bourdieu,1which the authors define as “the expression of an accumulated cultural history, materialized in [End Page 745] an approach to living in the present … it is a network of connections that are felt, sensed and understood in the daily and professional life of the Omani diplomat” (pp. 4–5).
While the authors are successful at not crossing into the realm of orientalism and associating habitus with some kind of national psychology, identifying the “accumulated cultural history” becomes more problematic. Using examples that define the habitus, Jones and Rideout emphasize the existence of a unified, cosmopolitan Oman characterized by Ibadhi Islam, the tolerant, cooperative nature of which is supported by examples drawn largely from the age of the Prophet Muhammad and early caliphate (pp. 44–49). A second connection is made with the reign of Sayyid Sa‘id bin Sultan (1806–1856) marked by commercial, territorial, and diplomatic expansion (pp. 96–141). It is compelling evidence. Unfortunately, the two examples represent only parts, and small ones at that, of Oman’s accumulated cultural history. The authors gloss over the much longer and more recent period 1856–1970, which was characterized by the division of the country effectively into three parts (Muscat, Oman, and Dhofar), diplomatic isolation, and a sectarian and a much less tolerant application of Islam (pp. 147–151). Although generally taking exception to Marc Valeri’s1 description of Omani efforts to invent identity, the description of habitus comes across more as invented than accumulated.
The discussion of recent Omani foreign policy, especially the final chapter on public diplomacy, is a most useful complement to Kechichian’s Oman and the World.2 The one disappointment is the extent to which the authors do not relate their culture of diplomacy...