National Entity – Tribal Diversity

Tribes and State in Oman

Swiss Diploma Thesis, 2008

102 Pages, Grade: 6


Table of Contents



I Introduction and Background
1 Oman – a Portrait
1.1 Land and People
1.2 Political Situation
1.3 Islam and Ibadism
2 Outline and Aim of the Research
3 Relevance of Topic
4 Evaluation of Literature and Latest Debates
4.1 Literature about Oman and the Middle East
4.2 Literature about Tribes and the Tribal Debate
5 Chapter Overview

II Method
6 Initial point of the Paper
7 Genesis of the Questions
8 Hypotheses
9 Empirical Considerations
9.1 Fieldwork as Gain of Knowledge
9.2 Specific Approach in the Field
9.3 Participating Observation
9.4 Evaluation of Interviews
9.5 Ethical Considerations
9.6 Self-Evaluation

III Definitions
10 Tribes in General
11 Tribes in the Arabic Context
12 Tribes in Oman
13 States
13.1 Historical Account
13.2 Constitution in Oman

IV Theory
14 Historical Perspectives
14.1 The Discourse and its Content
14.2 State Formation in Tribal Surroundings in the Past
15 Importance of Islam
16 Badū vs. Ḥaḍar
16.1 Introduction
16.2 Badū and Ḥaḍar in the Light of State Formation

V Tribes and State in Oman
17 Social Level
17.1 Tell me about Your Tribe
17.2 Characteristics and Attributes of Tribes
17.3 Effects of Tribe in Daily Life
17.4 Summary
18 Political Level
18.1 Observations in the Offices
18.2 Availability of Documents
18.3 Relationship between Tribes and Government
18.4 Impacts of Elections
18.5 Summary
19 Analysis

VI Concluding Remarks
20 Recapitulating Review
21 Outlook



Appendix I Governorates and Regions of Oman

Appendix II Operationalising Tool

Appendix III List of Interviewed Tribes’ Members

Appendix IV Interview Statistics

Appendix V Notice Board at the Governorate of Muscat



My fieldwork would not have been possible had it not been for the tremendous hospitality, help and assistance of the people in Oman. Their warm welcome and open-minded eagerness to support my research whenever they could was one of the most impressive experiences during my stay. It was essentially with their backing that this survey was a success in every possible respect. My deepest thanks therefore go to all those innumerable persons who in one way or another became part of my unforgettable stay in the Sultanate. Representative for all of them I would like to express my appreciation especially to the following people: Yousuf al-Zadjali at the Oman Embassy in Geneva, Zahir Sulaiman al-Zakwani and Moosa al-Rijeby of the International Relations Office at Sultan Qaboos University for organising visa, accommodation and research permission; Dr. Badar Hilal al-Alawi and Dr. Yahya Bader al-Malwali for their administrative help; Dr. Sultan Mohammed al-Hashmi, Dr. Mohammed Saad al-Muqadam and especially Dr. Salim Bakhit Salim Tabook for supervising and assisting me in my research; Hamil Saleh al-Bulushi, Zainab Zaher al-Nassri, Musallam al-Kathiri and Fiyam Balhaf for their prompt and professional translation services; Asma al-Bulushi, Rahma al-‘Amri and Nawal al-Nasiri for their help in transcribing my interviews; Ed O'Donovan for proof-reading my thesis; Fatma Jab’oob, Safa Bashir ‘Abidoon and Fatma Dahir al-Ibrahim for their great hospitality at Dhofar University; Hamood al-‘Abri, Sultan al-Bimani, Hamad Salem Rashid al-Baloushi, Anwar al-Toobi and Susan al-Shahri and their families for their outstanding hospitality; Dr. Musallam al-Ma’ani, Diyab Sakhar El-Aamri, Nasser al-Farisi, Bakhit Salem Qatan, Said Tabook and all research participants for taking their time and introducing me to Omani life, culture, tradition and hospitality!

إن عملي الميداني لما كان ممكنا لولا كرم الضيافة العمانية و مساعدة الناس لي هناك. إن ترحيبهم الحار و عقليتهم المنفتحة و تلهفهم لمساعدتي في دراستي عند مقدرتهم كانت من أروع التجارب التي مررت بها أثناء إقامتي. ودعمهم لي كان الأساس في نجاح هذا المسح من جميع النواحي و لذلك فإن شكري العميق هو للأشخاص العديدين الذين بطريقة أو بأخرى أصبحوا جزءا من فترة إقامتي في السلطنة. و كممثل عنهم جميعا أود أن أعرب عن تقديري للأشخاص التالية اسمائهم: يوسف الزدجالي, و زاهر سليمان الزكواني, و موسى الرجيبي و ذلك لتنظيمهم إجراءات التأشيرة و الإقامة و إذن البحث. د.بدر هلال العلوي و د.يحيى بن بدر المعولي لمساعدتهم الإدارية. د.سلطان محمد الهاشمي و د.محمد سعد المقدم و خاصة د.سالم بخيت سالم تبوك للإشراف و المساعدة في البحث. همَل صالح محمد ولي محمد البلوشي, و زينب زاهر سعيد الناصري, و مسلَم الكثيري, و فيام البلحف و ذلك لترجمتهم الفورية و المحترفة. أسماء البلوشي, و رحمة العميري, و نوال الناصري و ذلك لمساعدتهم لي في نسخ المقابلات. إد أودونوفان و ذلك للقراءة التصحيحية للرسالة. فاطمة جعبوب و صفاء بشير عبيدون و فاطمة داهر الإبراهيم و ذلك لضيافتهم لي في جامعة ظفار. حمود العبري و سلطان البيماني و حمد سالم راشد البلوشي و أنور التوبي و سوسن الشحري و عائلاتهم و ذلك لضيافتهم المنقطع النظير. د.مسلَم المعني و ذياب صخر العمري و ناصر العتيقي الفارسي و بخيت سالم قطن و سعيد تبوك و كافة المشاركين في البحث و ذلك لإعطائي من وقتهم و تقديمي للحياة و الثقافة و العادات و روح الضيافة العمانية.

Mein grösster Dank aber geht an meine Eltern. Ohne ihre grenzenlose Liebe, ihr unvoreingenommenes Verständnis für meine Pläne und Vorhaben und ihre vorbehaltlose Unterstützung für diesen Lebensabschnitt wäre eine Feldforschung in Oman kaum zustande gekommen. Umso mehr freut es mich jetzt, diese Arbeit als kleines Dankeschön meinen Eltern zu widmen.

Wilen, November 2008

Sigrid Stöckli


There are a number of systems for romanising the Arabic script. The version chosen here follows the Library of Congress System, which is most commonly used by scholars (see table below). However, names and common toponyms which have English equivalents will not be transliterated (for instance Sultan Qaboos, Muscat, Dhofar instead of sul ṭan q āb ūs, masqa ṭ, ẓuf ār). The plural form of Arabic nouns is followed according to Arabic grammar (for example wil āyah, pl. wil āyāt and not English plural wil āyahs or wil āyāts). The glossary at the end of this paper will include all the Arabic terms which occur on the following pages for a better understanding.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: Romanization of Arabic at

I Introduction and Background

Arabia felix it was once called, the origin of frankincense and the homeland of Sindbad the sailor. Despite its contacts around the globe thanks to its strong naval power in the past, Oman was rigorously isolated from the rest of the world during the near forty-year rule of Sultan Sa‘īd bin Taīmūr Ᾱl-Būsa‘īdī beginning at the turn of the last century. Almost no visitors were allowed to travel through the Sultanate of Oman; hardly any Omani could attain a visa for foreign travel. It may be due to these facts that the second biggest Arab country on the Arabian Peninsula is still widely unknown; even tourism is only now on the verge of becoming popular. Travelling through this somewhat remote area, carrying out social research or doing fieldwork among the heirs of Arabia felix makes a longer stay in Oman all the more rewarding.

In the following part I shall first shed light on some basic facts about Oman, its people and landscape, the actual political situation and religious circumstances (chapter 1). Following this I will discuss at some length the outline and aim of my fieldwork on which this thesis is based (chapter 2). Furthermore, I will evaluate the relevance of the chosen topic (chapter 3) which will be followed by a review of the literature underlying this work (chapter 4). The introductory chapter will then finally end with a short overview of the table of contents (chapter 5).

1 Oman – a Portrait

1.1 Land and People

The Sultanate of Oman lies [1] at the south-eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and is bordered by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the west, by the Republic of Yemen in the southwest and by the United Arab Emirates in the northwest. While most of the land mass of 212,460 km2 is primarily desert, it also possesses a long coastline of 2,092 kilometres on the border of the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. As its large size may suppose, Oman’s landscape is very diverse. Besides the famous desert Rub‘ al-Kh āl ī [2] (Empty Quarter) between Oman and Saudi Arabia, where hardly any life exists and where few people live, Oman also faces offshoots of strong southwest summer monsoons between May and September in the very south of the country. This season is called Khareef and attracts many Gulf tourists who enjoy the rainy weather conditions as well as the green and lush landscape. In the other parts of Oman the climate is hot, and along the coast it is humid. Muscat is said to be the hottest capital in the world, and temperatures rising above 50 degree Celsius are quite possible during the summer months. Such hot and dry weather conditions causes serious water shortage, and the interior of Oman especially faces severe droughts during which whole palm gardens have completely dried out. A new water system which includes pipelines from the coast to the interior and desalination installations has been designed to purify sea water for the irrigation of agricultural plants.

Oman is divided into nine administrative areas which are either called Governorates (such as Muscat, Dhofar and Musandam) or Regions (such as al-Batinah, al-Sharqiyah, al-Dakhliyah, al-Dhahirah, al-Wusta and al-Buraimi).[3] Each of these governorates and regions are subdivided into districts called wil ā yah (pl. wil āyāt). There are 61 wil āyāt throughout Oman. According to the final results of the 2003-census[4] the total population in Oman numbers 2,340,815 inhabitants. The World Factbook gives a significantly higher (estimated) figure for July 2008, namely 3,311,640 inhabitants, including 577,293 expatriates (559,257 in 2003). The expatriate population mainly consists of labourers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as well as Africa. 27 per cent of the population lives in the Governorate of Muscat, and only 9.2 per cent come from the southern region Dhofar (Census 2003: 7).

As it is the case in the neighbouring countries of Saudi Arabia or Yemen, Oman too is in the process of “omanising” its country.[5] Although this may suppose a general hostile attitude towards foreigners, the Omanis are considered one of the most tolerant and open-minded people in the Middle East, gaining the reputation of Arabic hospitality at its best. The most important social unit is the family which goes hand in hand with the state’s religion, which is Islam. 75 per cent of the population confess to the Ibadi branch of Islam. Sunni and Shiite Muslims make up only a minority of the population. Besides Muslims, Hindus and Christians are also permitted to practise their religious beliefs. Traditions still play an important role but have been mingling very well with modernity and western influences.

1.2 Political Situation

The Sultanate of Oman is an Arabic and Islamic state in which many spheres are dominated by traditions and the Quran. For instance, shar ī‘ah – the Islamic law – constitutes the judicial base of the country.[6] Sultan Qaboos is the ultimate authority, holding both the offices for Head of State and the office for Head of Government. No political parties are permitted nor is there a legislative parliament. All power lies in Sultan Qaboos’ hands who retains executive, legislative and judicative supremacy. Additionally, all laws are personally passed by His Majesty in forms of royal decrees. There is no constitution as such, but in 1996 Sultan Qaboos issued the royal decree Basic Law of the State[7] which promulgates “a basic law considered by the government to be a constitution which, among other things, clarifies the royal succession, provides for a prime minister, bars ministers from holding interests in companies doing business with the government, establishes a bicameral legislature, and guarantees basic civil liberties for Omani citizens” (Barrientos).

Obviously, the Sultanate of Oman is not a democratic state in the western sense of the word. Despite this fact, one has to note that the population under Sultan Qaboos enjoys more freedom than do most of its fellow men (and women!) in Middle Eastern countries, although they have, in theory, constitutional monarchies, republics or even democracies in place. In 1981 Sultan Qaboos established the national consultative council called majlis Oman. In principle, majlis Oman is geared toward the old tribal tradition. All members are elected by the Sultan and represent the government as well as the people. They meet at the request of Sultan Qaboos on an annual basis in order to study and discuss matters raised by him, taking all decisions on the basis of a majority vote (Ministry of Information 2006: 66 f.). The council is actually a bicameral system, but only functions as a consultative body. The “upper house” majlis al-dawlah (State Council) is again appointed by the Sultan himself. It is a financially and administratively independent authority which plays a decisive role in the national development. Majlis al-dawlah is considered to be the link between the government and the Omani population. The chairman and members must be Omani citizens older than forty years. They must have a good social standing and reputation. Often, they are former ministers, ambassadors or undersecretaries. However, they cannot hold a public office and participate in the majlis al-dawlah at the same time. In 2006 majlis al-dawlah consisted of 59 members including nine women. Membership lasts for four years and is renewable (ibid.: 67 f.).

The “house of commons” majlis al-sh ūr ā, established in 1991, is elected by Omani citizens aged over 21 for a period of four years. Nevertheless, Sultan Qaboos has the right to declare the elections illegal. The first election was held in 2003 for which suffrage was universal for all Omani over the age of 21; the second elections were on October 27, 2007. This sixth-term election included 632 candidates from 61 wil āyāt. 84 members were elected; none of the 21 women candidates won a seat.[8] Majils al-sh ūr ā members are deputies of their wil āyāt. The 23 wil āyāt with a population of 30,000 inhabitants or more are represented by two members whereas the other 38 wil āyāt with less than 30,000 inhabitants are represented by one member only. Elected are those members with the highest number of votes (ibid.: 68 – 70).

1.3 Islam and Ibadism

The word Islam is linguistically derived from the Arabic root sal āmah meaning peace, purity, submission and obedience. In a religious sense Islam means “submission to the will of God and obedience to His law”. In Islam, religion and life cannot be separated from one another as daily life is practised belief. The needs of everyday life are adjusted to this submission and obedience, and there are concrete guidelines for almost every circumstance in the normal course of life. This also includes the inseparable link between religion and politics.[9] Islam is therefore much more than “just” a religion.

In Oman, Islam is the state religion.[10] At the same time, it is – besides some small pockets in other parts of the world[11] – the only country which follows the Ibadi branch of Islam. An estimated 75 per cent of the population in Oman are Ibadi Muslim, while the remaining 25 per cent are either Sunni and Shiite Muslim or Hindu (The World Factbook).[12] Ibadism is “the only surviving branch of the Khārijite movement named after the moderate leader ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Ibāḍ.” (Glassé 2002: 189) From a historical point of view, the Khaw ārij branch split from Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, when he negotiated the end of the war with the Umayyads in 657 AD. This war originally broke out over the question of succession after the death of Prophet Mohammad (The Middle East 2004: 106 f.). The Ibadi branch established a hold in the mountains of Oman where they found refuge around the eighth century AD from hostile members of Khaw ārij. Therefore, Oman is seen as the historical centre of Ibadism. Ibadi Muslims are considered to be very liberal and tolerant towards other beliefs. They are also seen as “modernists” since they believe that the Holy Quran must continuously be reinterpreted in order to be in accordance with the actual circumstances people live in.

Clements sees in the establishment of Ibadism in the interior of Oman the reason for the fission into imamate and sultanate, i.e. “with the interior becoming inward-looking and isolationist” whereas “the coastal regions continued to make contact with the rest of the world.” (Clements 1980: 32; see also 35) Manea holds that the weak central state authority and the remoteness of the country were the main reasons which “enabled Oman to become semi-independent from the Islamic mainland” and eventually led to the division of imamate and sultanate (Manea 2005: 18). According to Peterson, Ibadism is “characterized by a strongly democratic process of selection of im āms […] and by [its] emphasis on austerity in daily life.” (Peterson 1984: 982) He also thinks that the appearance and adaptation of Ibadi beliefs in fact produced the traditional state or political system we can find nowadays (ibid.).

Ibadism is close to Sunni Islam. However, in opposition to Sunnism (and Shī‘ah Islam) any Moslem who is educated, politically versed and religiously adept can become imam (The Middle East 2004: 107). If the community cannot find such a person the office of imam stays vacant. As the imam s in the interior of Oman usually had more religious power than political influence, it was the sultans in the coastal area who eventually became political leaders. In 1959 the office of the imam in Oman was eliminated, and the imam has not been replaced since then.[13]

2 Outline and Aim of the Research

The purpose of this master is to evaluate and analyse the data which I collected during my ethnographic research studies carried out in the Sultanate of Oman between October 2007 and May 2008. My focus of interest originally lay in the political situation and division of power as well as in tribal structures and their decision-making. In the course of my research, however, I had to adjust this concept slightly, and my interest moved towards the role and importance of tribes in people’s everyday life in comparison with the awareness of tribes on the official side.[14] Social research in Oman on tribes and politics, and on the relationship between tribe and state respectively, was not only conducted for reasons of personal interest, but also because I am convinced that the Arab World in general and the Arabian Peninsula in particular are becoming more and more important, be it with regard to their economic impact, the increasingly prominent discussions about Islamism and “clashes of civilisations” or be it due to issues of globalisation. This master thesis will therefore not only outline the results of my analysis including the methodological and empirical approach and conduct of my fieldwork. It should also disclose what benefits we can draw from a better understanding of the Middle East generally, and Oman specifically.

What knowledge can be gained and which new insights shall be reached by my research? As the interrelationship of tribes and the Omani state formation is at core interest I will try to focus on three main aspects in the analysis of my data. First, an accurate definition of tribe must be given. Although it is widely discussed in literature what one has to understand by tribe, I will mainly pinpoint the ideas and opinions of my interview partners. In a second step, I shall evaluate the importance of tribal identity in people’s everyday life which will again be based on information I gathered during the interviews. In a time where such tremendous social changes have occurred, as has been the case in Oman, where people experience prosperity and wealth and where globalising issues influence especially the younger generations, it is of considerable interest to find out what role tribal identity plays (or does not play). Third, a fuller understanding of the perception of tribes on the official side should finally contribute to the actual debate in social science about tribes and state formation in the Middle East and examine the situation in Oman.

Research was mainly carried out in Muscat, Rustaq, Sur and Ibri in the north as well as in the southern province Dhofar. Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) granted me research permission and a student visa in order to legally allow research in Oman. I was furthermore granted accommodation at the university’s campus where I lived among the female students. It also included access to all facilities such as the main library and computer laboratories. Far more important, however, was the fact that I was provided with recommendation letters by the university which allowed access to ministries and w āl ī offices[15] throughout the Sultanate. I spent a considerably long time at the university and was therefore able to gain useful information in the form of literature which was available at the main library and at the Oman Studies Centre[16]. In addition, I was able to meet with many professors and teachers, especially at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, who proved to be experts either in tribal matters or in methodological aspects. Due to the fact that Omanis are extremely helpful and hospitable I could carry out as many interviews as planned.

3 Relevance of Topic

The subject area of my fieldwork is relevant for several reasons, namely economic, political, religious and social ones. The Middle East has been dominating the news in the western media; each day one can read about the disturbances in Palestine or riots in Iraq, not to mention Iran’s upgrading of nuclear power. Nonetheless, it is not only important for the international debates concerning violence and terrorism to gain a better understanding of the Arab World. I argue that for political and economic reasons too it has become necessary to learn about the mechanisms that are at work in the Middle East. Oil crises, for instance, have a profound impact on industrialised countries. Hence, what is going on in the Middle East also has consequences for other parts of the world, mainly for the west. This is surely not only a short-lived populist trend (especially in respect of the constant debate about the “war on terror”), but also of enduring significance for the future of international relations. Religious topics too have become central to political discussions since the September 11 attacks. Arguments concerning Islam must be taken into account in today’s political discourse. Therefore, it only makes sense to have a closer look at the Middle Eastern political and social structures. Or as it is written on the blurb of Field’s book Inside the Arab world (1995): “[M]ore now than ever, Arab affairs are the West's affair. And yet as we find ourselves increasingly enmeshed in its politics and economics, the Middle East remains a mystery to most of us, a world of dimly understood connections and impenetrable complexities.”

Admittedly, Oman is an exceptional case in many respects and may not fit into the above considerations of religious and political tensions. Oman does not have as important a position in oil production for international clientele as does its neighbour Saudi Arabia. Oman does not have domestic or foreign political tensions which dominate the international agenda. Oman does not struggle with religious extremism that threatens world security. So, why then focus on such an “unspectacular” spot? What are the benefits of tribal and political studies in a country that plays only a considerably small role in the world? One argument in favour of social research there is that Oman represents a good example of how an Islam state can combine tradition with modernity. It is extraordinary how Sultan Qaboos has been able to modernise his country within such a short time – without violence and without causing social tensions as a result. Another aspect to be considered is the slow but constant approach to democracy. One wonders if Sultan Qaboos intends to lead his country towards full democracy, and it will be of some importance to not only watch but also understand the mechanisms that are at the core of his ruling in this regard. Oman has managed to undergo development thanks to the revenues of its oil production and wise ruler. If it has worked out for Oman, why should the same not be possible for other Arab countries?

Due to these considerations – the collective importance of the Middle East as a power on the one side, and Oman as an extraordinary example of development and well-ruled sultanate on the other – carrying out research can be justified, as can aspiring to a better and more thorough understanding of some of the political and tribal aspects in Oman.

4 Evaluation of Literature and Latest Debates

A considerable amount of literature is available about Oman, particularly since 1970, when Sultan Qaboos came into power. Literature around this time is mainly concerned with the Dhofar conflict,[17] but there are also monographs about particular villages or areas,[18] accounts about the famous irrigation system called falaj,[19] about geological particularities, and about the population and social structures. Texts about Oman also exist for the period before 1970, especially in the form of travelogues. The two most famous writers of such accounts are surely Thomas Edward Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger. As the names suggest, most of the authors to be discussed here do not come from Oman but are from the west and describe and analyse the country and its related topics from an “outsider’s” perspective. Undoubtedly, there are articles and books by Arabs and native Omani people, but because their contributions are primarily written in Arabic and often not translated into English, the access to such admittedly important documents is obstructed from a language point of view. My one-sided focus on foreign literature in English, German and French is therefore due to this language barrier.

4.1 Literature about Oman and the Middle East

Frank Clements’ account Oman . The Reborn Land (1980) gives social and historical backgrounds of Oman including an overview of Sultan Sa‘īd bin Taīmūr’s reign and the Dhofar conflict. One of the most detailed studies of the province of Dhofar is, undeniably, Jörg Janzen’s research (1980) on the nomads in this area. He not only reflects on social changes of the once traditional nomadic way of life but he also provides lists of tribal names, genealogies and social hierarchy (see for example page 309 – 313). Similarly, Salim Bakhit Salim Tabook (1997) introduces in his thesis the Dhofar province and analyses the tribal stratification and their lifestyle along with a layout of the economic structure, life cycle (birth, marriage, death), laws and rights (raids, revenge, oath taking) and traditions (folk-medicine, witchcraft, magic, beliefs, circumcision, poetry) which adds to an all-encompassing overview of Dhofar’s society. The American historian and political analyst J. E. Peterson specialised in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf area and served as historian of the Sultan’s armed forces in Muscat. Many of his writings deal with defence and security, but a few contributions also examine the contemporary social situation in Oman. Although his accounts are often affected by a backward look at things, his diverse contributions are nevertheless of importance for a better understanding of the recent history and of the considerable changes the country has undergone in the past decades.

With Hussein Ghubash (2006) and Marc Valeri (2007) we have two contemporary works which explore Oman’s political situation. Ghubash starts from the sixteenth century and draws a general survey of Oman as a country with a unique political tradition. He argues that its history and culture have been forged by an Islamic democratic tradition which is based on the principles of consultation, elected imams and the sovereignty as it is defined by the Ibadi religion. Valeri’s recent book Le Sultanat d’Oman too describes the history of Oman, but also highlights how Sultan Qaboos succeed in unifying the country by establishing a welfare state and thereby creating a national identity. He pinpoints the social fabric of the population, the relationship and possible tensions among people and addresses issues concerning the country’s future once Sultan Qaboos’ era is over. Political concerns about state formation and stability are also evaluated in different papers by Uzi Rabi (2002), Nikolaus Siegfried (2000), Mark Katz (2004) and Kenneth Katzman (2005). The fact that all of these contributions are of recent publication indicates that Oman’s political situation is one of international scientific interest, all the more so because it has gone through continuous change over the last 38 years.

Literature about the Middle East is widely available and has been in much greater demand ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Accordingly, a considerable number of publications deal with religious topics. It is, in fact, impossible not to take into account the profound significance of Islam for all social and cultural aspects in the Middle East. Similarly, many debates revolve around the issue of building nation-states and of nationalism in this area. Fred Halliday discusses exactly this aspect in his work Nation and Religion in the Middle East (2000). The first four chapters explain general political theories and nationalist ideologies and compare them with the situation in the Middle East whereas the second part of his book is addressed to Modernity and the State. Dale Eickelman’s anthropological approach The Middle East and Central Asia (2002) explores a more general ground. His study is divided into five parts in which he analyses locations (region, economy and society), constructed meanings (tribes, personal and family relationships, self, gender and ethnicity), religion, and state authority. It is intended as an anthropological introduction primarily to the Middle East and to a much lesser extent to Central Asia.

4.2 Literature about Tribes and the Tribal Debate

The debate about tribes and state formation is a topical one which will continue in the future as the real and assumed effects of globalisation and multiple modernities continue to affect and influence tribal identity. In return, the affected people will respond to such perceived changes. Hence, discussions revolving around tribal identity certainly dominate to some degree any work carried out on and among tribes and tribal societies. The following three publications have been of considerable significance to my own research, being aware that many others could still be added to the list.

Firstly, Philip Khoury and Joseph Kostiner have to be mentioned when referring to the tribal debate in the Middle East. In Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East (1990), the two authors published eleven essays by different writers. Although the texts are now somewhat dated, they still deal with topics of current value. Divided into two parts, the reader is introduced to historical, anthropological, methodological and comparative perspectives. Case studies of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya sum up the debate and illustrate the points made earlier in the discussion. Secondly, Faleh Abdul-Jabar and Hosham Dawod are the editors of another, more recent benchmark work called Tribes and Power. Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East (2003). The twelve essays included here provide “a comprehensive understanding of the structure, functioning, and change of today’s Middle Eastern tribes. […] This stimulating collection scrutinizes the complexities of kinship structures in Arab and Islamic cultures, and contains case studies of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.” (Text on the back cover of Jabar and Dawod 2003) Thirdly, the Austrian writer Wolfgang Kraus examines in his Islamische Stammesgesellschaften (2004) Islamic tribal societies from a socio-anthropological perspective and illuminates the significances of tribal identity for a historical understanding of oriental societies. He is of the opinion that such societies can only be fully understood if political, historical and cultural coherences and connections are taken into consideration as a whole. After an introductory comparative analysis of Islamic tribal societies, the book details an empirical case study on the ethnography of a Moroccan Berber tribe. It is, however, mainly the first, more theoretical part of his work that considers the ongoing tribal debate and that includes important information for my research.

All of the books and articles mentioned above serve the purposes of providing background information and a better understanding of the Middle Eastern area, of the Arabian Peninsula and of Oman. It goes without saying that this list is far from representative or complete. It is therefore better understood as a provisional, non-exhaustive list.

5 Chapter Overview

Part II reflects the methodical considerations of research execution, underlying questions and generated hypotheses. After a short presentation of the initial point of this essay (chapter 6) I will focus on the guiding questions and their genesis in some depth (chapter 7). In preparation of fieldwork or any general scientific contribution it is also necessary to determine a few central hypotheses, which are further expounded in chapter 8. In the final and most detailed chapter in the methodical part, I outline the empirical considerations and conditions. It includes information about the specific approach in the field, explanations about applied methods like participating observation or judgment of interviews, thoughts about ethics, and an illustration of self-evaluation (chapter 9).

Part III encompasses the different thoughts and perspectives in search of a tribal definition. Chapter 10 starts with a general view of tribes as it is discussed in the literature and will point out the difficulties of a theoretical definition since the term itself is used in such a wide variety. In a next step, a more specific knowledge about tribes in the Arabic context will be reconsidered (chapter 11). With this background in mind it will then be possible to clarify the tribal situation in Oman. Basic information about the composition of the tribal population in Oman will be compared with the collected interview data. How do people perceive their tribal identities and how do they define tribe (chapter 12)? Eventually, these considerations will build the footing for a discussion about tribal factors in state formations. In chapter 13, a general overview of the theoretical debates about states in the Middle East shall be evaluated which will then allow a more focused look at the tribe-and-state-situation in Oman.

Part IV constitutes the theoretical background of this essay. In a first step a short overview of the development regarding the discourse about tribe and state is given. This also includes an approximation to the state formation in tribal surroundings in the past (chapter 14). States and tribes in the Middle East are characterised by Islamic religion. The importance of Islam with regard to state formation and tribal identity is further analysed in chapter 15 since this specific religious trait has played a significant role in the debates about state formations in the Arabic world. We are especially interested in Islam as a form of legitimacy and as a means of identification during such processes. Furthermore, alliances, descent and solidarity in terms of Islam shall be also explored. Oftentimes, tribes in the Middle Eastern have been characterised by their nomadic lifestyle. Distinctions between bad ū (Bedouins or nomads) and ḥa ḍar (settled population) are still drawn nowadays although the way of life of both groups has changed a great deal, especially since the discovery of oil in these regions. Chapter 16 will investigate the relationship of nomads and their residential counterparts and how they both have been adapting in a changing environment. This will eventually lead us to the question of how bad ū and ḥa ḍar contributed to the state formation and how literature evaluates historical and social incidents in this regard.

Part V discusses the empirical data and analyses results of my research about tribes and state in Oman. I begin with a focus on the general or social point of view (chapter 17). This should make clear whether tribes play a role in everyday life, and if so, how Omani citizens identify themselves with their tribe. I will further discern if the assumed tribal diversity on a personal level is indeed stronger than the individual perception of belonging to a nation, which would refer to a national Omani entity. The same question will be addressed to the political sphere where I expect that tribal influence has decreased so that we can no longer talk of a tribal diversity (chapter 18). The empirical part will eventually be concluded with a concise analysis which frames the main results and our gain of knowledge (chapter 19).

Part VI eventually summarises the findings and conclusions of this master thesis and ends with a preliminary outlook for further research and future developments in regard to tribal diversity and national entity in Oman.

II Method

The following section is intended to provide relevant information about how research in Oman was conducted, which questions underlay the approach in the field and which hypotheses will now be tested by means of the collected data. This process has been guided with the help of a set of methods among which fieldwork is the most essential part of methodical appliance. Basically, the inclusion of methods should guarantee the gain of assured and verifiable knowledge about a specific field of interest, in this case about tribes in Oman and the corresponding perception among the population and in the government. With the help of methods, theoretical considerations can be justified and revised. Furthermore, methods determine how empirical data will be collected and evaluated. In this sense, they are a tool with which it is possible to derive scientific cognition in an orderly and systematic way. It goes without saying that the applied methods must be constantly adjusted to the actual conditions, questions and aims of research.

6 Initial point of the Paper

As the interest of my examination lies in the interplay between tribes and state in Oman, I chose methods for a problem-oriented[20], hypothesis-checking approach which is solidified by the theoretical background of the scientific debates among anthropologists, historians and political scholars about the role of tribes in state formations in the Middle East. Due to the limited scope of fieldwork, research mainly had to be kept on an explorative level so that the interpretation and concluding results of the collected data are presented in a solely descriptive and qualitative manner. Nonetheless, any gain of knowledge we can draw from this work will guarantee an important glimpse into the tribal diversity in a state where an omanising national entity has been leading into the 21st century. In a changing environment with overarching social improvements as has been the case in Oman over the last near forty years, any research outcome cannot but only be provisional.

The initial point of this master thesis is certainly the empirical part which constitutes the main body of the essay and where the research questions shall be answered (see part V). Furthermore, hypotheses must here undergo an examination in order to be either verified or falsified. In this regard, the theoretical part generates an essential input for the development of both questions and hypotheses, and it contributes to a better understanding of underlying concepts in a tribal society. Empiricism and theory must thereby build a coherent unity which adds to an overall understanding of the results of this research. Another point of reference will be the definition part of this work, since a clarification of those terms and concepts which are used throughout the whole process of research is an indispensable remit for the scientific approach in the field and at the writing desk.

What this master thesis cannot offer is an overview of the tribal system in Oman, nor can it provide a comparison between the individual tribes. There are two main reasons for this advancement of writing about tribes in Oman without mentioning corresponding names or offering reviews. First, Oman’s society consists of so many tribes in such a complex formation of segmentations that it would be hardly possible to deliver an appropriate map of all tribes, subtribes and tribal sections. Since tribal identity is a social construct, any attempt at nailing down tribes in a compendium would contradict the tribal concept of fissions and fusions. Second, tribes in Oman are a sensitive topic, especially when it comes to any kind of comparison. Tribes are a matter of pride and of identification. Its reputation is safeguarded with a jealous watch over what is said and written about it. Due to these reasons, my research does not intend to (a) upset or affront anyone by my attempt at getting an overview of the Omani tribal society and (b) place neither myself nor my research participants in danger because of my investigations about tribes.

7 Genesis of the Questions

At the beginning of any research about tribes or within a tribal society the first question which undoubtedly arises is: What is a tribe? Associations, stereotypes, and vague ideas immediately cross one’s mind. This, of course, does not help much for a scientific definition of tribe. In addition, western imaginations of tribal concepts must not inevitably correspond to what tribal people (or people who we think are tribal) think of tribes themselves. So, what is their opinion of a tribe? In connection with society and with governmental institutions we may also wonder how tribal structures are being incorporated, what functions tribes have in a modern nation-state and what future we may attest to a tribal society which seems to be heading towards democracy. The relationship between tribes and state is therefore the central focus of this thesis.

Much is written about tribes, and there is a lively debate about the role of tribes during state formations. One essential part of this master thesis is in fact the consultation of theoretical literature which I will summarise and introduce in section IV. These theoretical considerations shall then be enriched with my research findings. Empirical interrogations which were carried out in the field are about the meaning of tribes in people’s everyday life. How do they identify themselves with their tribes? Does a tribe play any significant role in their daily activities or is their tribal identity vanishing in the rush of modern cities? Are there differences between the centre and the periphery, between the different geographical areas, or between tribes themselves? And does the meaning of tribe change in an environment of political alterations? Since the tribal past contributed in symptomatic ways to the actual political situation we find in today’s Oman, we must also focus on the attitudes of the government. What do ministers, wilāh and civil servants think of tribes in terms of political institutions? How are tribes received in their departments? And what information is collected on the official side about tribes?

Basically, the leading questions which guided me through the research process are tackled from two different angles as the interest lies both in the relationship between tribes and the Omani state on the one hand and on the influence of these two categories on the individuals on the other hand. The collected data should eventually give evidence of the tribal perception and its importance in the society as well as in the government. In summary, following central questions are to be answered:

[1] What is a tribe? What is the structure within a tribe?
[2] What is the difference between tribes and state in Oman?
[3] How are tribes seen by the Omani government? And how do they embed tribes in their political system?
[4] What is the role of tribes in the modern state?
[5] What meaning has the tribe for people’s identity?

These questions have to be operationalised in order to fulfil their function as gain of knowledge.[21] In other words, the somewhat fuzzy notion of tribe has to be made into a measurable tool in the form of variables and indicators which then can be observed or asked in an interview. By means of five domains (social environment, political situation, ideologies, traditions and economy) the relevant information is allocated and broken down into factors (like for example tribe, family, individual in the domain of social environment, religion in the ideological domain, myths in the domain of tradition and oil in the economic domain). These factors are then further divided into variables and these again into indicators. This operationalising frame was constantly adjusted during fieldwork since some of the variables or indicators proved to be unimportant as new ones accrued.

The genesis of questions and the corresponding set-up of a measurable operationialisation are one of the first methodical steps in social research. Once they have been articulated and transcribed into commensurable entities the next methodical step has to be taken. This step is to offer a suggested explanation for the phenomenon of tribes by means of hypotheses. This will be expounded in the following chapter.

8 Hypotheses

The title of this paper, National Entity – Tribal Diversity, already indicates two assumptions. Interpreting the first part of the heading, Oman represents itself as a coherent nation-state, or more precisely as a Sultanate, with a constitution, a national cultural heritage, and with a people who sees themselves as Omani and whose pride and feeling of togetherness is visible not only in their dishd āshah, khanjar, national anthem and their affection towards Sultan Qaboos but can also be conceived in a more subtle manner like, for example, in Omanising projects. From this point of view, it seems that the significance of tribes is disappearing. Reason for this supposition is the fact that many roles and duties which tribes and sheikhs used to exercise in the past have been taken over by the government. In the course of modernisation and urbanisation, younger generations devolve the sheikh’s authority and directly address the responsible offices. This is being accelerated by the fact that contact with home villages on the countryside is becoming less relevant because of people earning their living in the anonymity of cities, mainly the capital, and they eventually stay there during their leisure times as well.

Yet, the national entity is not a homogenous unity. On the contrary, I argue that Oman’s society is distinguished – among other things – by its tribal diversity which plays an important role maybe not so much on a political level any more but certainly on a social level. Not so long ago it was this tribal structure which characterised society, and its norms and values have not vanished within the last generation or two although the changes in all spheres of life have been tremendous. Tribes are not only visible in people’s family names; they also still underlie many everyday activities. Furthermore, cultural variety in such a geographically diversified environment as Oman seems to contribute to an identification which is more likely to be locally bound to territory and affiliation giving a better foothold than an overall concept of national identity would guarantee. The south is divided from the north by a vast desert. Both parts of the country have experienced different histories, the same of which can be said about the interior and coastal areas. The notion of being one nation is probably more intellectually perceived than emotionally settled.

National entity and tribal diversity may provoke the idea of a contradiction or, at least, of a potential for conflicts. Thanks to prosperity and increasing wealth among Omani citizens, social changes have been well adopted and it appears that these have generated a nation which is satisfied and happy.[22] The state under the rule of Sultan Qaboos has been able to incorporate tribes into its political system without causing designative resentment or resistance among the affected population stratum. Tribes in Oman, I therefore suggest, are benevolently received and treated by the state which knows well that its legitimacy rest, to some extent, on the satisfaction of the people. Simultaneously, tribes have had their authority and responsibilities removed, and the more Oman becomes a modern state with democratic traits, the less tribal diversity we will find on the national political level. The evaluation of empirical data will show whether this proposition proves true or not. In summary, the basic hypotheses of my research comprise the following assumptions that are to be empirically verified:

[1] National entity is replacing tribal diversity, that is to say the significance of tribal identity in politics is becoming less crucial. Tribes and state form a symbiosis in which the tribes are assimilated into governmental institutions, thereby loosing the prominence they used to play.

[2] Tribal diversity still eclipses national entity, that is to say tribes keep their social influence for individuals despite their loss of political significance. Tribal identity is inherent in many activities and constitutes a corresponding perception; hence, tribes play an essential role for people’s identity.

If we take these hypotheses alongside the questions I posed in the last chapter we have available a set of tools which will help us analyse the available data and to guide us through our argumentation. Other methods, however, are still needed, some of which will now be further discussed under the perspective of empiricism.

9 Empirical Considerations

9.1 Fieldwork as Gain of Knowledge

Empiricism is (the science of) experience and can be considered as a theory of knowledge that is practical rather than abstract. Fieldwork is therefore not only a method but it is also empiricism where knowledge arises from experience. It is the vital method of social anthropologists whereby the collection of empirical data is used to answer questions and verify or falsify hypotheses. At the same time, fieldwork itself consists of many sub-methods, practices and techniques. Fieldwork, however, is at least a planned approach with the objective of surveying data (Beer 2003: 11). This includes the clarification of how data were collected, how they were prepared and which evaluating methods were chosen and for what reasons. The following chapters will take into consideration these relevant aspects and further explain how fieldwork was carried out. It aims to provide better understanding of the actual situation in the field and the exact modus operandi used there. Only with a critical self-reflection and an exact description of the research approach will it be possible to judge and evaluate the outcome and significance of the collected data and results respectively.

Fieldwork in Oman had been prepared for approximately two years, during which general knowledge about the country was obtained and the topics of interests were defined. In a first step, fieldwork preparation mainly contained scientific considerations and consultation of literature. In addition, it also included administrative concerns such as visa application and research permission. Initially, I intended to do research only in Dhofar as this part of the country is said to have the strongest tribal connections and to be more “traditional” than other areas. However, when I was provided with accommodation at SQU I decided to accept their offer and started my fieldwork in the capital. Once I settled there I realised the many advantages for my research purpose, and I stayed in and around Muscat much longer than I had initially planned. In February 2008 I went to Salalah, Dhofar province’s capital where I spent seven weeks. Although I was not integrated in the academic environment of Dhofar University in the way I was in Muscat, I met with some language teachers there who offered me their office as a working environment. I willingly accepted their offer, not so much because I was in need of an office, but all the more because I saw it as a chance to get in contact with other people. It also facilitated the search for translators for my interviews. Both universities provide translation courses, and I was able to find students who translated documents from Arabic into English and who offered simultaneous translations during interviews.

Of course, the most important information was gathered during fieldwork. It consisted mainly of the interviews which I carried out with students, teachers and professors at SQU, Dhofar University and Salalah College of Technology, with sheikhs, ministers, wilāh and “ordinary” people. Access to different libraries such as the main library at SQU, libraries at Oman Studies Centre and at the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture in Salalah, but also private collections of books allowed access to literature which was not available in Switzerland. Information was also gathered during informal conversations. I attended celebrations, private parties and presentations during lectures and classes where tribal issues were frequently discussed, either on purpose since people usually were aware that I was conducting research about tribes, or unintentionally yet “recognised” by my – probably biased – focus and concentration on tribal matters. To conclude, fieldwork as gain of knowledge operates on different levels and allows access to numerous sources of information all of which help to learn more about the topic of interest and allow a comparison of the collected data. This includes a better judgment of the data’s validity and their importance for further evaluation.

9.2 Specific Approach in the Field

Selection of Samples

Once in the field, the specific approach to research participants was considerably easy. One of the reasons is that Omanis are extremely helpful and eager to support foreigners. Help is a magic word, and whenever I asked someone if he or she would help me with my research, for example by giving an interview, I could be sure that they would agree. Omanis are very caring, and often I received phone calls during the weekends to make sure I was well and did not feel lonely. I was frequently invited for lunch or dinner and I had innumerable chances to meet with people on different occasions. Another reason for an easy entrance into the field was the fact that I lived on university campus. Since I was the only foreign student from the west, I drew accordant interest. Students and teachers alike were very curious and often approached me to know who I was, where I came from and what I was doing on campus. Again, I found immediate contact with Omanis and could start testing my interview questions with students within the first two weeks of arrival.

The selection of individuals as research participants was based on a random choice. This random approach was necessary due to the following causes: (a) I did not know beforehand how people would react to my request for research participation, and accordingly, I wanted to keep the selection of samples open. In addition, I was not sure which tribes I would get access to. Focus on specific tribes was therefore not a primary aim. In the course of time, it proved that a comparison between tribes was too sensitive and not relevant for my question. Besides, I could not think of an appropriate choice of tribes for my purpose and therefore approached tribal members randomly. From the 62 interviews I conducted I was able to interview people from 53 different tribes.[23] (b) I planned an explorative approach throughout the whole research process and was therefore interested in interviewing all kind of people. Most of the interviews took place either in Muscat or in Salalah, although one has to note that many people in Muscat do not originally come from the capital. Especially among the students one will find people from all over the country. Hence, most of the Omanis study or work in Muscat but would return to their home village during the weekends. This way, I was able to meet people from all over Oman without travelling to their places of origin. (c) The population I intended to generalise from was the tribal population. In a society like Oman’s, however, the entire population, except maybe the expatriates, seems to belong to tribes. On the other hand, how “tribal” a group of people actually is considered to be is subject to constant discourse. During interviews I was often referred to the fact that there are tribes with non-Arabic roots which sometimes led to the assumption that they cannot be seen as tribes. Still, Omani citizens do belong to bigger family units (whether they are seen as tribes or not) which can be easily “detected” by their family names. Family name is tribal name. The population I could get access to was therefore not identifiable and as a consequence a confined sampling frame was not possible.

In conclusion, the random, non-probability method of sampling selection was a mixture of convenient sampling and snowball sampling. Convenient because the selected sample was chosen casually without formal plan of action (everyone who was interested was interviewed); snowball because often one interview partner led to the next research participant. This kind of method is of course bound to be a biased approach because “the technique itself reduces the likelihood that the sample will represent a good cross section from the population.” (StatPac 2007) The question now is whether this method of selection and the results I draw from the interviews are valid enough to be generalized back to the society as a whole. I would say yes for several reasons. First, it is a qualitative approach and does not measure the answers in an absolute way. For descriptive comments about the importance and perception of tribes, I am rather interested in the social construction of those than in quantitative figures. Second, samples are not the only source of information. Although interviews certainly build the backbone of the available data, other material is included as well. Third, constant reflection about how information was gathered and evaluated reassures an appropriate handling of the data and minimises the danger of generalising facts where such conclusions must not be drawn.

Finally, if taken into consideration that this research is only for master-purpose and had to be completed in a relatively short time with a small-scale budget, this sampling method is surely appropriate enough and will certainly serve as a fundamental base for further research which then must be extended in terms of methodological concerns. With regard to this research I do not consider the methodological shortcomings as a problem which distort the results and out-comes, simply because it was made clear from the very beginning how and on what conditions data were collected, and samples were chosen respectively.

Social Networking and Problems

As already mentioned, Arab hospitality and helpfulness facilitated gaining entrée and establishing rapports in the field. One contact led to the next contact. Sometimes, I was called by strangers who happened to learn about my research and who were in one way or another interested in providing me with information or in taking part in interviews. Within a short time I had built a social network spanning more or less throughout the whole of Oman. This also included contacts to other researchers in the country. Of course, establishing relationships and building friendships was enabled with those people who were primarily open-minded in terms of foreigners, academic research or tribal issues. Furthermore, language played a central role in getting in contact with people. As I was not able to speak Arabic fluently enough, almost all of my rapports consisted of people who spoke English (or French and German). I am fully aware that language barriers, besides social rules and norms and geographical aspects, may have hindered contacts to certain individuals or groups of people. Nonetheless, I do not think that this had a negative influence on the research outcome and I would consider that the number and diversity of people I was able to meet still give an accurate representation of Oman’s society.

Even though it is hardly convincing to state that no problems occurred during my fieldwork, I cannot think of any difficulties which endangered research or which affected my motivation. Whatever I intended to do was possible, and I actually enjoyed great freedom in carrying out my research. Access to ministries or libraries was allowed thanks to recommendation letters and research permission signed by official institutions such as SQU. Despite the fact that some of the sheikhs and employees at the ministries were not willing to express their opinions in an interview, I never interpreted this as a problem. Even the many hours I spent in offices, being served with coffee and dates while exercising myself in endless small talk was never seen as “wasted” time since I was able to learn valuable information not only about customs of hospitality but also about the way how people reacted to my tribal questions.

The only shortcoming in the field I was constantly reminded of was my poor knowledge of Arabic. This language barrier caused difficulties on several levels. First of all, access to people and their culture is primarily gained with the help of language. If I had had a greater mastery of Arabic, it would have been easier to communicate with people and to understand their thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Second, I often depended on translators for my interviews. Information got lost during the process of translation. Although the interviews were usually taped and the Arabic part could be transcribed and translated later on, it is more satisfactory to have conversations without a third party who “interferes” by translating back and forward. Third, a lot of important literature was not accessible due to my Arabic illiteracy. Even though I tried to give an emic view by including local literature, I still felt impelled to essentially rely on English literature.

Another difficulty in the field was my sensitive topic of tribes, especially in relation to political concerns. I took this fact into consideration before I started fieldwork, and I soon realised how careful I had to handle tribal and political issues once I was in the field. As my theoretical frame upon which I tried to base my interview questions was not very well defined beforehand and because I was not able to actually investigate tribal influence in politics, I began to focus on other aspects. In fact, I turned my interest towards the awareness of tribal identity with respect to the theoretical debate about tribes and state formation in the Middle East. With more experience and a better foundation relating to a theoretical background I would probably have faced lesser confusion during research. At the same time, I deliberately chose an explorative approach and was therefore aware of such implications, which in turn entails certain flexibility in the field.

9.3 Participating Observation

Participating observation as the essential sub-method of fieldwork helps to obtain a better understanding of the social world. In terms of my field work I applied participating observation on two different levels. First of all, I lived for a certain time in Oman and had the chance to meet and interact with people, and basically engage with their culture. Participating observation on this level was purely explorative, based on physical proximity. It took part every minute of every day. The second level of participating observation became relevant later on when I was settled. I was looking for interactions which served the purpose of collecting those data I thought were relevant for my research topic. Participant observation occurred then in only short intervals, for example, when carrying out interviews or visiting ministries. This second level was necessary for two other practical reasons: Firstly, the holistic attempt of participating observation (which is to see and take into consideration all aspects of social interactions, behaviour, world views and everyday life) can never be fulfilled and therefore one must concentrate on certain aspects (Hauser-Schäublin 2003: 34). Secondly, participating observation is exceedingly time-consuming. It is therefore important to apply this method systematically in the course of fieldwork. One has to choose where participating observation is eligible and necessary. In other words: Since resources such as time and money are limited it makes it all the more paramount to carefully select where and how long participating observation is to take place (ibid.).

In a first approach, I was observing and participating at the university where many celebrations and ceremonies such as graduation ceremonies, inauguration celebrations and theatres as well as parties throughout the semester were organised. Often, such ceremonies and parties included traditional music and tribal dances during which students or guests wore traditional clothes. Music, dances and clothes are all distinguishable from one region to another and are often related to specific tribes. This richness of culture symbolised the diversity and complexity of tribes in Oman and made me realise that tribes must not only be seen from a political point of view. I remember how impressed I was by the reaction of the audience during University Day[24] on May 3, 2008 where men from different tribes presented their dances on stage. The male audience especially got carried away by the music and began to dance in front of their seats. They sat together in groups and whenever a new dance formation was on stage different groups in the audience cheered and danced. One could feel the pride and joy people were taking from their social backgrounds and tribes respectively.

Often, I was invited for lunch or dinner, either in restaurants or at people’s home. Sometimes, I was even invited for weekends or for religious feasts during which I could live with Omani families. This is an invaluable experience in many ways and widened my understanding and perception of people’s everyday life. Being a female and western researcher, I had the possibility to participate in both the female and the male spheres of society. During interviews with sheikhs, for example, I was received in maj ā lis [25] where usually only men would sit. With larger family gatherings I stayed among women and was able to listen to their discussions which often evolved around children, marriages, clothes and other daily business. I considered this “switching” from one sphere to another as useful experience during which I learned and observed many things. Although I felt well integrated, there were, of course, also domains were I did not get access to. Upon my question whether tribal meetings are still held, I was often told about the content, composition and frequency of such meetings but I was never invited to attend. Bearing in mind that during tribal gatherings men discuss sensitive matters, like financial affairs or problems and conflicts between their tribal members, one can understand that such meetings must guarantee certain privacy and confidence, and researchers from the west are not desirable.


[1] All information is taken from The World Factbook at if not stated otherwise.

[2] Rub‘ al-Khālī has attracted many western explorers, among whom Thomas E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger are probably the two most famous. Their reports give a thoughtful insight not only to the landscape itself but also to the Bedouins, tribal factions and way of life in this remote area one to two centuries ago.

[3] See map in Appendix I.

[4] The Final Results of the Census 2003 by the Ministry of National Economy can be downloaded at http://www.omancensus. net/english/final_results.asp.

[5] For further information see the Omanisation Policy of the Ministry of Information at misc/omanise.asp as well as Katz (2004:2); Morris (1991: 47 – 49) and Peterson (2004b: 133 – 135).

[6] See Basic Law, Article Two.

[7] Siegfried discusses in his paper “Legislation and Legitimation in Oman: The Basic Law” the implementation of this constitutional document and argues that it “is largely symbolic in character” (Siegfried 2000: 360) which undermines Sultan Qaboos’ authority in the state but does not necessarily imply a step towards democracy.

[8] See the following newspaper articles for further information about the election and the results: Oman Daily Observer: “Another historic day to see Oman vote” (October 27, 2007) and Oman Tribune: “Majlis A’Shura Elections” (October 28, 2007).

[9] In this regard see Kraus’ explanation of the classical Islamic theories of state where the political and religious leadership is united in one person only and not separable from one another. At the same time he emphasis the contradictions between such ideological conceptions and the practical realisation in Islamic tribes (Kraus 2004: 49 – 54).

[10] Article Two of the Basic Law states: "The religion of the state is Islam and the Islamic Sharī‘ah is the basis of legislation." (See Siegfried 2000: 380 – 393 for an English translation of the Basic Law.)

[11] Such as in North Africa (Clements 1980: 32); in Algeria, Libya and East Africa (Ferchl 1995: 19); in Hadhramaut, Zanzibar and Tunisia (Peterson 2004a: 31); in Mzab (Algeria), Djerba (Tunisia) and Jabal Nafussa (Libya) (Valeri 2007: 22).

[12] Other sources give different numbers of the diverse religious branches. Siegfried for example speaks of only forty per cent of Omanis who are Ibadi Muslim but who “dominate the center of the country, whereas Sunnis are scattered throughout the Sultanate.” (Siegfried 2000: 364) For a short overview of different sources and their estimation see Katz (2004: 5). The 2003 census does not list any information concerning religious affiliation.

[13] Katz argues that the imamate tradition may still be in the psychology of the Omanis; hence Sultan Qaboos’ legitimacy as a ruler is vulnerable should the Ibadi community wish to return to their imamate. Sultan Qaboos, though an Ibadi himself, is not the imam nor is he recognised as the religious leader. Furthermore, Katz points out that several sources report about Sultan Qaboos’ homosexuality, which is contradictory to Islamic belief and certainly disqualifies any aspirant who intends to become imam (Katz 2004: 5 f.).

[14] For further empirical considerations see chapter 9.

[15] A w āl ī (pl. wilāh) is a governor of an administrative division. The interplay between wilāh and sheikhs will be examined in chapter 12.

[16] The Oman Studies Centre is a multidisciplinary research centre at SQU.

[17] See for example David Arkless’ The Secret War (1988).

[18] For example about Sohar by Fredrik Barth (1983), or about the coastal province al-Batinah by Hartmut Asche (1981).

[19] Wilkinson’s study (1974) of the afl āj in Oman outlines the irrigation system in a comprehensive manner.

[20] Better than problem-oriented is probably the term topic-focused since the questioning of my research project does not really include a problem but rather a certain subject-matter (see also Schlehe 2003: 78).

[21] Appendix II contains the operationalising tool which I used for the coding of texts and interviews.

[22] A recent study (Happiness Survey) carried out in Middle Eastern countries states that Omani are in fact the happiest people in this region: “Of the total number of people under research Oman topped the happy people list with 61 per cent followed closely by Saudi Arabia” (see

[23] For a list of interviewed tribes’ members see Appendix III.

[24] Sultan Qaboos’ royal visit to the university on May 2, 2000 is commemorated every year as University Day.

[25] A majlis (pl. maj ā lis) is, among other things, a house or a room where official guests are welcomed. It is furnished with carpet, cushions or couches along all four walls. Usually, a house has at least two majlis, one for male and one for female guests.

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National Entity – Tribal Diversity
Tribes and State in Oman
University of Zurich  (Ethnologisches Seminar)
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Sigrid Stöckli (Author), 2008, National Entity – Tribal Diversity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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