Immunizing Against Sectarian “Sickness”: The Case of Oman

By Leon Goldsmith | Assistant Professor of Political Science - Sulatn Qaboos University | Nov 12, 2015
Immunizing Against Sectarian “Sickness”: The Case of Oman
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - Muscat

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation?

The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

In 2014 and 2015, young Omani university students devised metaphors for the political concept of “sectarianism,” that is, the elevation of sectarian identity as a primary identity marker and its subsequent impacts on political behavior. Students most frequently came up with medical analogies, seeing sectarianism as a kind of sickness or foreign pathogen that infects the body of society. In contrast to common conceptualizations of sectarianism by some scholars, policymakers, and Western media as something integral to Arab-Islamic society, students saw it as something external. In general, they saw sectarianism as an amorphous, frightening, and alien phenomenon and certainly not an innate or even a latent part of their own identity.

Unfortunately, the problem of sectarianism is not merely a reductionist phantom or a Western simplification; in the contemporary Middle East, it is very real and continues to tear societies apart. Security dilemma theory provides some explanation for why primordial tribal, ethnic or sectarian identities increase in significance as states collapse and security vacuums occur.[1] Moreover, within anarchical environments, misperception about the intention and threat of the “other” in the context of identity politics can also provide some insight into the causes of sectarian violence.[2] Lastly, the agency of sectarian entrepreneurs, pursuing political objectives through the mobilization, provocation, or confliction of sectarian identity lies very much at the root of the current spread of sectarianism in the Middle East.[3]

In the initial republican experiments of Syria and Iraq, Ba‘thist regimes sought to revolutionize society rapidly and to forcefully subvert tribal and sectarian identities to wider nationalist identities. Yet they also utilized sectarian political arguments to “scare-monger” their populations into believing in the necessity of strong, centralized, authoritarian rule. All the while those regimes exploited sectarian solidarities or ‘asabiyya to maintain coalitions of political support among patronized co-sectarians or insecure minorities.[4] In Oman it seems to be the absence of these contradictions between the superficial and the substantial composition of the political system, and the ruler’s decision not to exploit the levers of sectarian insecurity, that set it apart from many other Middle East states. This has perhaps immunized the Sultanate against sectarianism to a greater extent. This essay examines the Omani case to explore whether there are any lessons to be learned about sectarianism and how it can be confronted in the wider Middle East.[5]

Constructing the Omani Mosaic

Oman is a very diverse country, containing numerous ethnic, religious, and territorial identities. This is partly a result of Oman’s geographic location and historic legacy. The Omani empire, which peaked during the reign of Sayyid Said bin Sultan from 1807 to 1856, spanned the northern littoral of the Indian Ocean from Zanzibar in the West to Baluchistan in the East. This “Golden Period” contributed greatly to diversifying the modern Omani national identity. In sectarian terms, the southern and central regions of the country, from Dhofar to Sharqiyah, are predominantly Sunni Muslim, whereas the interior and northern regions are the heartlands of Ibadhi Islam, centering on the mountain “fortress” of Jabal Akhdar and the towns of Nizwa, Rustaq, and more recently, Muscat. No official figures exist in terms of religious demography, but most estimates usually converge on an approximate 50-50 split between the Sunni and Ibadhi communities, with a small but influential Shi‘a compact minority of 2 to 5 percent based in the Muscat suburb of Mutrah.

... aside from some minor residual tensions resulting from Wahhabi incursions into the coast of Oman around two centuries ago, Oman has rarely experienced any significant episode of sectarian conflict.

Internal conflict in Oman has occurred periodically with the most recent struggles taking place between the late 1950s and mid-1970s. While these conflicts had the potential to assume sectarian dimensions from a geographic perspective, it would be incorrect to draw this conclusion. The struggle with the mostly Ibadhi interior in the late 1950s was technically an intra-Ibadhi struggle and was related more to the lack of legitimacy of the sultans who had become subordinate to the British Raj from the late nineteenth century onwards. Likewise, the uprising in the mostly Sunni south from 1965 to 1975 related more to anti-imperialist and socialist ideologies combined with local aspirations for greater autonomy and did not at any stage assume a sectarian character. Therefore, aside from some minor residual tensions resulting from Wahhabi incursions into the coast of Oman around two centuries ago, Oman has rarely experienced any significant episode of sectarian conflict.

Oman’s coastal regions’ extensive maritime trading past has led to a natural cosmopolitanism and toleration of diversity. In the mountainous interior of the country the Ibadhis displayed characteristics of pragmatism and diplomacy and maintained political structures that balanced communal unity (and therefore security) through a strong tradition of consultation (shura). The combination has resulted in a political culture of pragmatic cosmopolitanism and diplomacy. But this could arguably have been the case for modern Syria also, where pragmatic and egalitarian montagne refugee populations[6] sought to integrate with long established cosmopolitan merchant classes in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus. Given the persistence of sectarianism in Syria, then, it is necessary to look at the institutional arrangements, leadership and social structure that emerged in Oman in the modern period to understand the difference.  

Oman’s Inclusion-Exclusion Paradox

As Oman scholar Marc Valeri has convincingly explained, the creation of modern state institutions, including the executive Council of Ministers and the Oman Parliament (Majlis Oman), were designed so as to preserve sub-national identities while simultaneously downgrading the autonomous power of the traditional authorities.[7] This included the religious and tribal sheikhs from the Sunni, Ibadhi, and Shi’a communities. They were effectively co-opted under the large tent of the state, which Qaboos alone represented. Hence, potential centrifugal social forces were defused. Within the political and economic spheres, a clear balance was maintained between the different sub-national groupings. For example, key members of the Ibadhi religious establishment, including the Al-Khalili and Al-Hinai clans, were given important positions within the state. Likewise, the Shi‘a community, including the influential Al-Lawati family, was allowed to assume an important place in Oman’s commercial sector. In a similar vein, prominent Sunni families from the Sharqiyah and Dhofar regions were awarded privileged access to the inner sanctum of political and economic influence.July 28, 1970–the date of the current ruler Sultan Qaboos’s coup against his father Said bin Taimur–is regarded as the beginning of Oman’s Renaissance (Nahdah).

Rather than seeking to exclude, annihilate, or assimilate sub-national identities, as was the objective of Arab nationalists and Ba‘thists from the 1960s, [Sultan] Qaboos sought to integrate tribal and sectarian identities into the overall state-building project.

A large part of the revival of Oman related to the process of unifying the country, starting with ending the conflict in the south through a shift to financial and conciliatory outreach to the rebels. The strategies that Qaboos employed contrasted with the state consolidation strategies in many other Arab states. The new sultan resisted his uncle Tariq bin Taimur al-Said’s idea to implement a constitutional monarchy arrangement. Qaboos openly stated his concern that a premature representative system would be a “mere façade” and would quickly devolve along tribal and sectarian lines. However, rather than seeking to exclude, annihilate, or assimilate sub-national identities, as was the objective of Arab nationalists and Ba‘thists from the 1960s, Qaboos sought to integrate tribal and sectarian identities into the overall state-building project. Thus the Dhofaris, who had fought the power of the Sultanate for a decade, were quickly co-opted into the state apparatus. The current Minister responsible for foreign affairs, Yousef bin Alawi, is a prime example.

The inclusion and retention of sub-national identities in the nation building project appears to have had the paradoxical effect of excluding sectarian and other sub-national identities from assuming political and social significance. It is common for people to be relatively open in admitting their particularistic identities–for example, it is normal to hear people to joke with each other about being Baluchi, Zanzibari, or Dhofari, but these identities are clearly subordinated to a larger, encompassing Omani identity. If any competition over identity exists–as has been pointed out by Valeri–it relates to who can be the most “Omani.” Therefore, the political culture in Oman seems to foster a pluralist intermeshing of national and sub-national identities that other diverse Arab states like Syria and Iraq were at pains to eliminate.    

State-Society Approaches to Sectarianism

It is clear that the rentier oil economy of Oman has played a major part in subjugating sub-national identities to the central state, which controls the primary modes of resource allocation in a vertical patronage hierarchy; therefore, the potential for economic decline could theoretically raise the possibility for sectarian tensions. However, Oman may be better placed to weather serious economic problems with its social fabric intact. The reason for this is that there exists a greater degree of trust among Omani nationals. Oman’s policies for social integration have pursued accommodation rather than assimilation, annihilation, or dissimulation of different identities. For example, Omanis are open about their different protocols around praying and other daily religious practices. This is in contrast to Syria prior to 2011, where the state tried to homogenize a generic Islam through state education and did not allow any open and honest public dialogue between different sects, especially in relation to the commonalities and differences between Alawites and Sunnis. The result in Syria was an intensification of mutual ignorance about the beliefs of others and, therefore, a basic deficit of trust. In Syria, people would play a game whereby they would ask after places of origin and surnames in order to be able to place a stranger and ascertain their religion. No such game exists in Oman where this dynamic has been defused through open accommodation and toleration, for example, Omani students will openly ask to go and pray at different times according to whether they are Ibadhi or Sunni.

There is ... no clearly obvious privileging of one sect over another, which diminishes the potential for socio-economic resentments to emerge along sectarian lines. 

There is also no clearly obvious privileging of one sect over another, which diminishes the potential for socio-economic resentments to emerge along sectarian lines. Despite the fact that the Sultan is himself Ibadhi, Ibadhis are not disproportionately privileged into a sectarian patron-client support network. Nor are Ibadhis subjected to sectarian scare mongering about possible threats from “Sunni intolerance” at the national or regional levels. The state is at pains to defuse rather than incite sectarian tension. In fact, the last major public incident concerning a supposed religiously-based opposition cell involved a group of around seventy academics and military figures in 2005, who were accused of plotting to resurrect an Ibadhi Imamate. These types of attempts to restore Ibadhi particularism within the political system could of course be inflammatory to Oman’s Sunni Muslims. In this sense the regime has managed to transcend sectarian affiliation and to regulate tensions from a position of neutrality. This contrasts the Ba‘thist regimes in Syria and Iraq who, despite their official secularist ideologies, never fully escaped from their respective sectarian affiliations and were therefore forced to occasionally resort to repression in order to maintain the compliance of the majority Sunni and Shi‘a populations respectively.

Omanis are occasionally wary and bemused about the extreme religious interpretations of their Saudi neighbors; however, this does not generally find its way into official public discourse. While it would seem logical for the internal security agencies to pay greater attention to the Sunni populations in the southern and central parts of Oman for potential jihadist activity or Islamic State (Daesh) sympathies, the official policy of the Omani intelligence services contrasts markedly with other Arab states. Counselling, dialogue-building, and a soft hand rather than an iron fist characterise Oman’s approach to confronting radicalisation. The success of this approach is evident in the zero number of Omanis present in statistics on recruitment into the Islamic State.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of the level of immunity in Oman to sectarianism came during the 2011 Arab Spring protests that occurred in different parts of the Sultanate from  late January until late May2011. In Syria, protesters showed anxiety about the potential for sectarian fault lines to undermine their demand for political change, exemplified by the numerous chants declaring unity: “Not Alawi or Sunni, we want freedom!” In both the north in Sohar and in the south in Salalah, Omani protesters made no mention whatsoever of sectarianism. This showed, in contrast to Syria, Omani protesters were not concerned about the threat of sectarianism to emerge (even as a side effect) and no equivalent chants were heard amongst the demonstrations, whose demands remained focused on socio-economic and corruption-related issues. Equally important was the policy of the Omani government, which did not play the sectarian card as a way to defuse the impetus of the protests, as was arguably the case in Syria and also Bahrain.  

Future Prognosis

The historical legacy of Oman’s diverse past partly explains its resistance to sectarianism. But it is the institutional arrangements and approaches of the Omani state and society since the 1970s that have been key factors in suppressing sectarianism as a threat. Young Omanis, who have grown up in this political environment have no real conception of sectarianism, which explains why they find it all the more alien and frightening as it churns in the surrounding region. This in itself is a significant marker of the success of Oman’s immunization of its society against the negative effects of sectarianism. Challenges lie ahead for the Sultanate. During a transition of leadership, it is unclear whether a new sultan, lacking the levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Sultan Qaboos, will look to establish a firm base by relying on a particular community. Also, future economic tough times lie ahead as oil reserves deplete and world oil prices remain low, which could place strains on social unity.

Overall, the Omani case shows that being immune to sectarianism does not necessarily mean annihilating sectarian identity from politics and society. Nor does it mean being constantly on guard and anxious about it. Rather, being open and accommodating of diverse identities could well be the best social and political antidote. Key to this is having legitimate leadership that does not need to rely on patron-client sectarian networks. Achieving legitimacy in the future will require gradually increasing levels of political participation and fostering a civic culture that provides space for different religious communities to know and trust each other. Oman will likely face turbulence in the coming years as the country grapples with economic and political challenges but with a healthy society it is unlikely that sectarianism will be the cause or the result.

The main basis for this essay is informal field observations and numerous conversations with Omanis over a period of two-and-a-half years (2013-2015).


[1] Barry R. Posen, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” Survival 35, 1 (1993): 27-47.

[2] Paul Roe, “Former Yugoslavia: The Security Dilemma That Never Was,” European Journal of International Relations 6, 3 (2000): 373-393.

[3] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Syrian Alawis and the Ba’ath Party,” in The Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant, eds., M. Kerr and C. Larkin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015): 108.

[4] See Leon Goldsmith, Cycle of Fear: Syria’s Alawites in War and Peace (London: Hurst, 2015).

[6] Xavier De Planhol, Minorités En Islam, Géographie Politique et Sociale (Paris: Flammarion, 2007).

[7] Marc Valeri, “Domesticating Local Elites: Sheikhs, Walis and State Building Under Sultan Qaboos,” in Regionalizing Oman: Political, Economic and Social Dynamics, ed. S. Wippel, (London: Springer, 2013): 267-277.