Fredrik Barth, Sohar: Culture and Society in an Omani Town (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1983).
Unni Wikan, Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982).
Oman has never been readily accessible for social researchers, and most of our knowledge about the country is therefore based on the writings of people who have worked there for political, commercial or military purposes. Some of these, especially those of British mercenary officers, have been little more than adventure stories. The few solid studies, such as John Townsend’s Oman: Making of a Modern State (1977) and J. C. Wilkerson’s Water and Tribal Settlement in Southeast Arabia (1977), gave little or no attention to the sociological or social anthropological aspects of Omani society. A detailed study of the coastal town of al-Khabura by geographers of the University of Durham remains unpublished (though copies can be obtained from the Middle East Center of Durham University). It seems that sociological research was excluded from this project for political reasons.
In 1974 and 1975-1976, Norwegian anthropologists Fredrik Barth and Unni Wikan received permission for six to seven months of fieldwork in the coastal town of Sohar. Their two books are among the few recent sources we have on life in Oman at the grassroots level.
Neither author has much to say about the economic basis of life in Sohar. Between the lines, we get the impression of a rather stagnant and unprofitable agriculture, some fishing for local consumption only, some rather small-scale commerce and a good deal of migrant labor (and more recently, government employment) as the only source of social mobility. No figures of any kind are given. Information on the political system is tempting but fragmentary. There are some administrative services but no political leadership at the level of the municipality. State authority is represented by the provincial wali, who rules singlehandedly without any kind of popular representation or consultative council, and combines executive and judicial functions. The wali should keep himself well informed, through an extensive system of informers, about what is going on in his province, and he shares the basic cultural values of the population.
The half-formalized institution of the sheikh provides some check on the power of the wali. Urban wards and separate hamlets have one or more sheikhs who are recognized in their function by the state but are not part of the official state bureaucracy and seem to be recruited (the authors remain rather vague on this) on the basis of informal social prominence. During a period when a thoroughly unpopular wali was posted in Sohar, most legal cases which normally would be brought before the wali were settled through the sheikhs.
The population of Sohar comprises a broad mosaic of ethnic and religious groups which represent cultural identity but are not very closely associated with specific economic functions or status positions. Only former slaves and their descendants suffer from some degree of social discrimination, but even this is not formally sanctioned. Social mobility takes place mainly through labor migration abroad, and more recently also to the capital city of Muscat, over which no local person or group can exercise effective control. Barth and Wikan describe a consistent cultural pattern in which mutual tolerance is strongly accentuated and assertiveness discouraged.
According to Barth, we should see this as a more widespread subtype of the general Middle Eastern social pattern found in culturally heterogeneous urban communities based on commerce and migrant labor, where wealth and power are transitory and unstable and not under permanent control by any social group. The tribal populations of interior Oman seem to show more cultural homogeneity, more stable and consistent patterns of social stratification and a less tolerant and more competitive political culture. Those tribesmen who migrate to the coastal area seem to acculturate themselves without too many problems.
Unni Wikan gives an unconventional picture of the consequences of this pattern of tolerance for the social position of women. Social segregation between the sexes is strictly maintained, but this segregation, combined with the reluctance of women to discuss and criticize each other’s behavior, leaves women considerable scope to assert their own personalities toward their husbands, parents and other relatives, and even to engage in behavior that would be socially unacceptable in public. One member of Wikan’s female network compensated for an unsatisfactory marriage by engaging in and apparently paying for extramarital sexual activities. An intermediary social role between the two sexes is recognized for the khanith, the passive homosexual who dresses like a man though with some “feminine” refinement but is allowed to maintain informal social contacts with women. (There is no such transsexual option for the masculine lesbian woman.) This, too, represents probably less a specific Omani cultural pattern than a neglected aspect of the general Middle Eastern pattern. The socially tolerated transsexual male role is found in Iran also. Whenever one obtains some intimate knowledge of the internal functioning of a Middle Eastern community, one finds a good deal of unconventional sexual behavior, by women as well as men, being covered up. Only the relatively rare cases that become public result in violent social sanctions.
In the type of social and cultural environment described by Barth and Wikan, it should be difficult to initiate any oppositional activities. Self-assertiveness in social relations, and therefore the rise of alternative social leaders, is not encouraged. Ethnic and occupational groups are too vaguely delineated to serve as foci for political mobilization. Socioeconomic inequalities are mitigated by the career opportunities offered by migrant labor. The state has as yet few spoils to offer, but also plays only a limited role in social control.
Oman had only recently been opened to the outside world when Barth and Wikan did their fieldwork, and sociocultural changes have probably advanced further by now. Only rather profound developments might prompt a movement for social change in the Omani coastal towns; the emergence of an oil-producing “rentier state” may well bring about just those types of changes. These include an increased distribution of wealth and privilege through the state, and therefore an increasing rivalry about the distribution of such spoils, the rise to administrative prominence of a Westernized elite that no longer shares the basic cultural values of the majority of the population, and the emergence of a half-modernized, school-trained “counter-elite” that does not find suitable career opportunities within the state machinery or in other sectors.
It will be difficult to observe the impact of such developments at the grassroots level. Since 1977, there has been rather little opportunity for research in the country. Wikan’s book seems to have been badly received by the Omani authorities, who were not flattered by the tolerant picture it gives of Omani sexual mores. New applications for research permits are usually bogged down in cumbersome immigration formalities and bureaucratic indifference. In spite of their limitations, Barth’s and Wikan’s books will therefore remain valuable as two rare sources on contemporary social life in Oman.