In October 2015, the Sultanate of Oman held elections for its Consultative Council. There was widespread coverage in the international media of elections convened during the same period in Argentina, Guatemala, Poland and several other countries, but the contests in Oman received little attention.
Yet, in Oman itself, an electoral alliance sent shock waves through Salala, capital of the country’s southern governorate of Dhufar. Previously, this alliance had proven so disruptive of the political landscape that some of the locals dubbed it “al-Gono,” after Cyclone Gonu, which devastated the Omani agricultural sector in 2007. In the ordinarily calm coconut groves of tropical Salala, Dhufar’s own “Gono” now struck again, shaking up both tribal hierarchies and notions of legitimacy.
In and Out of the News
The scant international coverage of Oman’s 2015 Consultative Council elections is not surprising. An absolute monarchy widely perceived as a bastion of political stability, Oman rarely features in world news. The sultanate’s strong ties with both Iran and the Arab Gulf monarchies allow it to play an important role in regional diplomacy, but the representatives of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa‘id al-Sa‘id fulfill this role discreetly. When the wave of Arab uprisings in 2011 reached the sultanate’s shores, Omanis were as surprised as the international community. Protests in the cities of Muscat, Salala and Suhar lasted from January 17 to May 14 of that year, with demonstrators voicing demands for political, economic and social reform.
The last demonstrations to be shut down, on May 14, took place in front of the office of Dhufar’s governor in Salala. The sight of protesters in Salala was particularly uncomfortable for the regional and national authorities, because 40 years earlier Dhufar had witnessed an insurrection against first Sultan Sa‘id bin Taymour and then his son Sultan Qaboos. Beginning under the name the Dhufar Liberation Front, and later taking on a communist leadership, this rebel movement controlled varying amounts of Dhufar’s territory between 1965 and 1975. The state and its allies waged a long war to achieve dominion over the entirety of Dhufar. Although during the war Salala remained under the sultan’s control, the city’s current population includes many families hailing from the mountain hinterland, where support for the former liberation movement once ran high. After the 2011 protests in Salala, a large police station was built on the site where the demonstrators had gathered.
In the wake of the 2011 demonstrations, the government introduced reforms, including measures to expand the functions of the Consultative Council to include the amendment and approval of draft laws.  These reforms continued a history of changes in the Council’s form and function since it was created in 1991. Suffrage was gradually extended from (male) elites until becoming universal in 2003. Women have been able to contest seats nationwide since 1994. Currently, one of the 85 council members is a woman. Several leaders of the 2011 protests were elected to the Council that year, including one member from Dhufar, Salim al-Mashani. He represented the constituency of Taqa, a town lying east of Salala along the coast and well known as the home of Sultan Qaboos’ maternal relatives. But the inclusion of these government critics in the assembly proved to have limited impact in advancing the demands made during the protests. Although the government introduced financial support for job seekers, it later cut these benefits. The government went on to pass legislation facilitating the arrest of dissenters, criminalized the kind of protest that had erupted in 2011, and arrested more than 40 of its critics over the summer of 2012.  Power remained concentrated in the hands of the sultan. Many of the hopes ushered in by the 2011 protests were replaced by disappointment. In the runup to the 2015 elections, the authorities deemed three members of the Council—including Dhufar’s al-Mashani—suddenly ineligible to stand for reelection.
The sultanate’s unswerving priorities of regime survival and political stability go hand in hand with an official narrative of success in fostering social and economic change. Like other Gulf monarchies, Oman has experienced enormous economic, demographic and social transformations since the 1960s. According to the hegemonic official narrative, state-endorsed modernizing progress dates back to 1970, the year of Sultan Qaboos’ accession and the inauguration of his leadership of Oman’s renaissance (nahda). This story celebrates perceived great achievements of the era such as investments in infrastructure and public services, the gradual expansion of suffrage to all adults and the creation of opportunities for women to participate in public life in roles ranging from Consultative Council membership to work in the private and public sectors.
Yet the place of Dhufar in Oman’s official narrative of post-1970 progress is ambiguous. On the one hand, since the accession of Sultan Qaboos and the subsequent formal defeat of the liberation movement in 1975, the state has invested heavily in Dhufar. The village-like Salala of 1970 has been transformed into a city, boasting some 172,000 residents in 2010. A large container port at nearby Raysut has encouraged economic development in the region, as has the new airport terminal in Salala opened in 2015. Keen to broaden Dhufar’s appeal to the Gulf visitors who flock there during the cool monsoon weather from June to September, the government has relocated the mostly black residents of Salala’s beachfront neighborhood of Hafa in order to develop the area as a high-end tourist resort. On the other hand, Dhufar’s reputation for strong tribal loyalties, the increase since the 1970s in the number of women who veil their faces in public, and local ambivalence on questions such as whether it is acceptable for women to drive make Dhufar an awkward fit for official narratives of Oman’s ongoing modernization.
New Voices in Dhufar’s Elections
Despite the saturation of the national domain with official narratives of progress, and despite the state’s tight monitoring of political life, not all forms of change in Oman are state-endorsed. The electoral league that some nicknamed “al-Gono” shows how Dhufaris find ways to challenge predominant power relations and state patronage by drawing on networks outside the state’s control. In the early 2000s, Dhufaris hailing from non-elite tribal backgrounds mobilized around rejection of the long-standing pattern of representation on the Consultative Council. The two members from Salala habitually hailed from two powerful Dhufari tribal elites: the hakli (non-Arabic-speaking elite mountain tribes) and the kathiri (town elites, also related to mountain and desert tribes). The two Consultative Council seats for Salala rotated from tribe to tribe within the hakli and kathiri alliances, respectively. The number of voters whom the hakli and kathiri alliances could command left no opportunity for members of tribes and social groups that traditionally ranked lowest in Dhufar’s hierarchies to be elected.
These less powerful groups include non-elite town tribes, non-elite mountain tribes (the shahra), blacks whose historical status would have been that of slaves (whether owned by the sultan or by other families) and town families whose traditional livelihoods had focused on fishing (the bahara). Members of these groups could achieve public prominence in other ways. For instance, one family from a traditionally non-elite town tribe from Salala enjoys national prestige in the banking sector. But the hakli and kathiri alliances monopolized Dhufar’s representation in the Consultative Council, even though some Dhufaris (including members of these alliances) at times judged the selected candidates to be poorly qualified.
To contest the elites’ domination of Salala’s Consultative Council representation, men from various, predominantly non-elite backgrounds in Salala and the nearby mountains formed alternative electoral alliances—and eventually alliances across those alliances. Given Oman’s prohibition on independent political parties, electoral alliances usually lack official names. Dhufaris generally refer to electoral alliances—whether of the hakli, the kathiri or their eventual opponents—through informal names such as “the gathering” (tajammu‘). In the 2003 and 2007 elections, the various alternative, predominantly non-elite alliances formed a nameless league and succeeded in electing their own candidate, who joined a hakli member to represent Salala on the Consultative Council. On each occasion, the league organized an internal vetting process to ensure that a competent and qualified candidate prevailed. In 2003, lawyer Sa‘id Shahri won a seat. By his own reckoning, he was the first person from a non-elite mountain tribe to hold a high-ranking position in the Omani government. In 2007, the league earned its nickname drawn from the destructive cyclone when members elected Rashid al-Safi, whom they believed to be the first black Omani to be popularly elected to the Consultative Council. Al-Safi hailed not from the former slave families once owned by and often still close to the sultan’s family, but from a family with no royal connections. When al-Safi was given a ministerial portfolio in 2011, members of “al-Gono” interpreted his appointment as confirmation of the high quality of their selected candidates.
In 2011 fissures appeared within Salala’s experimental league, and members failed to reelect the lawyer Shahri. In 2015, however, the league reasserted its winning ways of 2003 and 2007 and extended its alliances to two further groups of town elites—a collection of elite town tribes, including the al-Ghassani tribe, and some of the tribes claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad (sada). The expanded league also took on a new public presence, including a formal name—the Electoral League of the District of Salala—a Facebook page, an Instagram account and sponsorship of highly publicized public meetings for each of its targeted constituencies. Muhammad al-Ghassani, the winning candidate of the internal selection process and later the election, hailed from one of the newly joining town elites. The other Consultative Council members later chose him as one of the two deputy speakers. Increasingly professionalized and continuing to gain national prominence for its candidate, the Salala League had nevertheless broken with the previous pattern of the election with an outsider candidate who lacked the advantage of hailing from a prestigious tribe.
Women Candidates in Salala
The Salala League and its predecessors are not alone in taking up elections as a means of changing social attitudes and power relations in Dhufar and in Oman more broadly. Although none of the women elected to the Consultative Council have hailed from Dhufar, women from Salala do stand for election. The dynamics of tribal loyalties and hierarchies have nevertheless helped to determine which women stand for election, and the ways in which women vote.
In many places across the world, socially and economically privileged women have benefited most from the increase in opportunities for women to participate in national (and international) political life. In Dhufar, however, members of elite tribes—many of them men but some women as well—tend to hold conservative views about the appropriateness of a woman from such a background circulating in public, and thus being known, seen and talked about beyond her immediate circle. As a result, the majority of the handful of women from Salala who have stood for election to the Consultative Council (as yet unsuccessfully) hail from the black community. Dhufaris’ explanations for this phenomenon focus on the fact that because black women do not hail from elite tribes, these women are not under pressure to uphold a tribe’s reputation by refraining from circulating their names, faces and reputations in public. Indeed, black women in Salala and other towns in Dhufar have been pioneers in other forms of circulation in public, such as driving and working in certain commercial sectors.
When women candidates have stood for election in Salala, some have approached the regional branch of Oman’s national Women’s Association seeking support. Some of these candidates nevertheless recount being told by Women’s Association representatives that women vote according to tribal affiliation. The possibilities of using tribal networks to buck dominant trends have favored the electoral success of the Salala League and its predecessors. But that very success is contingent upon preventing the formation of other electoral alliances, such as those that might favor a cross-tribal and cross-status mobilization of women. The Salala League sought to field a woman candidate in its own internal selection process in 2015. But as the internal selection approached, the woman who had expressed interest in standing withdrew, apparently stating to the organizers that she did not wish to jeopardize the League’s ultimate chance of success.
Changing Elections, Changing Oman
Members of what eventually became the Salala League disrupted power relations at the local and national level. The league forged alliances between unrelated town and mountain tribes, between non-elites and elites, and across racial lines. These alliances disturbed Salala’s long-standing social and political landscape. By advocating that candidates should be elected on the grounds of qualifications for the post, and without regard to social background, members of the League used the very tribal networks that clash with dominant depictions of “progress” in order to achieve non-traditional results that at least in some respects were socially progressive. By mobilizing socially marginalized groups, the League challenged the hegemonic national networks of patronage from which marginalized groups had been excluded.
Many members of what became the Salala League, and perhaps some of the pioneering women who have stood for election, might not be comfortable with using the term “activist” to describe themselves. Although the possibilities for voting for change within current political structures in Oman have not yet captured the attention of international audiences, recent electoral cycles in Dhufar nevertheless demonstrate how Omanis can and do vote to signal appetites for change—and in some cases go on to achieve it.
Endnotes Gulf News, October 21, 2011.
 Marc Valéri, “The Suhar Paradox: Social and Political Mobilisations in the Sultanate of Oman since 2011,” Arabian Humanities 4 (2015).