The Emergence of States in a Tribal Society
by Uzi Rabi
Portland, Ore.: Sussex University Press, 2006. 299 pp. $75
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
In The Emergence of States in a Tribal Society, Rabi, a lecturer in history at Tel Aviv University, provides a history of Oman during the rule of Sa'id bin Taymur (1932-70). Using British documents, European travel accounts, a handful of Omani chronicles, and a smattering of Arabic newspapers published outside Oman, Rabi challenges conventional wisdom depicting Sa'id's authoritarian rule as harsh and backward, if not medieval.
Instead, Rabi argues that Sa'id was skilled and capable, even if not progressive. While Sa'id unified and stabilized a divided, tribal, and economically bankrupt society, Rabi suggests he had little choice but to resist British pressure to reform in order to preserve his unified domain's tenuous balance.
The narrative is straightforward, and Rabi's writing clear. After an introductory chapter explaining both the tribal and political backdrop to Omani society and the growth of British political influence, Rabi lays out a basic political and diplomatic history, beginning with Sa'id's inheritance of the country, continuing through the unification of the Sultanate of Muscat with the Imamate of Oman, and culminating in the challenge from the communist-inspired Dhofar rebellion.
Whereas British authorities and, for that matter, other Arab leaders saw Sa'id as detached and uninterested, Rabi argues that he recognized economic autonomy to be key to preserving Oman's independence in the face of the British challenge. Rabi depicts Sa'id as a skillful tactician who preserved Omani territorial claims, even in the face of an expansionist Saudi kingdom. As he traces Oman's development, though, reliance on British sources may not be enough. Imperial Iran played a crucial role in crushing the Dhofar rebellion, and its documents—many published and, therefore accessible even to an Israeli author—bear exploration.
While The Emergence of States in a Tribal Society is a useful chronicle, Rabi's attempt to redefine Sa'id's legacy feels forced. That an autocrat can make a camel train run on time should not absolve him of questions about his backwardness. Around the Persian Gulf, Sa'id's contemporaries faced similar problems but, rather than suppress modernity, many embraced it. In Iran, for example, like Oman a state in which the British exerted influence but not direct control, Reza Shah both crushed tribal separatism and embraced modernizing reforms. And if Sa'id's tactics were necessary to hold the state together, then why did Oman not fall apart when his son and current leader Sultan Qabus bin Sa'id seized power on July 23, 1970? After all, the younger Sa'id immediately ushered in reforms that the Omani population embraced.
While academic culture promotes revisionism, sometimes conventional wisdom is rooted in reality. Nevertheless, for those interested in this unexplored but formative period in Omani political history and not put off by this tome's unnecessarily high price, Rabi has put together a useful study of an often ignored time and place.
Related Topics: History | Michael Rubin | Summer 2007 MEQ
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