It is High Time New Delhi Pays More Attention to Oman, a Deserving Partner in the Gulf

PM Modi in Muscat in February 2018. Source: Author

Oman is an outlier in the Khaleej or the gulf. It follows its own sect of Islam called Ibadhi and is rooted in the tolerant Omani way of life. 

Oman is an ethnically diverse country with Ibadhi Arabs, Sunni Baluchi’s, Zanzibaris, Shia Ajmis, Hindu Banias among others making it a melting pot of tribes and cultures contrary to a linear identity anchored in Arab Bedouin narratives cultivated by its neighbours. 

Muscat is home to many churches and temples, including the historic Shiva Temple in old Masqat which Modiji visited during his visit to Oman. The ruling Al Said Dynasty is entrepreneurial, and at one time led an Omani Maritime Trading Empire of Influence from Gwadar in the Makran Coast in Baluchistan (returned back to Pakistan in the late 1950’s for a price) to Mombasa and Zanzibar in East Africa. 

The Sultan in Stone Town, Zanzibar was in power till 1964 till the African revolutionary forces overthrew them. The extensive diaspora that helped rebuilt Oman was invited back to Oman once Sultan Qaboos came in power in 1970. 

In the past five decades the skilled manpower in Zanzibar educated under the British University system in East Africa were impoverished within the country as the late Sultan’s father had a dislike for anything modern. 

The Sunni Baluchi’s served as mercenary police and military operatives in the Persian Gulf during the British India era. Omani citizens of Baluchi decent speak Urdu/Hindi very well and are the biggest patrons of Bollywood in Oman. 

The Gulf was part of the informal empire, in the words of Historian James Onley, and governed out of Bombay in British India via political agents appointed in Muscat, Bahrain, and Bushehr among others. Trade made the gulf relevant after the invention of the steam ship and the opening of the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century. 

The Bania Bhatia’s from Kutch have been based in the littoral port cities since the last three hundred years.  Banias (Hindu traders such as Sewji Topan Thakkur[1] arrived from Mundra in 1780) or the Lawatiyas, a Khoja Shia community originally from Sindh now well integrated in to Omani society have been in the region way before oil boom years. 

The history of the Sultanate has been situated in the history of the Indian Ocean Trade between Gujarat, Muscat and Zanzibar[2] for years. Initially involved in the slave trade and later in spices and cloth aided by Indian Bania financiers-all a part of the British imperial trade ecosystem. Now they trade in oil and in minerals.

A vibrant Omani Gujarati Bania community originally from Kutch led by the influential Khimji family has been operating as traders and financiers for many decades. A scion of the Khimji family has married a member of the Omani Royal Family in the recent past as well. 

The Khimji’s were critical in facilitating the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Oman in 2018 by sponsoring the community outreach event which I attended. I was the only blogger to document the proceedings from ground. The address to the diaspora on 11th February 2018 was signature Modi as I wrote then:

“The speech was full of energy and paisa vasool with loads of punch lines such as ‘Ek hawai chappal pehene wala bhi hawai jahaz main jaa sakta hain’.”

The Gujarati Bania connect works in an era of diaspora diplomacy. The Prime Minister met the late Sultan Qaboos in February 2018, and the Indian Military was given access to the strategic port and new Special Economic Zone of Ad Duqm or SEZAD, an hour by flight from Mumbai. 

Singaporeans have helmed SEZAD until now where the Chinese are investing heavily via Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing. They are also financing a new solar plant in central Oman as well. 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the Chinese government runs through the heart of the Gulf much closer to India, than what journalists in Delhi imagine. As historian Manu S Pillai said, that Kerala was closer to the Gulf and Delhi closer to Kabul over the centuries in an Algebra discussion. 

Tipu Sultan traded with Oman and has an envoy based in Muscat and imported Arabian Horses for his wars. A contemporary lens does not portray the full picture, often compressed for space on the edit page. History is complex and should inform the present in order to carve the future of India-Oman ties. 

There was palpable fear regarding the leadership transition as the late Sultan did not have a designated heir apparent although there was a protocol to decide the successor including the preferred name kept in an envelope, which was eventually the case as the new Sultan was decided in a few hours in a seamless transition. 

The DC think tank circuit had been fear mongering for decades regarding potential vacuum and instability in Oman, especially with the recent developments in the volatile neighbourhood. But they underestimated the sagely Baba Qaboos or Father Qaboos as he was affectionately called by his subjects and residents alike. 

He balanced his more powerful neighbours and hosted the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a no-go area for the Asharq Al Awsat or the Middle East and challenged the status quo of ‘The Nakba’ or the catastrophe of The State of Israel as termed by the Palestinians and the Arab World at large. 

The Sultanate is undergoing major transformations in the light of low oil prices, burgeoning youth bulge and the addiction of an unsustainable lifestyle which was previously fuelled by oil. 

Employment is a major concern in the current scheme of issues which was not a pain point for many decades, with expatriates/migrants running the system in the street. 

Now a days Omani citizen drive cabs, and work as baristas, something that was unimaginable a few years back. Nationalisation quotas articulated in the ‘In Country Value’ paradigm for local value capture and retention, are features of renewed social contract (a key aspect of sustainability) between the government and its subjects, with the private sector compelled to reserve jobs that can be manned more reasonably by low wage expatriates from South Asia and the Philippines.

The new Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq was the head of the ‘Vision Oman 2040’ committee which outlined the plans for a post carbon Oman, a term coined by the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sayyid Badr Al Busaidi in a talk for the University of Sydney in 2010, a pre Arab Spring era which implies that economic diversification has been on the agenda for many years.

The future of work will also determine the future of Oman, not merely energy or trade. India can play a massive role in this area as thousands of Omani students’ study in India including Pune. An IT Manager in Muscat whom I knew, studied physics at Wadia College in Pune and was very fond of the country. 

Thousands travel to Kerala and Mumbai for medical treatment, Jaslok and Beach Candy being favourites as these hospitals are on the authorised list for medical care. 

Oman and India run successful joint venture companies such as Oman India Fertilizer Company, in Sur. With Oman opening to new investments, it looks to India for strategic funding as it diversifies. India recently invested in the petroleum retailing arm of an oil major in Oman. 

Omani Royals have studied in British India over the centuries and a large expatriate population of eight hundred thousand (and major remittances!) makes the country a special emphasis for the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. 

These deep socio-cultural networks make for a good relationship. Dr. S Jaishankar would know this well, as access to Ad Duqm port would counterbalance a Chinese military presence in Gwadar, only a few hours away by ship. 

Such access to India is rare, as India has not found a work around to the Chinese presence through the famed ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. It is about time Oman receives the well-deserved attention from the West Asia desk in New Delhi. 

[1] Page 6, ‘The Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean 1780-1950, Fahad Ahmad Bishara, Cambridge University Press, 2017

[2] Trade and Empire in Muscat and Zanzibar: The Roots of British Domination by M Reda Bhacker, Taylor & Francis, 2003.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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