East African birth and Omani ethnic descent: a social history of Omani citizenship 1970-1990

East African birth and Omani ethnic descent: a social history of Omani citizenship 1970-1990

Nathaniel Mathews, Binghamton University


This paper theorizes the post-1970 relationship between Omani ethnic descent and the Omani passport. Modern Gulf citizenships are based around the instrumentalization of the traditional concept of ancestry, or nasab, under new political conditions of the primacy of the passport. Although ‘deficiency’ in nasab has traditionally been associated with the dishonor of slavery, in the modern era the ‘wrong’ nasab can also negatively affect one’s citizenship prospects.[1] As a category of analysis, race is most appropriately deployed to name the various colonial distinctions between European and non-European.[2] However, historian Jon Glassman has recently argued for understanding race, ethnicity and nation as ‘cognate phenomena.’[3] Both race and nationality instrumentalize ancestry for political ends, producing similar kinds of cleavages and dilemmas. In Oman, as in most Gulf countries, ancestry is the basic criteria for the legal acquisition of nationality, which guarantees the right to a passport.[4] Full national membership as a citizen, while not based on skin color or phenotype, nevertheless functions in ways parallel to the processes of inclusion and exclusion in race, complete with misrecognition, misrepresentation, and ‘passing’ for Omani.  The discourse about legitimate and fraudulently obtained nationality stem from the same psycho-social anxieties of decidability contained in racial governance.[5]

The use of ‘race’ as a category of analysis, rather than one merely of practice, is motivated by a desire to uncover labile categories of hierarchical difference and the social and legal processes that establish them. Anthropologists and historians of Gulf societies have demonstrated the ongoing importance of ‘traditional’ forms of social solidarity—lineage, descent and genealogy—to the Gulf region’s modern modular national citizenship.[6] The issuing of a passport in Gulf states is predicated on providing proof of this ancestry, and legitimizes what Vora and Le Renard call “a regime of value through which human bodies, their abilities, characteristics, and inherent place in society are implied.”[7] In the words of Noora Lori and Yoana Kuzmova, on the UAE, “The codification of national citizenship regimes led to the incorporation of certain residents as rightful “citizens,” while rendering other populations suspect for having a subversive bloodline that did not fit into the imagined homogenous “national” communities of these new states.”[8]

Omani citizenship was similarly structured around the consolidation of ‘Omani’ ancestry as the mark of legitimate citizenship. But this instrumentalization of descent was complicated by the central role of East African returnees in the making of the post-1970 nation-state. Returnees to Oman from Zanzibar and mainland East Africa had mixed nationalities and long histories of cross ethnic intermarriage. Though many migrants from Zanzibar to the Gulf were of Omani ancestry, Dubai was more open, and appeared to have better prospects before 1970.[9] But after the accession to power of the late Sultan Qaboos b. Said, in 1970, Oman became a more attractive place to emigrate, and the path to Omani citizenship broadened considerably and remained that way for a decade. Return was a bargain: curtailment of individual political rights and ‘foreign’ social and cultural elements, in exchange for a general social welfare package. Through the instrumentalization of descent, the Omani state obtained a class of highly educated East-African born citizens who played key roles in the modernization of the state.

My dissertation research in Oman, completed between 2011 and 2013, focused on collecting life histories of return to Oman from East Africa, 1970-1990. I conducted fifty such interviews of varying lengths, recording a small proportion of them as well. These interviews are far from a representative sociological sample of the returnee experience, but they do provide specific and valuable insight into the conceptual and ideological links between ancestry, bureaucratic recognition and national belonging in the making of post-1970 Omani national citizenship. They are filled with details of returnees negotiating the politics of belonging in Oman in both official and popular registers. Authorities sometimes interrogated their paternal genealogy upon arrival, demanded they give up their Tanzanian or Kenyan passports. The Omani state made a concerted attempt to incentivize and encourage endogamous marriage to fellow nationals. Sometimes non-Omani family members (such as a spouse) were prevented from legally entering the country. The returnees were re-tribalized, taking on an official nisba as their surname if they didn’t already have one. Many began wearing officially proclaimed Omani ‘national’ dress for the first time. They were also discouraged by other Omanis from speaking Swahili in public, and their relatively ‘freer’ attitudes to gender-mixing were condemned as alien to traditional Omani society. In this essay, I focus on the Sultanate passport as a symbol of Omani national belonging, the ways East African born returnees acquired it, and the relation between the passport and ethno-cultural discourses of Omani citizenship.


The political economy of citizenship, class and ethnicity in the Gulf

Citizenship is a relatively robust and exclusive privilege in the majority of Gulf states, differentiating a protected class in the labor market who are deserving of special welfare benefits because of their membership. As rulers bought legitimacy from the citizenry through generous social spending—free public education, salary as untaxed income, land grants, and free or low cost health care—national identity in the Gulf states was a clear route to upward economic mobility. Even though Oman’s benefits are lower than neighboring Qatar and UAE, Omani citizenship has a ‘higher’ value in terms of economic benefits, than most other societies on the Indian Ocean rim.

The impetus for applying this race-critical lens onto the modern history of Gulf societies is driven by the economic and sociological developments in the region of the last half-century. The exploitation of oil and gas since the 1950s has driven global migration to the Gulf region from Africa and Asia.[10] Migration has shifted the ethnic makeup of these societies. In many Gulf states, non-citizen residents outnumber or closely parallel the total number of citizens. There are significant inequalities within the population of non-citizens. Mostly white wealthier Europeans and Americans who sign labor contracts with Gulf companies are globally mobile, while a second tier of relatively prosperous permanent residents from South Asia have been discussed as “impossible citizens, anthropologist Neha Vora’s memorable coinage for the second, third or fourth generation Indian residents of Dubai, who are the emirate’s largest non-citizen population.[11]  Other non-citizens, short-term contract laborers from Africa and Asia, are immobilized in the labor market by non-citizenship and vulnerable to exploitation by what legal scholar Bernard Freamon calls the ‘de facto slavery’ of the kafala system.[12]

My personal knowledge of these contemporary demographic and economic realities comes from reflecting on my experience doing historical and anthropological research in Muscat, Oman, the country’s capital. The first time I visited the city in 2007, I did not use a car to get around, but when I went back for my dissertation research in 2012, I decided to buy a vehicle. My blue Mitsubishi Galant was no match for some of the high-powered luxury cars and SUVs on the road, and it frequently broke down during my ten-month stay in Muscat. My residence on the western edge of the city, in the neighborhood called Mabailah, further highlighted my contradictory class position within the Muscat economy. I was unable to afford most of the apartments in the central neighborhoods where my interviewees, the Omani-Zanzibaris, lived. My street in Mabailah was populated by laborers from South Asia, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. Vis-à-vis the enormous number of temporary migrant workers in Muscat, I was in a privileged position due to my economic clout and the freedom of movement afforded to me by an American passport.  However, I was less prosperous than many of my interviewees, many of them wealthy older Omani citizens. Research interviews were conducted in people’s homes, and, even in humbler middle-class abodes, were usually accompanied by an elaborate and generous display of hospitality in which a servant or servants brought water, tea, juice as well as a selection of savory and sweet snacks, and fresh fruit.


The East African returnees and the Omani passport

Omani society is composed of a relatively more multi-ethnic and multi-lingual citizenry than many other Gulf countries, including many Omanis from East Africa who spoke Swahili in ethnically mixed Zanzibari households.[13] Omanis have a rich nineteenth and twentieth century history of trade, politics and empire in East Africa, that includes a long history of intermarriage to East African coastal families.[14] In Oman, this transregional history has served as a motif for the Omani vision of harmonious ethnic and religious pluralism among various religions and ethnicities. The Omani national museum emphasizes the exceptionality of this Omani national-cultural heritage, positing the anchorage of the national character in histories of maritime exchange and cosmopolitan intermarriage which are obviously evident in the ethnically diverse population of contemporary Muscat.

Returnees to Oman from East Africa have sometimes been considered by scholars to be a distinct ‘ethnic group’ from other Omani citizens.[15] However, there is no ‘Zanzibari’ nisba, only nisbas who went to Zanzibar.[16] In spite of their cultural and linguistic differences from Omanis who never left Oman, many Zanzibaris are part of prestigious lineages within the Omani tribal structure. In Zanzibar during the 1950s, the importance of Omani tribal nisbas in governance had faded with the rise of a nationalist movement that advocated a ‘Zanzibari’ territorial identity. In returning to Oman, Omani nasab took on a new instrumental importance. However, the post-1970 returnees differed in their approach to Oman’s new regime of ethno-citizenship. Some embraced it as a natural extension of their Omani Arab identity.[17] Others emphasized the significance of the Omani passport itself as the foundation of their citizenship.[18] While most returnees obtained the passport legally, I focus below on liminal and extra-legal situations that demonstrate the analogous relationship of ethno-national citizenship to race.

In practice, East African born Arabs complicate the assumption of Omani ethnic purity present in vernacular understandings of Omani citizenship, even as they reaffirm its validity.[19] Third and fourth generation Arabs in East Africa had attenuated roots in the Omani homeland. They used the term ‘return’ as a metaphor for becoming an Omani citizen, rather than expressive of a living connection to Omani kin.[20] In her ethnography of Bahla, In The Time of Oil, anthropologist Mandana Limbert shows that East African born Omani women navigate the social complexities of Arab Omani fathers who died in East Africa, or non-Omani maternal ancestry.[21] Anthropologist Irtefa Binte-Farid similarly demonstrates how three categories of Omanis define what it means to be “truly” Omani: Omanis who never left Oman and consider themselves ‘pure’, Zanzibari-Omanis who traveled to East Africa but did not intermarry, and Zanzibaris who traveled to East Africa and did intermarry.[22] Binte-Farid observes that the category of ‘purity’ was very important to her interlocutors’ conceptions of citizenship. In my own interviews, a Tanzanian-born man who received an Omani passport in 1983 opined, “We are pure Arabs—there is nothing for us in East Africa.”[23] He and other returnees map “purity” onto a notion of Omani ‘patria’.

In the 1950s and 60s, and continuing into the 1970s, tribal authorities would write ‘recommendation letters’ (called in Arabic shahada) for returnees, which were approved by the local wali of the district where the returnee claimed a kinship connection, and then by a committee of local authorities. In a system built on recognition through the sheikhs, the potential for slippage between bureaucratic and social recognition was large. As one returnee from East Africa put it, “the regulations were not so strict in those days. As long as someone from the interior claimed you as his relative, you were Omani.”[24] What Efrat Yerday notes for Israel, is also true of Oman, “the examination of who belongs to the ethnic nation…does not derive from a structured and ordered set of laws. The negotiation takes place regarding a set of rules and ideological and normative perceptions.”[25] These perceptions tended to confirm for my interviewees the validity of ethno-national thinking.

One of my interviewees told me his father saw an elderly man at the docks in Muscat who had disembarked with the refugees but who had no documentation of any sort. As my interviewee described it, his father recognized that this man was “a pure Omani”—he was dressed in the Omani traditional white robe, wore an Omani style turban, spoke Arabic, and had a very long beard. My interlocutor’s father began putting pressure on officials to let the man in, even without documentation. In the context of my interview, my interlocutor meant to demonstrate the generosity of his father, but it also shows that there was an inextricable element of visual and auditory (via language) confirmation of belonging that buttressed, the formal legal procedures of obtaining citizenship documents.

Marriage to someone of Omani descent was itself not enough to guarantee a non-tribally descended woman a legal route to citizenship. Thus, anxiety over ethnic purity is expressed around these exogenous marriages of Omani men to non-Omani women (especially East Africans).[26] Omanis who had non-Omani or non-Arab wives often skirted immigration regulations to enable their families to join them immediately in Oman. Several returnees related illicit border crossings between the Emirates and Oman, bringing their wives in and out of Oman in the trunk of a car for lack of a legal status.[27] Another interviewee left his wife and six children in Tanzania in 1975, to come to Oman, traveling on a Tanzanian passport up to the airport, where he received an unstamped Omani passport after surrendering his Tanzanian document. He managed to arrange for his family to come to Abu Dhabi in 1977, from which point the family was forced to cross illicitly into Oman in order to be reunited with him, since his spouse did not have legal standing at the time.[28]

One Omani-born interviewee contrasted his East African-born wife’s legal path to citizenship, by showing me a picture of his old Sultana of Oman and Muscat passport from 1979, while describing how in the 1970s “there was a lot of funny business with passports, people coming back and forth under the same five names…the government knew many Zanzibaris were in Oman illegally.”[29] There are letters from the UK Mission in Geneva in August 1966, showing that a few Zanzibaris were using the repurposed passports of others to come to Oman. In one case, a man traveling with his two wives and four children was stopped because he presented two Omani passports, each with various combinations of spouses and children on them. He claimed he had lost his first passport, applied for a second, and then found the first again. Another two families were turned away  after it was discovered that both fathers (who were traveling each with their wife and two children) were presenting another person’s passport, in which they had altered the photograph.[30] As Will Hanley notes, “Fraudulent use is a mark of the value of papers.”[31] Most illicit uses of the Omani passport were not done out of an attempt to “conceal” one’s “true” national identity, but out of the search for security and opportunity.

In another case, a father wrote the names of his family members on the passport application (in the early 1970s, a single family could travel on one passport), but the wali made the family a part of one tribe when they considered themselves from another. In another story, a female relative, a grandmother, was listed under the passport of her son, and after the original passport holder died, the grandmother had to apply for an individual passport. Moments like these could allow other family members in East Africa to use the passport of deceased individuals, or those who had already entered, coming back under an assumed name. In certain situations, younger brothers might use the names of an elder brother listed on the passport. [32] One Omani returnee even applied to the court to change his official name, because he was legally listed under the name on the passport he had used to enter, the name of his brother who was already a resident there.

According to one of my interviewees, there was one sheikh of the al-Harthi tribal confederation who had a close friend in Zanzibar of non-Omani background. In the early 1970s, this sheikh signed off on a passport for his friend, and adopted him into the tribe, even though he was neither Omani nor al-Harthi. This adopted tribal person lived in the interior for many years. When the sheikh’s son took over after his father’s death, he found out his father’s friend was charging people money to bring them to Oman, where they would pose as his family members. He had begun paperwork to bring two children, who would pose as his sons, and then he planned to bring the mother as a maid, and the father somehow later. He promised them a route to the passport through his facilitation.[33] While it was impossible for me to confirm or corroborate every one of these stories, their repetition in various forms, and circulation in online message boards and WhatsApp conversations, indicated to me there were significant anxieties about the malign influence of ‘fake’ Omani descent on Omani national identity, anxieties which Omanis of mixed East African ancestry, non-Omani Arab ancestry, and even non-Arabic speakers of ‘pure’ Omani descent, could find themselves subject to.

By 1983, those of Omani ancestry remaining in East Africa found the possible paths to Omani citizenship narrowed. The new citizenship law of 1983 stated that the child born of an Omani mother and a non-Omani father outside Oman would no longer be given consideration for Omani citizenship.[34] That same year, there was also a temporary ban on marriage between Omanis and all foreigners, attempting to curtail the fiscal cost of citizenship expansion.[35] However, paths to citizenship remained open to East African-born Omanis. In fact, the Omani government sent a commission to East Africa in the early 1980s to verify identities pursuant to issuing a new round of passports. At the same time, they relaxed visa requirements for those in East Africa wishing to visit relatives in Oman.[36] The eventual closure of the citizenship path to East-African born Arabs of Omani ancestry, was not primarily motivated by anxiety over the fraudulent use of papers, but by declining oil prices 1981-1986, culminating in state spending outstripping state income in 1985-86.[37] By 1990, it had become difficult to impossible to easily obtain Omani citizenship on the basis of a descent-claim alone; one also needed a prolonged residence in the country.[38] Even then, many waited a decade or more to receive their citizenship.

From 1970-1990, the issuing of Omani citizenship evolved into a modern rationalized bureaucratic procedure. This increasingly rationalized character of state bureaucracy meant that citizenship post-1970 was linked more and more to state economic goals, without, however, eliminating the ethno-national demarcation of citizenship. This brings us back to the original question of the role of race in the making of modern Omani citizenship. The answer lies not in any physiognomic criteria for citizenship, but in the undecidability of ‘liminal’ cases.[39] Socially constructed, shaped by ideological instrumentalization of ancestry, and potentially subject to the threat of “trespass” by fraudulently obtained papers, modern citizenship in Oman generates similar cleavages, ideological anxieties, and dilemmas of undecidability as ‘racecraft’ in the Americas.[40]



[1] See Razan Idris, “Is the Ex-Slave Equal to the Free Arab in Marriage: Debating Lineage, Race and Freedom in Mālikī Muslim History” Duke University B.A. thesis, 2018, 11

[2] Barnor Hesse, “Racialized modernity: An analytics of white mythologies” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30.4 (2007): 643-663.

[3] Jonathon Glassman, “Ethnicity and Race in African Thought” in William Worger, Charles Ambler and Nwando Achebe (eds.) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019, 199-224.

[4] Miriam Cooke, Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, 3149

[5] David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

[6] Mandana Limbert, In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory & Social Life in an Omani Town. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010, 144-147; Irtefa Binte-Farid, “‘True’” Sons of Oman: National Narratives, Genealogical Purity and Transnational Connections in Modern Oman.” in Marc Owen Jones, Ross Porter and Marc Valeri (eds.) Gulfization of the Arab World. Berlin, Germany: Gerlach Press, 2018, 41-56; Nadav Samin, Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015; Noora Lori, Offshore Citizens: Permanent Temporary Status in the Gulf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Noora Lori and Yoana Kuzmova, “Who counts as “People of the Gulf”? Disputes over the Arab status of Zanzibaris in the UAE”, this volume.

[9] For example, more than a few Shirazis attempted to obtain asylum in Dubai after fleeing Zanzibar in the early 1970s.

[10] Omar alShehabi, “Histories of Migration in the Gulf” in Abdulhadi Khalaf, et al. (eds.) Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf. London: Pluto Press, 2015, 7-8

[11] Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

[12] See Sumayya Kassamali, “the Kafala System as Racialized Servitude” this volume; see also Bernard Freamon, “Are the Persian Gulf city-states slave societies” Aeon 22 Jan 2021. https://aeon.co/essays/are-the-persian-gulf-city-states-slave-societies.

[13] J.E. Peterson, “Oman’s Diverse Society: Northern Oman” Middle East Journal 58.1 (Winter 2004): 32-51; see also Ahmed al-Ismaili, “Ethnic, Linguistic and Religious Pluralism in Oman: The Link with Political Stability” alMuntaqa 1.3 (December 2018): 58-73.

[14] In fact, the region’s historical links to East Africa stretch back many centuries longer. See John Wilkinson, “Oman and East Africa: New Light on Early Kilwan History from the Omani Sources” IJAHS 14.2 (1981): 272-305.

[15] See for instance Marc Valeri, “Identity Politics and Nation-Building under Sultan Qaboos”, in Lawrence Potter (ed.) Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. London/New York: Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2013, 179-206, 200

[16] While al-Lawati is a distinct nisba within the tribal landscape of modern Oman, al-Zinjibari is not.

[17] Nathaniel Mathews, “The Zinjibari Diaspora, 1698-2014: Citizenship, Migration and Revolution in Zanzibar, Oman and the Post-War Indian Ocean”, Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 2016, 224

[18] See Binte-Farid, 51

[19] For other imaginations of ‘purity’ and race, see Diana S. Kim, “The Seduction of Comparisons: On Untouchability beyond Caste in Korea and Nigeria”, Denis Regnier, “Uncleanliness, inequality and essentialism: Legacies of slavery in the southern highlands of Madagascar” and Gokh Amin Alshaif, “Black and Yemeni: Origin Myths, Imagined Genealogies and Resistance”, all this volume.

[20] For the economically motivated character of ethnic return migration, see “Introduction”, Takeyuki Tsuda (ed.) Diasporic Homecomings: Ethnic Return Migration in Comparative Perspective. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009, 21-2

[21] Limbert, Time of Oil, 148-161

[22] Binte-Farid, 47

[23] I.S. 5

[24] I.S. 12

[25] Efrat Yerday, “Jewish Illegality: the caste of Ethiopian Jews between 1955-1975”, this volume.

[26] In one revealing interview, an interviewee who grew up in colonial Zanzibar recalled her aunt, her mother’s sister, as a rebel who had married a Shirazi, which according to my interviewee, “in those days “qabila” was everything and marrying a pure African was unacceptable.”. I.S. 1, 8/11/2011. I.S.= Interview subject. All interview subjects have been anonymized in accordance with IRB regulations.

[27] I.S. 12; I.S. 13; I.S. 50.

[28] I.S. 12. For cases of long-term residents in India without citizenship, a concept he calls ‘blurred membership’, see Kamal Sadiq, Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. For “permanent temporary status’ in the UAE, see Nora Lori, Offshore Citizens.

[29] I.S. 7

[30] 30 August 1966 J.R.H. Evans to H.T. Jamieson,  15/DUB/ZAN, Fonds 11 Series 1 Box 256, UNHCR Archives, Geneva

[31] Will Hanley, Identifying with Nationality: Europeans, Ottomans and Egyptians in Alexandria. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017, 75

[32] I.S. 2

[33] I.S. 49

[34] In the 2013 Oman TV series “Min al-Sawāhil”, one of journalist Muhammad al-Murjebi’s interviewees in Fuoni, Zanzibar, complains bitterly about the failure of the state to grant him an Omani passport. There are a substantial number of stateless people of Omani descent also currently living in Burundi.

[35] Mandana Limbert, “Marriage Status and the Politics of Nationality” in Alanoud Alsharekh (ed.) The Gulf Family: Alsharekh, Alanoud. (ed.) The Gulf Family: Kinship, Policies and Modernity. London: Saqi Books, 2007, 172; for parallel prohibitions see Paul Dresch “Debates on Marriage and Nationality in UAE” in Paul Dresch and James Piscatori (eds.) In Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005, 149-50

[36] J.E. Peterson. “Oman: Three and a Half Decades of Change and Development” Middle East Policy 11(2): May 2004, 125-137,131; Khalid al-Azri, Social and Gender Inequality in Oman: The Power of Religious and Political Tradition. London: Routledge, 2013, 133

[37] Calvin Allen Jr. and W. Lynn Rigsbee II. Oman Under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution, 1970-1996. London: Routledge, 2000, 126-7; Dermot Gately, “Lessons from the 1986 Oil Price Collapse” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2: 1986, 237-284.

[38] In the 2013 Oman TV series “Min al-Sawāhil”, one of journalist Muhammad al-Murjebi’s interviewees in Fuoni, Zanzibar, complains bitterly about the failure of the state to grant him an Omani passport. There are a substantial number of stateless people of Omani descent also currently living in Burundi.

[39] see the case studies in Benjamin Lawrance and Jacqueline Stevens (eds.) Citizenship in Question: Evidentiary Birthright and Statelessness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

[40] Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. New York: Verso Books, 2014.