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Makran, Oman and Zanzibar

Three-Terminal Cultural Corridor in the Western Indian Ocean (1799-1856)

Beatrice Nicolini

Winner of the Society for Arabian Studies Grant in 2003. This study examines a view '‘from outside’ of the three terminals: Makran, Muscat and Zanzibar which is a partial one in the history of the western Indian Ocean. Such themes are, however, essential when viewed against the background of Anglo-French rivalry in the Gulf and Indian Ocean during the first half of the nineteenth century, and are central to numerous debates. The methodological perspective, therefore, whilst concerned with oriental figures and events, is still largely based on sources in western languages precisely because it concentrates on the relations between Saʾ īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Saʾ īdī (r. 1806-1856), the Arab-Omani sovereign of Muscat and Zanzibar, and Europe, and on Baluch presence in Oman and in East Africa.
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Beatrice Nicolini

Abstract

The power of the Al Bu Sa'id Sultans of Oman was widely known as based on delicate balances of forces (and ethnic-social groups), deeply different among them. In fact, the elements that composed the nineteenth century Omani leadership were, and had always been, generally 'divided' amongst three different ethnic groups: the Baluch, the Asian merchant communities and the African regional leaders (Mwiny Mkuu). Within this framework, the role played by European Powers, particularly by the Treaties signed between the Sultans of Oman and the East India Company for abolishing slavery, and by the arms trade was crucial for the development of the Gulf and the Western Indian Ocean international networks They highly contributed to the gradual 'shifting' of the Omanis from the slave trade to clove and spice cultivation – the major economic source of Zanzibar Island – along the coastal area of Sub-Saharan East Africa. The role played by the Omani Sultans – the myth – within the western traditional historiography, which often described them as firmly controlling both the Arabian and African littorals and the major trading ports of the Western Indian Ocean during the nineteenth century, will be reexamined in this paper, taking into account recent research studies and international debates in the topic. The new hypothesis consists of a different perception of the concepts of power and control (political and territorial) of the Western Indian Ocean littorals by the most famous of the Sultans of Oman during the nineteenth century: Saiyid Sa'id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa'id.