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Western Indian Ocean Worlds: Imperial Legacies, Economic Networks, New Geographies

Panel XIII-17, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Assembled panel 1-1
  • Sara Hussein
    This paper seeks to understand the applicability of the concept of “Afrabia” underpinning twentieth century histories of Afro-Arab connections. In 1000 Years of Suez, the British author R.E.B. Duff remarks that “the isthmus of Suez, that narrow neck of land dividing the Mediterranean from the Red Sea, was seen from the earliest times as one of nature’s most irritating mistakes.” On the other hand, leading African historian, theorist, and public intellectual Ali Mazrui offers an alternative framework of conceptualizing the red sea region as a bounded unit of historical, political and economic analysis validated by the arena’s centuries old religious, linguistic, and commercial ties. In contrast to Duff and common European sentiment of separation- one that is reaffirmed by the distinction of artificial disciplinary borders that Middle East and African area studies suffer from- for Mazrui, “the Red Sea has no right to divide Africa from Arabia.” Mazrui’s theory of “Afrabia” offers a key intervention for the study of transnational Afro-Arab histories, one that has found little purchase so far in Middle East studies. Unlike the burgeoning field of Indian Ocean studies, the concept of the Red Sea as a site of centuries old cross-connection between northeast africa and the arabian peninsula is one that remains understudied in Middle East historiography, especially in the contemporary period.
  • In the decade following the July coup of 1970, the government of Oman under the reign of the new Sultan, Qābūs bin Saʿīd, embarked on a series of enormous infrastructure and institution building projects. During this period, a time known in the Sultanate as the “Renaissance” or “al-Nahḍa,” these initiatives transformed the ways Omanis experienced the world around them and interacted with the state. One project that has, so far, garnered little attention from historians is the creation of the Royal Oman Police (ROP), which the Sultan founded via Royal Decree in 1974. Prior to this time, Oman had no nation-wide police force and security was handled by local governors. With the advent of the ROP, for the first time, Omanis experienced the presence of the central government in almost every town and village in the country. The ROP built new, modern police stations that replaced old forts as loci of government force throughout the countryside. The police car, a new sight on Oman’s roads (themselves new spaces), introduced the phenomena of the traffic stop, and the ROP Air Wing extended the physical reach of the state to the most remote mountain tops through its use of helicopters and airplanes. Drawing on archival documents from British contractors who helped train and lead the ROP, an official notebook of an Omani ROP officer, and government reports and correspondence from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, this paper argues that the ROP’s spread across Oman was, at its core, a kind of internal imperialism that was deeply rooted in the imperial and colonial policing traditions of the British Empire. In fact, Felix De Silva, the head of the ROP was a former Tanganyikan policeman, while other important early leaders came from police departments in Hong Kong, Kenya, and Special Branch in Britain itself. These people, with the help of newly trained Omani policemen and women, built an organization that introduced governmentality to the Omani people through a new repressive state apparatus that spread out across the land swiftly and efficiently. Therefore, I conclude that for many Omanis, life in their country during the first decade of the “Renaissance” was not only marked by new levels of monetary and material wealth, but also by contact with a new, powerful, and intrusive institution that brought them into direct contact with their government in a manner unprecedented in the history of Oman.
  • John Willis fits Yemen into the wider Indian Ocean “spatial domain," arguing it wasn't "merely a body of water but an overlapping network of institutions, governing practices, discourses, and ideologies that created a specifically Indian imperial space [which] inevitably shaped political, economic, and cultural transactions of various kinds throughout the common experience of empire.” I extend this framework beyond the confines of just British empire and incorporate other aspects and emphasize the mutuality of relationships instead of unidirectionality. As evidence reveals, while the British viewed and administered the Persian Gulf as part of their Indian empire, the political and economic significance of the Gulf to India, and vice versa, predated the British, and furthermore that connection manifested in more than just trade and (imperial) rule. Various Gulf port cities contributed in ways that were integral to the functioning of Indian society, cultures, and religions, playing significant roles in what later nationalists call “Indian identity.” The inverse is true for the role of India within the Gulf. While I examine multiple Gulf ports for this project, the most significant are the Kingdom of Hormuz (pre-modern period) and Kuwait (modern period). Furthermore, I attempt to dislodge the centrality of Europe in the historiography. No one disputes the critical European impact on the modern Indian Ocean system, however equally important were the intra-Indian Ocean networks—actually these networks were crucial determinants in how Europeans, from the Portuguese onwards, constructed and expanded their own global order. I augment the work of James Onley and Sugata Bose, underscoring that even as Europeans came to dominate particular systems, Indians performed consequential “intermediary” roles that enabled these systems to function and even expand. A study on commodities can validate this argument, but not as typically used in the historiography. As Fahad Bishara and Patricio Russo advocate, “a history of the Gulf...must move beyond monsoons and markets.” Thus I use both government records and narrative sources to transcend the trade statistics, instead demonstrating the meaning, impact, and actual utilization of the results of this trade relationship—the function of these commodities in these societies. Tracing the sociocultural functions of commodities over centuries shows continuity and depth of the Gulf-India relationship beyond just the British period. Finally, using the lens of the longue durée also complicates the claimed uniqueness of culture and identity in India and the Gulf.