In Oman, an ancient mediation method gets a makeover

Omani men have breakfast prior to holding a traditional local council meeting known as the “Sabla” in the small village of Ghala, near Muscat. (AFP)
Updated 15 January 2018

In Oman, an ancient mediation method gets a makeover

GHALA, Oman: Omani Mahmoud bin Yousef Temtemi found himself in a pastoral predicament this autumn — his neighbor’s flock of sheep had overrun his farm and gobbled up his crops, threatening his income.
Rather than make a scene or turn to the police, Temtemi chose to raise his complaint in Omani tradition: through the local “sabla,” or council.
Dressed in a robe and embroidered cap, Temtemi took his place on a sunny Friday morning at his neighborhood sabla in the village of Ghala — held outdoors on a patch of sidewalk.
“The farm is our livelihood,” Temtemi told an AFP correspondent attending the meeting. “I told myself I would lodge a complaint at the sabla, where the owner of the sheep would be present.”
In Ghala, just outside the capital Muscat, the sheikh humbly brings breakfast for meetings of the council. The youngest serves coffee.
The fellowship broke the ice for the mediation Temtemi sought. Acknowledging a problem needed to be solved, the men filed over to the meeting hall — a sparse room with little more than benches built into the walls.
The elders listened to the farmer’s story, discussed, then decided on compensation from the sheep owner.
“He will pay 150 riyals ($390) and keep an eye on his sheep,” said a satisfied Temtemi.
Oman’s sabla is a unique form of consensus building that many see as central to the Gulf nation’s traditions, and which some want to see adapted to the age of the smartphone.
“This council is where the old and young come to learn. The youth learn manners from their elders,” grey-bearded Sayeed bin Khalfan Nabhani said in Ghala.
Nabhani said the history of the sabla goes back “ages,” but some 40 years ago — after Sultan Qaboos took power in Oman — it was granted a degree of government recognition.
“From the early 1970s, you had the governor and judge sitting at the council, along with witnesses and people of the villages — plus the person with the problem,” said Nabhani.
A solution is often found before the judge is called to get involved, he said.
In far-flung areas, the sabla remains central to life, but even there it is changing, with women for example reserving the hall for their own meetings.
Hilal Al-Siyabi, an Omani community activist, believes the sabla can — and should — keep up with the times.
In the lush Muscat suburb of Saael, a new kind of sabla is under construction.
A shell of a building stood off the main road, a mountain range in the background.
Siyabi’s voice echoed as he pointed to where LCD screens would be installed and computers set up for a future Internet cafe.
“We are leveraging on the concept of sabla to do something much better — something which is beneficial to today’s community,” he said.
This center would embrace the whole family, he explained, with a special emphasis on the young.
Siyabi said an exploratory meeting three years earlier was packed with curious residents — notably women.
“Young women,” he said. “They were excited to have such a center. They said, ‘We are not working but we are going to sell our precious gold to contribute to something like this.’“
Siyabi said the government has fully supported the initiative, which seeks to build on tradition in a changing world and keep conflict resolution local.
He sees the sabla evolving from its role as a mediation authority to a town hall-style forum and community center.
For Muscat-based public policy analyst Ahmed Al-Mukhaini, the sabla is a “microcosm” of the Omani state: discreet and tribal.
“You don’t hang out your dirty linen,” Mukhaini said, adding it was no surprise the government supports the continuation of the sabla.
Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman has not replaced the sabla — now a “benign form of assembly,” the analyst said, but institutionalized it, with modern forms of government continuing to function in the same patriarchical and hierarchical way.
“In Oman they spend a lot of time on consensus building, versus majority-based decisions,” Mukhaini said.
Authorities in Muscat continue to recognize tribal chiefs as official representatives, registered with the interior ministry.
Each tribe’s “rasheed,” or interlocutor, functions as a conduit to the government, often feeling out sentiment on domestic policy changes, such as recent health care privatization proposals.
“I’m not aware of any other country where tribal leaders are on a payroll or where the system of sheikhdom is controlled by the government,” Mukhaini said.
Even the modern Shoura council, Oman’s only elected body, is dominated by tribal heavyweights — not the technocrats and intellectuals found in the council of state appointed by the sultan.
“The system that remains until now keeps tabs on public opinion or resentment,” said the analyst.
When Qaboos overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970, the British-educated ruler reached out to the tribes in an early radio address, reassuring tribal leaders and promising to institutionalize their role.
The sabla is so important to Omani culture that it will even decide who will succeed the 77-year-old sultan when he dies.
“Basic law gives the appointment of the next sultan to the royal family sabla,” Mukhaini said.
If the cousins of Qaboos — he has no brothers or heir apparent — fail to choose a successor within a matter of days, Mukhaini said it will fall to the defense council, chief justice and Shoura council to reach a consensus, this time on behalf of the nation.

From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi with his third wife Farah and their son Reza (left). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (right). (AFP)
Updated 16 January 2019

From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

  • Forty years ago on Wednesday, the shah went into exile and less than a month later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power
  • His departure paved the way for the establishment of an Islamic republic hostile to Arab Gulf states

DUBAI: Forty years ago today, Iran’s then-shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, fled the country after a 37-year reign, in the first stage of a revolution that would replace 2,500 years of monarchy with an Islamic republic.

Prior to the revolution, Iran very much resembled Western countries, with a flourishing economy and tourists flocking to the country for its breath-taking landscapes, beaches and various activities, including hiking and skiing. 

The shah’s departure, prompted by mass protests, paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to return from exile in France, assuming power on Feb. 11, 1979. 

It was “a genuine social revolution against tyranny, domestic and foreign — the first represented by the shah and the second by… the US,” said Dr. Albadr Al-Shateri, politics professor at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi.

“The revolution went awry when religious leaders dominated the government, imposed its version of Islam and eliminated their partners in the revolution, including Iranian nationalists.”

Not long after Khomeini took over, the world got a taste of the new regime. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979, and were held for 444 days, after a group of Iranian students who supported the revolution took over the US Embassy in Tehran. 

The Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980 and lasted for eight years, contributed to the deterioration of Iran’s situation. 

“Fear of the new regime’s attempt to export the revolution to a Shiite-majority neighbor led Iraq to initiate the war,” Al-Shateri said. 

“However, Iran’s insistence on continuing the war until the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein exacted a heavy cost on both countries in human and economic terms,” he added. 

“Iran had legitimate grievances against the US, but the way it tried to redress these gripes was counterproductive.”

The shah was considered one of the best customers of the US defense industry. But his Western-inspired reforms sparked turbulent social change that aggravated the clergy, while his consolidation of power and the secret police gave him the reputation of a dictator.

Opposition to his reign and corruption among Tehran’s elite created an influential alliance of radical Islamists. 

Although Pahlavi tried to modernize Iran, driving up oil prices in the early 1970s and implementing reforms in education and health care, he became alienated among Iranians and angered the conservative clergy, who helped drive his exile. 

“Iran changed significantly from before the revolution to after, from a more civil, open and decent Iran to a closed, aggressive and sectarian one,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences. 

“Post-1979 Iran is deeply sectarian, and is not only responsible for sharpening the Sunni-Shiite divide, but also wholly responsible for politicizing and militarizing it,” he added.

Iran “has funded and armed Shiite militias, and has done everything possible to strengthen them so they can challenge the nation-state, Lebanon being a clear example.” 

Post-1979 Iran does not “play by the rules of the game,” Abdulla added. “It became radical, revolutionary and sectarian, and was about to become nuclear, which is deeply destabilizing.”

He said: “Gulf states have lived with Iran for thousands of years, and they knew how to deal with it all along. They had the best possible neighborly relationship, but it has always been a difficult Iran, whether under the shah or Khomeini.”

Abdulla added: “We’ve never seen an Iran that has become the number-one terrorist country in the world except in the last 40 years.”

Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the Schar School of Police and Government at George Mason University in the US, said: “Unlike the shah’s Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran sought to export its revolution to other Muslim countries, especially the Arab Gulf ones.” He added: “Still, it must be remembered that the shah’s Iran was also fairly aggressive. It seized Abu Musa and the Tunbs (islands) right when the British were leaving the Trucial States and the UAE was being formed. It had also laid claim to Bahrain.” 

Furthermore, while the shah’s troops helped defend Oman against a South Yemeni-backed Marxist insurgency in the 1970s, Katz said the presence of those Iranian troops in Oman was unsettling to Saudi Arabia in particular. 

“The shah had also got the best of Iraq in their border rivalry — something that Saddam Hussein sought to reverse after the Iranian revolution,” he added. 

Before the revolution, the shah’s Iran often behaved “aggressively toward its Arab neighbors, but its close cooperation with the US against the Soviet Union, which Iran bordered and the Gulf Arab states didn’t, meant that Washington wasn’t willing to act against the shah for doing so,” Katz said. By contrast, the rise of an anti-American government after the revolution led to the US working with Arab Gulf states against Iran. 

“Because the Islamic Republic behaved in such a hostile manner, both toward the Gulf Arabs as well as the US, the 1979 revolution led to the isolation and containment of Iran for many years,” Katz said. 

“Although it may seem counterintuitive, Iran may have posed a far greater problem for the Gulf Arabs if the… revolution hadn’t taken place, because if it hadn’t and Western investment in Iran continued or even grew, there would’ve been a tendency for Tehran to assert — and the US to value — an Iranian effort to be the leader in the Gulf in collaboration with the US.”