No Country for Young Men: Exploring Senses of Belonging in an Omani Exclave

By Keye Tersmette
Submitted to Session P5145 (Contending Visions of Belonging in the Arabian Peninsula, 2018 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Oman; UAE;
Gulf Studies; Nationalism;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Wadi Madha, a tiny Omani geopolitical exclave enveloped by Emirati territory, occupies an ambiguous space in the modern nation-state of Oman. In their search for economic opportunity and a more exciting life, many young Madhani men have, in recent years, either naturalised as Emirati citizens, or migrated to mainland Oman. The Omani state, however, continues to invest heavily in the exclave, as it cuts through mountains to connect remote hamlets to main roads, expands health and education infrastructures, and “imports” other Omanis to staff local state and security apparatuses. In doing so, it competes directly with the Emirati state, which also seeks to establish a stronger presence in the even smaller counter-enclave of Nahwa, located within Wadi Madha’s borders. Historically, the present-day borderlands were home to tribal confederations whose allegiance vacillated between Muscati sultans and various sheikhs in Trucial Oman. Today, Madhanis’ sartorial preferences, use of Emirati dirhams, and admiration for the feats of the late Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan are but a few signs that muddle straightforward notions of Omani national belonging. Building on a combined 17 months of ethnographic research in Oman since 2011, this paper draws on two recent rounds of fieldwork (2017, 2018) in Wadi Madha to think through questions on national identity, citizenship, and belonging in Oman, and more specifically along the Oman-UAE border. On the one hand, it aims contribute to what little scholarship exists on the Omani state’s continuous efforts to incorporate peripheral, non-coastal identities into the new category of “Omani citizen” (see e.g. Valeri 2009, Jones and Ridout 2015). It traces how national education, the celebration of newly “national” and Islamic heritage, state ceremonies, and large-scale state employment have the potential to engender various modes of belonging in Omani citizens. On the other hand, this paper seeks to balance such a top-down narrative of “being-made” with an ethnographic account of Madhanis’ “self-making” (Ong 1996). It argues that Madhanis, and, indeed, many other Omanis and Khaleejis living in the borderlands have to negotiate contending senses of belonging---an ongoing process that complicates existing perspectives on citizenship and national identity.