“The Necessary Evil”: The Toleration of Tobacco in Contemporary Oman

By Sean Foley
Submitted to Session P4806 (The Dynamics of Tolerance in the Contemporary Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In 1970, Sultan Qaboos staged a palace coup, ending what Michael Hudson has called “one of the most successful efforts by any ruler to prevent modernization.” For years, Qaboos’ father, Said bin Taimur, had imprisoned Omanis caught smoking in public. Upon taking power, Qaboos lifted these restrictions and, as Sergey Plekhanov has observed, “smokers spilled out into the streets [of Muscat], saluting with clouds of smoke the abolition of the law of smoking outdoors.” Two decades later, in 1991, Bisharah Baroudi, a Philip Morris executive, noted in a company memorandum that smoking was the “‘necessary evil’ along with the general influx of expatriates” for the success of Oman’s program of modernization.

This paper investigates the intersection of modernization and smoking in Oman through the lens of Oman’s framework of pragmatic tolerance. This framework reflects a combination of official and societal flexibility and a religious and legal Ibadi jurisprudence that frames the issue as one of tolerance for non-Muslims. Together, the governmental, societal, and religious perspectives accepted tobacco as a necessary element to modernize the Sultanate. While Ibadi jurisprudence prohibits smoking, Omanis freely smoke in private, grow and sell tobacco (primarily to Iran), and public levels of smoking have risen to the extent that the government has framed new curbs on public smoking as part of larger public health efforts. This pragmatic tolerance stands in contrast to other Ibadi communities in North Africa, where smoking in public is strictly prohibited.

To prove my argument, I use two rich sources which have not been exhaustively used in studies of Oman. The first is the internal documents of tobacco companies housed at the University of California, San Francisco, including market analysis and surveys of smokers. These types of documents have been used for some states in the Middle East but not Oman. The second is Ibadi jurisprudence which was explored in Hoffman (2012) but remains an understudied area of Islamic law.

The history of smoking has often included an admission of its health hazards—stated but deliberately disregarded—along with a frank statement of its attractions: “Tobacco is a dirty weed/I like it” (Graham Lee Hemming). If in its play with fire it has elements of the diabolical—“tobacco is a filthy weed and from the devil doth proceed” (Benjamin Waterhouse)—in the context of modern Islam, it became an emblem of enlightened liberation, a sign of sophistication, worldliness, and a cosmopolitan toleration.