The latest issue of The Geographical Journal is available on Wiley Online Library.
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by Benjamin Sacks
ONE COULD be forgiven lest they forget that the Sultanate of Oman borders Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The peaceful desert state rarely receives a mention in newspapers or television. Certainly, Oman has conspicuously avoided Yemen’s political instability and violence. Permitting a degree of good fortune, Oman has clearly used this internal stability to its advantage. A 1974 development report in The Geographical Journal noted that, before the late 1960s, Oman had changed little in the preceding century: ‘Basic resource use was largely limited to traditional and only partially commercial agriculture and fisheries; other economic activity consisted of medium-scale Indian Ocean maritime trade and the small-scale regional exchange of local products’. The Sultan in Muscat enjoyed tremendous wealth, but little national authority. Quiet and insular, Oman remained a sparsely-populated, tribal frontier.
But geography had one important card to play. Although in 1902 S M Zwemer lamented in The Geographical Journal that ‘historically, politically, and geographically, Oman has always been the most isolated part of Arabia,’ the Sultanate was nonetheless situated at one of the world’s most strategic crossroads. From its position on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman faces the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Most importantly, the Sultanate controls the Musandam frontier, a Gibraltar-like spit of land projecting itself in between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, creating the Strait of Hormuz. Whomever controlled Oman could regulate the flow of trade between the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and South Asia.
When N L Falcon, former Chief Geologist of British Petroleum (now BP), led an expedition to Musandam in mid-1972, Oman’s strategic value had long been recognized by British colonial authorities. Oman was never officially “colonized”; Muscat and its environs have been under the continuous control of the Qaboos dynasty since 1749. But the British nonetheless developed an intimate relationship with the Persian Gulf state. From the early nineteenth-century onward, London and Muscat signed a number of treaties prioritizing British imperial trade and military needs. British strategic interest in Oman facilitated growing interest in Arabic history and culture, or what Edward Said later described as “Orientalism”.
The rapid contraction of the British Empire in the decades following the end of the Second World War only marginally affected Muscat’s relationship with London. A 1959 internal Chatham House report warned that American efforts to expand their regional influence to Oman could be disastrous for British foreign policy. Chatham House did not have long to wait; Britain’s opportunity to reassert local authority soon presented itself. In 1968, the British Army pulled out of Aden. Marxist-Leninists soon filled the vacuum and, in an effort to spread their ideology to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, attacked Dhofar, Oman’s western desert province.
In Muscat, meanwhile, the British overthrew Sultan Qaboos’ father, Said bin Taimer. Trained at Sandhurst and regularly briefed by members of the British military, intelligence services, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Qaboos quickly moved to cement his authority. Backed by thousands of British troops, Qaboos crushed the Dhofar insurgency. The educated Qaboos opened Oman to foreign investment and culture, albeit under Britain’s informal protection. It is a relationship that continues, in many respects, to this day.
The so-called ‘Oman Question’ clearly stands at odds with the global decolonization movement of the late twentieth-century. In the 1970s alone, Britain divested itself of many of its remaining West Indian and Pacific territories. Other possessions, including Belize (formerly British Honduras) gained self-autonomy status, a precursor to full independence. Oman’s departure from the norm remains a curiosity to many. J C Wilkinson, an Oxford geographer writing just as British-Oman military operations in Dhofar reached their apex, struggled even to define Oman’s geopolitical status: ‘The very title of the largest political unit of south-east Arabia, the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman [now simply the Sultanate of Oman], indicates a territorial dichotomy which tells only part of the story’. Although Oman’s foreign policy and commercial negotiations have become more international in recent years, the Queen’s warmly-received visit to the Sultanate on 26 November 2010 reaffirmed Wilkinson’s forty year-old question. What is Oman?
W B Fisher and H Bowen-Jones, ‘Development Surveys in the Middle East‘, The Geographical Journal 140 no. 3 (Oct., 1974): pp. 454-466.
S M Zwemer, ‘Three Journeys in Northern Oman‘, The Geographical Journal 19 no. 1 (Jan., 1902): pp. 54–64.
N L Falcon, ‘The Musandam (Northern Oman) Expedition 1971/1972‘, The Geographical Journal 139 no. 1 (Feb., 1972): pp. 1-19.
See John B Kelly, Chatham House Memoranda: Sultanate and Imamate in Oman (London: Royal Institute for International Affairs and Oxford University Press, 1959), and Benjamin J Sacks, ‘A Path to Decolonization: British Reactions to the Winds of Change’, Tufts Historical Review 1 no. 1 (Spring, 2008): pp. 29-38.
J C Wilkinson, ‘The Oman Question: the Background to the Political Geography of South-East Arabia‘, The Geographical Journal 137 no. 3 (Sep., 1971): pp. 361-371.
by Magali Bonne-Moreau
Experts are warning that Yemenis living in the capital city, Sana’a, may no longer have access to water by 2025. Like many Middle Eastern countries, Yemen is an arid country that faces a problem of water scarcity*. Rain and groundwater are the main sources of water in Yemen since there are no rivers in the country. A recent New York Times article reports that if water management does not improve, it may lead to massive population displacement as well as job losses and declining incomes. These conclusions are based on a preliminary study produced by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company at the request of the Yemeni government.
Demand for water in Yemen has greatly increased over the past decades, due to a fast growing population that has doubled since 1975, and to the prevalence of the cultivation of qat, a mildly narcotic leaf that generates more income than other cash crops. Yemeni farms use about 90 percent of the country’s water. Thousands of wells have been drilled illegally to irrigate crops, and the growing need for water and inadequate irrigation techniques have resulted in the depletion of Yemen’s aquifers, with groundwater being extracted faster than it can be replenished by natural discharge. This has led to migration from rural to urban areas, as streams dry up and people can no longer farm on their land. It is important to note that Yemen is a major food importer, with around 90 percent of its food coming from abroad.
There have been different campaigns to educate Yemenis about sustainable water management options at the individual level, like the one in the video presented below, and the creation of Rowyan, a national mascot to encourage water conservation. Several projects related to sustainable water management in Sana’a and at the national level are being funded by international organisations and the EU, and water rationing is being carried out in most of the major cities.
A Geography Compass paper by Hassan et al. (2010) provides insights into the challenges and opportunities related to water management in an arid Arab country. Although the politics, geography and level of water scarcity differ, a comparative approach could be taken to draw parallels between scenarios in Palestine and Yemen. For readers who prefer a more theoretical approach to the sustainability of water use, another Geography Compass paper by Hauhs and Graefe (2009) presents perspectives from the social and natural sciences, and shows how both of these approaches can be combined to facilitate discussions amongst water managers with different backgrounds.
*Water scarce countries are defined by the World Bank as those that have less than 1,000 m3 of renewable internal freshwater resources available per capita in a year. Yemen is estimated to have about 200 m3 of water per capita, which is 3 percent of the global average of 6,750 m3.
Read more about water scarcity in Yemen in the New York Times green blog
Watch the Rowyan video
Read Hassan, M. A., Shahin, K., Klinkenberg, B., McIntyre, G., Diabat, M., Al-Rahman Tamimi, A. and Nativ, R. (2010), Palestinian Water II: Climate Change and Land Use. Geography Compass, 4: 139–157
Read Hauhs, M. and Graefe, O. (2009), Sustainable Use of Water from Natural and Social Science Perspectives. Geography Compass, 3: 2025–2044.
Watch “Yemen – Water War” by What’s Up Productions
In the wake of today’s revelations of a package bomb orgininating in Yemen and bound for the U.S. it is perhaps useful to remember the linkages between poverty and terrorism and indeed poverty and religiosity in attempting to understand the trajectory of this event. The linkages between poverty, civil discontent and terrorism have been discussed frequently in the academy (Barros et al 2008). Yemen is in this light a textbook case. Ranking 151st out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index of the UN, an index measuring such things as infant mortality and life expectancy: it can be seen that Yemen has one of the lowest HDIs in the world and indeed is the poorest of all the Arab nations. This is only exacerbated by dwindling natural energy resources, an internal war and an education system that has all but collapsed.
Writing in the UNICEF press release above, Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Representative in Yemen highlights the crucial role of education in any peace-building initiative. With this in mind today is perhaps a timely opportunity to notice and discuss equilaterally, any attempts to show women of Yemen who have chosen to be in education as aligned with those against peace. However, it may be crude and mechanistic of me to view recent revelations in the news-media as only damaging to Yemeni women in education. In fact this may be about diffusing a western discourse of commenting on oppression of women in countries such as Yemen. An agenda seeking to damage and undermine support for them from the west. In time, much time, no doubt the course and origins of this cruel attempt on the lives of innocents will be revealed. However, in the meantime the war goes on and though it is a process through which poverty touches all, it is important to note that in Yemen, the face of poverty is undoubtedly female.
Read article by Lloyd-Evans for Geography Compass http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00157.x/abstract
Watch video interview with Ghadia Al Absi http://rising.globalvoicesonline.org/blog/2009/04/08/video-interview-with-ghaidaa-al-absi/
Read UNICEF press release http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/media_56431.html
Read article by Rachel Cooke (2008) http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/may/11/women.humanrights
Read Barros et al (2008) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V82-4P940HP-7&_user=10&_coverDate=02/29/2008&_rdoc=1&_fmt=full&_orig=search&_origin=search&_cdi=5858&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=a8f19e9b565b17457c544e928510abe9&searchtype=a