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Monsoon Revolution

[Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015] [Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015]

Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[This review was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s excellent book will quickly be established as the definitive account of the revolutionary Arab nationalist and third worldist armed struggle in Dhufar, waged against the absolutist sultan of Oman and the British Empire from 1965 to 1976. While this movement has been treated before, such as in Fred Halliday’s Arabia without Sultans, this work draws with considerable maturity and skill on British colonial documents, Arab personal collections, unpublished papers, and interviews, and as such offers unprecedented empirical depth. Takriti’s polished prose illuminates much that was unclear or misunderstood about the revolutionary movement itself, its major organizational changes and strategies, its revolutionary culture, its forms of republicanism and citizenship, and especially its transnational links to the Arab nationalist movement and the third world. The author has certainly struck a blow against the “enormous condescension of posterity” in regard to the Dhufari armed struggle, insisting on the revolutionary nature of the movement, which for ten years sustained a republican and socialist struggle that opposed not only colonial rule, but also forms of absolutist, feudal, capitalist, and, in some senses, masculine domination. Demonstrating the inadequacy of top-down renderings of Omani history, the book successfully extracts the memory of the movement from “imprisonment” in “colonial accounts, counterinsurgency studies, [and] official histories.”

In addition to the revolutionary movement itself, we also discover much about the “transformation of a princely state into an absolutist monarchy.” That is, we learn about the active construction of absolutism in Oman, partly in response to the revolutionary movement, during the 1960s and 1970s. This account cuts against a lazy and usually Eurocentric view in which absolutism begins in the past and is slowly undermined under conditions of capitalist modernization. Furthermore, and thanks to the author’s immersion in the British archives, we secure particularly convincing detail, against rosy accounts of the British as stewards of parliamentary politics, about the prominent British role in constructing this absolutism, especially in regard to the coup of 1970. On this role, Halliday could only offer conjecture—albeit of the fairly accurate kind. We also learn about familiar British imperial policies of attempting to co-opt preeminent tribal shaykhs—and the difficulties of doing this specifically in Dhufar, where tribal authority was highly fragmented. Takriti has demonstrated concretely that Omani absolutism cannot be understood outside of British imperialism, in spite of the many official attempts to promote the polite fiction of the sultan’s independence.

There can be no doubt, in the wake of the evidence piled up by Takriti, that the British, assisted by a culture of racial and civilizational hierarchy, actively continued to seek imperial mastery, albeit through more indirect means, in this corner of the Indian Ocean. This history cuts against notions of an inevitable decolonization driven from above, and joins other scholarship in underlining the proactive and even aggressive forms that British colonialism took, even twenty years after the loss of India, and a decade after the debacle at Suez. On the other hand, the salutary transnational focus of the work also indicates the extent to which Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi were also heavily involved in the victory of absolutism—a theme this reviewer supposes could fruitfully be further developed in the future. By the same transnational token, the book gives a suggestive account of the role of China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, the Palestinians, South Yemen, the Soviet Union, and the Arab nationalist movement in sustaining the movement itself. The emphasis on transnationalism ties Takriti’s work to important research by Zachary Lockman, Laleh Khalili, and Ilham Khuri-Makdisi.

The meaning of this history, and how it flashes up amid the dangers of the present, is not so clear, nonetheless. What significance are we to accord the rejection of the “enormous condescension of posterity”? First, surprisingly lacking is an explicit analysis as to how this history differs from that offered by Halliday and other writers in the third worldist and socialist tradition. We can no doubt infer a relaxation of socioeconomic determinism, a diminished interest in the ideological and the doctrinal, and a particular emphasis on the transnational, although Takriti is only explicit about the latter point. But the question is left hanging. One suspects that the pre-uprisings present of the 2000s, when the research was mostly carried out, beckoned a reassertion of the memory of an Arab revolutionary tradition—but what kind of tradition, and to what end? We need a further engagement with the fact that so many authors (including Gérard Chaliand, James Scott, Eric Wolf, and Jacques Berque) were inspired by similar movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and why so many turned away from them later. We need to learn more about the present-day “auto-critiques” of the movement to which the author alludes but never treats in any detail. Such an analysis would help us grasp the meaning and legacy of the bitter defeat of the armed struggle for its protagonists.

Further specification, in a comparative lens, of the nature, form, and consequences of this revolutionary armed struggle would also have been interesting. Had the armed struggle been successful, would the result have been just another neopatrimonial authoritarian state—perhaps after a period of statist developmentalism and wealth redistribution? Or what of the statist nature of the support that came “transnationally”: the author pays little analytic attention to the fact that much (but not all) support for the movement came from states (for example, Iraq, South Yemen, and China), not movements. Perhaps this backing held the movement hostage to the sly geopolitics of states in ways that could help explain defeat. We note, for example, the exit of China from the revolutionary camp in the 1970s largely because of an oil policy that meant rapprochement with Iran.

Moreover, a research strategy that started with the British archives, rather than with, say, oral histories, for all its strengths and its attempts to read against the grain, may inevitably have left some aspects of the movement—such as the reasons for Iraqi support, or such as the Dhufari local at least partly in the shadows. While the author is careful to explain that a Dhufari localism was part of the movement, and the author does offer a serious chapter on Dhufari politics, economy, and society, we learn less about the common sense, everyday lives, sociologies, and aspirations of ordinary Dhufaris in relation to an armed struggle that was in some measure imported. It may be true that “what matters for the revolutionary poet is the construction of the legend, and through it, the expression and propagation of popular insurgent feeling.” Yet this investment in crafting a revolutionary image might not have been what mattered for fishermen or highlanders in Dhufar. In fairness, the author may have wanted to leave the question of present significance ambiguous; the points above may amount to little more than calls for further research in areas of omission that would exist in any work. But the assertion of the existence of a revolutionary tradition against dismissal does not dispense with the necessity of a hard-headed, critical evaluation of that tradition, and a more thoroughgoing assessment of the changing historical and historiographical context since the 1970s, especially in the light of the challenges of the present.

It should be clear that these points are in no way major strikes against the quality and significance of the work. Monsoon Revolution is an inspiration for those looking to escape the political dead end of discursive determinism, and an important step forward in regard to the still rather neglected and misunderstood history of what the author aptly calls the “difficult craft of popular mobilization” in the Arab world. 

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