The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the launch of numerous revolutions across the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. All of them were anti-colonial, most were republican in their political outlook, and many were socialist or Marxist in their economic orientation. Militant in their strategies and tactics, their leaderships often adopted armed struggle and guerrilla warfare and raised the banners of women’s liberation, workers’ rights, and peasant empowerment. The Dhufar revolution in Oman belonged to that family of tricontinental revolutions, its journey shadowing their global trajectory.
The revolution—typically downplayed by its opponents as a mere insurgency or a rebellion—was born out of the coincidence of growing local grievances and a rising Arab regional revolutionary tide. Its most prominent leaders and organizers came of age in Oman’s southernmost province, socialized in its isolated environs that sustained a rural economy dependent on herding, ghee butter production, fishing, frankincense gathering, and trade in staple goods. Many of them had also experienced exile. Dispersed across the Arabian Peninsula, a good number were employed in the oil industry, seeing how the black gold they were extracting with their hard labor paid for a massive expansion in healthcare, education, and infrastructure. Others joined newly established Gulf armed and security forces, acquiring modern military training. A select few received education in Kuwait, Baghdad, and Cairo, accessing a privilege that their peers were denied in Salalah.
Their local experiences gave them a sense of opposition to Sultanic rule propelled by political marginalization, economic destitution, and everyday oppression. Their regional exposure equipped them with new frameworks and languages grounded in visions of anti-colonialism and social justice. It spurred in them a lifelong attachment to emancipatory causes such as the liberation of Palestine. It further allowed them to acquire new political practices and models of organization and to join pan-Arab clandestine formations, foremost among which was the Movement of Arab Nationalists. Akin to other cadres of that movement, they were pulled by the gravitational force of Nasserism after the Tripartite Aggression of 1956, firmly moving to the Marxist-Leninist orbit after the 1967 Naksa.
As they became more integrated into the Arab anti-colonial sphere, Dhufari exiles tapped into new sources of military and economic resource mobilization from the Egyptian and Iraqi republics as well as Kuwaiti civil society. For a very brief while, some were even receiving Saudi assistance. This enabled them to announce their armed struggle on June 9, 1965. Over the course of the following decade, they held territory in Dhufar’s highlands, sheltered by its forests, caves, and rugged terrain. After their sharp turn to the left in 1968, they secured modest support from a variety of forces, including China, the Palestinian revolution, Cuba, the USSR, Vietnam, and, above all, South Yemen. Revolutionaries from across the region—Bahrainis, Palestinians, Iranians, Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Lebanese—lent them varying levels of solidarity. Their struggle underwent ideological twists and turns, accompanied by changes in liberatory objectives, social outlooks, and international alliances. Thus, what started as the Dhufar Liberation Front morphed in 1968 to the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf. That name was changed in 1971 to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf, after unity was achieved with revolutionaries from northern Oman, Trucial Oman, and Bahrain. It was yet again altered to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman in 1974, reflecting a narrowing of the geographic scope of the struggle and a readjustment to the growing strength of the state. Many developments accompanied these shifts in nomenclature, but what stayed constant was the opposition to Sultanic rule and Britain’s imperial role in Oman. That opposition persisted even after the withdrawal of revolutionary forces to South Yemen in the spring of 1976, its power waning gradually over the following decade and a half, and its leadership finally collapsing after the fall of the socialist government in Aden.
The revolution was militarily defeated by a coalition of international forces committed to Anglo-Sultanic rule in the context of the Cold War. Britain remained the key player throughout, but it had galvanized around it help from various Middle Eastern conservative powers. Iran and Jordan sent troops, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered financial aid. Their interventions were crucial to the reestablishment and extension of regime authority. But the battle over Oman was not merely geopolitical; it had profound ideological and social implications, especially in Dhufar, the heartland of the revolution. As Alice Wilson shows in this book, the reestablishment and extension of regime control was accompanied by a reorientation of social values. Against the egalitarianism embraced by the revolution—enhancing the status of women, marginalized tribes, and the formerly enslaved—the past few decades, she illustrates, witnessed a reintroduction of gendered, tribal, and racialized hierarchies. The secularism promoted by the revolutionary leadership was replaced by growing religiosity and social conservatism, fueled by a framing of events that presented the victory of the sultan as an Islamic defeat of communism. Crucially, this was accompanied by the attempted burial of revolutionary memory and the suppression of political dissent.
Given the triumph of Sultanic rule and the pervasive presence of the state in Dhufari life, is there anything left of the revolution? This is the core question posed in this work. Wilson’s nuance in answering it is unsurprising. Having already studied the Sahrawi experience in the western extremities of the Arab Maghreb, she came to the easternmost part of the Arab Mashriq with a keen understanding of the lasting social impact of revolutions, even after moments of military and political defeat. Conceptually, Wilson builds upon a growing literature on revolutionary afterlives, examining the ongoing relevance of ideas, values, networks, and social relations that were glaringly evident during older eras of struggle, only to become hidden after the imposition of official silence. This is a subject that has been overshadowed by the emphasis on “rehabilitation” of former insurgents in counterinsurgency studies, by critical analyses of success and failure in historical sociology, and by auto-critiques on the part of former revolutionary scholars. Wilson has identified a major gap in these literatures, convincingly arguing that contemporary realities in societies that have experienced suppressed revolutions cannot be understood without accounting for the long-term impacts of radical mass mobilization.
In filling this scholarly lacuna, Afterlives of Revolution draws on ethnographic research that was carried out against considerable odds. Researchers investigating revolutionary legacies in Oman should prepare for potential surveillance by the state and auto-censorship on the part of revolutionary veterans. They must also account for the possibility that their research could pose a risk to themselves and—even more gravely—their interlocutors. After all, suppressing the search for knowledge, as well as the sharing of experience, is an essential aspect of the official silencing of revolution that is so thoroughly discussed in this book. Despite these serious hurdles, Wilson was able to gather a rich source base through participant observation in a wide range of settings: evening gatherings of revolutionary veterans, visits to private homes, interactions at malls, encounters in the public library, and conversations in taxicabs. She was also able to consider a wide range of debates, exchanges, and discussions unfolding in cyberspace and over social media.
The result is a rich study that demonstrates deep familiarity with the literature on the revolutionary past, all the while making an essential and original contribution by documenting, and reflecting upon, the presence of the revolution in the present. This study deserves close reading by scholars of Oman, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Gulf, as well as students of suppressed revolutions across the world. From it, readers can learn much about state interventions in the private and public spheres, and the efforts of absolutist regimes to enforce dominance through patronage, spatial transformation, and social engineering. Perhaps more importantly, there is much on offer here for those wishing to learn about the persistence of alternative narratives, kinship networks, social interactions, and unofficial commemoration despite the grinding power of the state.
Combining attention to everyday life and fragmentary moments without losing sight of broader political themes, socioeconomic realities, and historical context, this book is a chronicle of survival and resilience, but it is also a testimony to the ongoing role of revolutionary legacies in regenerating contemporary popular challenges to authority. The protests that erupted across Oman at the onset of the Arab uprisings, as well as more recent mobilizations witnessed as late as 2021, undoubtedly entailed an ongoing search for a new counterhegemonic politics. The young organizers that participated in them are confronted by realities different than those surrounding their forebearers in the 1960s and 1970s. They are not living in the era of great Afro-Asian movements for independence, tricontinental anti-colonial quests, or raging Cold War ideological battles. They have not established popular fronts, nor have they organized clandestine formations akin to those that led past liberation struggles. Nevertheless, they are confronted by state repression, deep social inequities, and oppressive hierarchical structures. They have witnessed the ongoing horrors resulting from neocolonial paramountcy and the spread of US power in their region: from ongoing settler colonialism in Palestine to the dismantlement of Iraq and the sectarianization of Syria and Yemen. They are all too aware of the precariousness of their country’s dependence on oil and are feeling the brunt of the retreat of the welfare state and the dominance of neoliberal economics. In grappling with their present, they are reflecting, as Wilson shows, upon the radical events of the past, events that unfolded in their cities and countryside, ones that left an enduring mark on their society. Challenging the idea of a strictly delineated end to revolution, this thoughtful, engaging, and important book suggests the latent possibility of new beginnings.
Abdel Razzaq Takriti
Mahmoud Darwish Visiting Professor in Palestinian Studies, Brown University Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Arab History, University of Houston