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Oman’s Air Route to East Africa: The Slave Empire Strikes Again? – Marian Douglas-Ungaro

June 22, 2013

Oman’s Air Route to East Africa: The Slave Empire Strikes Again?

By Marian Douglas-Ungaro   

In late July 2002 CNN International aired an Oman Television story on the inauguration of a new air route from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. But Oman’s presence in East and the Horn of Africa is hardly new. In fact historically Oman’s presence in that region has had more to do with trading Africans into slavery than developing mutually beneficial and sustainable relations between Africa and her Arab neighbors. Without a great deal of conscious effort, can anything have really changed since then?  

They say those who do not know the past are destined, if not  doomed, to repeat it. Just a few days before the annual August 23rd commemoration of the slave trades from Africa and their subsequent abolition, I can perhaps be forgiven a bit of skepticism over Oman’s new air route into Africa – arriving once again at the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa, Kenya.

I say once again because those of us who know more than a bit of African and Indian Ocean history will recall that the last time men from Oman set up “shopkeeping” in East Africa,  African people definitely were not celebrating.

When the Omanis arrived the last time in east Africa Africans were not celebrating because they were busy trying to evade capture and enslavement by Omani (Arab) slave hunters.

In late July 2002 CNN’s World Report (featuring Octavia Nasr) aired an Oman Television story showing Arab men sharing “quality time” with a group of men from Kenya’s Maasai ethnic group.

The Omani television video showed Maasai leaping skyward in their tradition while their visitors from the Middle East attemped to follow suit. Just a gathering of men celebrating Oman’s return to East Africa.

But is Oman’s return to East Africa cause for celebration? What proof do we have, speaking economically and socially, that Oman’s 2002 arrival will be different and not merely an extension of a historical relationship based on  stark exploitation?

Should Africans – or anyone with a conscience – be celebrating? Perhaps only in the case of those with short memories or suffering from historical amnesia, for Oman and its Sultanate are synonymous with the history of the trade of Africans as a commodity – lucrative for many and tragic for all of Africa, right up to the present day. This historical commercial activity was known as the Slave trade to the east, or the “Indian Ocean slave trade”.

The ancestors trafficked from Africa were not all from west Africa after all, and not all were shipped East. 

Captured peoples also came from the interior regions of Africa, and many from these unfortunate populations subsequently were sold to slave traders from Europe and America. Those who survived the disease- and shark-infested Middle Passage across the Atlantic ended up as chattel property throughout the Americas.

The commercial nature and global scope of the trade in Black humans means that far into the future the tens of millions of descendants will continue to be obliged to seek out the clues to our origins scattered across continents, centuries, oceans and disparate cultures.

Fort Jesus and Zanzibar -both along Mombasa’s coast – are only two of the locations central to Oman’s presence in east Africa and along Africa’s Indian Ocean coast.

Regarding the colonial period in Zanzibar, scholar Elizabeth Heath writes on’s website: 

“For almost 100 years, BRITAIN supported the sultan’s rule and sanctioned the minority Arab population’s economic dominance over Zanzibar’s African and Asian (mostly Indian) inhabitants.”These policies met with little resistance until 1948, when the mainland independence movement inspired African dockworkers and trade unionists to protest British colonialism and Arab domination.”

The Omanis are back in East Africa so is it time to roll out a red carpet? Maybe, but maybe not. An online description of the history of Zanzibar Island reads:

Along with the trading of cloves, spices, ivory and slavery, the [Zanzibari] culture has been influenced by visitors from all over the world.” [Emphasis added.]

The “trading of slavery”? How mundane, and grammatically and philosophically incorrect. Written in such a manner what do such references to enslavement really mean? Seemingly not much.

Were hunting, capture and enslavement of women, children and men merely untidy features of Commerce rather than the destruction of individuals, families, societies, a continent, and even of memory – and therefore of history? 

Perhaps unconsciously whoever wrote the passage above has once again blurred the commercialisation, trade and dispersion of African peoples. The trafficking of Africans transformed not only Africa, but the world. Such indifferent reference to this chapter of human history once again reduces it to something casual, to something that even the sensitive and cultured among us can neither identify or identify with. 

In its own words and images what place (if any) has Oman accorded its role in the history of the global traffic of Africa’s people?

Is there nothing visible or invisible that links the earlier history to a new air route to Mombasa? Does all this bring Oman full-circle to the same place or is the present a different place? What, if anything, has changed? 

Where are the breaks in time or perception separating Africa’s devalued present from Oman’s profitable past of raiding and selling Africans?

If a society forgets or keeps no memory, or at best guards only a muddled memory of some aspects of its past what bars us from new exploitations not dissimilar from those of the past?

Is Oman’s new Africa air route intended for passengers who mostly are Middle Eastern men? Will the new air traffic increase sex tourism to Mombasa? And what of the African women currently trafficked to the Middle East? This is already occurring with women being transported to Lebanon from Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa’s Horn. 

There’s also the reverse trafficking. Undocumented, unprotected people from Asia, the Indian subcontinent, who pay very dearly for clandestine passage to Africa, often on their way – extralegally – to Europe and even North America. Neither the routes nor Oman’s presence in Africa is new. – Marian Douglas

Re the Sultanate of Oman – “The accession of … Sayyid ibn Sultan in 1791” by Elizabeth Heath – Under “Africa/ Zanzibar” on
“During the first years of his reign [late 18th/early 19th C], Said increased Zanzibar’s role in the Indian Ocean slave trade by hiring traders, such as Tippu Tip, to bring slaves from the African interior to be sold to American and European merchants at the Zanzibari market.Within 20 years, however, Europeans naval forces were attempting to shut down the Indian Ocean slave trade, and Said was forced to sign agreements that not only forbade him to sell slaves to non-Muslims but to North Africans as well.”

The link to the original article is:

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