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Slavery in Oman

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

African slave trade in the Medieval Africa
Dhows were used to transport goods and slaves to Oman.
Slave-catching in the Indian Ocean, 1873
Capture of a slave dhow by HMS Penguin off the Gulf of Aden
Slave-catching in the Indian Ocean, 1873

Legal chattel slavery existed in the area which was later to become Oman from antiquity until the 1970s. Oman was united with Zanzibar from the 1690s until 1856, and was a significant center of the Indian Ocean slave trade from Zanzibar in East Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, a central hub of the regional slave trade, which constituted a large part of its economy.

Slavery was finally abolished by Sultan Qaboos bin Said after the 1970 Omani coup d'état, on 23 July 1970. Many members of the Afro-Omani minority are descendants of the former slaves. When classic slavery was abolished, it was replaced by the Kafala system, which has been described as a modern form of slavery.

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Omani Empire

During the Omani Empire (1692–1856), Oman was a center of the Zanzibar slave trade. Slaves were trafficked from the Swahili coast of East Africa via Zanzibar to Oman. From Oman, the slaves were exported to the Arabian Peninsula and Persia. The capital Muscat controlled the trade of the Gulf and was the center of a flourishing slave trade commerce, being the base of Omani prosperity and the center of the entire coastal economy.[1]

A second route of slave trade existed, with people from both Africa and East Asia, who were smuggled to Jeddah in the Arabian Peninsula in connection to the Muslim pilgrimage, Hajj, to Mecca and Medina. These slaves were imported from the Hejaz to Oman.

Muscat and Oman

In 1856, the Omani Empire was divided into the Sultanate of Zanzibar (1856–1964) and Muscat and Oman (1856–1970), but the slave trade continued. In 1873 the British and Sultan Turki signed a treaty that obliged Turki to end the import of slaves. This included "slaves who were destined for transport from one part of the Sultan's dominion to another, or using his land for passing them to foreign dominions. Anyone found involved in this traffic would be liable to detention and condemnation by all [British] Naval Officers and Agents, and all slaves entering the Sultan's dominions should be freed."[2] Zanzibar nominally abolished the slave trade in 1876. In practice, however, the slave trade continued, though at a reduced level.

The slave trade from Africa became smaller in the late 19th-century, but the slave trade from Hejaz continued. In 1927 a trial reveal a slave trade organization in which Indian children of both sexes were trafficked to Oman and Dubai via Persia and Gwadar.[3] In the 1940s, a third slave trade route was noted, in which Balochis from Balochistan were shipped across the Persian Gulf, many of whom had sold themselves or their children to escape poverty.[4]

Function and conditions

Male slaves were used in a number of tasks: as soldiers, pearl divers, farm labourers, cash crop workers, maritime sailors, dock workers, porters, irrigation canal workers, fishermen, and domestic servants, while women functioned as domestic servants or concubines.[5]

Female slaves were primarily used as either domestic servants, or as concubines, while male slaves were primarily used within the pearl industry as pearl divers.[6] In 1943, it was reported that Muslim Baloch girls were shipped via Oman to Mecca, where they were popular as concubines since Caucasian (Circassian) girls were no longer available, and were sold for $350–450.[7]

Black African women were primarily used as domestic house slaves rather than exclusively for sexual services, while white Caucasian women (normally Circassian or Georgian) were preferred as concubines (sex slaves); when the main slave route of white slave girls became harder to access after Russia's conquest of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the mid 19th-century, Baluchi and "Red" Ethiopian (Oromo and Sidamo) women became the preferred targets for sexual slavery.[8] Non-African female slaves were sold in the Persian Gulf where they were bought for marriage; these were fewer and often Armenian, Georgian, or from Baluchistan and India. In 1924, the law prohibited the enslavement of white girls (normally Armenian or Georgian) on Kuwaiti territory, but in 1928 at least 60 white slave girls were discovered.[9]

Female slaves were often used for sexual services as concubines for a period of time, and then sold or married off to other slaves; the slave owners would arranged both marriages and divorce for their slaves, and the offspring of two slaves would become slaves in turn.[10] It was common for slave owners to claim sexual services of married female slaves when the slave husband was away for long periods of time, to hunt for pearls or fish or similar labor, and sexual abuse was a common reason given when female slaves applied for manumission at the British Agency.[10] It was common for Arab men to use the sexual services of enslaved African women, but a male African slave who had sexual relations with a local "pure blood" Arab woman would be executed to preserve tribal honor and social status, regardless if the couple had married or not.[11]

The number of female slaves in the Gulf was as high or higher than that of male slaves, but the number of female slaves who made applications for manumission at the British Agencies in the Gulf was significantly lower (only 280 of 950 documented cases in 1921–1946), likely because in the Islamic society of the Gulf, were women were excluded from wage labour and public life, it was impossible for a freedwoman to survive without a male protector.[12]

After slavery had been abolished in Bahrain in 1937, in Kuwait in 1949 and in Saudi Arabia in 1962, it still flourished in Oman. By this time, the Sultan himself reportedly owned around 500 slaves, an estimated 150 of whom were women, who were kept at his palace at Salalah; a number of his male slaves were rumoured at the time to have been physically deformed due to abuse.[13]

Sultan Said bin Taimur reportedly owned around 500 slaves, descendants of enslaved people trafficked from Africa, which were "kept tightly isolated from the rest of the population, and banned from marrying or learning to read or write without his permission".[1] After a slave began to evade control, he passed a law under which all people of African descent were legally classed as slaves. He reportedly "kept many of his slaves locked up there and used to enjoy beating them",[1] and when he lived in Muscat during the 1950s, he "used to make his slaves swim in the water underneath his balcony and then amuse himself by shooting at fish around them".[1]

A correspondent who visited Salala after Sultan Said's removal in 1970 reported:

"Among 12 slaves presented to foreign journalists some had been forced, under pain of beating, not to speak. As a result they had become mutes. Others stood with their heads bowed and eyes fixed on the ground, their necks now paralysed. The slightest glance sideways resulted in a severe beating or imprisonment. Others had incurred physical deformity from similar cruelty. Said was also found to have 150 women locked away in his palace and it was known by some of his British aides that he had been assaulting young girls".[1]

Activism against slave trade

The British Empire, having signed the 1926 Slavery Convention as a member of the League of Nations, was obliged to investigate, report and fight slavery and slave trade in all land under direct or indirect control of the British Empire. The British policy was thus abolitionist, however in reality they were reluctant to interfere in cultural issues if they feared their interference could cause unrest. Muscat and Oman was defined by the British as having a special relationship with the British Empire. As was the case with the rest of the Gulf states, the British considered their control over the region insufficient to do something about the slavery and the slave trade. The British India Office advised the British authorities that any attempts to enforce any anti slavery treaty in the region could cause economic and political unrest, since slavery was "deeply rooted in religious and political history".[14] The British policy was therefore to assure the League of Nations that the region followed the same anti slavery treaties signed by the British, but in parallel prevent any international observations of the area, which would disprove these claims.[15]

In 1929 the Sultan of Muscat, Taimur bin Feisal, expressed himself willing to abolish slavery, but that it would be impossible to enforce such a ban, since he claimed not to have actual control over the tribes in the Omani hinterland and Bathina.[14]

In 1936, the British acknowledged to Advisory Committee of Experts on Slavery of the League of Nations that there was still ongoing slavery and slave trade in Oman and Qatar, but claimed that it was limited, and that all slaves who sought asylum at British Agents Office in Sharjah were granted manumission.[16] In the 1940s, there were several suggestions made by the British to combat the slave trade and the slavery in the region, but none was considered enforceable.


After World War II, there was growing international pressure from the United Nations to end the slave trade. In 1948, the United Nations declared slavery to be a crime against humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after which the Anti-Slavery Society pointed out that there were about one million slaves in the Arabian Peninsula, which was a crime against the 1926 Slavery Convention, and demanded that the UN form a committee to handle the issue.[17] The UN formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Slavery in 1950, which resulted in the introduction of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery.[18] The Ad Hoc Committee on Slavery filed a report on the chattel slavery in Oman during the 1950-1951 investigation.

The British were criticised by the UN for supporting the Sultan of Oman, who was known to be a slave owner, but they did not wish to stop doing that for economic reasons.[19] In 1951, the British founded the Trucial Oman Levies or Trucial Oman Scouts in Sharjah to fight the slave trade.[20]

The British and the Sultan both preferred to give the impression that slavery was, in fact, no longer an issue in Oman. When asked about the house slaves common of Oman in 1963, the reply was that the slaves were, in fact, nowadays "unpaid family retainers who, being unpaid, represent wealth to their employers" and had chosen to remain with their former owners of their own free will.[19]

After the revolt in Dhofar was contained by the British in 1965, the Arab representatives at the UN condemned the British at the UN in 1966; they did not mention the fact that the British tolerated slavery in Oman, which was a sensitive issue in the Arab World, but rather focused on Colonialism; however, the Anti-Slavery Society did address the issue of slavery in Oman at this time. On 23 July 1970, the Sultan of Oman Said bin Taimur was deposed in the 1970 Omani coup d'état and his successor Qaboos bin Said initiated a number of reforms, of which the abolition of slavery was one.[19]

Slavery was formally abolished in Oman in 1970. Many members of the Afro-Omani minority are descendants of the former slaves.

Modern slavery

When classic slavery was abolished, it was replaced by the Kafala system, which has been described as a modern form of slavery.

Kafala system

In Oman, the kafala system is regulated by the foreign residency law and accompanying laws, while the system is enforced by the Ministry of Manpower and the Royal Oman Police.[21][22][23][24][25] According to Oman's 2003 Labour Law, an employer needs a permit issued by the Ministry of Manpower in order to import foreign workers.[26] Furthermore, migrant workers are prohibited from working for another employer.[27] The Labour Law places responsibility for the migrant worker on the employer.[27][28] The 2003 Law also sets conditions for the labor contract, as well as the rights and obligations of both employers and migrant workers, including the provision of medical facilities, suitable means of transport, and a minimum wage by the Council of Ministers.[29][30][31][32] In addition, if a migrant worker wishes to change employers, the employee needs to receive a No Objection Certificate from the employer.[33]

In 2011, Oman reportedly informed the United Nations Human Rights Council that alternatives to the kafala system were being considered.[34] However, the sponsorship system still remains in place today.[34] Legislative amendments to the Omani labor laws were under consideration in late 2016.[33][35] The Ministry of Manpower also announced in 2016 the abolition of the obligatory No Objection Certificate.[33][36]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e “The Struggle for Liberation in Oman.” MERIP Reports, no. 36, 1975, pp. 10–27. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Oct. 2023.
  2. ^ Yusuf Abdallah Al Ghailani: Anglo-Omani Action over the Slave Trade: 1873-1903, p.12-13
  3. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 165
  4. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 304-06
  5. ^ Zdanowski J. Slavery in the Gulf in the First Half of the 20th Century : A Study Based on Records from the British Archives. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Askon; 2008
  6. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 265-66
  7. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 304-07
  8. ^ Women and Slavery: Africa, the Indian Ocean world, and the medieval north Atlantic. (2007). Grekland: Ohio University Press.
  9. ^ ZDANOWSKI, J. The Manumission Movement in the Gulf in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Middle Eastern Studies, 47:6, 2011, p. 871.
  10. ^ a b ZDANOWSKI, J. The Manumission Movement in the Gulf in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Middle Eastern Studies, 47:6, 2011, p. 864.
  11. ^ THESIGER, W. The Marsh Arabs. Penguin Classics, London, 2007, p. 69.
  12. ^ Magdalena Moorthy Kloss, « Jerzy Zdanowski, Speaking with their Own Voices. The stories of Slaves in the Persian Gulf in the 20th Century », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2015, consulté le 20 août 2023. URL : ; DOI :
  13. ^ Cobain, Ian, The history thieves: secrets, lies and the shaping of a modern nation, Portobello Books, London, 2016
  14. ^ a b Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 204-205
  15. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 164-66
  16. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 265-67
  17. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 310
  18. ^ Miers, S. (2003). Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. Storbritannien: AltaMira Press. p. 326
  19. ^ a b c Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 346-47
  20. ^ Kamøy, K. (2020). Diversity of Law in the United Arab Emirates: Privacy, Security, and the Legal System. Storbritannien: Taylor & Francis. p.
  21. ^ Begum, Rothna (13 July 2016). "'I Was Sold': Abuse and Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Oman". Human Rights Watch. Archived from the original on 22 February 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  22. ^ "Kuwait: Events of 2016". Human Rights Watch. 17 January 2017. Archived from the original on 22 February 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  23. ^ "Qatar: Events of 2016". Human Rights Watch. 17 January 2017. Archived from the original on 21 February 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  24. ^ "Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia" (PDF). 16 (5(E)). Human Rights Watch. July 2004: 19–20. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-02-22. Retrieved 2017-02-20. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  25. ^ "United Arab Emirates: Trapped, Exploited, Abused". Human Rights Watch. 22 October 2014. Archived from the original on 22 February 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  26. ^ "Article (18)" (PDF), Labour Law, Sultanate of Oman, Ministry of Manpower, 2012, p. 10, archived from the original (PDF) on 1 June 2019
  27. ^ a b "Article (18Bis)", Labour Law, 2012, pp. 10–11.
  28. ^ Mekheil, Marina (14 November 2016). "Oman Neglects the Rights of Migrant Domestic Workers". Human Rights Brief. American University, Washington College of Law. Archived from the original on 3 January 2017.
  29. ^ "Article (23)", Labour Law, 2012, p. 12.
  30. ^ "Article (33)", Labour Law, 2012, p. 16.
  31. ^ "Article (34)", Labour Law, 2012, p. 16.
  32. ^ "Article (50)", Labour Law, 2012, p. 21.
  33. ^ a b c "Migration in the Gulf: 2016 in Review". 1 January 2017. Archived from the original on 8 November 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  34. ^ a b "Oman: Domestic Workers Trafficked, Trapped". Human Rights Watch. 13 July 2016. Archived from the original on 21 February 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  35. ^ "Omanisation: New labour law under process". Oman Daily Observer. 7 December 2016. Archived from the original on 21 February 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2017 – via Zawya.
  36. ^ "Oman to scrap no objection certificate for workers switching jobs". Gulf Business. Motivate Media Group. 11 October 2016. Archived from the original on 21 February 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
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