In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Historiography
  • Primary Sources
  • Religion (Ibadism) and Society in the Swahili Coast and the Gulf
  • East Africa, Oman, and the Gulf before 1800
  • Biographies of Sayyid Said and Emily Ruete
  • Commerce and Trade under Sayyid Said
  • After Sayyid Said (1859–1963)
  • The Modern Period (1964-Present)

African Studies Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
Allen Fromherz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0159


Although some ports are thousands of miles distant, only a monsoon separates the Arabian (Persian) Gulf and Oman from East Africa. For millennia, sailors, merchants, pilgrims, conquerors, and slaves have traversed the Indian Ocean between bustling trading ports on “Swahili Coast,” such as Kilwa, Shanga (see Horton 1996, cited under General Overviews and Historiography), Qanbalu, and Mombasa, to emporia in Arabia, such as Muscat, Basra, Qalhat, and the Bandars (protected coves) of Persia. African influence on Arab culture in Oman, Yemen, and the Gulf can be seen in dress, music, and the recent resettlement of Swahilis in Arabia after decolonization and the overthrow of Omani rulers in Africa. Although a market in humans, perpetuated by both Africans and Arabs, was certainly a major part of the history of interactions between Arabs and Africans, there were also many other forms of contact. As Sheriff 2009 (cited under General Overviews and Historiography) points out, the ancient Greeks mentioned Arab skippers who knew the African coast through intermarriage and regular trade. Sheriff 2010 (cited under General Overviews and Historiography) also suggests that great riches could be secured by medieval Persian and Arab merchants willing to risk the monsoon voyages to trade in gold and ambergris from Sofala on the coast of Mozambique. The culmination of Arab presence in Africa and African influence in Arabia, however, came in the first half of the 19th century. The Omani sultan Sayyid Said bin Sultan not only ruled over the island of Zanzibar, but he also moved his entire court and capital from Muscat to Stone Town.

General Overviews and Historiography

Agius 2005 describes the use of Arab ships, or dhows, in this trade. Devisse 1989 is an extensive historiography on the Indian Ocean and Arab traders. As Gray 1962 describes, East African islands such as Zanzibar were particularly important to the Omani sultan, even as the rest of the East African coast was controlled by various Omani families who did not necessarily obey this ruler (see Mazrui 1995). Studies such as Chittick 1963 focus on Arab influence in individual East African towns such as Kilwa. Finally, Freeman-Grenville 1988 tells this story of Arab settlement more broadly from the medieval period to the present.

  • Agius, Dionisius A. Seafaring in the Arabian Gulf and Oman: People of the Dhow. London and New York: Kegan Paul, 2005.

    This book focuses on seafaring and shipbuilding in Oman and the Arab Gulf. It is based not only on archival material, but also on interviews with dhow captains and sailors. It shows how the monsoon winds created the consciousness of a wider identity encompassing Africa, India, and the western Indian Ocean as a whole. It also explores the impact of the discovery of oil and the decline of British influence in the region.

  • Chittick, Neville. “Kilwa and the Arab Settlement of the East African Coast.” Journal of African History 4.2 (1963): 179–190.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700004011

    Arab and Omani settlement extended far beyond Zanzibar. This article introduces scholars to the extent of these settlements in Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia.

  • Devisse, Jean. “Les Africains, La Mer et Les Historiens.” Cahiers d’Études Africaines 29.115–116 (1989): 397–418.

    DOI: 10.3406/cea.1989.1632

    This article provides an introduction to the historiography of Africa and the sea, bringing in the theories of F. Braudel and others. Indeed, Mediterranean historiography has played an important part in conceptualizing the western Indian Ocean.

  • Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. The Swahili Coast, 2nd to 19th Centuries: Islam, Christianity and Commerce in Eastern Africa. London: Variorum Reprints, 1988.

    Freeman-Greenville provides an important overview the Swahili coast and integrates information about Arab, Christian, and African influences.

  • Gray, John. History of Zanzibar from the Middle Ages to 1856. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

    Although now somewhat dated, John Gray’s work remains an introductory text on the island and the influences of Oman and Arabian traders. It is focused primarily on the reign of Sayyid Said bin Sultan. There are often extensive quotations with no indication of any source. A frustrating if important work, this book exemplifies some of the challenges facing scholars of Africa and the Gulf.

  • Horton, M. C. Shanga: The Archaeology of a Muslim Trading Community on the Coast of East Africa. Memoirs of the British Institute in Eastern Africa 14. London: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1996.

    This is another important survey of a Swahili, African port and its interactions with the Gulf and the wider Islamic world.

  • Mazrui, Al-Amin bin Ali. The History of the Mazru’i Dynasty of Mombasa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    This story of Omani involvement in Africa was not limited to the Al Bu Said dynasty. In fact, several Omani and Arab families, including the Mazru’i, ruled as traders and merchants in major cities such as Mombasa. This text provides an overview of the history of the Mazru’i family in Africa, who were often bitter rivals of Sayyid Said bin Sultan, the most powerful Omani ruler in Zanzibar.

  • Sheriff, Abdul. “The Persian Gulf and the Swahili Coast: A History of Acculturation over the Longue Durée.” In The Persian Gulf in History. Edited by Lawrence Potter, 178–188. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230618459

    In this introductory essay, Abdul Sheriff, an important Tanzanian scholar of Zanzibar, provides an overview of African and Omani connections over the centuries. This is a good place to start an investigation of Oman, Zanzibar, and the Indian Ocean. The Persian Gulf in History includes other articles on the anthropology and trade of the Gulf region, including Oman.

  • Sheriff, Abdul. Dhow Cultures and the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    This is an excellent introduction to the Indian Ocean, especially the trade and contacts between East Africa, India, and the Gulf, from one of the foremost scholars of the topic. Uses stories of people from Africa to illustrate important themes and topics in the history of trade before 1800. Unfortunately, the text stops at 1800.

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