The Omani Conundrum

by Keily Miller:

As the courtroom roared at the judge’s decision, the plaintiff, a petite Omani woman, screamed from beneath her burqa. Amid the commotion, Said al- Shahry, one of Oman’s foremost defense attorneys, maintained a look of strained composure.

The trial of Aimee Gordon, an American student at dhofar University in Salalah, Oman, had been postponed without resolution. As plaintiff Aisha al-Yafa’i voiced her indignation at the end of several hours in court, Gordon walked out, her hands shaking and her head bowed. The judge had decided to designate a second court date and to allow another judge to examine the case. With Ramadan only weeks away, it was unclear how much longer courts would be open to hear the case. For Gordon, this meant indefinite detention in Oman, and thus the potential loss of her new job and apartment back in the United States.

Aimee Gordon overlooks the cold springs of Dhofar's Ain Razat, located just oustide Salalah, in July 2008. In Salalah, locals wear traditional dress and adhere to longstanding tribal customs more than in other parts of Oman (Miller/TYG).

“I just want to plead guilty, get it over with, and go home,” said Gordon. Her penalty was likely to be a fine of 10 Omani rials—approximately $26. Yet while al-Shahry expected Gordon’s probability of conviction to be high, he insisted she adhere to her original statement and plead not guilty.
As of November, Gordon had returned home, but her case is still pending.

The details of the case are murky. Gordon was charged with “defamation of honor of an Omani national” for allegedly yelling English curse words at al-Yafa’i on the street in early August. Gordon said she screamed, “You almost hit us!” when al-Yafa’i’s vehicle nearly struck her and a companion. She claims no other words were exchanged.

Al-Yafa’i and her driver provided a different account to the court, one that has evolved between statements. days after al-Yafa’i’s initial affidavit, the plaintiff alleged that Gordon had also publicly declared hatred for Arab people, and had threatened that President Bush would soon “bomb Oman.”

All parties acknowledge that Gordon shouted in English, though whether al-Yafa’i or her driver understand the language remains unconfirmed. Al-Yafa’i swore on the Quran that she understood English, and the court pressed no further.

“This type of situation is very normal here in Oman,” al-Shahry told the Globalist. “What is unusual is how it has escalated.”

A Crisis of Identity

Twelve years ago, Gordon’s case might have seemed even more foreign: justice in Oman was based primarily on tribal law. Today Oman’s legal system integrates elements of both English common law and Islamic Shariah. This hybrid system was established in 1996 when Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the immensely popular absolute monarch, enacted the Basic Law of the State. An attempt to modernize Oman, the Basic Law transferred legal authority to an independent judiciary and established a court system with separate English and Islamic spheres—the former applied chiefly in commercial cases, the latter the basis of legislation. The system serves Qaboos’ aims both to internationalize Oman and to maintain domestic power. The security of common law attracts foreign investors, yet the foundation in Shariah emphasizes a national Muslim identity that legitimizes Qaboos’ rule.

But the notion of a single “Omani” identity is historically tenuous. Tribal institutions, not the state, still define social order. Oman’s elected tribal chiefs, known as sheikhs, have preserved their significance in Oman’s changing political climate and have received economic support from the state. Tribal affiliation continues to trump national allegiance. “In Salalah, the tribal structure is something like the caste system in India,” claimed Samira al-Farsi, who works in Salalah. “It was really quite shocking to find,” she said, comparing Salalah with capital city, Muscat, where she lives.

Sheikhs have traditionally acted as intermediaries with the outside world. Many Salalah residents were amazed that al-Yafa’i’s attorney went to the public prosecutor without first approaching the sheikh of the al-Yafa’i tribe. Even Gordon’s attorney, al-Shahry, hesitated to go directly to the courts. “We have our own social ways of dealing with these situations,” he explained.

Irrespective of the new legal system, tribal institutions are still expected to provide the framework for conflict resolution in civil disputes. Custom prescribes that Gordon’s attorney meet with the sheikh of the al-Yafa’i tribe—a tribe of Yemeni origin—and convince him to speak to the husband and brother of Aisha al-Yafa’i. The male relatives would then have the authority to annul her accusations.
But that is not what the Americans wanted.

A Painful Procedure

“We want the attorney to go through the proper legal channels,” explained Elizabeth Langston, an affiliate of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), an organization funded by the

U.S. State department. Gordon came to Oman on a CAORC academic scholarship. The organization—and the U.S. government—is paying her attorney. CAORC representatives fear that an easy out-of-court settlement might create bitterness and suspicion among Salalah residents already angered by the American’s alleged crimes. And since al-Shahry received his salary not from Gordon but from CAORC, he was obliged to follow the Council’s requests. Al-Shahry finally decided to approach the sheikh as a last resort, after a public prosecutor agreed to take al-Yafa’i’s case. Al-Shahry gained the consent of the sheikh but ultimately failed to convince alYafa’i’s relatives to drop the charges. “The family’s behavior, and her behavior as a woman, is very dishonorable,” said Hussein al-dheeb, a law professor at dhofar University. “To ignore the advice of the sheikh is almost unheard of.”

Omani officials remain uncertain as to why members of the alYafa’i family refused to heed their tribal leader. Al-dheeb emphasizes the irony of the refusal, suggesting that al-Yafa’i and her male relatives were mocking the decision of al-Shahry and his American clients to downplay the sheikh’s authority. Others, including al-Farsi and her husband, as well as Gordon’s attorney, speculate that al

Yafa’i, frustrated that tribal law would lead to an easy settlement for Gordon, sought to try her hand at what locals have called the “American game” of court battles and lawsuits.

Many Salalah residents, even when compared to Muscat residents, seem impervious to the influence of Westernization. Locals wear traditional dress and have largely maintained a traditional lifestyle, very different from the kind seen on American television and Internet sites. Yet anger over perceived foreign encroachment has slowly intensified since the 1970s with the arrival of American franchises and immodestly dressed Western tourists. Hostilities among residents continue to deepen as the population of workers from South Asia increases. Al-Farsi speculates that al-Yafa’i mistook Gordon, who is of Thai descent, for a foreign worker and foresaw an easy win. Several at dhofar University, such as student Mubarrak al-Muallam and faculty member Asim Bamkhalef, perceive al-Yafa’i’s decision to utilize the courts as a form of protest—or even revenge—against what she views as an American intrusion.

Al-Shahry has suffered heckling and threats since agreeing to defend Gordon in court. Observers, though, are puzzled by his insistence that Gordon plead not guilty, and believe al-Shahry should have known better than to wait so long to speak with the sheikh. This has led two CAORC staff members, who asked not to be named, to conjecture that the CAORC representatives paying the attorney are actually pushing for Gordon’s conviction, seeing it as an opportunity to improve relations with unreceptive locals who might view her punishment as retribution.

A Tougher Stand

It is little wonder that Gordon’s chance of conviction is so high. The only witnesses who could testify in her defense had left the country long before the trial began. And with no court official willing to test the plaintiff’s linguistic comprehension, the case pins the word of Gordon, whose affidavit proclaims her an American Jew, against the word of an Omani woman with several witnesses who, though not even present at the crime, will testify on her behalf.

Cultural sensitivity aside, an American cannot help noticing that the current Omani legal system contains contradictions. The case of Al-Yafa’i v. Gordon displays both a political battle and an identity crisis. Its progression has pinned Omani against American, xenophobia against internationalization, sub-national identity against national allegiance, and tribal justice against constitutional law.

Qaboos’ reformed legal system seeks to stimulate Oman’s development, facilitating international involvement while solidifying the Sultan’s authority through a complicated combination of common law and Shariah. Yet the sustained influence of tribal law poses a serious obstacle to the development of the nascent courts and their conflated conception of a proud, cohesive Oman. With these competing systems in place, Omanis and foreigners alike are anxious to determine whether the law’s inefficiencies and inconsistencies can be mended. Gordon, thrown in the midst of a country’s internal conundrum, has no choice but to wait.

Keily Miller is a sophomore Modern Middle Eastern Studies major in Branford College.