Zanzibar and Oman: A Story of Two ‘Revolutions’ and Lessons from the Omani Renaissance

Some people want us to believe that the relations between Oman and Zanzibar started in 1698 after the end of the Portuguese War on the coasts of East Africa, when Omanis helped their brethren to defeat the first European power on the Coast.

But the reality is quite different. Socio-cultural ties between Oman and Zanzibar were not established by the Omanis who came to fight against Portuguese occupation, nor by those who came to establish a sultanate almost two centuries later.

It was not these politics that created the bond, but rather societies who,  thousands of years ago, started to sail on Indian Ocean and, eventually, Omanis and Zanzibaris found themselves a part of the long chain of the Indian Oceaners.

Therefore, the gates between the two sides were not opened by the Portuguese War nor by Sultan Said’s migration to Zanzibar. They were not as well closed in 1964, when the sultanate went down. Not at all!

There were already intensive and deep relationships before and beyond these politics, which were rooted into peoples’ veins – their cultures, their languages, their beliefs. The influence of one side to the other is deeper and more ancient than the less-than-200-years of the Sultanate in Zanzibar.

The Unfortunate


Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al Saidi, Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar (1804 – 1856)  

It is very unfortunate that colonial conspiracies of late 19th century were able to misrepresent these ties to the extent that some years later, hatred against anything with Omani links was ‘legalised’ and every positive mark left by those relations was considered suspicious.

The worst was to Zanzibar which, as a nation, found itself a big looser to the measures aimed at de-shaping the Omani image for the purpose of satisfying the power might be.

For the sake of power – and only power – these people led Zanzibar into the darkest part of its history and, on the process, deprived the country of her noble role on the development of Indian Ocean nations by loosing Oman as her natural partner.

But after decades of misinformation and misrepresentation, we, who belong to the new generation, do not have any reasons to stay in the chains any longer. We do, instead, have an obligation to look beyond the established parameters and to think beyond the circles of conspiracy.

The circles of hatred, enmity and racism – the darkness on which we were nurtured – have now to be destroyed so as to enable us to see the positivity shared by these two noble nations.

To achieve this, each side has something to learn from the other as they both have something to share, especially when one puts into consideration the afore-mentioned fact that the strongest knot between Zanzibar and Oman was not a political one, but rather a socio-cultural bond.

Even when politics failed these two peoples, their natural bond remained intact and strong enough to contain the shockwaves. Zanzibaris and Omanis were, first and foremost, united by their common socio-cultural ties before they even thought of political marriage.

The Comparison and the Lessons

Speaking as a Zanzibari, I believe my nation could learn the real meaning of revolution from our counterparts. These two nations meet on this notion as they met on many others too.

In 1964, the newly elected government was toppled in Zanzibar and with it the sultanate, which had some Omani roots, went down too.

Six years later, in 1970, power shifting occurred in Oman as well. Though it was not an act of violence as it was in Zanzibar, but the former leader – Sultan Said bin Taimur Al Saidi – was toppled by his own son, Qaboos bin Said.

Therefore, removal of an established system using nonconventional ways happened to both nations in the span of just six years. But examining the ideological motivation behind each incident, one can easily see the difference between the two. As reasons define the actors and the purposes, then it is not surprising that we too have different results.

The Qaboos Vision

It seems like the young and energetic Qaboos toppled his father with the strong belief that the old man was not doing enough in exploiting huge natural resources for the betterment of his people. The urge of economic advancement in the ambitious military man was telling him that his old man had no more to offer for the young generation, that he had reached his climax, and that if he were to be waited untill he relinquished power by himself or by natural cause, he would even extend his people’s sufferings.

Sultan Said’s policies are mentioned by many historians as non-progressive. By the time he left the seat, there were 75% of children deaths and hygiene-based diseases were almost everywhere.

When Sultan Qaboos came to power, he inherited just three governmental schools with only 5% of literacy in the whole country. On infrastructure, only 5 miles of entire roads were tarmac.

This is to say, the so-called Palace-Coup of 23rd July 1970 had had one basic principle: economic and social advancement for the people. It had nothing to do with power mongering, nor was it about racial hatred against those in power or their relatives.

Some modern infrastructures in Muscat as of March 2017.

Sultan Qaboos and those who supported him in his bloodless coup did not consider his father a foreign ruler or an imperialist stooge, nor did they judge those who supported him as traitors and less patriotic to their nation. Not at all. They were all Omanis and so they were to be considered.

This was the reason why once he confirmed himself on the seat, Sultan Qaboos went directly to his burning desire – to develop Oman into the super nation on the Gulf and even in the world.

As we speak today, 99% of 4.4 million Omanis have free access to healthcare, ranking Oman at number eight in the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). An average span of life is 76 years for an Omani. In education, the literacy is now 90% from 5% of his father’s era and on infrastructure, Oman has invested $20 billion in the period of 15 years so as to enhance its landscape image.

Oman, in general, stands as a nation that is moving forward economically, socially and even culturally because the core purpose of its ‘revolution’ was progressive one. Qaboos wanted to move Oman from where it was to somewhere better, which is why they call the 23rd July a Renaissance Day and not a Revolution Day!

The Mistakes We Committed

The situation was different from what happened on Unguja Island on the fateful night of 11th January 1964, whereby those involved boasted themselves to have toppled a foreign Arab ruler who was ruling the land of the indigenous black Africans.

This racial ideology moulded the very operation of the so-called 1964 Revolution, hence everything came before and after the incident was on its line – killings, forced migrations, forced marriages, seizing private properties and, above all, destroying whatever reminds them of the ‘foreign ruler’.

Picture released on January 18, 1964 of John Gideon Okello named president of Zanzibar , on January 12, 1964 after the leader of the Zanzibar revolution overthrew Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah and led to the proclamation of Zanzibar as a republic. (Photo credit STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Therefore, the fight against the foreign ruler and his foreignness was a major philosopy and direction of the new rule after 1964. This has played a very significant role in getting Zanzibar where it is today, be it in political, economic or social life. It has affected the country in all visible and invisible ways.

From then onwards, the very ideology of Zanzibar Revolution has been a war against the imaginary foreigner. This war has been using every weapon available – physical, political, psychological. More than 50 years later, the fighters in this war consider themselves to be still on the frontline against the foreign enemy they had themselves created and that they, being black Africans, are the origin people of the land who have all the rights!

Even after more than a half a century of being in this war, Zanzibar has not won. Instead, as a nation, we have lost almost everything that made us a pearl of the Indian Ocean. That is a difference between us and Omanis.

If you would have taken two pictures in 1964 – one of Zanzibar and the other of Oman – and put them in one frame, you would see as quite differing images as day and night. Zanzibar would resemble the jewelry under the sunlight; Oman would resemble the jewelry in the dark cave.

But, taking the same pictures today, the images have been vice-versa as one of Swahili great poets, Muyaka bin Hajj Al Ghassany had once said: “Kwinamako hwinuka, kwinukako kukainama!” – Where was once down has come up, and where was once up has now come down!

When I visited Oman last year, my host told me after seeing my amusement on the eyes: “Everything that you see here today, it was not there some 47 years ago!” And to that my reaction was: “It is here where the real revolution happened!”

8 thoughts on “Zanzibar and Oman: A Story of Two ‘Revolutions’ and Lessons from the Omani Renaissance”

  1. Very true Mohammed, excellent comparison. Zanzibar has lost big time. Ignorance and hatred have continued to dominate the people who govern and the saddest part is that they continue reveling in the bloodshed that occurred in 1964 and beyond. Nobody has apologized for killing innocent people because it wasn’t a fight between armies! Unfortunately, Zanzibar won’t come up until they do a deep soul search and apologize for the deaths of the innocent people. Asiye omba msamaha hapewi masaha.

  2. This is the truth nothing but the truth. I wish those who are in authority read this excellent article.

  3. There was a big difference between Zanzibar and Oman when it comes to the word Revolution.
    In Zanzibar, we had a foreign invasion and not a Revolution as it is used to
    be called.
    Zanzibar was invaded by
    foreigners from the neighbouring African countries.
    To prove this, you may see see the first list of names of Members of Baraza la Mapinduzi.
    The invaders came from Tanganyika, Uganda as well as from Mozambique

  4. Mohammed I have visited Unguja each year twice from mainland Tanzania, your story has insipired me , that one man can change the history of the whole mankind …let us learn from Qaboos and let us accept changes for socio-economical development

  5. Mohammed I have visited Unguja each year twice from mainland Tanzania, your story has insipired me , that one man can change the history of the whole mankind …let us learn from Qaboos and let us accept changes for socio-economical development

  6. I witnessed both revolutions in Zanzibar 12 January 1964 and in Oman 23 July 1970
    ZANZIBAR revolution was full hate and bloodshed while Oman revolution was full of love and peace
    Innocent people were killed in Zanzibar because of the color of their skin
    In Oman everyone was encouraged to participate in the development and share the wealth

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