Sayyid Turki was born in Zanzibar in 1832. He lived on the island until 1854, when his father took him to Oman and made him the Governor of the port town of Sohar on the Al Batinah coast. After the death of his father, he contested with his brother Thuwayni for the Muscat throne. Thuwayni viewed Turki’s location at Al Batinah as an eyesore. He valued Sohar as it was the principal gateway to the tribal interiors that he had successfully integrated to the maritime coast. Thuwayni, along with his brother Majid, questioned Turki’s independent sovereignty at Sohar on grounds that “no proof existed” to establish his claim.
Turki was determined to keep his control over Sohar, as he too realized its significance as the gateway to the interior, in which he was hugely invested. But more importantly, he had his eyes on Muscat as well and the dream to be Sultan in the shoes of his late father. The fight for Sohar was his gateway to Muscat. Both these port towns became the sites where he invested to refurbish the Sultanate as a “modern monarchy”.
Sohar on the Al Batinah coast was an important international port for Oman since antiquity. Its commercial fortunes waxed and waned with Portuguese rule and later under the various Omani dynasts. In 1803, it came briefly under Wahhabi control, much to the chagrin of the Sultan. It remained a principal exporter of lime, lemon and dates to India, Southeast Asia and the Americas. Politically, despite several attempts by the Omani Sultan to capture the port, it remained an independent state whose chief, Sayf bin Hamūd, entered into an agreement with the British government in 1849 for banning the slave trade. An Act of the British Parliament (1853) was passed to give effect to this engagement.
In 1851, Sultan Sayyid Sa‘īd captured Sohar, and it continued until his death as a dependency of Muscat. It offered him the perfect foothold on the Al Batinah coast, located as it was north of Muscat and in close vicinity of important tribal-controlled spots – Sohan, Burka, Nakhil, Suwayq, and Seeb. Its waters were shallow, and it was not a very useful port for the steamer-driven traffic of the 19th century. But it offered an entry into the interior date plantations and was a good base for participation in the inland politics.
Thuwayni, with the British on his side, picked up cudgels to oust Turki from Sohar. Turki’s fight for Sohar revealed that the “political wilderness” of the tribal interior was a critical, even if slippery, space for careering. Alliances with tribal factions were temporally contingent, loose and flexible. Neither state building nor careering was ideologically driven but rather shaped by spur-of-the moment contingencies. And yet this bricolage of alliances remained the nuts and bolts of Turki’s career.
The contingent nature of tribal alliances was best revealed in 1857, when Thuwayni blockaded the Sohar port by both sea and land with the assistance of some of his tribal allies: the tribes of Shaykh Ahmad bin Sudayrī with his Bedouin dependants. He was successful, because when he approached Sohar to blockade the port, Turki’s tribal allies – the Jashamī chiefs and the troops of the Ali Saad Ali Bu Rushid and Hawāsinah tribes – backtracked. Significantly, they argued that they were with him only to fight the forces of the Wahhabi, Bin Saud, and that they would not interfere in the fight between the two brothers. The blockade was temporarily lifted, only to be reimposed in 1859.
Thuwayni insisted on drawing Turki into maritime conflicts that exposed the limitations of his power, which was based on tribal support. Thuwayni focused on the maritime coast as the site for the display of valour against Turki. At Thuwayni’s insistence, as soon as the blockade of Sohar was lifted, a truce was worked out at sea. It was brokered by the nephews of the late Sultan Sayyid Sa‘īd– Muhammad bin Salim and his brother Sayyid Ahmed. Suleiman, who arrived from Zanzibar, ended the stalemate.
Thuwayni insisted that the meeting with Turki be held not on land but in a vessel with him on board. Interestingly, Suleiman took Turki’s men in his vessel, and they boarded Thuwayni’s vessel, where negotiations for truce began. Thuwayni restored to Turki all the possessions he had taken from him in the Al Batinah. Thuwayni then sailed back to Muscat. It was agreed that they would be in alliance, control their tribal followers and not go on any operation without consultation.
This imagery of the truce, worked out on vessels at sea, best exemplified that the tribal bricolage that Turki had painstakingly built was tempered by the politics of the maritime coast. Thuwayni’s insistence on a vessel-based truce was his way of drawing Turki to the waters that he hoped would rock his carefully crafted bricolage. Not surprisingly, the truce was short-lived, riveted as it was by the bricolage of tribal politics. Thuwayni had to start an operation against Turki, as he rebelled against Muscat with the help of the Jashamī tribe. On his part, Thuwayni claimed to have the support of all the maritime chiefs of Oman. Turki claimed he had the promise of help from the Ra’s al-Khaimah chief, Sultan bin Sagar.
The maritime politics-driven bricolage that powered Turki had the potential to disrupt commerce. This drew the British into his small world. Tribal factions intersected with imperial politics, drawing Turki reluctantly to the centre of the larger oceanic world framed by Western powers.
Felix Jones was furious when the fight between the two brothers and their tribal supporters created outrage as well as a murder on the sea. He reiterated that the British policy on the sea had been one of vigilance, as people are so prone to bloodshed, slaughter and revenge at the slightest occasion on the high seas. He underlined the position of the Resident as the arbiter for the mutual good of the warring factions. And he took the help of Commander Jenkins to obtain from Turki adequate reparation for the outrage. He wanted both the brothers, specially Thuwayni, as the supreme ruler, to rectify the aggressions of their followers. Jones said that, even though he did not have specific treaties with these two warring brothers, the word of the Resident was generally agreed to for all practical purposes.
Jones was clear that the “landward” fights were best ignored and the sea outrages should be focused on, as the latter “give insecurity to general commerce and if overlooked occasion perturbation in all the adjoining tracts for rancor and desire for revenge with individual Arab families outlasts by a long period the signatures of their Chiefs to compacts which restore general peace and tranquility for a time.”
Turki tapped into family and household networks when the tribal bricolage proved slippery, and maritime conflict was not his favoured option. He exploited the sibling rivalries, specially between brothers Thuwayni and Majid, and cosied up to the latter, via whom he hoped to access the imperial networks. On the Al Batinah coastline, he had the support of the Arab chief of Sharjah, Turki bin Ahmad. He declared open revolt against Thuwayni.
Thuwayni was weary of Turki’s warm ties with Majid. He alleged that Majid was deliberately picking a fight with Muscat so that the distraction could give Turki a free way into the port city. Jones confirmed that Sayyid Turki had asked for the “necessary things” from Sayyid Majid if the latter wanted him to attack Muscat in the event of Thuwayni sailing to Zanzibar to battle him. At the time of the impending war between Majid and Thuwayni, Turki was hopeful of getting arms and ammunition from the former so that he could attack Muscat while the latter was away in Zanzibar.
Thuwayni’s response was to build a strong military base and remain alert, even if that increased the economic pressures on him. He had to maintain, at great expense, a number of irregular Bedouin in the field. Jones was with Thuwayni even as he tried his best to avert conflict between the brothers in the interest of British commerce. He minced no words in saying that he and the government disapproved of the ongoing hostilities that were “detrimental to the security of trade by sea”. He noted with concern that Majid “encouraged and abetted” Turki to oppose Thuwayni and also offered him material aid to go on the offensive.
Excerpted with permission from Sovereigns of the Sea: Omani Ambition in the Age of Empire, Seema Alavi, Penguin India.