Every country in the world has its expat culture, and in my experience this/these are typically bifurcated between an above-the-average-local elite class (frequently, but certainly not always American/European and/or white) and an immigrant/working class that nonetheless is characterized, in albeit a somewhat impractical pairing, with the former. In between theses odd sisters lies the majority of the local population, with of course differing degrees of skewness (the tendency for values to be more frequently around high or low ends of the x-axis) based on the average GDP and, I suppose, principal national industries.
Here in Oman, I arrived wary of gravitating towards the conventional (and admittedly sometimes comforting) ex-pat circles that whiteness and un-accented English so obligingly ingratiate one into. However, Oman has historically been a proud, insular country: culturally, economically and geographically, despite the global trade empires of spices, slaves and incense that it has possessed for over 5000 years. And many here have suggested that this national attribute extends to Omani people as well: friendly and welcoming, but reluctant to really embrace or integrate outsiders.
However, it is, of course, not that simple. While ethnicity is an oft-avoided topic in Oman – largely due to the unpalatable legacies of the East African slave trade – my 15-year-old host brother Ahmed explained to me that there are basically four categories of actual Omanis in Oman: Arab (“real”) Omanis, Zanzibaris (often referring to themselves as “Zanzis” for short), al-Lawatis (in Luwati the word is “Khoja,” a Shia Arabian tribe native to Oman, which colonized part of modern Pakistan during the reign of Caliph Omar and then returned, speaking a new language close to Punjabi Urdu), and the Balochis (an ethnic group originating from the Balochistan region of south-eastern Iran, southwestern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan).
Anyways, Zanzibaris are those with whom I am the most familiar, not only because I am staying with a Zanzi family, although that in and of itself is instructive. Although Oman was never colonized, it was, in the 19th century, a British Protectorate, and many Omanis moved to the British colony of Tanganika and Zanzibar (now one country, Tanzania) during that period to operate as colonial officials and administrators. For reasons that are still not completely clear to me (although this detail is the crux on which the entire history depends so I hope to someday get a straight answer about it), these Zanzibari Omanis (most of whom intermarried with East Africans in differing degrees throughout the generations) received a dramatically better education than their counterparts in the homeland back in Oman. My guess for why this was was that they were put through British schools in Zanzibar, because any erudition they achieved produced direct financial dividends for the British Empire. People do not like to talk about Oman’s erstwhile relationship with Britain, however, so this assertion, while logically admissible, remains a conjecture.
In any case, in 1970 His Majesty Sultan Qaboos (who had been in hiding in Salalah) overthrew his father, who had opposed opening up the country to foreign investment and oil exploration. At the time of the coup, HMSQ called back the Zanzibaris – effectively the country’s best and brightest – to Oman to help bolster the fledgling economy and run the government. Present-day Zanzibaris have a tendency to mix with ex-pat crowds because 1) they are the only Omanis that necessarily speak English, 2) they tend to be the upper class/best educated, 3) because of #2 there is always at least one Zanzi running every ministry or large company that might involve foreign investors here, 4) the whole “Oman-as-reclusive-Arabian-Lothlórien” narrative by definition does not apply to Zanzis, who usually have family on three, if not four continents (UK, Canada, Tanzania, Oman and beyond). The opportunity to live and work and befriend an Omani family, as a complete stranger/foreigner (such as I have done), would simply not happen with non-Zanzibari Omanis. (This is, alas, somewhat detrimental to my Arabic aquisition, because we speak English mostly at home, but so it goes.)