Can a Revolution Endure Even after It Fails?

For a few years in Oman, revolutionaries freed slaves, founded water cooperatives, and sent women to school. Then came the counterrevolution.

It’s unfathomable now to think that Oman, once the most isolated and obscure state on the Persian Gulf, experienced an armed uprising that was “a kind of micro-Vietnam in the Arabian peninsula.” So explained a British official in 1972, describing the massive resistance to the British-backed Sultanate in Oman, in what became a microcosm for the battles between monarchies and anticolonial republics across the Middle East. A mountainous region of Oman called Dhufar ended up controlled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG), a Marxist-Leninist organization seeking to overthrow monarchies throughout the entire Arabian Peninsula.

In the liberated areas, the Front sought to transform the tenacious tribalism, gender inequality, and strict status hierarchies that governed Dhufar’s society to more egalitarian forms of social life. Slave-holding was abolished; cooperatives replaced tribal control of water and land resources; and an inclusive national identity was nurtured, transcending tribal distinctions and highlighting Dhufaris’ common experiences of migration and colonialism. Gender reforms were central. Women were enrolled in Front schools, trained in guerilla tactics, encouraged to marry outside of tribal and status restrictions, granted equal divorce provisions, and otherwise treated as full and equal members of the new society.

The decisive factor in the final defeat of the rebellion was the influx of weapons and military personnel courtesy of the Iranian and Jordanian monarchs. By 1975, the Sultanate had regained control of Dhufar, and remaining Front members decamped to south Yemen. British Special Air Service forces were also critical for snuffing out the revolutionary experiment, leading one diplomatic historian to boast that Dhufar was “one of Britain’s least known foreign policy successes of the twentieth century.”

For historians and social scientists, the story of Dhufar ends here. Their mental models are geared to writing of revolution in the heroic or tragic mode: how revolutionaries build new societies if they succeed, how they are crushed and disfigured if they fail.

This is not the case for anthropologist Alice Wilson. What she wants to know is whether the defeated revolution has left any legacies in the lifeways of its former adherents, men and women who were either compelled or chose to give up their arms and reintegrate into a society blanketed by a strict official silencing of their struggle.1


The World the Gulf Has Built

By Deen Sharp

To most scholars and general readers alike, this is not a question they’d think to ask. What’s the point of studying a vanquished revolution? If we’re honest, most of us would likely recoil from such dispiriting fare. As Christopher Clark admits in his masterly new panorama of 1848, “It was precisely the stigma of failure that put me off the 1848 revolutions when I first encountered them at school. Complexity and failure are an unattractive combination.”

The triumph of Wilson’s Afterlives of Revolution: Everyday Counterhistories in Southern Oman is that it begins where most books end, with defeat and demobilization. Wilson takes a different approach than the well-worn path of tracking defeated revolutionaries’ disillusionment, or retreat in rosy-eyed recollections of the past. By giving form to the evocative yet inchoate notion of afterlives, she urges us to think again about what it means to say that a social process or idea has died or failed. If it’s unsatisfactory to think of revolutionary ideas and values as failed, then how do they live on?

An exciting new renaissance is underway in the study of revolution, which started over a decade ago. This is because 2011 saw a stunning global sweep of mass movements on nearly every continent, sparking the imaginations of thinkers far beyond the historians and sociologists who’ve made it their ken. When four presidents-for-life in the Arab world were deposed by massive street demonstrations in 2011 (two more met the same fate in 2019), people the world over filled public squares and clashed with police to assert that they would not be ruled in the old manner, as Vladimir Lenin would have said. Mass protests in Greece, Spain, and Chile opened up party systems; the current Chilean president Gabriel Boric was a student leader in 2011. Protests spread to over 600 US cities under the banner of Occupy Wall Street, putting inequality on the US national agenda and culminating in the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Revolution rose up from the ashes as both political possibility and object of inquiry.

The centenaries of the Russian Revolution and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference fed the renaissance of revolution in the printed word. Russia scholars put out a fresh batch of studies narrating 1917 to new generations, and the “global 1919” was reinterpreted from a story about Wilsonian principles and the creation of international institutions to the spread of a global anticolonial movement helmed by traveling activists.

Indeed, the “global turn” has only amplified the revival of revolution, inspiring scholars to look back on familiar terrain with new lenses. The 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1848 European revolutions, the French and American revolutionary “scripts,” and that oft-neglected offspring of revolution, constitutions—all are the subject of illuminating new studies that bring together ideas and categories that have long been segregated by disciplinary boundaries and academic conventions. The very concept of revolution is being revised, as historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists, in different ways, are loosening its ironclad Eurocentric origin story and refreshing ossified methods of studying it. It is as part of this exciting turn to revolution that Alice Wilson resurrects the least known of all the revolutions in the Middle East.

In the 1960s, the prospect of an Arabian Peninsula freed from monarchical rule was real. In the 1950s, British-backed monarchies in Egypt and Iraq had been toppled. And this ushered in two decades of intense grassroots and geopolitical struggles between nationalist republicans and monarchists. The republican cause was spearheaded by Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser; that of the monarchists by Iran and Saudi Arabia, then the twin pillars of the regional status quo, actively backed by Britain and the US.

Yemen—next door to Oman, and later instrumental in sustaining the Dhufar revolution—became the literal battleground of this grand contest between republicanism and monarchism. The country was split between a north governed by a dynastic Zaydi state since 893 (Zaydism is a branch of Shia Islam unique to Yemen), and Aden in the south, a British protectorate. Both Yemens were at the center of Middle East politics at the height of the Cold War.

In September 1962, a group of Egypt-backed Yemeni army officers overthrew the 1,000-year-old Imamate regime and declared a republic: making Yemen then, and today, the Arabian Peninsula’s sole republic. A year later, the population in the south rose up against British rule, driving Whitehall to beat a hasty retreat from Aden in 1967 amid a punishing counterinsurgency. Marxists attained power in the south and proclaimed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970: the only Marxist state in the Arab world, then and since.

Now, the Yemeni north found itself engulfed in a civil war that pitted Egypt-backed republicans against Saudi-backed royalists. The south, meanwhile, became a haven for global leftists of all hues (including members of the German Baader-Meinhof gang).

Suddenly, neighboring Oman’s political future took on global significance. It was not just the proxy war next door. Oman shared control with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz, the major transit route for Persian Gulf oil. Consequently, Oman and its politics were now a pressing concern to governments on both sides of the Cold War and progressive movements the world over.2

In 1965, inspired by south Yemen’s leftist transformation, the Dhufar Liberation Front was formed. (It would later change its name to the PFLOAG.) The region of Dhufar is composed of historically autonomous highlands that had more ties to southern Yemen than to Muscat, Oman’s capital. Its peoples speak south Arabian languages that are distinct from Arabic.

Throughout the 19th century, Muscat was governed by the Al Busaidi dynasty, as part of Britain’s informal empire. After World War I, Britain intervened in Omani affairs more extensively and directly, establishing the Sultan’s armed forces to gain control of the interior and providing all of its officers (the ranks were drawn from Baluchis in Oman and the Gwadar enclave of Pakistan).3

Dhufar’s revolution was decisively defeated, on the battlefield and at the level of national politics. But its animating ideas were not abandoned or repudiated.

In the 1930s, Dhufar’s autonomy came to an end with the ascension of Sultan Said. Though he married a Dhufari woman and spent his summers in the Dhufari capital, Salalah, the slave-holding Said treated the territory as his personal dependency, keeping it in a state of deep underdevelopment. He extracted taxes and resources from both pastoralists and town dwellers, while providing next to no infrastructure in return. There was only one traditional primary school in Salalah, reserved exclusively for sons of the Sultan’s retinue.

In search of education and employment, Dhufari young men emigrated clandestinely to Kuwait, Egypt, and Iraq, where they enrolled in schools and worked in the nascent security services and oil sectors (Oman was the last Gulf monarchy to discover oil, in 1964). There they encountered political organizing under the banner of Arab republican ideas of liberation and popular sovereignty, and formed the associations that would later merge into PFLOAG in 1968. Its goal, as noted above, was not confined to confronting the British-backed Sultan of Oman, but extended to confronting colonial monarchism across the Arabian Peninsula.

The Front received logistical support, weapons, and training from the governments of south Yemen, Iraq, and Maoist China. Even with such backing, the PFLOAG made astonishing headway, controlling 80 percent of Dhufar by 1969 (although the capital of Salalah, on the coast, remained under Sultanate and British control).

To combat the Front, Sultanate forces organized food blockades, burned wells and homes, and destroyed livestock. But that only strengthened militants’ resolve and earned them the highlanders’ trust. Convinced of the need for a new tack, British strategists quietly planned and instigated a coup in Muscat. In 1970, Said was deposed and replaced with his Sandhurst-educated son Qaboos, who shared the British vision of a new counterinsurgency strategy incorporating civil development measures alongside renewed military attacks against the Front.

Using revenues from oil production that had begun in 1967, Qaboos expanded the armed forces, instituted development schemes in Dhufar (rudimentary schools, roads, wells, and clinics), and declared a general amnesty, doling out patronage to encourage defections from the Front. Blandishments ranged from appointing ex-rebels to high posts in government and the private sector to providing others with housing and small stipends. Defections did occur, but not only because of the money. The regime change had convinced some Front members that their goal of overthrowing a hidebound Sultan was achieved, and they opted to work with the new government to build a new, unified Oman.

By 1975, the Sultan’s son, with the military support of the British and the financial boost of oil revenues, had retaken Dhufar. What remained of the PFLOAG decamped to south Yemen. And, for most observers, this remarkable moment—when Dhufaris had stood up to the world and remade themselves—was over.

Wilson’s anthropological eye sees where others would not think to look, away from the national protagonists and antagonists of revolution and toward the anonymous rank-and-file. She shows how former militants deliberately kept alive revolutionary values in their everyday lives, 4 despite the complete erasure of the revolutionary decade from Omani public culture and a uniform official narrative of Qaboos as a modernizer and steward of a national renaissance.

Like a detective, Wilson notices and gathers seemingly scattered bits of social life hidden in plain sight. Some ex-revolutionaries maintained their transgressive revolutionary marriages, including an interracial marriage “where the man occupied the stigmatized position of blackness.” They named children after honored Front figures and arranged new marriages in the next generation between Front families. Men held evening tea gatherings (galsah) in sidewalk cafés where former comrades from very different social backgrounds sat together, remarkable since Dhufar’s castes do not mix in the subtly but strictly segregated public spaces.

Former militants circulated books about the revolution written by a younger generation of Dhufaris, and asked how they could access Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s Monsoon Revolution. They peppered their talk with jokes and euphemisms hinting at the revolutionary past, and repurposed social rituals such as funerals into occasions to gather and remember the Front. This “unofficial commemoration” not only countered the state’s Qaboos-centric takeover of public culture and national space, but derived from the Front’s own trove of commemorative practices.

If these afterlives of revolution sound rather wispy, it’s because of the precarious research setting in which Wilson worked. Oman is an absolute monarchy, with no space for unsanctioned histories. School textbooks excise the whole period from 1920 to 1970, i.e., Qaboos’s own father’s reign. In a 1974 National Day speech, Qaboos spelled it out: “The principle we have declared is to forget the past. We shall adhere to this code.” Intelligence services maintain rigorous surveillance, swiftly silencing even hortatory speech. In 2016, journalist Abdullah Habib wrote a Facebook post imploring the government to disclose burial places of Front members killed by the counterinsurgency; “it is the right of a mother to visit her son’s grave on Eid.” He was put in prison.

Moreover, as Wilson frankly tells us, none of the former women militants that she met wished to talk about their revolutionary past, and “no one volunteered to show me commemorative objects that spoke to revolutionary experiences, such as stamps, photographs, or official documents from that time.” Her skill and resourcefulness is to suss out how Dhufaris repurposed cultural resources as “social camouflage”: to protect and cultivate their alternative values in ways that authorities wouldn’t flag as threatening.

This explains the importance for Dhufaris of embedding egalitarian values in modes of social life—kinship, everyday comportment, oblique memory work—that typically reproduce rather than challenge dominant mores. From this, Wilson theorizes how kinship and the everyday can be sites not of “resistance” but quiet subversion. They are places that can keep alive inclusive, egalitarian practices even as social and caste distinctions rumble on.

When we think of the Arab uprisings in 2011—to the extent that we think of them at all—what likely comes to mind is a blurry image of short-lived people power swiftly giving way to continuous mayhem. Ruinous civil wars, military coups, proxy wars, waves of refugees—a tableau of regional violence and calamity. Mainstream media has folded the uprisings into an enduring storyline of the Middle East as a place of perennial, world-threatening conflict. Lost are the beginnings of these revolutionary uprisings, what millions of citizens were calling for, and how the violent aftermaths came about not because of the revolutions themselves, but the interventions of powerful governments spooked by the prospects of genuine democratization.

Finding the beginnings of these 2011 revolutions might just start by finding the origins of the region’s past revolutions. Afterlives of Revolution nudges us away from the complacent certainty and analytical finality of pronouncing any revolution a success or failure. A revolution can succeed by seizing power and pushing through its programs, and yet spell ruin for individual lives. It can fail; but, in so doing, it can still irrevocably transform life for individuals and groups. It’s not just that success and failure are in the eye of the beholder, but that they’re simultaneous, operating at different levels.

Dhufar’s revolution was decisively defeated, on the battlefield and at the level of national politics. But its animating ideas were not abandoned or repudiated. Instead, they lived on, in small corners of publicness, not drawing undue attention, there for those who care to see.

When I finished Wilson’s Afterlives, it put me in mind of that famous line from Middlemarch, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” icon

  1. Wilson’s interest is not quite historical retrieval. That has already been ably realized by Abdel Razzaq Takriti in Monsoon Revolution (Takriti writes the foreword to Wilson’s book). He rescued this forgotten decade from the stale polemics of disillusioned Arab intellectuals, mythmaking monarchists, and British counterinsurgency memoirists and their enthusiasts, firmly re-placing it in its transnational context of a bitter fight between anticolonial republicans and their monarchist adversaries.
  2. As with Vietnam, the Dhufar uprising captured the imagination of the contemporaneous global left. A documentary screened at Cannes highlighted the Dhufari rebels’ education and arming of female fighters. Prominent Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim penned Warda, a novel recalling an aging Egyptian leftist’s infatuation with a Dhufari woman revolutionary. The Irish scholar-activist Fred Halliday visited Dhufar with several Arab intellectuals to interview insurgents and titled his book-length account Arabia without Sultans.
  3. J. E. Peterson, “Nation and State in Oman: The Initial Impact of 1970,” Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman 1970–2020, edited by James Allen (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).
  4. Wilson is careful to note the limits of these revolutionary reforms, not to belittle the revolutionary experiment but to remind that on-the-ground revolutionary experiences differ from the proclamations and aspirations of the vanguard. This is not a pathological feature of revolutionary projects nor a sign of their infeasibility, as antirevolutionaries are quick to claim, but part of “the messiness of social change.” Wilson stays focused on the texture of lived experience, which is rarely as clear-cut, euphoric, or catastrophic as both boosters and critics of revolution would have us believe.
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