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History and environment

Settlement in Oman has come mainly from the desert fringes; one along the southern coast of Arabia and the other through the northern gateway of al-Buraimi. The first groups to enter Oman spread out along the southern coastal region and began to settle along the western side of the Jebel Akhdar. These migrations probably continued for about 4-5 hundred years until early Islamic times. Most other Arab groups arrived in Oman from the north, coinciding with a period of weak Persian rule along the Batinah Coast. With the rise of Islam, the Persian rulers were removed and power transferred to the Arabs. For the next hundred years, until the first Ibadi Imamate was formed, shortly after 720 A.D., the country was entirely in the hands of Arab ruling families.

The tribal structure of Oman has undergone deep changes over the centuries. Many nomadic tribes have arrived and settled. Other tribes, adapting to the changing rhythm of history have established settled branches in widely dispersed regions of the country, specialising in farming, fishing or pastoralism. Families within one tribe have been known to change their economic focus from time to time, given the general ecological conditions in any particular era.

The Harasiis tribe appears to have been originally a Dhofari tribe and it continues to speak a South Arabian (Himyaritic) Mahra-related language. It is small in number compared to the other five major nomadic tribes of Oman, numbering about 5,000 people. They occupy the once waterless gravel and limestone desert plateau known as the Jiddat il-Harasiis. This region, which separates South Oman – Dhofar- the northern mountains, and the coast of Oman, was once a particularly inhospitable and difficult tract to cross, let alone survive in.

The Harasiis tribe was probably pushed into this vast uninhabited waterless desert by stronger pastoral groups moving northward from the Hadramaut of Yemen. Although the tribe ‘s claim to the area has, on occasion, been contested by rival groups, no other tribe has actually attempted to move into the Jiddat. It was, until recently, the most desolate of landscapes, with little, if any seasonal grasses and totally unfit for habitation during the scorching summer months. In the past access to water for the Harasiis was extremely limited. Tribal tradition had it that they never drank water but lived almost entirely on the consumption of camel and goat milk from their herds.

Events over the last 50 years have transformed the Jiddat and profoundly affected its people. In the 1950s, oil exploration in the region resulted in two water wells - at Haima and at al-Ajaiz - dug in the process of oil exploration being left open for the use of the local human and animal populations. These two wells - the first in an area of more than 40,000 square kilometres - became magnets for local herds and rapidly changed patterns of migration and animal husbandry. In the late 1970s the government of Oman built a ‘Tribal Centre‘ at Haima to deliver services to the local people. At about the same time, the Sultan approved the setting up of an Arabian Oryx reintroduction project in the NW quadrangle of the Jiddat. These activities rapidly transformed both the economic horizons of the Harasiis people while circumscribing their extensive subsistence activity.