Oman’s history can be traced to very early times. In Genesis 10:26–30, the descendants of Joktan are said to have migrated as far as Sephar (now Dhofar). The area was already a commercial and seafaring centre in Sumerian times, and Phoenicians probably visited the coastal region. Other groups that probably came to the area in ancient times include the Baida and Ariba, Semitic tribes from northern Arabia, now extinct; the first Himyar dynasty from Yemen, which fell to the Persians in the time of Cyrus, about 550 BC; ancient Greek navigators; and the Parthians (174– 136 BC).
The earliest settlements in Oman, as in the Arabian peninsula generally, date from some time in the 3rd millennium BC. Though at that time and for some hundreds of years more, Oman was on the edge of the trade routes linking ancient Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley, it does not appear to have profited a great deal from its location. Some centuries later, however, an area of what is now Oman became of paramount importance to the ancient world.
The southernmost region of Oman, modern Dhofar, was responsible for the area’s importance. For it is one of the few spots in the world where frankincense trees grow. Frankincense is an aromatic gum from certain species of trees which grow only in southern Oman, the Wadi Hadhramaut in Yemen, and Somalia.
The incense burns well because of its natural oil content and in addition, it has medicinal uses. These two factors plus its relative scarcity made it an extremely sought after substance in the ancient world. (The gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child were gold, frankincense and myrrh. At the time, the gold was far less valuable than the other two.)
Frankincense was vital to the religious rites of almost every civilisation in the ancient world. The great temples of Egypt, the Near East and Rome itself were all major consumers of the scarce commodity. Not to mention the thousands of other temples found in every city, town and village. Or the medical practitioners themselves. Indeed, the writer Pliny in the first century AD claimed that control of the frankincense trade had made the south Arabians the richest people on earth.
In the second century AD at the height of the trade, some 3000 tons of frankincense were transported each year by ship from south Arabia to the Greece, Rome and the Mediterranean world. The centre of the trade was in a place now called Khor Rouri which the Greeks called Muscat. Though the trade went into a decline after the 3rd century AD, it still managed to keep south Arabia relatively wealthy for another three centuries.
The coming of Islam
The tribes in the northern part of Oman were converted to Islam during the first generation of the Islamic era — the middle of the 7th century AD and shortly after, came under the rule of the Ummayyads whose centre was in Damascus. About a century later, the Omanis revolted against the Ummayyads and expelled them from their country. The Ummayyads themselves had only a short time remaining as the leaders of the Muslim world for they were soon overthrown by the Abbasids whose capital was in Baghdad.
Oman took advantage of the dynastic strife in Damascus around the year 751 and elected an imam who gradually evolved from a local spiritual leader to a temporal sovereign. While the its wealth gave the imam substantial power in the entire Gulf region, Oman became an object of consecutive invasions by the Ummayyad caliphs of Baghdad, the Mongols the Persians.
Oman managed to remain free of the Abbasids and continued its adherence to Ibadi Islam which is still dominant in the country today. Because of Oman’s remoteness from other Muslims, the Ibadis survived as a group long after they had vanished from other parts of the Muslim world.
The Ibadis had five imamates before the founding of the Al Said dynasty. The first imamate in the ninth century became the example of the ideal Ibadi state.
But Oman was nonetheless conquered by several foreign powers; Oman was controlled by the Qarmatians between 931-932 and then again between 933-934. Between 972 and 1050, Oman was part of the domain of the Iranian Buyyids, and between 1053 and 1154, Oman was part of the Great Seljuk empire. In 1154, the indigenous Nabhani dynasty took control of Oman, and the Nabhani kings ruled Oman until 1470, with an interruption of 37 years between 1406 and 1443.
In 1506 the first Europeans appeared in the Gulf and they were the Portuguese. They occupied Oman in 1507 and made Hormuz their base of operations. The country was treated by and large as a way station for Portuguese ships on the route to India. There are very few reminders of the Portuguese presence in the country, implying that Portuguese interest in Oman did not extend to much beyond protecting its supply lines.
In about the year 1600, Nabhani rule was temporarily restored to Oman, although that lasted only to 1624, when fifth imamate, which is also known as the Yarubid Imamate. The Yarubid Imamate, recaptured Muscat from the Portuguese in 1650 after a colonial presence on the northeastern coast of Oman dating to 1508. The Yarubid dynasty expanded, acquiring former Portuguese colonies in East Africa and engaging in the slave trade. By 1719 dynastic succession led to the nomination of Saif ibn Sultan II. His candidacy prompted a rivalry among the ulama and a civil war between the two major tribes, the Hinawi and the Ghafiri, with the Ghafiri supporting Saif ibn Sultan II. He assumed power in 1748 after the leaders of both factions had been killed in battle, but the rivalry continued, with the factionalization working in favor of the Iranians, who occupied Muscat and Suhar in 1743.
The Iranians had occupied the coast before–indeed the coast was often the possession of various empires. These empires brought order to the religious and ethnic diversity of the population of this cosmopolitan region. Yet the intervention on behalf of an unpopular dynasty brought about a revolt. The leader of the revolt, Ahmad ibn Said al Said, was elected sultan of Muscat upon the expulsion of the Persians. The position of Sultan of Muscat would remain in the possession of the Al Said clan even when the imamate of Oman remained out of reach.
The Al Said clan became a royal dynasty when Ahmad ibn Said Al Said was elected imam following the expulsion of the Iranians from Muscat in 1744. Like its predecessors, Al Said dynastic rule has been characterized by a history of internecine family struggle, fratricide, and usurpation. Apart from threats within the ruling family, there was the omnipresent challenge from the independent tribes of the interior who rejected the authority of the sultan, recognising the imam as the sole legitimate leader and pressing, by resort to arms, for the restoration of the imamate.
Schisms within the ruling family were apparent before Ahmad ibn Said’s death in 1783 and were later manifest with the division of the family into two main lines, the Sultan ibn Ahmad Al Said (ruled: 1792-1806) line controlling the maritime state, with nominal control over the entire country; and the Qais branch, with authority over the Al Batinah and Ar Rustaq areas. During the period of Sultan Said ibn Sultan Al Said’s rule (1806-56), Oman cultivated its East African colonies, profiting from the slave trade. As a regional commercial power in the nineteenth century, Oman held territories on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa, in Mombasa along the coast of East Africa, and until 1958 in Gwadar (in present-day Pakistan) on the coast of the Arabian Sea. But when the British declared slavery illegal in the mid-1800s, the sultanate’s fortunes reversed. The economy collapsed, and many Omani families migrated to Zanzibar. The population of Muscat fell from 55,000 to 8,000 between the 1850s and 1870s.
The death of Sultan Said ibn Sultan in 1856 prompted a further division: the descendants of the late sultan ruled Oman (Thuwaini ibn Said Al Said, ruled: 1856-66) and Zanzibar (Mayid ibn Said Al Said, ruled: 1856-70); the Qais branch intermittently allied itself with the ulama to restore imamate legitimacy. In 1868 Azzam ibn Qais Al Said (ruled: 1868-71) emerged as self-declared imam. Although a significant number of Hinawi tribes recognised him as imam, the public neither elected him nor acclaimed him as such.
Imam Azzam understood that to unify the country a strong, central authority had to be established with control over the interior tribes of Oman. His rule was jeopardized by the British, who interpreted his policy of bringing the interior tribes under the central government as a move against their established order. In resorting to military means to unify Oman, Imam Azzam alienated members of the Ghafiri tribes, who revolted in the 1870-71 period. The British gave Imam Azzam’s rival, Turki ibn Said Al Said, financial and political support. Turki ibn Said succeeded in defeating the forces of Imam Azzam, who was killed in battle outside Matrah in January 1871.
Most of these overseas possessions were seized by the British and by 1850 Oman was an isolated and poor area of the world. Oman was the object of Franco-British rivalry throughout the 18th century. During the 19th century, Oman and the British concluded several treaties of friendship and commerce. In 1908 the British entered into an agreement of friendship. Their traditional association was confirmed in 1951 through a new treaty of friendship, commerce, and navigation by which the British recognised the Sultanate of Oman as a fully independent state.
When Sultan Sa’id bin Sultan Al-Busaid died in 1856, his sons quarrelled over the succession. As a result of this struggle, the empire – through the mediation of the British Government under the “Canning Award” – was divided in 1861 into two separate principalities: Zanzibar (with its East African dependencies), and Muscat and Oman. Zanzibar paid an annual subsidy to Muscat and Oman until its independence in early 1964.
The 20th Century
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sultan in Muscat faced a rebellion by members of the Ibadi sect residing in the interior of Oman, centered around the town of Nizwa, who wanted to be ruled exclusively by their religious leader, the Imam of Oman. This conflict was resolved temporarily by the Treaty of Seeb, which granted the imam autonomous rule in the interior Imamate of Oman while recognizing the nominal sovereignty of the sultan elsewhere.
The conflict flared up again in 1954, when the new imam led a sporadic 5-year rebellion against the sultan’s efforts to extend government control into the interior. The insurgents were defeated in 1959 with British help. The sultan then terminated the Treaty of Seeb and eliminated the office of the imam. In the early 1960s, the imam, exiled to Saudi Arabia, obtained support from his hosts and other Arab governments, but this support ended in the 1980s.
In 1964, a separatist revolt began in Dhofar Province. Aided by Communist and leftist governments such as the former South Yemen (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), the rebels formed the Dhofar Liberation Front, which later merged with the Marxist-dominated Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf (PFLOAG). The PFLOAG’s declared intention was to overthrow all traditional Persian Gulf régimes. In mid-1974, the Bahrain branch of the PFLOAG was established as a separate organization and the Omani branch changed its name to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO), while continuing the Dhofar Rebellion.
Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman
In 1970, Qaboos bin Said Al Said ousted his father, Sa’id bin Taymur, who later died in exile in London. Al Said has ruled as sultan ever since. The new sultan confronted insurgency in a country plagued by endemic disease, illiteracy, and poverty. One of the new sultan’s first measures was to abolish many of his father’s harsh restrictions, which had caused thousands of Omanis to leave the country, and to offer amnesty to opponents of the previous régime, many of whom returned to Oman. He also established a modern government structure and launched a major development program to upgrade educational and health facilities, build a modern infrastructure, and develop the country’s natural resources.
In an effort to curb the Dhofar insurgency, Sultan Qaboos expanded and re-equipped the armed forces and granted amnesty to all surrendering rebels while vigorously prosecuting the war in Dhofar. He obtained direct military support from the UK, Iran, and Jordan. By early 1975, the guerrillas were confined to a 50-square-kilometer (20-square-mile) area near the Yemeni border and shortly thereafter were defeated. As the war drew to a close, civil action programs were given priority throughout Dhofar and helped win the allegiance of the people. The PFLO threat diminished further with the establishment of diplomatic relations in October 1983 between South Yemen and Oman, and South Yemen subsequently lessened propaganda and subversive activities against Oman. In late 1987 Oman opened an embassy in Aden, South Yemen, and appointed its first resident ambassador to the country.
Since his accession in 1970, Sultan Qaboos has balanced tribal, regional, and ethnic interests in composing the national administration. The Council of Ministers, which functions as a cabinet, consists of 26 ministers, all directly appointed by Qaboos. The Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) has the mandate of reviewing legislation pertaining to economic development and social services prior to its becoming law. The Majlis Al-Shura may request ministers to appear before it. In September 2000, about 100,000 Omani men and women elected 83 candidates, including two women, to seats in the Majlis Al-Shura.
Further, in December 2000, Sultan Qaboos appointed the 48-member Majlis Al Dowla, or State Council, including five women, which acts as the upper chamber in Oman’s bicameral representative body. In November 1996, Sultan Qaboos presented his people with the “Basic Statutes of the State,” Oman’s first written “constitution”. It guarantees various rights within the framework of Quranic and customary law. It partially resucitated long dormant conflict-of-interest measures by banning cabinet ministers from being officers of public shareholding firms. Perhaps most importantly, the Basic Statutes provide rules for setting Sultan Qaboos’ succession.
Oman occupies a strategic location on the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, 35 miles directly opposite Iran. Oman has concerns with regional stability and security, given tensions in the region, the proximity of Iran and Iraq, and the potential threat of political Islam. Oman maintained its diplomatic relations with Iraq throughout the Gulf War while supporting the United Nations allies by sending a contingent of troops to join coalition forces and by opening up to pre-positioning of weapons and supplies. In addition, since 1980 Oman and the United States have been parties to a military co-operation agreement, which they revised and renewed in 2000. Oman also has long been an active participant in efforts to achieve Middle East peace.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Omani Government at all levels pledged and provided impressive support to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. Oman has signed most United Nations-sponsored anti-terrorism treaties.
During 2002 and into 2003, Oman, along with the other countries of the Persian Gulf, were confronted with the situation of a potential US-led war with Iraq. On 8 November 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, calling on Iraq to immediately disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WMD weapons capabilities, to allow the immediate return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN weapons inspectors, and to comply with all previous UN resolutions regarding the country since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. If Iraq was found to be in “material breach” of the resolution, “serious consequences” were to result. The United States and the UK began amassing troops in the region, and by the end of February 2003, the number of troops in the Persian Gulf was approximately 200,000. As of 1 February, there were 3,600 US military personnel, 100 elite British special forces, and approximately 40 aircraft in Oman. As well, a new airbase was under construction, which would have a 14,000-ft. runway. However, Oman has said it would not act in a conflict with Iraq without UN approval. At an Arab League summit held at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on 1 March, sharp divisions between Arab leaders on the Iraq situation emerged, particularly between Libya and Saudi Arabia. However, the leaders issued a declaration expressing “complete rejection of any aggression on Iraq,” and called for continuing UN weapons inspections. It also called upon Iraq to disarm itself of WMD and the missiles needed to deliver them. At the summit, some leaders argued war was inevitable and that the countries of the region should prepare for its aftermath; some argued that war could be avoided if Iraq were to comply with weapons inspections, and a third group argued that the summit should issue an unequivocal anti-war declaration.
Oman has come a long way under the reign of Sultan Qaboos. His extensive modernization program has opened the country to the outside world and has preserved a long-standing political and military relationship with the United Kingdom. Oman’s moderate, independent foreign policy has sought to maintain good relations with all Middle Eastern countries.