Country, Middle East, southwestern Asia.
It is on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Area: 119,500
sq mi (309,500 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 2,409,000. Capital:
Muscat. The Omanis are predominantly Arab and tribal in organization.
There are also many migrant workers from South Asia and eastern Africa
who reside there. Languages: Arabic (official), others. Religions: Islam
(official); also Hinduism, Christianity. Currency: Omani rial. Oman is a
hot, arid country with high humidity along the coast. The Ḥajar
Mountains parallel the shore of the Gulf of Oman, reaching an elevation
of more than 10,000 ft (3,000 m). A broad expanse of sandy desert covers
much of the country. Oman has a developing mixed economy, and the
production and export of petroleum is its largest sector. It is a
hereditary monarchy, with an advisory council; its head of state and
government is the sultan. Human habitation dates to about the 3rd
millennium bc. The Omani tribal system dates to Arab migration during
the 2nd century ad. It was ruled by imams (Muslim religious leaders) of
the Ibādī sect from the early Islamic period (mid-8th century) until the
12th century, when local rule was established. The Portuguese controlled
the coastal areas c. 1507–1650, when they were expelled. The Āl Bū
Saʿīd, a dynasty founded in the mid-18th century, still rules Oman. The
kingdom expanded into eastern Africa in the 18th–19th century, where its
capital was at Zanzibar. Oil was discovered in 1964. In 1970 the sultan
was deposed by his son, who began a policy of modernization, and under
him Oman joined the Arab League and the United Nations. In the Persian
Gulf War, Oman cooperated with the forces allied against Iraq. It
subsequently continued to expand its foreign relations.
Official name Salṭanat ʿUmān (Sultanate of Oman)
Form of government monarchy with two advisory bodies (State Council
; Consultative Council )
Head of state and government Sultan
Official language Arabic
Official religion Islam
Monetary unit rial Omani (RO)
Population estimate (2008) 2,651,000
Total area (sq mi) 119,500
Total area (sq km) 309,500
1Many ministries are located in adjacent Bawshar.
country occupying the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula at
the confluence of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
Much of the country’s interior falls within the sandy, treeless, and
largely waterless region known as the Rubʿ al-Khali, still the domain of
Bedouin nomads—one of whom once remarked of the desert in summer,
The sun is hot. It is worse when the wind blows; then it is like a
furnace. Even when we stop to rest there is not shade…on the sand. Only
the Bedu [Bedouin] could endure this life.
In contrast to the stark interior, the coastal regions are much more
hospitable. Oman’s lush northern coast lies between the sea and inland
mountains. This verdant, fertile region is known for its grapes and
other produce, as is the Dhofar region in the country’s south. The
capital, Muscat, lies along the northern coast. Blending modern and
traditional architecture, the city commands a view of the Gulf of Oman
and serves as a port and commercial centre.
Renowned in ancient times for its frankincense and metalworking, Oman
occupies a strategically important location, for which it has long been
a prize for empire builders. In the 16th century Muscat was seized by
Portugal, which held the city until 1650. During the 18th century the Āl
Bū Saʿīd dynasty expelled a Persian occupation and established Omani
control over much of the Persian Gulf. The Āl Bū Saʿīd weathered much
political turbulence but preserved its hold on power into the 21st
century—largely by maintaining close relations with the United
Kingdom—but the dynasty was slow to open the country to innovation.
Significant modernization did not begin until after the coup in 1970
that brought Qaboos bin Said (Qābūs ibn Saʿīd) to power, at which point
Oman rapidly began to develop an advanced economy. The once insular
country now actively encourages tourism, and travelers come from afar to
enjoy its hospitality and unspoiled landscapes.
Slightly smaller in area than the country of Poland, Oman is
bounded to the southwest by Yemen, to the south and east by the Arabian
Sea, to the north by the Gulf of Oman, to the northwest by the United
Arab Emirates, and to the west by Saudi Arabia. A small exclave, the
Ruʾūs al-Jibāl (“the Mountaintops”), occupies the northern tip of the
Musandam Peninsula at the Strait of Hormuz; this territory gives Oman
its only frontage on the Persian Gulf. Its offshore territories include
Maṣīrah Island to the east and Al-Ḥallāniyyah Island (the largest of the
five Khuriyyā Muriyyā Islands) 25 miles (40 km) off the south coast.
Northern Oman is dominated by three physiographic zones. The long,
narrow coastal plain known as Al-Bāṭinah stretches along the Gulf of
Oman. The high, rugged Ḥajar Mountains extend southeastward, parallel to
the gulf coast, from the Musandam Peninsula to a point near Cape al-Ḥadd
at the easternmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Much of the range
reaches elevations above 4,800 feet (1,463 metres); Mount Al-Akhḍar
(“Green Mountain”), at an elevation of 10,086 feet (3,074 metres), is
the country’s highest point. The great central divide of Wadi Samāʾil
separates the Ḥajar into a western and an eastern range. An inland
plateau falls away to the southwest of the Ḥajar Mountains into the
great Rubʿ al-Khali (“Empty Quarter”) desert, which the sultanate shares
with Saudi Arabia and Yemen. These zones can be further subdivided into
several unofficial regions: Al-Bāṭinah; the mountains and associated
valleys of the Eastern Ḥajar and Western Ḥajar ranges; the Oman interior
area, or Al-Jaww (the central foothills and valleys on the inland side
of the Ḥajar Mountains and the historic heartland of Oman); Al-Ẓāhirah
(the semidesert plain west of the interior Oman area, next to the United
Arab Emirates, including Al-Buraymī oasis); Al-Sharqiyyah (sandy plains
lying east of interior Oman behind the Ḥajar Mountains); and Jaʿlān
(fronting the Arabian Sea south of Cape al-Ḥadd).
The southern region of Dhofar (Ẓufār) is separated from the rest of
Oman by several hundred miles of open desert. Dhofar’s coastal plain is
fertile alluvial soil, well watered by the southwest monsoon. Wooded
mountain ranges, rising to about 5,000 feet (1,500 metres), form a
crescent there behind a long, narrow coastal plain, on which the
provincial capital of Ṣalālah is located. Behind the mountains, gravel
plains gradually merge northward into the Rubʿ al-Khali.
There are no permanent bodies of fresh water in the country.
Intermittent streams are a product of seasonal storms and generally
abate quickly. Some effort has been made in recent years to construct
dams in an effort to preserve runoff and control flooding.
The climate is hot and dry in the interior and hot and humid along
the coast. Summer temperatures in the capital of Muscat and other
coastal locations often climb to 110 °F (43 °C), with high humidity;
winters are mild, with lows averaging about 63 °F (17 °C). Temperatures
are similar in the interior, although they are more moderate at higher
elevations. Dhofar is dominated by the summer monsoon, making Ṣalālah’s
climate more temperate than that of northern Oman. Rainfall throughout
the country is minimal, averaging only about 4 inches (100 mm) per year,
although precipitation in the mountains is heavier.
Plant and animal life
Because of the low precipitation, vegetation is sparse except where
there is irrigation, which is provided by an ancient system of water
channels known as aflāj (singular: falaj). The channels often run
underground and originate in wells near mountain bases. The aflāj
collectively were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006.
Acacia trees form most of what little natural vegetation exists, and
the soil is extremely rocky; plant species are protected in nature
preserves. The government also protects rare animal species, such as the
Arabian oryx, Arabian leopard, mountain goat, and loggerhead turtle.
Oman’s birdlife is extraordinarily diverse and includes such species as
the glossy ibis, Egyptian vulture, Barbary falcon, and Socotra
More than half of Oman’s population is Arab. However, large numbers
of ethnic Baloch—who migrated to Oman from Iran and Pakistan over the
past several centuries—live near the coast in Al-Bāṭinah. The
Muscat-Maṭraḥ urban area has long been home to significant numbers of
ethnic Persians and to merchants of South Asian ancestry, some of whom
also live along Al-Bāṭinah. Notable among the latter are the Liwātiyyah,
who originally came from Sindh (now in Pakistan) but have lived in Oman
Several large Arab groups predominate along Dhofar’s coastal plain.
The inhabitants of the Dhofar mountains are known as jibālīs, or “people
of the mountains.” They are ethnically distinct from the coastal Arabs
and are thought to be descendants of people from the Yemen highlands.
Arabic is the official language, and Modern Standard Arabic is
taught in schools. In addition, a number of dialects of vernacular
Arabic are spoken, some of which are similar to those spoken in other
Persian Gulf states but many of which are not mutually intelligible with
those of adjacent regions. The jibālīs, for example, speak older
dialects of South Arabic. These differ greatly from most other dialects,
which are derived from North Arabic (as is Modern Standard Arabic).
English, Persian, and Urdu are also spoken, and there are a number of
Swahili-speaking Omanis born in Zanzibar and elsewhere in East Africa
who returned to Oman after 1970. Various South Asian languages are also
The overwhelming majority of Omanis are Muslims. The Ibāḍī branch of
Islam, a moderate Khārijite group, claims the most adherents. In belief
and ritual, Ibāḍism is close to Sunni Islam (the major branch of Islam),
differing in its emphasis on an elected, rather than a hereditary, imam
as the spiritual and temporal leader of the Ibāḍī community. Non-Ibāḍī
Arabs and the Baloch are mostly Sunnis. Those in the South Asian
communities are mainly Shīʿite, although a few are Hindus.
The population of Oman is primarily urban but has a number of
traditional rural settlements. These are typically located near the
foothills of the Ḥajar Mountains, where the aflāj provide irrigation. In
addition to small villages, a number of sizable towns, including Nizwā,
Bahlāʾ, Izkī, and ʿIbrī, are found on the inland, or southwestern, side
of the Western Ḥajar. Coastal Al-Bāṭinah provides opportunities for
fishing, as well as irrigated cultivation, and is therefore more densely
populated, with such major towns as Shināṣ, Ṣuḥār, Al-Khābūrah,
Al-Maṣnaʿah, and Barkāʾ. Approximately one-fourth of the population
lives in Al-Bāṭinah. Al-Rustāq, ʿAwābī, and Nakhl are principal
settlements on Al-Bāṭinah’s side of the Western Ḥajar.
The twin cities of Muscat and Maṭraḥ lie at the eastern end of
Al-Bāṭinah; both are ancient ports, but they have merged to become an
important metropolitan centre. Al-Bāṭinah is the country’s most densely
populated area. To the east the only major town is Ṣūr, a well-protected
port that is still a notable centre for fishing and boatbuilding. The
central region of interior Oman consists of irrigated valleys lying
between the mountains and the desert and is also one of the more densely
populated areas. Some of Dhofar’s residents are concentrated in towns
along the coast, while others are seminomadic cattle herders in the
mountains. A small nomadic population inhabits the inland plateaus along
the Rubʿ al-Khali. Khaṣab is the only significant town in the sparsely
populated Musandam Peninsula.
Oman has one of the highest birth rates among the Persian Gulf
states; this birth rate—combined with a relatively low death rate—has
given the country a rate of natural increase that well exceeds the world
average. Life expectancy averages about 75 years. The infant mortality
rate is decreasing, and about one-third of the population is under age
Since 1970, increasing numbers of foreigners have come to reside in
the country, particularly in the capital. These include Western
businessmen, as well as government advisers, army officers, and
labourers from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines, and other Asian
countries. Since the 1980s the government has followed a policy termed
“Omanization,” to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign labour and
increase employment opportunities for Omani citizens.
Oman is a rural, agricultural country, and fishing and overseas
trading are important to the coastal populations. Oil in commercial
quantities was discovered in Oman in 1964 and was first exported in
1967. Subsequently the production and export of petroleum rapidly came
to dominate the country’s economy. Oil revenues have grown to represent
roughly two-fifths of gross domestic product (GDP) and almost
three-fourths of the government’s income.
In anticipation of the eventual depletion of oil reserves, the
government in 1996 initiated a plan for the post-oil era that focused on
developing the country’s natural gas resources to fuel domestic industry
and for export in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Oman also
sought to diversify and privatize its economy in addition to
implementing its policy of Omanization. By the end of the 1990s, the
privatization plan had advanced further than those in the other states
of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia,
Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Notable features of the program
included expanding the country’s stock market, selling several
government-owned companies, and creating a more liberal investment
environment. The country’s development has been aided in part by the
Agriculture and fishing
Agriculture is practiced mainly for subsistence and employs less
than one-tenth of the population. The falaj irrigation system has long
supported a three-tiered crop approach (i.e., three crops raised at
different heights within the same plot), with date palms above; lime,
banana, or mango trees in the middle level; and alfalfa (lucerne),
wheat, and sorghum at ground level. Vegetables, melons, bananas, and
dates are the country’s most significant crops. Limes that are grown in
the interior oases are traded for fish from coastal areas as well as
exported abroad. Grapes, walnuts, peaches, and other fruits are
cultivated on the high mountain plateaus; Dhofar also produces coconuts
and papayas. Although agricultural production meets some local needs,
most food must be imported. Many rural families keep goats, and Oman is
well known for camel breeding. Cattle are raised throughout the
mountainous areas of Dhofar.
The emigration of a large portion of the workforce to neighbouring
countries before 1970 allowed fields to lie fallow and the irrigation
systems to decay. In an attempt to reduce the country’s dependence on
food imports, the government has sought to stimulate agricultural
production by establishing research stations and model farms along
Al-Bāṭinah’s coast and in Dhofar, as well as date-processing plants at
Al-Rustāq and Nizwā. The government has also encouraged the development
of commercial fishing by providing boats and motors, cold-storage
facilities, and transportation. In the 1990s the United States provided
Oman with aid to help develop its potentially large fisheries in the
Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
Resources and power
Crude oil production was high throughout the oil boom of the 1970s,
and declining oil prices in the 1980s prompted the government to further
increase production in an attempt to maintain revenue. This policy,
however, was reversed in 1986 when Oman followed the lead of the
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and sought to
sustain price levels through production cuts aimed at diminishing world
oil supplies. Production again increased in the 1990s, and in the early
21st century the country’s oil production was roughly three times the
rates of the 1970s. Oman, however, still remains far behind the ranks of
the world’s largest oil exporters.
Several copper mines and a smelter were opened in the early 1980s at
an ancient mining site near Ṣuḥār, but production levels have diminished
considerably. Chromite is also mined in small quantities. Coal deposits
at Al-Kāmil have been explored for potential exploitation and use,
especially to generate electricity. Exploration projects that began in
the mid-1980s to uncover more unassociated natural gas have proved
successful, and pipelines were constructed from the gas fields at Yibāl
to Muscat and Ṣuḥār and to Izkī. By the late 1990s the known natural gas
reserves were double those of less than a decade earlier. A facility for
the liquefaction of natural gas was opened in Qalhāt, and in 2000 Oman
began exporting LNG.
Oman’s non-petroleum manufactures include non-metallic mineral
products, foods, and chemicals and chemical products. Industrial
development, virtually nonexistent before 1970, began with a change of
government that ended years of isolation in Oman. It has since been
oriented toward projects that improve the country’s infrastructure, such
as electric generators, desalinization complexes, and cement plants
outside Muscat and Ṣalālah. Successive government five-year plans have
stressed private-sector development as well as joint ventures with the
government. Meanwhile, the practice of traditional handicrafts (weaving,
pottery, boatbuilding, and gold and silver work) has been declining.
The Central Bank of Oman is the country’s main monetary and banking
regulatory body. Founded in 1974, it issues and regulates the national
currency, the Omani rial, manages the government’s accounts, and acts as
lender of last resort. The country has commercial and development banks,
and a number of foreign banks operate there. A stock exchange, the
Muscat Securities Exchange, was opened in 1988.
Crude oil, refined petroleum, and natural gas account for most
exports, while imports consist mainly of machinery and transport
equipment, basic manufactured goods, and foodstuffs. Some manufactured
products are also exported. Among the country’s major trading partners
are China, Japan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2000
Oman became a member of the World Trade Organization.
Services, including public administration and defense, account for
roughly one-fifth of the value of GDP and employ some two-fifths of the
workforce. Despite the country’s frequent balance-of-payment deficits,
defense spending consistently constitutes a significant portion of the
total budget. The tourist trade contributes only a small fraction of
Oman’s GDP; however, the government has been promoting the sector more
aggressively in an attempt to further diversify the economy.
Labour and taxation
Before 1970 thousands of Omanis left the country to find work in
nearby oil-producing states; later foreigners came to work in Oman as
oil production increased. Non-Omanis still comprise about two-fifths of
the labour force, and about one-fifth of the male population remains
unemployed. Women constitute a small but growing portion of the
workforce. There are no trade unions or associations in Oman, though the
government has created consultative committees to mediate grievances.
Strikes are forbidden. As in most countries of the region, the workweek
is Saturday through Wednesday.
Personal income and property are not taxed in Oman. Corporate tax
rates are determined by the level of Omani ownership; the greater the
percentage of Omani ownership, the lower the rate of taxation. In the
late 1990s, however, the government lowered rates on foreign-owned firms
to encourage investment. Oil companies are taxed separately by the
Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals.
Transportation and telecommunication
Oman has several ports, most notably Port Qābūs in Maṭraḥ, Ṣalālah
(formerly known as Port Raysūt), and Al-Faḥl, all of which were built
after 1970; in the late 1990s work was begun to upgrade and expand the
industrial port at Ṣuḥār. Ṣalālah underwent major renovations and in
1998 opened as one of the world’s largest container terminals; the port
is considered by international shippers to be the preferred off-loading
site in the Persian Gulf. Significant intercoastal trade is carried on
by traditional wooden dhows. The two principal airports are located at
Al-Sīb, about 19 miles (30 km) from Muscat, and at Ṣalālah. The
government is a major stockholder in the international carrier Gulf Air
and also operates Oman Air domestically and internationally. Since 1970
a modern network of asphalt and gravel roads has been built up from
virtually nothing to link all the country’s main settlements; about
one-fourth of this network is paved. The country has no railroads.
Government-owned Omantel (formerly known as General
Telecommunications Organization) is Oman’s primary telecommunications
provider. During the 1990s it instituted plans that increased the number
of phone lines, expanded the fibre-optic network, and introduced digital
technology. The Internet became available in 1997, with Omantel as the
official provider. The use of cell phones increased dramatically after
Omantel lost its monopoly on the mobile phone market in 2004. Satellite
links provide much of the country’s international communications.
Government and society
Oman is governed by a monarchy (sultanate). The sultan is the head
of state, and, although he also acts as the prime minister, he may
appoint one if he chooses. The sultan is assisted by a Council of
Ministers (Majlis al-Wuzarāʾ), the members of which he typically
appoints from among Muscat merchants, informal representatives of
interior tribes, and Dhofaris.
The Consultative Assembly, formed by the sultan in 1981, was replaced
in 1991 by a Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shūrā), members of which
were at first appointed and later elected from several dozen districts
(wilāyāt); women from a few consitituencies were given the right to
serve on the council. In 1996 the sultan announced the establishment of
the Basic Law of the State, the country’s first written constitution,
which outlined a new system of government that included a bicameral
legislature, the Council of Oman. In addition, it clarified the
succession process and extended the right to serve to all Omani women.
The Council of Oman consists of the Consultative Council as its lower
chamber and, as the upper chamber, a new Council of State (Majlis
The country is divided administratively into regions (minṭaqāt) and
governorates (muḥāfaẓat), each of which contains a number of districts
(wilāyāt). Local governance is carried out by a combination of
traditional wālīs (representatives of the sultan) and by more recently
established municipal councils.
Oman has Islamic courts, based on the Ibāḍī interpretation of the
Sharīʿah (Islamic law), which handle personal status cases. There are
also civil, criminal, and commercial courts that are organized into
courts of first instance, appeals courts, and a Supreme Court, which is
chaired by the sultan. In addition, there are some specialized courts.
There are no political parties. Elections to the Consultative
Council have been held since 1994. At first, voting was limited to
individuals chosen by the government; the pool of eligible voters was
50,000 in 1994 and 175,000 in 2000. Universal suffrage for citizens at
least 21 years old was implemented in 2003. Members of the Council of
State are appointed by the sultan.
The Sultan’s Armed Forces, formed in 1958 from several smaller
regiments, has grown since 1970 to more than 40,000 personnel, spurred
in part by a rebellion in Dhofar in 1964–75. Most personnel are in the
army, but Oman also maintains a small air force and navy and fields some
of the most sophisticated military equipment available. The sultan is
the commander in chief of the armed forces. The military has
traditionally relied heavily on foreign advisers and officers, mostly
British, and the United States and the United Kingdom have occasionally
maintained a small military presence in the country.
Health and welfare
The post-1970 government improved health care throughout the country
and instituted a free national health service. The new regime built
hospitals, health centres, and dispensaries and equipped mobile medical
teams to serve remote areas. Government spending has increased for
health services, social security, and welfare.
The move to towns and the return of Omanis abroad in the 1970s led
to a severe housing shortage. In 1973 the government established a
program that built homes for those on limited incomes. The Oman Housing
Bank was established in 1998 to finance the purchase, construction, or
renovation of residential property for those with lower incomes.
Traditional housing in Al-Bāṭinah often consists of palm-frond huts, in
contrast to the mud-brick structures of the interior. More recently,
however, such homes have largely been replaced by more modern dwellings
of concrete, though elements of traditional regional architecture have
Education has expanded dramatically since 1970, when only three
primary schools existed and few girls received any schooling. Some
three-fourths of elementary-school-age and more than two-thirds of
secondary-school-age children are now enrolled, and nearly half of all
these are female. Education is provided free to all Omanis but is still
not mandatory. About three-fourths of Oman’s adult population is
literate; there has been a substantial increase in the number of
literate women (although female literacy lags behind that of men). The
country’s national university, Sultan Qaboos University, was opened in
Muscat in 1986. Oman also has several private colleges.
Daily life and social customs
Oman is a tribal society, although tribal influence is gradually
declining. Its predominantly Ibāḍī Muslim population observes social
customs that—though still conservative by Western standards—are markedly
less strict than those of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. (The consumption of
alcoholic beverages, for instance, is illegal for Omani citizens but is
permissible for visitors in licensed dining establishments.) Women in
particular have enjoyed relatively more freedom in Oman than elsewhere
on the Arabian Peninsula. Social interaction remains largely segregated
by gender, however, and most Omani women—particularly those in rural
areas—dress in a conservative, time-honoured fashion. Traditional attire
for women, although varying slightly from region to region, is
characterized by brightly coloured fabrics and jeweled adornments and
consists of a dress (thawb) over loose-fitting slacks (sirwāl). A long,
flowing scarf known as a liḥāf (or generically as ḥijāb) covers the
head. Similarly, most Omani men wear the dishdashah, or thawb, a
traditional woven cotton robe, and male headgear consists of a light
turban of cotton or wool, known as a muzzar. Many men continue to carry
a short, broad, curved, and often highly ornate dagger known as a
khanjar (sometimes called a janbiyyah or jambiya), which is worn tucked
in the front waistband.
Mealtime serves as the centre of most social gatherings. The typical
Omani meal consists of rice, spiced lamb or fish, dates, and coffee or
tea. Incense—notably frankincense, which is native to Oman—is burned at
the end of the meal.
Omanis observe the standard Islamic holidays, including the two ʿīds
(festivals), ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā, as well as several secular
holidays, such as National Day (celebrating the expulsion of the
Portuguese in the 17th century) and the ruling sultan’s birthday.
Omani artisans are renowned for woodcarving, weaving, and silver-
and goldsmithing and for the manufacture of daggers and swords. Their
handiworks are among the many items that may be found at the souk, or
market, of Muscat, a thriving centre of popular culture. The Ministry of
National Heritage and Culture is charged with preserving historic
buildings, excavating archaeological sites, and supporting such
traditional crafts as weaving and the crafting of silver and gold
jewelry. It also promotes Omani literature and has printed an
encyclopaedia of Omani heritage. The annual Muscat International Book
Fair promotes books from throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Just as attempts have been made to preserve much of traditional
society in the midst of development, traditional elements of
architecture have been incorporated into new buildings; the result is
that Oman’s cities feel at once contemporary and ancient. The country’s
restored forts and castles, the subject of several documentary films,
are among the most important historic sites in Oman. Architecturally,
particularly significant structures include a series of forts guarding
Muscat’s harbour and several strategic strongholds guarding the
interior, most of which date to the 17th century. The most noteworthy of
these is Bahlā Fort, a stone and mud-brick edifice that dates to the
pre-Islamic era and was designated a World Heritage site in 1987. Other
sites in Oman enjoying this distinction are the prehistoric settlements
at Bāt, Al-Khutm, and Al-ʿAyn (1988); the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (1994);
and the Frankincense Trail (2000), which consists of a series of stops
along the ancient trade route.
Oman Museum (founded 1974), located outside Muscat, is the country’s
foremost cultural repository; it chronicles the country’s history and
includes exhibits on Islam. The history of the Omani army is the focus
of the Armed Forces Museum (1988). Other institutions include the
National Museum (1978), Natural History Museum (1983), Children’s Museum
(1990), and Bait Nadir, a converted 18th-century residence that now
houses Omani art and traditional items, including jewelry, silverware,
pottery, and woodcarvings. The Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra was formed
in the late 1980s and has performed with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra;
it is one of the few national orchestras in the Middle East.
Sports and recreation
Dhow racing is a popular traditional sport, as is camel racing.
Bedouin still train most of the camels used for the races, which take
place on racetracks and on makeshift courses in the open desert. Arabian
horses have long been bred in the country, and racing is a popular
spectator sport. Falconry is practiced by the wealthy elite. More-modern
activities include sandsurfing and waterskiing; football (soccer) and
rugby are also widely played. Oman made its first Olympic appearance at
the 1984 Summer Games, but the country has not competed at the Winter
Games. Omani athletes also participate in the quadrennial Asian Games.
Media and publishing
In addition to state-run newspapers, several independent Arabic- and
English-language newspapers are published on a daily and weekly basis.
Although the government guarantees freedom of the press, it has the
right to censor all domestic and imported publications that it considers
politically or culturally offensive. The television station is
state-run, and radio stations broadcast in both Arabic and English.
Jill Ann Crystal
This discussion focuses on Oman since the 18th century. For a
treatment of earlier periods and of the country in its regional context,
see Arabia, history of.
The early period
Three principal themes highlight the history of Oman: the tribal
nature of its society, the traditional Ibāḍī imamate form of government,
and its maritime tradition. Archaeological evidence of civilization in
Oman dates to about the 3rd millennium bc, but Persian colonization
prior to the 1st century ad established the falaj irrigation system,
which has since sustained Omani agriculture and civilization.
The history of the Dhofar region followed a separate path. Ancient
South Arabian kingdoms controlled the production of frankincense there
from the 1st century ad. The province thus remained culturally and
politically linked to South Arabia until it was absorbed into the Āl Bū
Saʿīd state in the 19th century.
The Omani tribal system
The origins of the Omani tribal system can be traced to the
immigration of Arab groups from South Arabia into the Jaʿlān region
during the 2nd century ad. These groups subsequently moved northward
into the Persian-controlled area of Māzūn in Oman, where they confronted
other tribes from the northwest. Arab dominance over the country began
with the introduction of Islam in the 7th century.
The Ibāḍī imamate
The Ibāḍī imamate, which arrived in the mid-8th century, unified
Oman politically. The country’s mountains and geographic isolation
provided a refuge for the Ibāḍīs (Ibāḍiyyah), who proceeded to convert
the leading tribal clans to their sect. The new Ibāḍī state was headed
by an elected imam who served as both temporal and religious leader of
the community. The selection of a new imam was determined by an
agreement made among the religious leaders and the heads of the major
groups, particularly the leaders of the two major tribal confederations
that came to be known as the Ghāfirīs and the Hināwīs.
A recurring pattern began to develop during the decline of the First
Imamate, which reached its heyday in the 9th century. Elected imams
tended to give way to hereditary dynasties, which then collapsed as a
result of family disputes and the resurgence of Ibāḍī ideals.
The maritime tradition
Maritime trade also contributed to dynastic decline. Virtually
cut off from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula by vast deserts, Omani
sailors traveled the waters of the Indian Ocean and ranged as far as
China by the 15th century. This maritime tendency was strongest when
tribal dynasties moved their capitals from the Ibāḍī interior to the
coast and focused their attention on acquiring territory elsewhere in
the Gulf of Oman, along the Arabian Sea, and on the coast of East
Oman since c. 1500
Portuguese and Persian invasions
En route to India, the Portuguese sacked Muscat in 1507 and soon
controlled the entire coast. More than a century later the Yaʿrubid
dynasty drove the Portuguese from the Omani coast, recapturing Muscat in
1650 and then occupying Portuguese settlements in the Persian Gulf and
East African coastal regions. Their empire eventually crumbled in a
civil war over the succession of the imam in the early 18th century,
enabling the Persian ruler Nādir Shāh to invade the country in 1737.
Restoration of Omani rule
Aḥmad ibn Saʿīd, the governor of Ṣuḥār, drove out the Persian
invaders and was elected imam in 1749, thus establishing the Āl Bū Saʿīd
dynasty that still rules Oman today. Under the rule of his grandson,
Saʿīd ibn Sulṭān (1806/07–56), Oman reasserted control over Zanzibar,
but upon his death the Āl Bū Saʿīd empire was split between two sons:
one received Zanzibar, which remained under Āl Bū Saʿīd rule until 1964,
and the other ruled Oman.
The fortunes of the Āl Bū Saʿīd state in Oman declined throughout the
second half of the 19th century. However, the dynasty remained in power
with the help of the British, who supported the Āl Bū Saʿīd sultans in
Muscat against periodic revivals of the Ibāḍī imamate in the interior.
Periodic civil unrest
Tribal attacks in the name of the imam were made on Muscat and
Maṭraḥ in 1895 and 1915. In 1920 the Agreement of Al-Sīb was negotiated
by the British between the tribal leaders and Sultan Taymūr ibn Fayṣal,
who reigned in 1913–32. By its terms, the sultan recognized the autonomy
but not the sovereignty of the Omani interior.
The interior remained autonomous until 1954, when Muḥammad
al-Khalīlī, who had ruled as imam since 1920, died. His weak successor,
Ghālib, was influenced by his brother Ṭālib and by a prominent tribal
leader, Sulaymān ibn Ḥimyār; the three set out to create an independent
state, enlisting Saudi Arabia’s support against Sultan Saʿīd ibn Taymūr.
Clashes between the sultan’s forces and those of the imam continued
throughout the 1950s. The authority of the sultan was subsequently
restored after a regiment led by British officers moved into the Omani
interior and suppressed an imamate rebellion. Remnants of the imamate’s
supporters, however, held strongholds in the Mount Al-Akhḍar massif of
the Western Ḥajar until they were forced to surrender in early 1959.
In the early 1960s another threat to the sultanate emerged in the
Dhofar region. Sultan Saʿīd ibn Taymūr had moved to Ṣalālah permanently
in 1958. The mountain jibālīs began to rebel openly against Sultan
Saʿīd’s oppressive practices. The Marxist Popular Front for the
Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf (later called the Popular Front for
the Liberation of Oman; PFLO) gained control of the growing rebellion by
the late 1960s with the aid of the People’s Republic of China, the
Soviet Union, Marxist South Yemen (which had achieved independence from
the British in late 1967), and Iraq.
The Dhofar rebellion led to a palace coup on July 23, 1970, when
Sultan Saʿīd was overthrown by his son, Qaboos bin Said (Qābūs ibn
Saʿīd). Qaboos, who had been trained in Britain at the Royal Military
Academy in Sandhurst, quickly reversed his father’s policy of isolation
and began to develop and modernize Oman. Sultan Qaboos appointed the
country’s first official cabinet and took steps toward building a modern
government structure. Qaboos served as prime minister after his uncle,
Ṭāriq ibn Taymūr, resigned the position, and he also held the post of
minister of defense and foreign affairs. At the same time, the rebellion
in Dhofar continued. With British personnel and equipment, Jordanian and
Iranian troops, and financial assistance from the United Arab Emirates
and Saudi Arabia, the rebellion was finally crushed in December 1975.
Oman joined the Arab League and the United Nations in 1971, but it
did not become a member of OPEC or the smaller Organization of Arab
Petroleum Exporting Countries. Oman was one of six founding members of
the Gulf Cooperation Council, established in 1981 to promote economic,
political, and security cooperation among its members. It has been
closely linked to Britain since the early 19th century, and relations
with the United States, established in 1833 by a treaty of friendship,
have grown closer since the 1970s. After Oman joined the World Trade
Organization in 2000, it made greater efforts to liberalize its markets
and improve its standing in the global economy.
Oman’s location has made the country pivotal in maintaining the
security of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. Oman attempted to
maintain neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), although the
sultanate permitted Western military units to use its facilities after
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and an Omani regiment participated in
the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). Border agreements were signed with Saudi
Arabia in 1990 and with Yemen in 1992; in addition, an agreement was
reached on unsettled parts of the boundary with the United Arab Emirates
Jill Ann Crystal