Oman: The “Other” Arabic Country

By Jay Holmes

The country of Oman is situated in a rough neighborhood in the northeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. On the north side of the gulf and across the straits of Hormuz, this Islamic nation of three million people has the troublesome and aggressive Iranian Mullahs to contend with. To the south, they share a border with the wild and untamed regions of Yemen. To the west Oman shares a border with their wealthy Saudi neighbors, and with the usually calm United Arab Emirates.

By the standards of the region Oman is a calm and happy place to live, something we can seldom say about that oil rich, civility poor region. To understand a little about why Oman is not living up to the standards of mayhem and human suffering that most observers take for granted in that part of the world, it’s worth taking a glance at Oman’ history.

6,000 BC: Fire pit evidence indicates that people have arrived in Oman and stayed long enough to make a fire and eat a meal.

5,000 BC: Non-nomads build fishing villages on the coast of Oman.

4,500 BC: Pottery is produced in Oman.

2,500 BC: Omani miners smelt copper, and Omani merchants set up trade with Mesopotamian trade ships. Copper is worth stealing. Concurrent with copper production and trade, large fortress construction starts in Oman to protect both mining and coastal areas. The rumor is that Black Water Security Company offered their services to the Omanis. Wisely, the Omanis declined.

2,500 BC to 1,300 BC: Oman continues to export copper and increases its boat making and seafaring skills as their neighbors evolve imperial domains such as Samaria and Ur. The increased sea trade to and from the Arabian Gulf benefits Oman.

1,300 BC: Oman enters its iron age. Trade and wealth increase at a slow but consistent rate.

1,000 BC: Oman builds extensive irrigation ditches and, in doing so, becomes more “urban” as villages can support higher populations and develop more specialized skills. The irrigation technology may have been obtained from Persian immigrants. Oman began to produce incense in commercial quantities for export.

300 BC: Wealth continues to accumulate in Oman. A classical period begins and sees an increase in commerce and art.

150 BC: Triliths are produced with inscriptions that remain undeciphered. The three stone structures are built in the interior of Oman in the frankincense producing areas.

700 AD: Bedouin Arabs enter Oman in greater number and bring Islam. Omani scholar Jabir ibn Zayd al-Azid develops a moderate form of Islam known as “Ibadiyah.” That sect of Islam remains popular today in Oman. The Ibadiyah Muslims decide that while the Imam enjoys a high degree of control over the people, the people may vote to elect the Imam of their choice. The followers are entitled to impeach an Imam any time they decide to by simply voting to do so. This is a notion that remains repulsive to modern day Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, Shia’ Junta members in Iran, Taliban thugs in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda leaders, and despots of any flavor throughout the world. This great scholar died in 711 AD, but his birth date is unknown. Thank you Jabir ibn Zayd al-Azid. Your influence is still felt today in Oman and in the Gulf.

1500 AD: Portugal becomes interested in the gulf region and seeks to control trade throughout the area. Portugal uses amphibious tactics to attack, sack, and on occasionally capture various ports in southern Arabia and in eastern Africa.

1508 AD: Afonso d’Albuquerque conquers the critical port city of Muscat on the coast of Oman.

1518 AD: In a well executed campaign, Afonso captures Hormuz and throttles non-Portuguese trade through the Gulf of Arabia.

1650 AD: The Iberian Empire is busy throughout the world and is unable to reinforce Portuguese forces in Oman. They are evicted, but they do not all leave. Many Omanis had established cordial relations with the Portuguese, and some of their descendants remain today as a distinct ethnic group in Oman. They are allowed to practice Christianity unmolested by the Islamic majority.

1700: The Omani Sultanate is powerful enough to extend its reach and builds a large fort on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. Oman becomes a major slave trading area. Oman builds two distinct cultures. The inland Omanis are more conservative and isolationist, but continue to practice moderate Islam. The coastal Omanis develop a more international view and a more international culture. The differences in culture cause strife at times. Oman gains a three hundred square mile colony in the Gwadar Peninsula in what is now modern day Pakistan. Gwadar prospers due to pearl diving and a particularly lucrative slave trade that sends Persian and central Asian women to Arabia for high prices.

1815: When Britain tires of Wahabi Arab pirates taking British east India company ships. Oman and Egypt side with the British and conduct a successful campaign against the Wahabi pirates.

1834: Oman has strong, friendly ties with the United States of America as well as Great Britain. President Andrew Jackson has special silver dollars minted for the Sultan of Oman.

1840: The Sultan of Oman moves his seat of government to Old Fort in Zanzibar.

During the remainder of the 19th century questions of dynastic succession and competition between Imams in the interior of Oman keep Oman busy and detract from trade profits.

1907: Great Britain heavily influences Omani politics and forces Oman to end the practice of slavery. In the early decades of the 1900s, more conservative interior Omanis gain a degree of autonomy from the less conservative government.

1954: A new Imam comes to power in the interior of Oman and attempts to reject the central control of the Omani government. With the help of the British, the central government defeats the Imam in 1957. In particular, the British Special Air Service made tremendous contributions in dealing with the rebels in the dry mountains of the interior. The Saudi government had clandestinely supported the rebels and continued to do so after their defeat. The Saudis and other Arab states did not abandon the unprofitable effort until the 1980s. Oman will likely not forget the Saudi support for the Islamic rebels for a long time.

1964: Soviet-backed rebels operating out of South Yemen attempt to generate a communist rebellion in Oman. The communist rebels prove to be more adept at controlling their Soviet controllers than the controllers are at controlling their insurgents. The rebellion eventually dies in 1975.

1965: Oil is discovered in Oman.

1967: Oil production begins.

1970: Qaboos bin Said Al Said conducted a bloodless coup against his father Sais Bin Tayad. Qaboos was educated in India and England. He is a graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy and, unlike Moammar Gadhafi, the Academy staff remembers him attending and graduating. He served in the British Army in a Scottish regiment and was posted to Germany for a year. After leaving the British army he continued his studies in England and traveled widely. Qaboos introduces liberal reforms and forms a council to be elected by business leaders and prominent citizens.

1979: Oman is the only government of an Islamic majority nation that recognizes Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel.

1984: Oman joins the new Gulf Cooperation Council, along with the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The forming of the council is symbolic of the Gulf States deciding to bury their differences in favor of a united defense against Iranian military threats.

1986: First university opens in Oman. Emphasis is placed on science and on training teachers and nurses.

1990:  Sultan Qaboos announces a modern constitution which includes basic human rights for its citizens.

1996: A Census indicates a population of about two million.

2000: Approximately 100,000 Omanis are allowed to participate in the selection of an 83-member council that will act as a “lower house” in a bicameral central government. Two women are elected. The Sultan selects the 48-member “upper house” and includes five women in the council.

2005: An Omani court convicts 31 Islamic radicals of attempting a coup.

The history of Oman has resulted in a country that, while surrounded by”anti-democratic” governments and xenophobic cultures, has remained open to outsiders. Oman keeps cordial communications with Iran, and when Western governments wish to speak to the Iranian religious junta, they often do so through Omani diplomats. Western travelers rarely encounter trouble in Oman. Islamic radicals are a small, shrinking minority in Oman and are not well tolerated by the majority of the people or by the government. Oman makes no effort to stop anyone from practicing any religion in Oman. The minority Hindus and Catholics mix socially and professionally with their Islamic neighbors with no sign of segregation or hostilities.

Oman is a country that is trying to survive its radical neighbors while preparing itself for the loss of oil revenues that will occur in this decade. It is diversifying its economy. A major natural gas processing plant and port facility is being constructed with the help of British and American engineers. Since Sultan Qaboos came to power, education has grown rapidly and literacy is at 82% and rising. Compared to Detroit these folks are Ivy League elitists.

Neither the government nor the people of Oman have any interest in Islamic radicalism or any other fad in despotism. Their trend over the last century has been toward democracy. Oman still has problems with unemployment, but recent protests have been very small, involving less than two hundred protesters. At least one protester was killed by a rubber bullet that struck him in the head.  Qaboos responded by agreeing to more reforms and more jobs. The protesters in Oman seem to be too few in number, and they do not appear to have any popular support.

I remain hopeful about the future of Oman. Any questions?


9 comments on “Oman: The “Other” Arabic Country

  1. I love this post (and I learned a lot).

    When I lived in Bahrain in the latter 1990s, I enjoyed a two-week vacation in Oman. The Omanis I met were lovely. They have a beautiful balance between maintaining their culture and adopting modern amenities. It does not scream “new wealth” as much as other Gulf countries do.

    The scenery is also breathtaking. From sand dunes to wadis (oases) to a gorgeous coastline.

    Okay, I’m sounding like a tourist brochure here. But it is the gulf country I recommend visiting the most.

    Thanks for the info and for sending me back in time.

  2. JH says:

    There is nothing like “boots on the ground” experience to get a feel for a country. Even if you were wearing sandals it still works. Open-minded tourists are often able to get a better feel for the mood of the country than diplomats, military advisors, or business travelers can. Thank you for your insight.

  3. EllieAnn says:

    This is great, I learned a lot. You really can make history come alive! I was especially glad for the description of the Gulf Cooporation, as I had been confused about what it was.
    Are there less foreigners getting oil jobs there, since there is a good university? That’d be good for the country, if the people are getting the high paying jobs there.

    • Piper Bayard says:


      “Are there less foreigners getting oil jobs there, since there is a good university?” That is a great question EllieAnn.

      The short, simple answer is no. The new universities in Oman have succeeded in creating skilled professionals. The Omani government has worked to encourage local employment. In 2008, a law was created to require hiring of Omanis in businesses such as retail companies and import and export companies for their Omani operations.
      Oman is anxious to reserve it’s “white collar” and “gray collar” jobs for Omanis, but it is less keen on reducing it’s dependence on cheap, foreign laborers. Oman is debating to what degree they will be able to replace workers from poorer countries in Asia and Africa with local laborers. Construction work in Oman uses low wage foreigners to do the “heavy lifting” and low safety standards are the rule of the day for these foreign workers. In their oil industry, the labor-intensive jobs are also filled by foreign workers from the same global labor pools. In their oil industry, the safety records are poor and the wages are very low. This is typical of oil exporting nations.

      For Oman to succeed in exporting it’s natural gas reserves and to succeed in becoming a trans-shipment hub for natural gas from the region, it will require a temporary increase in foreign engineers and technicians.

      Overall Oman is consciously reducing it’s dependence on skilled foreign workers. At the same time, Omani leaders can see the advantages in reducing intellectual incest by continuing to recruit foreign professors, doctors, and engineers.
      According to the 2010 Omani census, the population of foreign workers in Oman has grown from 24% to 27% since 2003. This is not all bad for Oman because the growth in foreign workers is because of infrastructure growth and development in Oman. The employment rate for adults of working age in Oman has climbed to 85%. This is slightly better than the employment rate of the United States. Unlike the United States Labor department, Oman measures actual employment as opposed to “unemployment.” In the US we are fond of announcing “unemployment” rates that are measured by unemployment insurance claims. Once an unemployed person runs out of benefits, we pretend he is happily employed.

      After wading through reams of economic data and reports on Oman this past month, it is clear to me that their employment rate and their average household income would both be much lower without their university system.

  4. EllieAnn says:

    I see!
    I read about the cheap physical labor (basically slaves) in Dubai and it was terrible how the workers were lied to to get them to sign contracts, then continually abused.
    But I guess most amazing sites have been built on the backs of slaves.
    Thanks for the info, I love this stuff!

  5. […] of an issue in Oman. I came across this blog when I was posting yesterday’s piece on Oman by Holmes, and I found it to be a fascinating window into a world I know nothing about. How To […]

  6. This country seems awesome! We should have more examples like this. Even U.S. can learn a thing or two from Oman.

  7. John says:

    The protests weren’t as small as you claim. There were thousands of people at a few of them. With an Omani population of around 2 million that’s not an irrelevant number. Also, there does seem to be support for the grievances espoused at the protests. Lastly, with corruption in government and the concentration of money in the hands of a few small families it does not seem likely that Oman will remain without problems unless there is significant government and economic reform.

  8. J H says:

    Hello John,

    “The protests weren’t as small as you claim.” I did not attend the protests and I did not offer a specific objective estimate. I have heard estimates that vary. Compared to other protests going on in the region at the same time I rate them as small.

    The King of Oman did respond favorably to the protestors. The government has since implemented modest unemployment payments to help the unemployed. I am sure that Oman is far from perfect. The article was in the context of the region. By regional standards, Oman is an island of sanity and hope in sea of Mayhem.

    I have no personal motivation for defending the King of Oman. It is simply my opinion that he has done a much better job than most of the region’s leaders.

    If you feel that I have done a poor job of describing Oman, you are welcome to add your views. In particular, if you are from Oman, please do share with our readers your first hand experiences and your informed views. I welcome your information.

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