INTRODUCTION OF OMAN
Oman, nation occupying the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula (see Arabia). Oman is a desert country in which high mountain peaks gaze down on dazzling white sand beaches. It is the principal home of the Ibadis, a minority Islamic sect distinct from both Sunni and Shia Islam (see Islam). For centuries a hub of Indian Ocean trade, Oman was an imperial power from the 17th through the 19th century. Oman is ruled by a monarch called a sultan, and the country’s official name is the Sultanate of Oman.
Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) border Oman to the west. The Arabian Sea (part of the Indian Ocean) lies to the east and the Gulf of Oman to the north. Its northernmost extension, on the Musandam Peninsula (separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE), overlooks the Strait of Hormuz and has a few miles of Persian Gulf coastline. Masqaţ, also known as Muscat, is the capital of Oman and the center of the country’s largest metropolitan area.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF OMAN
Oman is a desert country that covers an area of about 309,500 sq km (about 119,500 sq mi). There are no rivers or permanent lakes in Oman, but there are numerous oases which, together with wells, provide drinking water. Its borders with its neighbors, running mostly through barren desert, were the subjects of border disputes until the 1990s. Agreements were reached with Saudi Arabia in 1990, with Yemen in 1992, and with the UAE in 1993. The borders with Yemen and Saudi Arabia were demarcated in 1995; the border with the UAE awaits final demarcation.
Natural Regions in Oman
Oman has five distinct geographical regions. In the north, the Al Bāţinah coastal plain along the Gulf of Oman coast is about 10 km (about 6 mi) wide and about 270 km (about 170 mi) long. It is the country’s main agricultural area and the location of the capital city.
Just west of the Al Bāţinah plain rise the Al Ḩajar Mountains. The mountains extend about 700 km (about 400 mi) from the Strait of Hormuz to Ra’s al Ḩadd, the easternmost point of Oman. The range is divided into the Al Ḩajar al Gharbī (Western Ḩajar) and the Al Ḩajar ash Sharqī (Eastern Ḩajar) by a major valley, the Samī’il Gap. The country’s highest elevation is at Jabal ash Sham, which reaches 3,035 m (9,957 ft) above sea level.
Inner Oman extends from the Al Ḩajar Mountains into the Rub‘ al Khali (Empty Quarter), the great sand desert of southern Arabia. Inner Oman contains a number of oases.
South of Inner Oman is Central Oman, a large, generally barren area. Off the coast of Central Oman is a large island called Maşīrah.
Lastly, between Inner Oman and the border with Yemen is a distinctive area called Dhofar. Dhofar includes a desert interior, rugged mountains made verdant by monsoon rains, and a coastal plain about 50 km (about 30 mi) long and 16 km (10 mi) wide. The small Kuria Muria Islands lie off the coast of Dhofar.
Climate in Oman
Summers are extremely hot, with coastal temperatures reaching 46°C (115°F) and those in the interior even higher. The winters are quite warm; the average annual temperature in Masqaţ is 29°C (84°F). The climate of the coastal plain and mountains of Dhofar is moderated by the monsoons that deposit about 760 mm (about 30 in) of rain annually on the south side of the mountains and about 150 mm (about 6 in) along the coast. Parts of the Al Ḩajar Mountains receive up to 460 mm (18 in), while Masqaţ receives less than 100 mm (4 in). Flash floods can occur when sudden, heavy rains run off the mountains and down the wadis, or valleys. In Oman’s interior, summer winds cause large sandstorms and periodic droughts occur. In the south monsoon winds can endanger shipping.
Plant and Animal Life in Oman
Despite its general aridity, Oman is home to a variety of plants and animals. Grasses, shrubs, and hardy trees such as the acacia grow naturally. Grapes and apricots are grown on the slopes of the Al Ḩajar Mountains. Coconut palms grow on the south side of the mountains in Dhofar and frankincense trees on the north. There are no truly fertile agricultural soils; the best are the alluvial soils washed down from the mountains, both in the interior and along the coast. Wildlife includes several hundred species of birds, lizards, snakes, and scorpions. Rare animal and plant species are protected in nature reserves and protected coastal areas.
Natural Resources of Oman
Oman’s most important mineral resource is petroleum, although its reserves are modest compared to those of neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It also has significant natural gas reserves. In addition, there are modest deposits of copper, gold, chromite, manganese, asbestos, coal, and limestone.
Environmental Issues in Oman
Water is a scarce resource in Oman, although water use is not as intensive as in neighboring countries. Saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers has occurred in some instances. Oman’s reliance on the oil industry brings with it cases of ocean and coastal pollution.
PEOPLE AND SOCIETY OF OMAN
Oman is less urbanized than most other Arabian countries—only 77 percent of Omanis live in cities and towns. While most of the rest are settled in villages, a few Bedouins still practice their nomadic ways.
In 2009 Oman had an estimated population of 3,418,085, giving it an average density of 16 persons per sq km (42 per sq mi). The Omani population has grown steadily, doubling between 1960 and 1980, and again between 1980 and 1998. In 2009 the growth rate was a relatively high 3.1 percent. Consequently, Oman has a very young population: In 2009, 43 percent of Omanis were under the age of 15.
Principal Cities of Oman
Much of Oman’s urban population resides in the greater capital area, which includes Masqaţ, the capital; Maţtraḩ, a major port; and Ruwī, the commercial hub of Oman. The new port of Mīnā’ Qaboos is also in this metropolitan area, as is Mīnā’ al Faḩl, a loading terminal for oil supertankers. Other important cities include Nizwá, the historic seat of the Ibadi imamate (Muslim community headed by an imam) in interior Oman; Şūr, an important fishing port located south of Masqaţ, and Şalālah, the largest city and principal port of Dhofar.
Ethnic Groups in Oman
Omani Arabs account for 75 percent of the population and include many distinctive minority tribes, such as the Shihuh in the far north and the Jibalis of Dhofar in the south. Indians and Pakistanis make up most of the non-Omani population.
Language and Religion in Oman
Arabic is the official language of Oman. English is widely spoken, as are Asian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, and Baluchi. Islam is the official religion, although other religions are tolerated under the country’s Basic Law (constitution). Muslims make up 88 percent of the population. Most of the Muslims are Ibadis, a minority sect dating from the 8th century, and the remainder adhere to Sunni Islam or Shia Islam. Hindus account for 6 percent of the population, and Christians 5 percent.
Education in Oman
Education is free for Omani citizens through the university level. In 1970 only 3 percent of all elementary school-age children were in school. By 2006 this figure was up to 74.1 percent, and enrollment in secondary schools was 80 percent. Sultan Qaboos University in Al Khawd, opened in 1986, is the largest institution of higher learning in Oman. Oman also has a number of teacher-training colleges, vocational institutes, technical institutes, and Islamic colleges. In 2007, 84 percent of the population was literate, up from 20 percent in 1970.
Way of Life in Oman
In spite of Oman’s rapid modernization, its way of life remains largely traditional and in accordance with conservative Islamic values. With a strong commercial tradition, accumulation of wealth is viewed positively, although the great majority of Omanis were extremely poor until the discovery of oil in the 1960s. The extended family is the basic social unit, headed by its eldest male member. Marriages are arranged, if possible between first cousins but always within the same ethnic and social group. While the sexes are traditionally segregated outside the home, some men and women now work together in private and government offices. Women have entered the professions and now serve on both the police force and the national Consultative Council.
Both men and women wear distinctive clothing. Standard male attire is the dishdasha, an ankle-length, usually white robe, worn with either an embroidered skullcap or a turban. Women commonly wear colorful dishdashas with ankle-length trousers underneath.
Most Omanis live in modern houses and apartments, but traditional dwellings, made of mud brick or stone, are still found. Omani houses are built around open courtyards. Along the Al Bāţinah coast barasti dwellings are made of palm fronds.
The Omani diet includes fish, sheep, goat, rice, and dates. As in all Arab societies, coffee is both an important beverage and the focus of everyday social interaction. Storytelling is a traditional recreational activity. Soccer, a recently adopted form of recreation, has become very popular.
Due to the diversity of Oman’s population, there are considerable differences in basic aspects of culture and everyday life. For example, the seminomadic Shihuh of the isolated Musandam Peninsula speak dialects that are unintelligible to other Omanis, and the large urban Indian community has its own distinctive cuisine and dress.
Culture of Oman
Oman is noted for traditional craftsmanship in such areas as shipbuilding and metalworking. Omani craftspeople produce fine silver jewelry as well as handsome ornamental daggers called khanjars, which are part of the well-dressed Omani male’s wardrobe. Traditional architecture reflects Persian and Indian influences. While there is a strong tradition of popular literature and dance, the conservative Ibadi interpretation of Islam has limited musical expression.
As in other Islamic countries, the two most important festivals, called Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, mark the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting) and the conclusion of the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) on the Islamic calendar. National Day, November 18, celebrates the birthday of Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
The National Museum in Ruwī has collections of Omani arts, crafts, and architecture. In Masqaţ are the Oman Natural History Museum and, in an old fort, the sultan’s Armed Forces Museum.
ECONOMY OF OMAN
Before the discovery and exploitation of oil and natural gas in the mid-1960s, Oman’s economy consisted mostly of agriculture, fishing, and traditional crafts such as shipbuilding. Today, while Oman’s economy maintains a largely traditional sector based on agriculture, it also has a rapidly growing modern sector based on oil. In 2004 Oman’s gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the total value of goods and services produced, was $24 billion. The government controls the oil and gas sector and therefore dominates the economy.
To counter unemployment, the government has encouraged job growth in the private sector and the replacement of foreign workers with Omanis. In 2007 the total labor force was 968,782, but as many as two-thirds of the laborers were non-Omanis.
Mining in Oman
Although modest in comparison to other Persian Gulf nations, Oman’s production of oil and natural gas accounts for 95 percent of the value of all exports. Oman’s oil production (299 million barrels in 2004) is depleting proven reserves by some 6 percent a year. Oman also has large natural gas reserves that it has begun to exploit.
Services in Oman
Oman’s services contribute about 42 percent of the country’s GDP. Private service industries such as trade services, restaurants, and hotels have come to rival government services, such as health care, utilities, and administration. Tourism is being promoted in an attempt to diversify Oman’s oil-dependent economy. The government plans the careful and steady development of the tourist industry by preserving cultural and archaeological sites. Tourism is focused on the Masqaţ area and historic interior sites such as the 17th-century Ibadi fort at Nizwá.
Manufacturing in Oman
Almost nonexistent in 1980, manufacturing industries have been encouraged and now contribute 8 percent of Oman’s GDP. Important manufactured products include fertilizers, copper cathodes, textiles, and cement.
Agriculture and Fishing in Oman
Agriculture in Oman is largely at the subsistence level, and contributes only 2 percent of GDP. Oman’s largest cash crop is dates, which account for about half of all agricultural production. Other major crops are tomatoes, bananas, and melons. Goats are the main livestock animal, and sheep, camels, and cattle are also raised. Some of the richest fishing grounds in the world are off the coast of Oman, with sardines and tuna the principal catches.
Energy in Oman
All of Oman’s electric power is generated from domestic oil- and gas-burning plants. Although Oman’s oil reserves will be exhausted in the near future, natural gas reserves are being increasingly tapped as a domestic energy source.
Transportation in Oman
Oman’s road network is well developed, especially along the Gulf of Oman coast, where a highway connects Masqaţ with Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Another major highway connects northern Oman and Salālah in Dhofar. Increasing numbers of Omanis get around by car. There are two modern deep-water ports and an oil terminal for supertankers. Seeb International Airport is located on the outskirts of Masqaţ. Oman operates Gulf Air with the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain and the UAE emirate of Abu Dhabi. There is domestic air service between the major cities as well as intercity bus service.
Communications in Oman
Oman has a number of locally operated radio and television stations with service throughout the country. Several daily newspapers and other periodicals are published. News reporting is subject to government censorship. There are 103 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 residents.
Foreign Trade in Oman
In 2007 Omani exports totaled $22.1 billion while imports amounted to $14.6 billion. Although other exports are being promoted, including metals and food products, petroleum dominates Oman’s export sector. The main imports are machinery, transportation equipment, basic manufactures, and food products. The major destinations of Oman’s exports are Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, and Singapore; the leading sources of imports are the UAE, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany. Oman is a member of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It does not belong to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) but generally observes oil prices and production levels set by that organization. Membership in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf facilitates trade and investment with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE.
Currency and Banking of Oman
The basic unit of currency in Oman is the rial Omani (0.40 rial equals U.S.$1; fixed rate). It is divided into 1,000 baiza. The bank of issue is the Central Bank of Oman (founded in 1975). The rial is the only currency circulated, although in some rural areas transactions occur outside the cash economy.
GOVERNMENT OF OMAN
Political authority in Oman emanates from the sultan, Qaboos bin Said, although Qaboos has progressively modernized and liberalized the government since coming to power in 1970. As sultan, Qaboos is head of state, prime minister, and minister of foreign affairs, defense, and finance. His cabinet, the Council of Ministers, carries out the administrative and legal functions of government. While each minister has significant discretionary power in day-to-day policy, Qaboos approves all important decisions. In 1981 he established a Consultative Assembly, whose members he selected, to advise him on social, economic, and educational policy. In 1991 Qaboos replaced the assembly with a Consultative Council, a body intended to give wider participation to Omani citizens.
In November 1996 a Basic Law, in effect a constitution, was proclaimed to regulate several important areas of governance. It created an overarching advisory body called the Council of Oman, consisting of the Consultative Council and a new upper chamber called the Council of State. The 57 members of the Council of State are appointed by the sultan; the 83 members of the Consultative Council are elected to three-year terms. In the first Consultative Council elections, in 1997, only about 25 percent of Omanis, a handpicked elite, were allowed to vote. In 2003 elections, however, all Omani adults were allowed to participate. Even though it is still an advisory, not a legislative body, the Council of Oman has significant responsibilities. It reviews all social and economic laws, helps to draw up and carry out development plans, and proposes ways to improve public services. The Basic Law also outlines a process for choosing a successor to Qaboos, who has no heir; forbids government ministers from holding positions in private companies, in an attempt to separate political and economic power; and affirms the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
Judiciary in Oman
There is no formal judicial branch of government in Oman. The Sharia, or Islamic law, complemented by elements of Omani tribal law and English common law, is applied in each district by the wali (governor) and a qadi (judge). The sultan, who acts as a final court of appeal, appoints the governors and judges. In conjunction with the Basic Law, the sultan called for the formation of a Supreme Court and other courts to interpret the law. The sultan planned to continue appointing the judges, and reserved the right to intervene in judicial matters under certain conditions.
Local Government of Oman
Oman is divided into five regions and the governorates of Masqaţ, Musandam, and Dhofar. The regions and governorates are divided into wilayat, or districts, each with a governor and a local council.
Politics in Oman
Oman does not have any organized political groups. The ruling family, individual tribes, and merchant groups pursue informal political agendas. The influence of foreign advisers, many of them British, has recently diminished, as has the political power of the tribes. Because Sultan Qaboos has initiated the move toward wider citizen participation and providing generous benefits, there is little pressure for democratic reform.
Health and Welfare in Oman
Since 1970, when Sultan Qaboos came to power and launched Oman’s development, poverty has been largely eliminated and modern medical care has been provided throughout the country. Once-widespread diseases like trachoma, malaria, and cholera have either been eliminated or brought under control. Health-care facilities are limited in rural areas, however.
Defense of Oman
Oman’s military forces number 41,700 and include about 2,000 foreign personnel. The army has a manpower total of 25,000, the navy 4,200, and the air force 4,100. There is also a royal household force. Military service is voluntary and Oman’s defense forces are among the best trained and most professional in the Persian Gulf region.
International Organizations in Oman
Oman is a member of the United Nations (UN) and a number of specialized UN agencies. It also belongs to the Nonaligned Movement, a group that sought to establish political and military cooperation outside of the traditional East and West blocs during the Cold War period; and to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an organization that promotes solidarity among nations where Islam is an important religion. Its regional memberships include the Arab League and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.
HISTORY OF OMAN
Oman’s history begins in the early 3rd or late 4th millennium BC, with the rise of a society that had cultural and trade ties to ancient Mesopotamia. Between the 4th century BC and the 7th century AD the area was dominated by successive Persian empires (see Persia). In the 1st century AD Arab tribes began to migrate into Oman. When the new religion of Islam spread throughout the region in the 630s (see Spread of Islam), Persian rule ended and Oman’s Islamic Arab character was firmly established. In 751 Ibadi Muslims, a moderate branch of the Kharijites, established an imamate in Oman. Despite interruptions, the Ibadi imamate survived until the mid-20th century.
Contact with the Western world began when Portugal seized Masqaţ and other coastal strongholds in the early 16th century. Portuguese power waned after 1624, when a strong line of imams asserted itself, and Masqa was recaptured in 1650. The imamate then flourished again under the Ya‘aribah dynasty, which extended Omani rule or influence to both sides of the Persian Gulf and the East African coast.
A civil war ended Ya‘aribah rule in the mid-18th century and the current Al Bu Said dynasty emerged. The Al Bu Said rulers soon ceased to hold the title of imam and moved their capital from the traditional Ibadi seat at Nizwá to Masqaţ to concentrate on maritime commerce. At the beginning of the 19th century the rulers established a close relationship with the United Kingdom, granting the British exclusive trading rights in return for security from external threats.
Sayyid Sa‘īd ibn Sultan, sultan from 1806 to 1856, turned Oman’s attention to its East African coastal domains. In 1832 Sa‘īd moved the Omani capital to the African island of Zanzibar, which became the center of a thriving trade in slaves, ivory, and cloves. After Sa‘īd’s death in 1856, Zanzibar split away from Oman to become a separate sultanate. From 1856 on, what is now Oman was called the Sultanate of Masqaţ and Oman.
Preoccupation with maritime and overseas interests eventually lost the Al Bu Said the allegiance of the inland tribes, which in 1913 rebelled under the leadership of a newly elected imam. The 1920 Treaty of As Sīb gave formal recognition to the split that had developed between the sultanate in Masqaţ and the tribally based imamate in the interior. After years of uneasy relations, Omani sultan Said bin Taimur defeated the imamate in 1954 with British assistance. Said also thwarted a final effort to restore the imam in 1959.
Until 1970 Oman remained a medieval state harshly ruled by Said, who preferred to remain apart from the modern world and kept Oman totally isolated. In the 1960s Said’s failure to use new oil income for economic and social development created serious discontent throughout Oman. This led to a tribal rebellion in Dhofar that was absorbed and expanded by a radical leftist movement, called the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf (PFLOAG), that was under the influence of the new Marxist state of South Yemen.
Oman Under Sultan Qaboos
Members of the Omani government and senior British advisers removed Said from power in July 1970 and installed his son Qaboos bin Said as sultan. The country’s name was then changed from the Sultanate of Masqaţ and Oman to the Sultanate of Oman. Assisted by the United Kingdom, Iran (under the shah), and other countries, Qaboos ended the Dhofar rebellion with effective military and socioeconomic action. He pushed for the rapid development of transportation, communications, and other infrastructure throughout the country. Although he inherited nearly absolute power, Qaboos liberalized Oman’s government and became very popular with most Omanis. Women were allowed to vote in October 2003 elections to Oman’s Consultative Council, and two women were elected to council seats.
In foreign relations Qaboos pursued an independent course. He supported the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and entered into a security agreement with the United States in 1980, both times defying general international Arab opinion. He supported Iraq in its 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, but soon after the war he improved relations with Iran. Qaboos unsuccessfully tried to mediate the crisis that followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. He joined the coalition that was formed against Iraq and made Omani facilities available to both British and U.S. military forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Under Qaboos, Oman has supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and has tried to promote the normalization of Arab relations with Israel.