History of Oman

28 October 2013

Oman has been an important trading centre since the Bronze Age, when natural harbours on the east coast became way stations for sea traffic between the empires of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley

Called Magan in ancient times, the sultanate was also one of the Mesopotamians’ main sources of copper. Substantial deposits of metal ore in the northern Al-Batinah region are referred to in Sumerian tablets and today the area hosts several mining firms looking to revive the industry, which peaked in the early Islamic era. Sohar, the main industrial port in the north, is also home to one of the largest aluminium smelters in the Middle East.

The years since 1970 have witnessed the gradual integration and modernisation of Oman

As far back as 5,000 BC, the fertile southern region of Dhofar became fabled as a source of frankincense, one of the most precious commodities of the ancient world. The dried sap was traded for spices from Asia, carried west by merchant caravans, and continues to be harvested in the region to this day.

Much of Oman’s history can be explained by its geography. Isolated from the rest of Arabia by mountains and the great sand seas of the Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, coastal communities such as Muscat depended on maritime trade for centuries until the discovery of oil in 1964. The continuous movement of peoples between the main Omani mercantile outposts in Asia and east Africa has also led to it being one of the most culturally and racially diverse of the Gulf states.

Following the arrival of Islam, the Ibadi school came to dominate much of Omani society through the rule of hereditary and elected imams from the 9th century onwards. The Al-Bu Said dynasty, which came to power in 1749 after 12 years of Persian occupation, rules to this day.

Oman has endured several periods of foreign conquest, most notably by the Portuguese in their mission to secure bases in the Indian Ocean after successfully negotiating the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. For the next 150 years, Portuguese garrisons controlled most of the coastal settlements, before finally being driven out by a coalition of tribal forces from the interior and a revived Omani fleet.

The centuries that followed were Oman’s golden age. While accounts of the reach of the sultanate’s empire are often exaggerated, its rulers extended their influence to parts of what are now India and Pakistan, as well as to Zanzibar and Mombasa on the African coast. This period of prosperity peaked in the 19th century, when, after the death of Sultan Said bin Sultan, the dominions were split between separate rulers in Zanzibar and Oman. Cut off from its main sources of revenue, Muscat’s economy began to stagnate. Further pressure from the British empire to abandon its lucrative trade in arms and slaves pushed Oman into a long period of decline.

Long-standing tensions between the cosmopolitan coastal communities, governed by the sultan, and the desert interior, ruled by tribal imams, returned to the fore. A British-brokered pact in 1920 granted autonomy to the interior, but within a few decades a rising independence movement would culminate in clashes between imamite forces and those of the sultan. Sultan Said bin Taimur regained control of the interior in 1959, only to face a leftist insurgency from Dhofar, which broke out in 1965. The uprising would be quelled more than a decade later with military assistance from Iran, Jordan and the UK.

Despite the discovery of oil in the 1960s, by this point Oman had become one of the economic backwaters of the Arab world. Unlike its northern neighbours such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, the sultanate had resisted the encroachment of modern industries, infrastructure and western culture, and was suffering rising poverty and illiteracy rates. In June 1970, Sultan Said was replaced by his son, Sultan Qaboos, in a palace coup.

The years since have witnessed the gradual integration and modernisation of Oman, including the rolling out of welfare services, the development of industry, the expansion of road and electricity networks, and the extension of voting rights. While the country does not enjoy the concentrated wealth of its closest oil and gas-rich neighbours, living standards remain comparatively high for the broader region. Since the slump in oil production more than a decade ago, the government has put the onus on diversifying the economy away from the energy industry.

The recent Arab Uprisings that erupted in North Africa have left Oman relatively unscathed. Several groups of protesters took to the streets in February 2011 demanding jobs and political reform, while six online activists were jailed and fined in 2012. Sultan Qaboos pardoned 30 people including online activists and demonstrators in March 2013.

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