Oman is located in the Middle East on the Arabian Peninsula and has an area of 309,500 square kilometers (or 120,000 square miles). It borders the Arabian Sea, Oman Sea, the Persian Gulf and shares a border with the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Yemen, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has a desert climate, which leads to hot, dry conditions in the interior and a hot, humid climate along the coast. Temperatures in the interior of the country during the summer months can reach as high as 127°F. The southern Omani region of Dhofar experiences a monsoon season from May to September, which contributes to the cultivation of Dhofar’s fertile soil and verdant landscape. The capital city of Muscat is located along the northwestern coast of Oman between the Arabian Sea and the Hajar mountains. Muscat typically only sees about 10 cm, or 4 inches of rain between December and April, and receives almost no rainfall during the rest of the year. Oman has sandstorms and windstorms in the summer due to high winds and flat terrain. The country has very limited access to fresh water and has utilized desalination plants to help combat this problem.
Oman has encountered a string of environmental concerns in the past few years. Pollution from oil spills has hit some of Oman’s beaches and this could threaten the operation of some desalination facilities. In response, Oman has begun updating its 1995 National Oil Spill Contingency Plan. The increasing salinity of Oman’s soil is also of great concern for the sultanate. As the soil becomes more salty due to low rainfall and high temperatures near the coast, Oman’s agricultural sector is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. The Omani government participated in a research project at Sultan Qaboos University, “Management of Salt-Affected Soils and Water for Sustainable Agriculture.” This project helped assess the impact of soil salinity on Oman’s economy and aimed to develop management guidelines to help reverse the problem. The recommendations have not yet been fully implemented by the Omani government.
Oman has prospered over the last decades because of its strategic position on the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman and because of its progressive approach towards both the economy and politics under the modernizing and progressive leadership of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
The area constituted by the modern state of Oman has been inhabited in some capacity for many thousands of years. Some stone tools found in the region date as far back as 125,000 years. These tools resemble those created by ancient peoples in Africa, suggesting a possible migration from Africa to Oman. Oman has a particularly strong history with the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar which left a significant imprint on their mutual cultures and practices. Contact between the peoples has been traced back to the 6th century CE but commercial relationships began to flourish in the 10th century. Coastal Oman played an important role along the Persian Gulf trade routes, and from the 6th century BCE to the 7th century CE Oman changed hands between the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanid Persian dynasties.
The Portuguese arrived in Muscat in 1507 and controlled the city after facing strong resistance from the Omani population. In 1624, Imam Nasser bin Murshid assumed power, marking the start of the Ya’rubi rule. Sultan Murshid was able to reduce the Portuguese influence, but it was not until the succession of Imam Sultan bin Saif Al Ya’rubi in 1650 that Muscat was liberated. The Ya’rubi dynasty expanded during this time and the Portuguese completely left Omani territory in 1741.
In 1744, Imam Ahmed bin Said Al Busaidi married the daughter of the last Ya’rubi ruler, and started the dynasty that remains in power until today. The Al Busaid dynasty drove out all other competing groups and consolidated its hold on the region. This development established the basis of the modern Omani state and with each passing ruler, Oman grew as a nation.
The British came to Muscat through the British East India Company in 1800 and established the foundation for western influence in the Sultanate (McBriety and Al Zubair). British economical influence still continues today. During the 1800s through the early 1900s, the sultanate went through an economic decline due to the changing powers and foreign influences. In 1921, the British brokered the Treaty of Seeb to maintain peace between Sultan Taimur bin Feisal (1913-1932) and the Imam, along with various tribes granting partial autonomy for the interior regions of Oman. Despite this peace treaty, fighting would again break out between the imamate in the interior and the sultanate in Muscat in 1955 and 1957.
When Sultan Taimur bin Feisal died in 1932, his son Sultan Said bin Taimur ascended the throne. Sultan Said secured British recognition of Oman’s independence in 1951 and subsequently secured significant oil concessions with many other Western nations.
Despite the country’s new-found oil wealth, Sultan Said invested little into his country’s economy and infrastructure. On July 23, 1970, with the support of the British, Sultan Said’s son Qaboos deposed his father, declared himself Sultan and immediately began reversing his father’s isolationist policies by opening up relations with Arab and Western nations while investing oil dollars into the economy.
Among his many contributions to his country, Sultan Qaboos has focused on his relationship with his people, forming a strong bond between citizen and state. The Basic Law of the State (see below) was developed under the rule of Sultan Qaboos and its first Article declares, “The Sultanate of Oman is an independent, fully sovereign, Arab, Islamic state. Its capital is Muscat.” The document stipulates: “The system of government is Sultani (Royal), hereditary through male descendants of Sayyid Turki bin Said bin Sultan; it is that the one who is chosen as successor shall be a Muslim, judicious, of sound mind and a legitimate son of two Omani Muslim parents.”
The first major problem Sultan Qaboos faced upon ascending the throne was an ongoing communist insurgency in his home province of Dhofar. This insurgency was backed by militants crossing the border from the nearby conflict in South Yemen where a civil war had broken out after the British left South Yemen. The Dhofar Rebellion continued until late 1975 when the Omani army, which had welcomed the support of 4,000 Iranian soldiers, finally defeated the rebellion forces. Following the Dhofar Rebellion, Sultan Qaboos continued the country’s modernization program of building schools and highways, and invested in Oman’s education and healthcare development.
Sultan Qaboos has attempted to keep the country neutral in international conflicts. During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s, Oman maintained its diplomatic relations with Saddam Hussein while sending a contingent of soldiers to support the liberation of Kuwait. Oman has also maintained closer relations with Iran than other Gulf nations, due in part to Iran’s support for Oman in the Dhofar Rebellion and because Oman practices a unique form of Islam, Ibadism that has given it a reputation as a neutral country among its more sectarian-minded neighbors.
The state is organized into structures that consist of the sultan as the head of state, and several councils, institutions and authorities. The Council of Ministers, the most important of such councils, directly assists Sultan Qaboos in drawing up, implementing, and ensuring general state policy. The Council of Oman (Majlis Oman) is divided into the State Council (Majlis al Dawla), whose members are appointed by Sultan Qaboos, and the Consultation Council (Majlis al Shura), whose members are elected by Omani citizens to represent their governorates. The Majlis al Shura is comprised of 84 members. The Shura Council has the power to propose draft legislative and regulatory decisions.
Today, Oman is a member of many regional and international organizations including but not limited to: the League of Arab States, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United Nations, the Islamic Conference Organization, the Non-Aligned Movement, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Economic Cooperation, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF. Diplomatic relations have been established with more than 100 countries.
Oman has overcome many internal and regional struggles throughout its rise, but these challenges have laid a solid foundation for the prosperity enjoyed by its citizens today.
McBrierty, V & Al Zubair, M. (2004). Oman: Ancient Civilisation: Modern Nation. Dublin, Ireland; Trinity College Dublin Press.
Ministry of Information. (2012). Oman 2012-2013. Oman Establishment for Press, Publication and Advertising.
The Oman economy is vulnerable due to over-dependence on the state-owned oil sector. Oman has prospered over the last several decades because of its strategic position on the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, and because of its progressive approach towards both the economy and politics under the modernizing and progressive leadership of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
In 2011, the Special Economic Zone in Duqm, Oman, was established by royal decree to diversify sources of national economy. The Special Economic Zone Authority at Duqm (SEZAD) stretches over 2,000 square kilometers and 44 miles of coastline along the Arabian Sea. Currently, 45% of the area is under development, while the remainder will be available for future expansions. It is the biggest special economic zone (SEZ) in the Middle East and North Africa region; it also ranks as among the largest in the world. The goals of the SEZAD are to enhance the business environment, develop infrastructure; and build capacity of Omani human resources in order to attract domestic and foreign direct investment to the zone.
The large size of the SEZ allows the establishment of various mega projects. The area is divided into 8 main areas that (will) include: a port; a ship dry dock; an oil refinery; a regional airport; a heavy, medium and light industries complex; a combined residential, commercial and tourism area; and a logistic services area. Attention to ecological sustainability and current population needs have been included in the development plans. The zone includes fisheries, parks and public beaches, educational centers and other attractions to appeal to businesses, residents and tourists alike. For more information about the project, visit the government’s dedicated website at https://duqm.gov.om/
As of 2017, the population of Oman is 4,741,305, reflecting a population increase of 1.87% from 2016. The median age of the population is 29.4 years old, reflecting that though Oman–like many Middle Eastern countries–has a young population, it is still one of the higher median ages of the region.
Sultan Qaboos has made education a high priority in Oman. Oman had only three formal schools prior to 1970, but as of 2012, it has 1,045 public schools, 445 private schools, and 39 international schools. 54,610 teachers and over 523,610 students in the country participate in the education system, keeping Omani citizens well qualified in the age of globalization. (Source: Oman Book 2012-2013)
Some of the well-known schools in Oman include, but are not limited to, the Muscat International School, the Saidyah School in Salalah, the British School of Muscat, and more recently, the Knowledge Gate International School or KGIS (2012).
There are now 28 universities throughout the Sultanate. The first public university in the country, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), was established in 1986. SQU currently enrolls 15,000 students and offers studies in medicine, engineering, science, agriculture, arts, and Islamic studies.
The Basic Education consists of 10 years of study and is divided into two sessions. The first part of the program lasts from grades 1-4, and the second is from 5-10; at its end the pupil moves to the post-Basic Education which covers four semesters in two years.
The education in Oman is an alternative, non-traditional system that was adopted to fit the circumstances of the region. All levels are free for Omani citizens and students are transported to and from school. The Ministry of Education provides free boarding schools for pupils coming from remote areas. Because of Sultan Qaboos’ devotion to improving education, the overall literacy rate of Oman is 91.1%.
Since the ascension of Sultan Qaboos to the throne, healthcare has been prioritized. Before the 1970s, there were only a few hospitals and access to healthcare was almost nonexistent. The network of hospitals and healthcare facilities has greatly expanded in the past four decades and all Omani citizens have free access to universal healthcare. As a result of these improvements, the life expectancy is now close to 76 years, up from 68 in 1994 and 55 in 1975.
The “Oman 2020 Vision”, a long-term plan that began in 1996 and is set for renewal in 2020, introduced a health industry Five Year Plan that has been renewed nine times since then. The plan aims to improve, modernize, and provide the best health-related establishments and research projects throughout the country. There are currently 59 hospitals, and 897 clinics, dispensaries, and health care facilities.
Oman is currently working to further improve the system by digitizing medical records, creating a referral system of doctors for patients, and training more specialists to treat rare and aggressive diseases. Oman has been ranked 52nd on the Human Development Index.
The people of modern-day Oman converted to Islam during the 7th century arrival of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. It is generally believed that the Omanis were one of the first populations to convert voluntarily. Roughly 60 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, an offshoot of Islam emerged in Oman which differed from both the Sunni and Shia interpretations. Known as Ibadi Islam, this interpretation formed independently of the Sunni and Shia factions after their split following the death of the fourth Caliph Ali in 661. In 751, the Ibadi Muslims established an imamate in Oman that survived into the mid-20th century. With 75% of Oman’s population adhering to this tradition, which emphasizes friendship and unity among true believers, the Ibadi denomination remains the dominant one today. Oman is the only country in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that is neither a Sunni nor a Shia majority state.
Source: McBrierty, V & Al Zubair, M. (2004). Oman: Ancient Civilisation: Modern Nation. Dublin, Ireland; Trinity College Dublin Press.
Oman has a unique culture influenced by the various religions and ethnic groups present in the country. Omani society is steeped in Islamic religious beliefs, while the Baluchi and South Asian populations connect the region culturally to central and southern Asia. Furthermore, the African island of Zanzibar was an important place for Oman because of its strategic location on trade routes. In 1698, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman; during this period, the spice and slave trades were quite active until the British claimed the area as a protectorate in the early 19th century. East African culture has left a significant cultural imprint on Oman.
Omanis typically celebrate major Islamic and national holidays. The main Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, mark important occasions such as the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the end of the Hajj pilgrimage. National holidays include the birthday of Sultan Qaboos, known as National Day, which is celebrated on November 18. July 23 is known as Renaissance Day which marks the first day of the reign of Sultan Qaboos. The Khareef festival, which celebrates the Omani identity and heritage, is unique to the Dhofar region of Oman and features a parade in the streets of Salalah. The festivities for this celebration can last for several weeks during June and July, contemporaneous with the Khareef monsoon season.
Marriages are typically arranged in Oman and inheritance is largely based on the precepts of Sharia law. Tribal connections are critically important, as these tend to dictate relative wealth and access to the highest paying jobs, much like having the right connections in the Western world.
Omani cuisine has origins from regions throughout the Middle East and Asia, especially India. Many varieties of Omani cuisine feature rice-based dishes with cooked meats and curries. Qabuli is a rice dish tinged yellow with saffron and cooked over a spicy red or white meat. A popular meal typically served during local festivals and weddings is called shuwa. This dish features meat cooked for up to two days in an underground clay oven and enhanced with herbs and spices such as red pepper, turmeric, coriander, cumin, cardamom, garlic, and vinegar to give it a distinct flavor. Main course dishes can include marak, a vegetable curry, and assorted kebabs of grilled beef, chicken, and fish. Omani cuisine also includes a wide variety of vegetable and lentil soups with lamb and chicken.
Omani dress resembles that of most nearby Arab Gulf nations but also has its distinct traits. The traditional dress for Omani men is a long collarless robe known as a dishdasha, which is also found in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The dishdasha is typically white, but men sometimes where them in black, blue, or brown. Men usually carry a khanjar, a curved dagger unique to Oman, but similar to the Yemeni janbiya, which is usually worn along a belt at the waist. They are often worn during festivals and special occasions and are an indication of prestige. The massar, the male turban-style headdress which features colorful patterns and design, is unique to Oman. Women traditionally wear long, colorful robes with intricate embroidery. Gold or silver jewelry is popular and often displays elaborate patterns and Islamic calligraphy.
Oman has a rich musical tradition with different themes that vary geographically. Along the coastal regions, folk music centers on sea songs which depict the life of voyagers at sea. One such song, “The Song of the Porters,” was traditionally sung while loading goods onto ships and praying for a safe voyage. In the interior desert, songs such as “Al Taghrud” were sung while riding camels, to encourage both the camels and their riders. Omani folk music also features the Razha dance, which originated in Muscat. This sword dance is performed while others read poetic verses. Today, these types of songs are typically performed at festivals and cultural ceremonies.
Modern popular music in Oman is typically dominated by the khaliji style. This music places a large emphasis on the use of the tabl drum and the stringed oud. In recent years, Salah al-Zadjali has started to gain popularity as a fusion artist who mixes the traditional khaliji style with mainstream international musical styles, such as pop. Al Zadjali was featured on the Dubai TV show “Najm Al Khaleej,” where he sang “Zidni Ishqan.”
Sultan Qaboos is an avid fan of traditional Western classical music. He founded the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra (ROSO) in 1985, and they performed their first concert in July 1987. The orchestra recruits young Omani talent to become orchestra musicians. As there are few musical schools in Oman, the ROSO is one of the best opportunities for musical study in the country. The ROSO plays a wide variety of classical music, but often features selections from Mozart, Sultan Qaboos’ favorite composer. The Royal Opera House Muscat, inaugurated in 2011, has quickly become the leading arts and cultural center in the Sultanate and throughout the Middle East. The opera house showcases diverse artistic creations from Oman and beyond.
Oman’s artistic development has expanded in the last few decades. Much of the academic training for the arts in Oman is concentrated in the Art Education Department at Sultan Qaboos University; various organizations have also developed to showcase Oman’s artistic talent. The Muscat International Book Fair brings over 500 authors to the capital city each February and encourages the discovery of new titles.
Painting and craft-making are popular art forms, although calligraphy and, more recently, photography are the most prominent mediums for artistic expression. Works of Islamic calligraphy feature important verses of the Qur’an in beautifully colored and expressive Arabic script. One of the most prominent calligraphers in Oman is Madny Al-Bakry. His work is an example of how Oman is developing modern art in in accordance with Islam, also detailed in the documentary referred to below, “Islamic Art in Oman.” As for photography, two artists, Yasser bin Nasser and Mohammed bin Hassan, are well-known for their photos that capture the beauty of their most popular subjects, people.
Oman has several museums that showcase Omani heritage and history. The Ministry of Heritage and Culture Museum opened in 1979 and houses traditional silver ornaments, ships and swords among other artifacts. Initially opened in 1978, and relocated in 1988, the National Museum of Oman displayed copper and silver ornaments as well as examples of Omani ships. The museum boasted a letter which is attributed to the prophet Muhammad that invited the people of the region in Oman to convert to Islam. However, an initiative to build a new, original national museum was undertaken. According to local sources:
Established by a Royal Decree issued in November 2013, the museum is the collaborative result of Oman working with Spanish and Russian consultants to curate the collections and will play an important role in preserving the cultural heritage of the Sultanate. The number of archaeological artefacts in the museum stands at about 6,000 and includes archaeological antiques, craft industries, manuscripts and models of ships, castles and forts among others. Objects showcased at the museum were brought from around the world, donated by Omanis and transported from an old museum in Oman.
Museums are operated by the Omani Ministry of Heritage and Culture.
Oman is home to many unique tourist sites. There are numerous forts, castles, mosques, and archaeological sites that hold significance in Omani culture and history. One prominent fort in the older district of Muscat is the Al-Jalali fort. This building consists of two large towers and several defensive walls that would have been used in defense of the city. Castles are typically seen in the northern part of the country and provide a unique glimpse into the life of wealthy Arabian families. The Bayt Ar-Rudaydah Castle (left), located in the Dakhiliyah Governorate, has been converted into a heritage museum which displays the development of weaponry in Oman.
The largest and most prominent mosque in Oman, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, is located in Muscat. Construction of the mosque was completed in 2001, and it covers an area of nearly 416,000 square meters (4.5 million square feet). The mosque can support a maximum capacity of 20,000 worshipers and houses a vast library of nearly 20,000 books as well as reference volumes in science and Islamic culture. Tours of the mosque are open to all every day (including non-Muslims except on Fridays).
A variety of sports are practiced in Oman. Due to Oman’s location on the coast, water sports such as sailing are popular. Oman Sail is an organization which sponsors training programs and competitions for those interested in competitive sailing. The flagship of the Oman Sail organization is the Oman Air-Musandam. This boat and its team of the best sailors in Oman compete in numerous events such as the Route des Princes, which circles the European continent. Oman hosted the Sailing World Championships in 2014. Oman Air placed second in the 2013 Route des Princes competition in its category and took fifth at the 2013 Tour de France a la Voile.
Cycling is another popular activity in Oman. Each year, the sultanate hosts the Tour of Oman. This competition brings together hundreds of cyclists from twenty different countries to race across the countryside of Oman. The Tour of Oman is part of a larger series of cycling competitions known as the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Asia Tour, established in 2005. Oman has yet to win a championship in any of the UCI Asia or UCI World tours.
As in many Middle Eastern countries, football (soccer in the U.S.) is widely played. The Oman Football Association was established in 1978 to oversee the sport and became an official member of FIFA in 1980. Oman’s national football team, the Red Warriors, has had moderate success in international football. While the team has never qualified for a FIFA World Cup, it entered the Asian Cup in 2004, 2007, and 2015 and won the Gulf Cup in 2009 by defeating the team from Saudi Arabia. Oman placed 4th in the 2014 Gulf Cup.