Sultanate of Oman
|Anthem: Nashid as-Salaam as-Sultani
(and largest city)
|Government||Islamic absolute monarchy|
|-||Sultan||Haitham bin Tariq Al Said|
|-||Deputy Prime Minister||Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said|
|Legislature||Council of Oman|
|-||Total||309,501 km² (70th)
119,498 sq mi
|-||2010 estimate||3,608,545 (133rd)|
|GDP (PPP)||2010 estimate|
|GDP (nominal)||2010 estimate|
|1||Population estimate includes 693,000 non-nationals.|
Resembling in shape a figurehead on a ship's prow, the Sultanate of Oman juts sharply from the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula into the Arabian Sea. It is the world's easternmost Arabian country, sharing desert borders with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (which once was part of Omani territory), and Yemen. Its seacoast includes the Gulf of Oman in the northeast, where the exclave peninsula of Musandam looks across the Strait of Hormuz to Iran.
Due largely to its remote location and the uncommon variety of Islam that developed there centuries ago, Oman has a very unique history and culture extending into the present day. At times isolationist and at other times expansionist (and once employing the not so unique practice of making slaves of Africans), the country may in its current affluence be on the verge of taking on a larger part in international affairs.
About 80 percent of Oman (usually pronounced "o-MAHN" in English) is covered by a broad, rocky, barren, and mainly flat desert, the Rub al-Khali, the same vast expanse that dominates southern Saudi Arabia. Though Omani culture and customs have their origins in the tribal life that developed in this region, in the modern era only the occasional wadi, oasis, and camel are found there.
The Hajar Mountains in the northeast, run parallel to the coast; one peak reaches nearly 3,000 meters. They afford the country's only moderate temperatures in the summer from the intense heat that afflicts most of the Arabian Peninsula.
Oman's capital, Muscat, and the other main towns are all located along the narrow coastal plain. The climate on this strip of land differs from that of the interior desert only in levels of humidity. The coast in the unpopulated southwest is characterized by its towering cliffs.
The Musandam Exclave (similar to Alaska's geographical relationship to the contiguous United States) commands a strategic site overlooking the choke point between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf (known by Arabs as the Arabian Gulf). It's a land apart from the Omani mainland in another sense, that being its terrain and economy. Its main prong thrusting into the Strait of Hormuz is jagged and flooded and has been compared to Norway and its fjords.
There is an additional exclave, though a smaller one, between Musandam and the rest of Oman, in the territory of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which makes it an enclave as well as an exclave. And inside the Omani enclave is a tiny enclave of the UAE, one of the world's few such geographical oddities.
Omanis number about three million. The country is similar in both population and size to Kansas.
In ancient history, the region of Oman was known principally for its copper mining, an activity still pursued in the present. Over the centuries the area was ruled intermittently by its trans-gulf neighbors, the Persians. Arab tribes moved into Oman, probably from Yemen, and took control of the area by the seventh century C.E. (The name Oman possibly derives from the name of a Yemeni tribe of that era.)
The people of the region converted to Islam within the prophet Muhammad's lifetime. By the middle of the eighth century C.E., they were practicing a unique brand of the faith, Ibadhism, which remains a majority sect only in Oman. Ibadhism has been characterized as "moderate conservatism," with tenets that are a mixture of both austerity and tolerance.
The Portuguese occupied Muscat for a 140-year period (1508–1648), arriving a decade after Vasco da Gama discovered the seaway to India. In need of an outpost to protect their sea lanes, the Europeans built up and fortified the city, where remnants of their colonial architectural style still remain.
The Ottomans drove out the Portuguese, but were pushed out themselves about a century later (1741) by the leader of a Yemeni tribe, who began the current line of ruling sultans. After one last, brief invasion a few years later by Persia, Oman was free for good of foreign-occupying powers.
Isolated from their Arab neighbors by the desert, the Omanis became an economic power in the early 1800s, largely by using their position on the Indian Ocean and seafaring knowledge gained from the Portuguese to gain access to foreign lands. They took control of the coasts of present-day Iran and Pakistan, colonized Zanzibar and Kenyan seaports, brought back enslaved Africans, and sent boats trading as far as the Malay Peninsula.
At this time, the country became known as Muscat and Oman, denoting two centers of power, not just the capital and the interior but also the sultan and the imam, the Ibadhist spiritual leader.
The British slowly brought about a collapse of Muscat and Oman's "empire" by the end of the nineteenth century without use of force. Through gradual encroachment on its overseas holdings economically and politically, they caused Oman to retreat to its homeland. In time Britain held such sway in Muscat and Oman itself that it became in effect, and later in fact, a British protectorate.
Having control of the country's military, the British helped subdue rebel tribesmen in the 1950s, driving most into Yemen. But the sultan ran a repressive regime, with laws forbidding numerous activities, including the building and even repair of his subjects' own homes without permission. In 1970, almost certainly with British backing, he was overthrown by his son, the present ruler, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, and the country declared independence the following year as the Sultanate of Oman.
Qaboos is generally regarded as a benevolent absolute ruler, who has improved the country economically and socially. Oman has maintained peaceful ties on the Arabian Peninsula ever since ending another tribal rebellion in the southwest in 1982 by forging a treaty with Yemen. Oman's oil revenue has been consistently invested in the national infrastructure, particularly roads, schools, hospitals, and utilities. More than ever, the country is poised to take advantage of its strategic trade location on the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to further its economic growth and role in the world.
Except for those who travel to remote Middle East locales for striking vistas of coastal beauty, the country has seldom been in the public eye other than for the use of its military bases by U.S. forces in recent years. American and British bombing raids were launched in 1991 from Oman against Iraq in the Gulf War. A decade later, U.S. forces stationed there were involved in raids against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden.
Though Oman is not a major world petroleum producer, crude oil dominates the country's economy and commands 90 percent of its exports. The initial oil discoveries were made in the early 1960s by European companies, but since 1974 the Omani government has held 60 percent of the national oil company, the country's sole producer. Oman has never been a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
There are also sizable reserves of natural gas. In the agricultural sector, there is subsistence farming in the coastal areas, as well as larger-scale cultivation of vegetables and fruit, such as dates and limes. The top export after petroleum is fish, most of which is sold to Oman's peninsular neighbors. Much of it is caught off Musandam, a place also appealing to undersea diving enthusiasts from overseas. About half of the nation's meat, dairy, and vegetables are imported.
Centuries ago the area of Oman and Yemen was known for its production of frankincense, a tree resin that was used in religious ceremonies and was extremely costly. Modern cultivation and harvesting of the resin still exists.
Even though the majority of Omanis are Arabs, there is a sizable native minority of Iranian and Pakistani ancestry, as well as a small community of African descent. Some portions of these communities date back to the nineteenth century when Oman was a colonizing power and imported workers from overseas territories.
As with other prosperous Arab countries, a large number of foreigners have moved to Oman in recent years to work as common laborers and domestic servants, mostly from India, Iran, Pakistan, and East Africa. (The influence of those from the subcontinent, in particular, appears in Oman's modern urban architecture and in the spreading popularity of Indian restaurants.)
The official language is Arabic, but minorities, especially in the southwest, speak their own languages. English is commonly spoken in commercial circles.
Islam is the predominant religion, with most adherents following Ibadhism, though there is a Sunni community in the southwest. That part of the country, bordering Yemen, remains distinct and is known for its occasional tribal disputes, though they rarely concern language or religious differences.
Ibadhism has sometimes been cited as a factor that has isolated Oman as much as geography. Its heretical nature—as far as many other Muslims view it—and strictness have at times spurned interaction with Arab neighbors.
The hospitality shown by Omanis to visitors, especially those from other cultures, may surpass the effusive, garden-variety brand of other residents on the peninsula. Excessive generosity is the standard and anything less is bad manners.
Omanis tend to think of themselves as unique among the peoples of their vicinity and also see themselves as diplomats on the group, tribal, national, and international levels. They remain clearly family- and community-oriented people, to the extent that those with the means to be educated abroad almost invariably return to their hometown to commence a career.
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