Something old, something new: Despite modernising in recent years, the country retains a keen sense of tradition

An ancient maritime power, Oman is open to the modern world but at the same time preserves a strong sense of tradition and culture. While many countries are moulded by their geography, for Oman this is especially true. In addition to the main part of its territory on the Arabian Sea, Oman also includes the tip of the Musandam Peninsula, which extends into the Strait of Hormuz and is separated from the rest of the country by the UAE. Meanwhile, the Omani territory of Madha, administered by the Musandam governorate, is an exclave within the UAE, halfway between the Musandam Peninsula and the rest of Oman. Additionally, within Madha there is another exclave, called Nahwa, this time belonging to the UAE and legally under the administration of the emirate of Sharjah.

Oman’s borders are therefore numerous. The Strait of Hormuz is to the north, and the Gulf of Oman is to the north-east. The Arabian Sea lies to the east and south, Yemen to the south-west. Saudi Arabia and the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali) lie to the west, with the UAE to the north-west. Indeed, the country’s total estimated boundary length is some 3466 km, of which 2092 km is coastline.

Maintaining so many national boundaries has led the rulers of Oman to learn the importance of negotiation, as border disputes have sometimes occurred in the past. These days Oman’s borders are established and well-defined, and the country enjoys peaceful relations with its neighbours.

Climate

The sultanate is generally hot and dry in the desert interior and hot and humid along the coast. In the southern Dhofar region, a strong south-west summer monsoon brings rains and wind from May to September. Snow sometimes falls in the high mountains of the sultanate during the winter, while annual rainfall in the capital, Muscat, averages around 10 cm, occurring mostly in January.

The weather can, however, deliver surprises. In June 2007, a Category 4 storm, Cyclone Gonu, struck the Gulf. The cyclone’s winds, exceeding 210 km/h at one point, were the strongest ever recorded to hit the Arabian Peninsula. By the time the cyclone reached Oman, it had subsided to a Category 1 storm with winds of 150 km/h, but it still left around 50 people dead, buildings damaged, and power outages in Muscat and other coastal cities. The cyclone thus led to a major rethink of storm protection in the sultanate.

Population

In February 2013 the population was reported by the National Statistics and Information Centre to have hit 3.83m. Omanis made up 2.15m (56%) of this, while 1.68m expatriate workers make up the remaining 44%. The overall figure represents growth of 38% from the 2010 census, when the population was 2.77m, and can largely be attributed to growth in the expatriate population of 106%. With a median age of 24.4 years, the populace is relatively young, and providing adequate employment for young nationals is a key tenet of government policy.

To create employment opportunities, a programme of “Omanisation” has been in operation since 1988. This initiative has seen Omanis taking over jobs from expatriate workers, with targets for a percentage of Omanis set for each part of the public and private sectors. Omanis speak Arabic as their primary language, though local dialects use numerous words borrowed from Persian, Baluchi, Urdu, Gujarati and Portuguese. The people who live in the mountainous regions of Dhofar and some nomadic groups also speak a variety of unique South Arabian languages. English is in wide use as a second language.

History

Historians suspect that in antiquity, Oman may have been Magan, a copper- and diorite-rich region discussed in Sumerian texts from around 2300 BCE. These texts speak of a mountainous place south of Sumer and Dilmun that supplied Mesopotamia with metal and stone. Archaeologists have in recent times located significant copper deposits and more than 150 medieval Islamic smelting sites in the sultanate, as well as numerous Magan-period slag heaps at Maysar in central-eastern Oman. What is more certain is that 8000 years ago, Levantine nomads settled the Arabian Peninsula, reaching as far as Dhofar.

The territory now known as Oman was then subject to competition between the Persian empire and various powers in what is now Yemen from the sixth century BCE until the arrival of Islam in the seventh century CE. Then, power over Oman and Muscat was transferred to the Caliphate. It was also during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad that the people of Oman adopted Islam as the predominant religion.

Religion

By the middle of the eighth century CE, most Omanis were practising the Ibadi school of Islam, a grouping that is now common only in Oman and some areas in North and East Africa. Distinct from the Sunni and Shia sects, Ibadhism is now practised by about 75% of Omanis and is considered a moderate, tolerant and conservative form of the faith. The remaining 25% of Omanis typically practice Sunni and Shia Islam, though the country is tolerant of minority reli-gions. In 751 the region began electing imams to rule as spiritual leaders, thereby creating an elective theocracy. This tradition lasted until 1154, when the Nabhanite dynasty of hereditary kings was established.

In 1498 the Portuguese – looking for outposts to protect their sea lanes – began an occupation of Muscat that would last for 160 years. During this time, the Portuguese became the strongest sea power from the Gulf of Oman to the southern tip of Africa. While under Portuguese control, Muscat was fortified with forts and ramparts. This colonial architectural style is still evident in Muscat, the modern-day capital. In the mid-17th century, the Persians arrived to successfully dislodge the Portuguese from Muscat. Less than a century later, in 1741, they were themselves forced out by a Yemeni tribal leader, Imam Ahmad bin Said Al Busaidi, who went on to found the royal Al Busaidi line. The current sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, is the eighth direct descendant of Imam Ahmad bin Said.

With its extensive coastline, it is no surprise that Omanis have been a seagoing people for centuries. Trade with Persia, India and Africa was commonplace for thousands of years, and brought Oman an empire that stretched all the way to Zanzibar. Taking advantage of its seafaring expertise and location on the Indian Ocean, Oman became a regional maritime power in the early 1800s, extending its reach to the coasts of present-day Iran, Pakistan, Zanzibar and Kenya, and trading as far away as the Malay Peninsula.

As the 19th century wore on though, this empire began to decline as technically advanced European competitors increasingly encroached upon Oman’s trading network. Although British traders contributed to this decline, the UK and Oman have historically pursued a close relationship, with treaties of friendship being signed in 1798, 1800, 1891 and most recently in 1951. In subsequent years, the UK has offered military support to help preserve security and stability within the sultanate. The two countries continue to maintain a strong relationship to this day.

Even in modern times, the residual effects of Oman’s maritime empire are still visible. Some Omanis can speak Swahili, and a good percentage of residents hail from the Indian subcontinent, Baluchistan in particular. Oman continued to rule over the exclave of Gwadar until 1958, when it became part of Pakistan.

Tradition

The dhow, an ancient ship, is an enduring symbol of Oman’s close relationship with the sea and its long tradition of seamanship. Evidence exists of an Omani dhow reaching China in the eighth century, and they can still be seen today along Oman’s coastline as vehicles for trade, fishing and tourism. In the desert interior, life has a more tribal and traditionally rural bent, with many families tending livestock and growing crops. This cultural and geographical split historically had important consequences, with the interior peoples choosing to be ruled by imams and the coastal peoples ruled by sultans. Sultan Qaboos unified these two areas when he ascended the throne.

In addition to the historical interior-coastal divide, the whole of northern Oman is separated from the southern region of Dhofar by hundreds of kilometres of desert. This additional geographic detail results in its own quirks, as many Dhofaris maintain cultural and historical ties with neighbouring Yemen.

Most Omani men wear the traditional clothing of their ancestors, the dishdasha, a collarless, tasselled ankle-length white robe. Traditionally, the tassel was scented with a drop of perfume. During holidays, men wear ceremonial dress including the elaborately carved Omani khanjar knife. Most Omani women wear hijab and abaya, and while some women cover their faces and hands, most do not. On holidays, Omani women dress in brightly coloured traditional clothing consisting of a long tunic worn over trousers.

Monarchy

Oman is a hereditary absolute monarchy. Sultan Qaboos is the head of both state and government. He acts as prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister and minister of defence. The sultan took over the reins of government from his father, Sultan Said bin Taymur, in 1970. At the time, Oman was isolated and undeveloped, lacking in basic facilities and infrastructure. Sultan Qaboos set about making changes that would transform Oman into the modern state it is now. One of his first acts was to change the name of the country from Muscat and Oman to the Sultanate of Oman, indicating that his would be a united country. He also appointed a cabinet of ministers responsible for various government departments and functions – a first for the country.

Just 25 years later, Oman was no longer among the ranks of underdeveloped nations that required World Bank loans. Sultan Qaboos’s bold economic goals, which include plans for easing the sultanate’s dependence on petroleum resources by diversifying its economic base, have seen an opening to tourism and major infrastructure improvements. The sultan’s long-term development strategy, Oman Vision 2020, emphasises industrialisation, privatisation and Omanisation.

In 1996 the sultan decreed the Basic Law of the State, which is considered Oman’s constitution. This established a bicameral legislature, clarified the royal succession, provided for a prime minister and proscribed ministers from holding interests in companies doing business with the government. It also guaranteed basic civil liberties, such as freedom of religion and speech, a free press and a number of legal rights, such as the right to a fair trial.

The Council of Oman (Majlis Oman) is a bicameral consultative council. With advisory powers only, the upper chamber is called the Majlis Al Dawla, or the State Council, whose members are appointed by the sultan. Members of the lower chamber, the Majlis Al Shura, are elected by popular vote for four-year terms. The Majlis Al Shura is authorised to draft legislation sanctioned by the sultan. Since 2002, citizens over 21 years of age have been eligible to vote. The most recent elections for the Majlis Al Shura were held on October 15, 2011, and the next elections are set for October 2015. The nation is divided into 11 governorates (Muscat, Musandam, Al Buraimi, Al Dakhiliyah, Al Batinah North, Al Batinah South, Al Sharqiyah North, Al Sharqiyah South, Al Dhahirah, Al Wusta and Dhofar). The governorates are subdivided into a total of 59 provinces, or wilayats. Each wilayat is presided over by a wali, who is responsible for collecting taxes and maintaining peace in their area.

Royal Tour

A unique feature of Omani political and social life is the sultan’s periodic, weeks-long tours of the wilayats. An institution since Sultan Qaboos assumed power, these tours allow the sultan to meet with Omanis who may otherwise have difficulty attracting official attention. The sultan meets local citizens, sheikhs and dignitaries at either royal campsites or spontaneously along the road. These royal tours play an important role in the country’s political system, providing a personal channel of communication between the sultan and the people. This tradition provides normal citizens with the opportunity to speak directly to the ruler and express their opinions. During the tours, decisions may be taken and directives issued on con-cerns that have been raised during the consultations. For instance, it has been due to these tours that several road, water, electricity, and other service and infrastructure projects have been initiated.

Regional Influence

Foreign policy has been largely influenced by the sultan’s determination to bring Oman out of its isolation and to integrate it regionally and internationally. Since 1970, Oman has been transformed into a non-aligned regional power with a non-confrontational and pragmatic approach to foreign relations. Oman maintains close ties with distant countries such as the UK and the US, signing a free trade agreement with the latter in 2006. Oman is a founding member of the GCC, which also includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain. However, like Bahrain, Oman remains outside the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Relations between Oman and its neighbours have been enhanced since Sultan Qaboos came to power. Long-standing issues have been resolved, including border disputes with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while relations with Yemen have also been normalised.

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