Located in the southeastern corner of the Arabian peninsula is the Sultanate of Oman.
Oman isn’t one of the better-known countries in the Middle East, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
However, it has an incredibly rich history and was once the center of a trading empire that extended into Africa.
Learn more about the Sultanate of Oman and its history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I’m guessing for most of you, if you are familiar with the country of Oman, it is because you’ve heard the name or you’ve seen it on a map.
Compared to other nations along the Persian Gulf, there are very few news stories about Oman. It isn’t as sexy and modern as Dubai. It doesn’t have the money of Qatar or Abu Dabhi. It doesn’t have the oil resources of Saudi Arabia. There haven’t been conflicts fought there in recent memory, as with Yemen or Kuwait.
Yet, for myself and other people I know who have visited, Oman is actually my favorite country in the region.
So, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Oman, let me briefly describe where it is.
The majority of Oman is in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. By sea, it borders the Gulf of Oman, which sits between Oman and Iran, as well as the Arabian Sea, which is part of the Indian Ocean.
In the southwest, it borders Yemen, and in the northwest, it borders the United Arab Emirates.
Its interior borders Saudi Arabia in the vast desert and dune fields of the Empty Quarter.
That is most of Oman. There is another part of Oman, which is an exclave which is separated from the rest of the country. Jutting into the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow entrance to the Persian Gulf is the Musandam Peninsula.
The Musandam Peninsula has a very low population, but its northernmost tip does have one of the craziest geological formations you will see anything on Earth. If you look at it on a map, it looks like a fractal pattern you would see generated by a computer.
It also has another very odd exclave, known as Madha, that is totally surrounded by the United Arab Emirates. That in and of itself isn’t that strange, but within that exclave is an exclave of the UAE, making it an exclave with an enclave.
It’s something that only geography nerds will probably get excited over.
The history of Oman goes much further back than most countries can claim. Given the proximity of Oman to Africa, the earliest evidence of humans in the region goes back over 100,000 years. During the last ice age, the lower sea levels would have allowed people to walk or easily cross the Straits of Bab el Mandab, where today, Yemen is only about 20 kilometers from the African nation of Djibouti.
While it was never in the heart of any ancient civilization, it was on the periphery of several of them. Its location gave it access to many of the great civilizations of antiquity. It was part of the Perian Achaemenid and Sassanid Empires. It regularly traded with Nubia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome.
The product for which it was most famous and for which there was great demand was frankincense. Frankincense is an aromatic tree resin that is used in perfumes and incense.
Today, the Land of Frankincense UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oman, honors the frankincense trade that emanated from Oman for centuries.
About 2,000 years ago, nomadic Arab bedouins began to settle in the lush region along the coast. This was a process that took centuries, and some came from what is today Yemen and others from the north along the coast of the Persian Gulf.
The origin of the word “oman” isn’t known for sure. It could be a reference to an ancient Arabic word for “settled,” as opposed to bedouins who were nomadic. It could reference the founder of a city in the area, or it may have Persian origins.
Given its location on the Arabian Peninsula, it should come as no surprise that it was one of the first places in the world to have converted to Islam. The process of converting to Islam began during the life of the Prophet Mohammed as early as 630.
The predominant branch of Islam, which developed there and is still the majority in the country today, is known as Ibadhi Islam. Ibadhism is sometimes considered a third branch of Islam alongside Sunni and Shia Islam.
A Shia religious group known as the Qarmatians controlled most of Oman from 931 to 967 when it became part of the Iranian Buyyid Dynasty. The Buyids controlled Oman for a century until 1053 when the Seljuk Turks conquered it and became part of the Seljuk Empire.
The Seljuks controlled Oman until 1154 when the native Nabhani dynasty overthrew the Seljuks.
The Nabhani dynasty lasted for over 300 years until 1470.
A major shift in the rule of Oman took place in 1515 when the Portuguese conquered the major port city of Muscat.
After Vasco de Gama rounded Africa, the Portuguese began using this route to establish trade with India and the Far East. In doing so, they established a network of ports along the way to service ships that were en route from Portugal to Asia.
The ports and defensive fortification also allowed them to protect their shipping lanes from pirates and rival powers. Their control of Muscat also allowed them to control access to the Persian Gulf.
It was during the Portuguese occupation that the Battle of Hormuz took place in 1625. It was the largest naval battle that ever took place in the Persian Gulf, and it pitted the Portuguese against the combined forces of the Dutch East India Company and English East India Company.
While the battle on the sea was a draw, it ultimately resulted in a loss of power for Portugal in the region.
Portugal held Muscat until 1650 when the Yaruba dynasty sized Oman. The Yaruba was an indigenous Ibadhi dynasty founded by Imam Nasir bin Murshid Al Ya’arubi. It was with the rise of Yaruba that began the Omani Empire.
The Omani Empire isn’t the best-known empire in world history. It didn’t have an impressive amount of land under its rule like the British or the Mongols. The origin of the empire is usually set in 1692 with the reign of Saif bin Sultan.
They conquered Mombasa in what is today Kenya and later Zanzibar in modern Tanzania.
They established a trading empire which was based around the Indian Ocean.
In addition to ports in East Africa, they also held small amounts of territory along the coast in Persia and modern-day Pakistan.
The Omani Empire served as one of the primary conduits for trade from Africa. Their base in Zanzibar became the center of the East African slave trade.
In the late 18th century, Sultan bin Ahmad needed an ally to counter threats from Arabia, African tribes threatening Mombasa, and a possible incursion by the Napoleon Bonepart and the French, who they feared would conquer Muscat on the way to India.
In 1797, the Omani took control of the port city of Gwadar in what is today Pakistan.
They found an ally in the British.
The alliance gave the British access to Omani ports and gave the Omanis assistance against their enemies.
In 1833, Oman signed a treaty of friendship and trade with the United States. This was the second Islamic country that the United States had signed a treaty with after Morocco, which was the first country to recognize the United States.
In 1840, a trading vessel from Oman, the Al-Sultanah, arrived in New York, becoming the first Arab ship ever to dock in the New World.
In 1856, a succession crisis resulted in a split between the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman and that of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.
With the loss of Zanzibar, the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman became more reliant on the British, and the British began to exert more control over Oman.
For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Oman was technically independent but was, in many ways, a de facto British colony. The British supported the rule of the Sultans in exchange for access to ports and the exclusion of other European powers.
In the late 19th century, there was also a split within the country itself. The interior of the country, centered in Nizwa, was ruled by an Ibadhi Imam, whereas the Sultan ruled Muscat and the coastal areas.
This division of the country was codified by the treat of Seeb in 1920, which was brokered by the British, who had no interest in the country’s interior.
If you ever look at maps from the early 20th century, the country will usually be called Muscat and Oman to reflect this division.
Modern Oman can be said to begin with the reign of Sultan Said bin Taimur, who came to rule in 1932. While his rule marked the start of modern Oman, it can hardly be said that Said bin Taimur was himself modern.
He was an isolationist and sold off oil rights to the British, although they were initially unable to find any oil deposits.
The late 1950s saw many significant changes. In 1954, the Treaty of Seeb was broken by the Sultan when oil was discovered in the interior, which was under the control of the Imam.
In 1958, Gawdar was sold to Pakistan, and Britain also recognized Oman as independent.
In 1964, the Dhofar province, the southernmost province in Oman, began a Marxist and nationalistic revolt against the Sultanate.
The country underwent a major change in 1970 when the sultan’s son, Qaboos bin Said, led a coup against his father and took control of the country. Said bin Taimur died in exile in London in 1972 at the age of 62.
Qaboos bin Said faced ruling a country that was not yet in the modern world. It suffered from disease, illiteracy, and poverty.
He managed to quash the Dhofar rebellion through a combination of strengthening Oman’s armed forces and offering amnesty to the rebels.
Oman created a national constitution and created a council of ministers representing various tribal groups in the country.
Oil and gas production dramatically improved the economy of Oman, but they do not have anywhere near the production of their neighbors. They are currently only the 25th largest oil producer in the world.
Qaboos bin Said died in January 2020 at the age of 79, having ruled the country for 50 years. His successor as sultan was his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.
On a personal note, Oman is one of my favorite countries in the Middle East and certainly my favorite among the Gulf States.
I can remember my first time in Oman vividly. I arrived on January 17, 2009, a date I will always remember because that evening, Oman won the Gulf Cup over the perennial favorite, Saudi Arabia. The entire country was celebrating.
I visited the city of Nizwa, about 115 kilometers inland from Muscat, and I later visited the Musandam Peninsula. When I went to Khasab, the largest city on the Musandam Peninsula, I traveled on what was reported to be at the time, the world’s fastest car ferry.
It was indeed very fast, but in the excitement of having the world’s fastest car ferry, they forgot to build a way for cars to actually board the ferry. A problem which was later corrected.
Oman is no longer a poor country, but it is also a far cry from the extravagant displays that you will see in neighboring Dubai. It has become a relatively quiet, stable country in a chaotic region. It has done so by establishing diplomatic ties with its neighbors while remaining relatively neutral on the geopolitical affairs of the region.
When people ask me for advice when visiting Dubai, I usually tell them to just go and visit Oman.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
Today’s review comes from listener Packers123? over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
I love this show. I recently listened to your podcast on the know-nothing party, and the next day in school, the bonus question to my big test was the know-nothings. Thanks to you, Gary I was the only person in my grade to get a 102 percent on my test.
Thanks, Packers123! First, let me congratulate you on the username. With a name like that, you clearly must be doing well in your classes. Second, you have discovered what many before you have. Listening to this podcast is like having a cheat code for school.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.