The ancient history of Oman is steeped in mystery. Primitive men lived in this part of the Arabian Peninsula as early as 100,000 years ago, and the region was incorporated into the Persian Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC. With the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century, Oman followed the lead of Persia and converted to Islam, leading to the rise of a string of Islamic dynasties.
In 1507, the sultans lost their prized possession of Muscat to Portuguese invaders, and while the colonial administration was fiercely resisted, and lasted little more than century, this period saw the construction of many of Oman’s famous fortresses. With the restoration of Islamic rule, Oman became a major trading empire, with colonies as far afield as central Africa and Zanzibar. The cornerstones of the Omani economy were the spice trade and slavery, which was only abolished in 1970.
Close ties have been maintained with the UK since 1798, when a treaty of friendship was signed. Oman became a British protectorate in 1891 and Britain continued to play a guiding role in the politics of Oman through to the 1950s, when the nation gained its independence. In 1913, Oman was split in two, with the coast ruled by the sultan and the interior ruled by separate religious leaders, but the nation was reunited in 1959.
Since the accession of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in a bloodless coup in 1970, Oman has undergone significant political, economic and industrial reform, particularly in industry, communications, transport and education. Ahead of most surrounding nations in the Gulf, women gained the vote for local majlis (councils) in 1997, and universal suffrage was introduced in 2002.
Today, the sultan remains the head of state and head of government but he is advised by an elected council of ministers, which acts as a cabinet. Oil forms a major part of the nation’s considerable wealth, and thanks to its long history cooperation with Europe, Oman plays an important role in promoting regional stability. However, there has been local opposition to the continued power of the ruling clan, and the use of Oman as staging post for Western military operations in the region.
Did you know?
• Oman is one of the world’s oldest producers of Frankincense, an aromatic resin that has been used as a perfume since Biblical times.
• The first horse in Arabia is said to have been kept by the Uzd tribe of Oman; all Arabic racehorses are said to be its descendants.
• Oman was one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery, in 1970.