Since the accession of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in 1970, Oman has undergone significant political, economic and industrial reform, particularly in industry, communications, transport and education. Schooling to secondary level is free for everyone and the adult literacy rate stands at 86.7%. Higher education is still relatively young (the first university, Sultan Qaboos, opened in 1986) and with 55% of the population under 20 years old, demand for tertiary education is growing.
The sultan is the head of state and head of government and is advised by the Council of Ministers which acts as a Cabinet. All Omanis over the age of 21 are eligible to vote, the last elections in 2007 attracting 390,000 voters – 100,000 more than the previous elections in 2003.
Oman continues to play a fundamental role in promoting regional stability. In 1981, it was a founder member of the Gulf Cooperation Council and has played a leading role in regional security issues. Throughout the last three decades, the country has been of strategic importance to the West as a staging post for Anglo-American military, naval and air operations during the assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Close ties have been maintained with the UK since 1798, when a treaty of friendship was concluded, and British influence remains strong. Prior to this the sultans of Muscat often came into conflict with the colonial powers in the region, particularly the Portuguese, who first settled in the 16th century, in an attempt to protect their eastern trade routes. However, Oman’s rich history goes back much further than that, with archaeological excavations showing that much of the civilisation in Oman predates the Arab period. The region embraced Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet.