Oman (officially the Sultanate of Oman) is a country in the Arabian peninsula, next to Yemen and east of Saudi Arabia; it is just across the Gulf of Oman from Iran. It has been an Islamic nation since the 7th century CE. Its capital Muscat has long been an important seaport on the Gulf of Oman; historically the country's territory has often been divided into the coastal region known as the Sultanate of Muscat and the interior, the Imamate of Oman, with Muscat proving victorious in the late 20th century.
Oman is currently an absolute monarchy, ruled since January 2020 by Haitham bin Tariq who succeeded his cousin Qaboos bin Said; democracy is yet to come. It was never exactly a part of the British Empire but the leaders in Muscat enjoyed substantial support from Britain; Oman remains a close British ally in the region. This relationship lasted through wars in the 1950s-1970s, which consolidated Muscat's control over the interior of the country and defeated a Marxist, pan-Arabist independence movement in Dhofar Governorate using exciting new and heartwarming counter-insurgency techniques.
Oman has been a part of various empires, with Muscat captured by the Portuguese from the Seljuk Empire in 1507, and then fought over by the Portuguese and Ottomans until Nasir bin Murshid won independence in the mid-17th century. Until the 19th century, the Omani Sultanate was an important regional power, with territories from Zanzibar to part of modern-day Pakistan, but it came under increasing British control in the late-19th century.
In the 20th century a combination of treaties and military influence established the rights of the Anglo-Persian Company (later renamed British Petroleum) to drill for oil as part of a Western-led coalition, the Iraq Petroleum Company. The British installed a friendly leader, Said bin Taimur, as Sultan of Muscat in 1932, and filled his government with British advisors, ministers, and bureaucrats. However there wasn't any oil in the coastal region around Muscat, so after World War Two, the British aided Said in invading the independent interior and conquering much of it, in the Jebel Akhdar War; the leaders of the Imamate fled to Saudi Arabia and petitioned the United Nations for protection in the 1960s, which quietened down that conflict.
In 1958, it sold its exclave of Gwadar (on the coast of Balochistan) to Pakistan.
In 1964, the region of Dhofar in the southwest rebelled with the support of the USSR and China after the discovery of oil; Britain was simultaneously fighting a war against pro-independence forces in Southern Yemen (the Aden Emergency). After the British quit Yemen in 1967, Yemeni troops joined the conflict, but rebels were split between Marxist-Leninist pan-Arabists and more pragmatic forces only interested in autonomy for Dhofar. Despite mixed military results, the Dhofar Rebellion led to Said being deposed and replaced by his son Qaboos bin Said in 1970. Qaboos decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach, with promises of amnesties and greater autonomy for Dhofar; the British led a then-innovative propaganda campaign that aimed to win over locals by providing healthcare and other aid, while appealing to religious leaders to oppose the largely secular, part-Marxist rebels. Meanwhile Iran (then under the Shah) poured in more and more resources in support of the Sultan in Muscat. But what ended the war was obscure geo-politics: China opened diplomatic relations with Iran and decided to end its support for the rebels in Oman, and without foreign support, the rebels crumbled, ending in 1976.
Since then, it has remained a British ally, with a base at Duqm used for British operations in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean; in 2020 further expansion was agreed. Oman contributed troops to the 1991 Gulf War. The Sultanate was not greatly affected by the Arab Spring despite a few protests in 2011; the usual token reforms were made and dissenters were censored or worse. It has largely stayed out of the recent conflict in the Arabian peninsula between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Slavery and human rights
Oman, and particularly its colony of Zanzibar, was a center for slavery of black Africans until the mid-19th century; Zanzibar became independent from Oman in 1861. In Oman, slavery was finally abolished in 1970, which was quite late in history as these things go. Despite this change to the law, it is common for families to have foreign domestic workers, generally women, who are kept in conditions of near-slavery. As in other countries in the region, the kafala system means that foreign workers are bound to their employers, are forced to surrender their passports, and face imprisonment, fines, or deportation if they complain about mistreatment or abuse. Omani citizens make up only 56.4% of the population, with the rest foreigners or guest-workers.
In human rights it is slightly better than its neighbors, which is no great achievement. It has made movements towards women's rights, with women able to vote for the essentially powerless Consultative Assembly, and laws against female genital mutilation, although women still face disadvantages in divorce law and inheritance, and marital rape is legal. Freedom of speech is limited and critics of the government face arbitrary imprisonment.
There are no official statistics on religion, but the CIA estimates around 86% of the population is Muslim, mainly Ibadi and Sunni, with a small Shia minority (this includes citizens as well as guest-workers). The remainder is largely made up of guest-workers, most either Hindu (6.5%) or Christian (5.5%).
- Horror and Heartbreak in Oman, Human Rights Watch, 2016
- See the Wikipedia article on Dhofar Rebellion.
- Counterinsurgency Strategy in the Dhofar Rebellion, Alexander Schade, Small Wars Journal, 2017
- UK to expand base in Oman, Jane's, 14 Sept 2020
- Zanzibar: Arabs, Africans and a forgotten legacy of slavery and ethnic cleansing, The New Arab, 2020
- Modern-day Slavery in Oman? Domestic Workers in Peril, Inter Press Service, 2016
- Oman, CIA World Factbook (accessed 19 oct 2020)
- Oman 2019, Amnesty