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A-Z Around the World: Oman


Welcome back to another installment of A-Z Around the World. This time we are covering Oman, Enjoy !!

Oman, officially the Sultanate of Oman, is an Arab country on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia.

Holding a strategically important position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the country shares land borders with the United Arab Emirates to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the west, and Yemen to the southwest, and shares marine borders with Iran and Pakistan. The coast is formed by the Arabian Sea on the southeast and the Gulf of Oman on the northeast.

The Madha and Musandam exclaves are surrounded by the UAE on their land borders, with the Strait of Hormuz (which it shares with Iran) and Gulf of Oman forming Musandam's coastal boundaries.

From the late 17th century, the Omani Sultanate was a powerful empire, vying with Portugal and the UK for influence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. At its peak in the 19th century, Omani influence or control extended across the Strait of Hormuz to modern-day Iran and Pakistan, and as far south as Zanzibar. When its power declined in the 20th century, the sultanate came under the influence of the United Kingdom. For over 300 years, the relations built between the two empires were based on mutual benefits. The UK recognized Oman's geographical importance as a trading hub that secured their trade lanes in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean and protected their empire in the Indian sub-continent. By contrast, the British strengthened Oman's internal unity and allied the sultanate against external threats. Historically, Muscat was the principal trading port of the Persian Gulf region. Muscat was also among the most important trading ports of the Indian Ocean.

The Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has been the hereditary leader of the country, an absolute monarchy, since 1970. Sultan Qaboos is the longest-serving current ruler in the Middle East, and third-longest current reigning monarch in the world.

Oman is a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It has sizable oil reserves, ranking 25th globally. In 2010, the United Nations Development Programme ranked Oman as the most improved nation in the world in terms of development during the preceding 40 years. A significant portion of its economy involves tourism and trade of fish, dates, and certain agricultural produce. Oman is categorized as a high-income economy and ranks as the 70th most peaceful country in the world according to the Global Peace Index.

Etymology

The origin of Oman's name is uncertain. It seems to be related to Pliny the Elder's Omana and Ptolemy's Omanon, both probably the ancient Sohar.[17] The city or region is typically etymologized in Arabic from aamen or amoun ("settled" people, as opposed to the bedouin), although a number of eponymous founders have been proposed (Oman bin Ibrahim al-Khalil, Oman bin Siba' bin Yaghthan bin Ibrahim, Oman bin Qahtan, and the Biblical Lot) and others derive it from the name of a valley in Yemen at Ma'rib presumed to have been the origin of the city's founders, the Azd, a tribe migrating from Yemen.

History

Prehistory and ancient history

At Aybut Al Auwal, in the Dhofar Governorate of Oman, a site was discovered in 2011 containing more than 100 surface scatters of stone tools, belonging to a regionally specific African lithic industry—the late Nubian Complex—known previously only from the northeast and Horn of Africa. Two optically stimulated luminescence age estimates place the Arabian Nubian Complex at 106,000 years old. This supports the proposition that early human populations moved from Africa into Arabia during the Late Pleistocene.

In recent years known primarily from survey finds, Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites have come to light most on the eastern coast. Main Palaeolithic sites include Saiwan-Ghunaim in the Barr al-Hikman. Archaeological remains are particularly numerous for the Bronze Age Umm an-Nar and Wadi Suq periods. Sites such as Bat show professional wheel-turned pottery, excellent hand-made stone vessels, a metals industry, and monumental architecture . The Early (1300‒300 BC) and Late Iron Ages (100 BC‒300 AD) show more differences than similarities to each other. Thereafter, until the coming of the Ibadhidya, little or nothing is known.

Sumerian tablets refer to a country called Magan and Akkadian ones Makan, a name which links Oman's ancient copper resources. Mazoon, a Persian name used for the region. Over centuries tribes from the west settled in Oman, making a living by fishing, farming, herding or stock breeding, and many present day Omani families trace their ancestral roots to other parts of Arabia. When the emigrants from northern-western and south-western Arabia arrived in Oman, they had to compete with the indigenous population for the best arable land.

In the 1970s and 1980s scholars like John C. Wilkinson believed by virtue of oral history that in the 6th century BC, the Achaemenids exerted control over the Omani peninsula, most likely ruling from a coastal center such as Suhar. Central Oman has its own indigenous Samad Late Iron Age cultural assemblage named eponymously from Samad al-Shan. In the northern part of the Oman Peninsula the Recent Pre-Islamic Period begins in the 3rd century BC and extends into the 3rd century AD. Whether or not Persians brought south-eastern Arabian under their control is a moot point, since the lack of Persian finds speak against this belief. Four centuries later, Omanis came in contact with and accepted Islam. The conversion of Oman is usually ascribed to Amr ibn al-As, who was sent by the prophet Muhammad during the Expedition of Zaid ibn Haritha (Hisma).

Portuguese colonization

A decade after Vasco da Gama's successful voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and to India in 1497–98, the Portuguese arrived in Oman and occupied Muscat for a 143-year period, from 1507 to 1650. Their fortress still remains. In need of an outpost to protect their sea lanes, the Portuguese built up and fortified the city, where remnants of their colonial architectural style still exist. An Ottoman fleet captured Muscat in 1552, during the fight for control of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

The Ottoman Turks captured Muscat from the Portuguese in 1581 and held it until 1588. Rebellious tribes eventually drove out the Portuguese, but were themselves pushed out about a century later, in 1741, by the leader of an Omani tribe, who began the current line of ruling sultans. Except for a brief Persian invasion in the late 1740s, Oman has been self-governing ever since.

18th and 19th centuries

In the 1690s, Saif bin Sultan, the Imam of Oman, pressed down the Swahili Coast. A major obstacle to his progress was Fort Jesus, housing the garrison of a Portuguese settlement at Mombasa. After a two-year siege, the fort fell to bin Sultan in 1698. Thereafter the Omanis easily ejected the Portuguese from Zanzibar and from all other coastal regions north of Mozambique. The Persians invaded Oman in 1737. They were driven out in 1749 when the Al Said dynasty came to power. It continues to rule Oman to this day.

Zanzibar was a valuable property as the main slave market of the Swahili Coast, and became an increasingly important part of the Omani empire, a fact reflected by the decision of the 19th century Imam of Muscat, Sa'id ibn Sultan, to make it his main place of residence in 1837.

Sa'id built impressive palaces and gardens in Zanzibar. Rivalry between his two sons was resolved, with the help of forceful British diplomacy, when one of them, Majid, succeeded to Zanzibar and to the many regions claimed by the family on the Swahili Coast. The other son, Thuwaini, inherited Muscat and Oman. Zanzibar influences in the Comoros archipelago in the Indian Ocean indirectly introduced Omani customs to the Comorian culture. These influences include clothing traditions and wedding ceremonies.

In 1783, Oman's Seyyid Sultan, defeated ruler of Muscat, was granted sovereignty over Gwadar. This coastal city is located in the Makran region of what is now the far southwestern corner of Pakistan, near the present-day border of Iran, at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman. After regaining control of Muscat, this sovereignty was continued via an appointed wali("governor").

The Al Hajar Mountains, of which the Jebel Akhdar is a part, separate the country into two distinct regions: the interior, known as Oman, and the coastal area dominated by the capital, Muscat. In 1913, control of the country split. The interior was ruled by Ibaditeimams and the coastal areas by the sultan. Under the terms of the British-brokered Treaty of Seeb of 1920, the sultan recognised the autonomy of the interior. The Sultan of Muscat would be responsible for the external affairs of Oman.

Reign of Sultan Said (1932–1970)

The rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur was characterised by a feudal and isolationist approach. Imam Ghalib Alhinai was the elected Imam of the Imamate of Oman in May 1954. Relations between the Sultan of Muscat, Said bin Taimur, and Imam Ghalib Alhinai were ruptured over a dispute concerning the right to grant oil concessions. A subsidiary of the Iraq Petroleum Company was intensely interested in some promising geological formations near Fahud. Under the terms of the 1920 treaty of Seeb, the Sultan claimed all dealings with the oil company as his prerogative. The Imam, on the other hand, claimed that since the oil was in his territory, anything dealing with it was an internal matter.

In December 1955, Sultan Said bin Taimur sent troops of the Muscat and Oman Field Force to occupy the main centres in Oman, including Nizwa, the capital of the Imamate of Oman, and Ibri. Imam Ghalib Alhinai and his younger brother, Talib bin Ali Alhinai, led the Imamate of Oman in the Jebel Akhdar War against Sultan Said bin Taimur's attack on his lands. In July 1957, the Sultan's forces were withdrawing, but they were repeatedly ambushed, sustaining heavy casualties. Sultan Said bin Taimur, however, with the intervention of infantry (two companies of the Cameronians), armoured car detachments from the British Army and RAF aircraft, was able to suppress the rebellion. Talib's forces retreated to the inaccessible Jebel Akhdar.

Colonel David Smiley, who had been seconded to organize the Sultan's Armed Forces, managed to isolate the mountain in autumn 1958 and found a route to the plateau from Wadi Bani Kharus.[39] On 27 January 1959, they occupied the mountain in a surprise operation.[39] Ghalib, Talib and Sulaiman managed to escape to Saudi Arabia, where the Imamate's cause was promoted until the 1970s. Imam Ghalib delegated his brother, Talib Alhinai, to present the issue to the Arab League and the United Nations in order to seek recognition of the Imamate of Oman by peaceful means.

In 1955, the exclave coastal Makran strip acceded to Pakistan and was made a district of its Balochistan province, while Gwadar was not included in Makran then. On 8 September 1958, Pakistan purchased the Gwadar enclave from Oman for US$3 million. Gwadar then became a tehsil in the Makran district.

Oil reserves were discovered in 1964 and extraction began in 1967. In the Dhofar Rebellion, which began in 1965, leftist forces were pitted against government troops. As the rebellion threatened to overthrow the Sultan's rule in Dhofar, Sultan Said bin Taimur was deposed in a bloodless coup (1970) by his son Qaboos bin Said, who expanded the Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces, modernised the state's administration and introduced social reforms. The uprising was finally put down in 1975 with the help of forces from Iran, Jordan, Pakistan and the British Royal Air Force, army and Special Air Service.

Reign of Sultan Qaboos (from 1970)

After deposing his father in 1970, Sultan Qaboos opened up the country, embarked on economic reforms, and followed a policy of modernisation marked by increased spending on health, education and welfare. Slavery, once a cornerstone of the country's trade and development, was outlawed in 1970.

In 1981 Oman became a founding member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. Political reforms were eventually introduced. Historically, voters had been chosen from among tribal leaders, intellectuals, and businessmen. In 1997 Sultan Qaboos decreed that women could vote for, and stand for election to, the Majlis al-Shura, the Consultative Assembly of Oman. Two women were duly elected to the body.

In 2002, voting rights were extended to all citizens over the age of 21, and the first elections to the Consultative Assembly under the new rules were held in 2003. In 2004, the Sultan appointed Oman's first female minister with portfolio, Sheikha Aisha bint Khalfan bin Jameel al-Sayabiyah. She was appointed to the post of National Authority for Industrial Craftsmanship, an office that attempts to preserve and promote Oman's traditional crafts and stimulate industry. Despite these changes, there was little change to the actual political makeup of the government. The Sultan continued to rule by decree. Nearly 100 suspected Islamists were arrested in 2005 and 31 people were convicted of trying to overthrow the government. They were ultimately pardoned in June of the same year.

Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings taking place throughout the region, protests occurred in Oman during the early months of 2011.

Although they did not call for the ousting of the regime, demonstrators demanded political reforms, improved living conditions, and the creation of more jobs. They were dispersed by riot police in February 2011. Sultan Qaboos reacted by promising jobs and benefits. In October 2011, elections were held to the Consultative Assembly, to which Sultan Qaboos promised greater powers. The following year, the government began a crackdown on internet criticism. In September 2012, trials began of 'activists' accused of posting "abusive and provocative" criticism of the government online. Six were given jail terms of 12–18 months and fines of around $2,500 each.

Geography

Oman lies between latitudes 16° and 28° N, and longitudes 52° and 60° E. A vast gravel desert plain covers most of central Oman, with mountain ranges along the north (Al Hajar Mountains) and southeast coast (Qara or Dhofar Mountains), where the country's main cities are also located: the capital city Muscat, Sohar and Sur in the north, and Salalah in the south. Oman's climate is hot and dry in the interior and humid along the coast. During past epochs, Oman was covered by ocean, witnessed by the large numbers of fossilized shells existing in areas of the desert away from the modern coastline.

The peninsula of Musandam (Musandem) exclave, which has a strategic location on the Strait of Hormuz, is separated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates. The series of small towns known collectively as Dibba are the gateway to the Musandam peninsula on land and the fishing villages of Musandam by sea, with boats available for hire at Khasab for trips into the Musandam peninsula by sea.

Oman's other exclave, inside UAE territory, known as Madha, located halfway between the Musandam Peninsula and the main body of Oman, is part of the Musandam governorate, covering approximately 75 km2 (29 sq mi). Madha's boundary was settled in 1969, with the north-east corner of Madha barely 10 m (32.8 ft) from the Fujairah road. Within the Madha exclave is a UAE enclave called Nahwa, belonging to the Emirate of Sharjah, situated about 8 km (5 mi) along a dirt track west of the town of New Madha, and consisting of about forty houses with a clinic and telephone exchange. The central desert of Oman is an important source of meteorites for scientific analysis.

Climate

Like the rest of the Persian Gulf, Oman generally has one of the hottest climates in the world—with summer temperatures in Muscat and northern Oman averaging 30 to 40 °C (86.0 to 104.0 °F). Oman receives little rainfall, with annual rainfall in Muscat averaging 100 mm (3.9 in), falling mostly in January. In the south, the Dhofar Mountains area near Salalah has a tropical-like climate and receives seasonal rainfall from late June to late September as a result of monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean, leaving the summer air saturated with cool moisture and heavy fog. Summer temperatures in Salalah range from 20 to 30 °C (68.0 to 86.0 °F)—relatively cool compared to northern Oman.

The mountain areas receive more rainfall, and annual rainfall on the higher parts of the Jabal Akhdar probably exceeds 400 mm (15.7 in). Low temperatures in the mountainous areas result in snow cover once every few years. Some parts of the coast, particularly near the island of Masirah, sometimes receive no rain at all within the course of a year. The climate is generally very hot, with temperatures reaching around 54 °C (129.2 °F) (peak) in the hot season, from May to September.

On June 26, 2018 the city of Qurayyat set the record for highest minimum temperature in a 24-hour period, 42.6 °C (108.7 °F).

Flora and fauna

Desert shrub and desert grass, common to southern Arabia, are found in Oman, but vegetation is sparse in the interior plateau, which is largely gravel desert. The greater monsoon rainfall in Dhofar and the mountains makes the growth there more luxuriant during summer; coconut palms grow plentifully in the coastal plains of Dhofar and frankincense is produced in the hills, with abundant oleander and varieties of acacia. The Al Hajar Mountains are a distinct ecoregion, the highest points in eastern Arabia with wildlife including the Arabian tahr.

Indigenous mammals include the leopard, hyena, fox, wolf, hare, oryx, and ibex. Birds include the vulture, eagle, stork, bustard, Arabian partridge, bee eater, falcon, and sunbird.

In 2001, Oman had nine endangered species of mammals, five endangered types of birds, and nineteen threatened plant species. Decrees have been passed to protect endangered species, including the Arabian leopard, Arabian oryx, mountain gazelle, goitered gazelle, Arabian tahr, green sea turtle, hawksbill turtle, and olive ridley turtle. However, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary is the first site ever to be deleted from UNESCO's World Heritage List, due to the government's decision to reduce the site to 10% of its former size so that the remainder could be opened to oil prospectors.

In recent years, Oman has become one of newer hot spots for whale watching, highlighting the critically endangered Arabian humpback whale, the most isolated and only non-migratory population in the world, sperm whales, and pygmy blue whales.

Environmental issues

Drought and limited rainfall contribute to shortages in the nation's water supply. Maintaining an adequate supply of water for agricultural and domestic use is one of Oman's most pressing environmental problems, with limited renewable water resources. 94% of available water is used in farming and 2% for industrial activity, with the majority sourced from fossil water in the desert areas and spring water in hills and mountains.

Drinking water is available throughout Oman, either piped or delivered. The soil in coastal plains, such as Salalah, have shown increased levels of salinity, due to over exploitation of ground water and encroachment by seawater on the water table. Pollution of beaches and other coastal areas by oil tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman is also a persistent concern.

Local and national entities have noted unethical treatment of animals in Oman. In particular, stray dogs (and to a lesser extent, stray cats) are often the victims of torture, abuse or neglect. Currently, the only approved method of decreasing the stray dog population is shooting by police officers. The Oman government has refused to implement a spay and neuter program or create any animal shelters in the country. Cats, while seen as more acceptable than dogs, are viewed as pests and frequently die of starvation or illness.

Culture

Outwardly, Oman shares many of the cultural characteristics of its Arab neighbors, particularly those in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Despite these similarities, important factors make Oman unique in the Middle East. These result as much from geography and history as from culture and economics. The relatively recent and artificial nature of the state in Oman makes it difficult to describe a national culture; however, sufficient cultural heterogeneity exists within its national boundaries to make Oman distinct from other Arab States of the Persian Gulf. Oman's cultural diversity is greater than that of its Arab neighbours, given its historical expansion to the Swahili Coast and the Indian Ocean.

Oman has a long tradition of shipbuilding, as maritime travel played a major role in the Omanis' ability to stay in contact with the civilisations of the ancient world. Sur was one of the most famous shipbuilding cities of the Indian Ocean. The Al Ghanja ship takes one whole year to build. Other types of Omani ship include As Sunbouq and Al Badan.

In March 2016 archaeologists working off Al Hallaniyah Island identified a shipwreck believed to be that of the Esmeralda from Vasco da Gama's 1502–1503 fleet. The wreck was initially discovered in 1998. Later underwater excavations took place between 2013 and 2015 through a partnership between the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture and Blue Water Recoveries Ltd., a shipwreck recovery company. The vessel was identified through such artifacts as a "Portuguese coin minted for trade with India (one of only two coins of this type known to exist) and stone cannonballs engraved with what appear to be the initials of Vincente Sodré, da Gama's maternal uncle and the commander of the Esmeralda."

Dress

The male national dress in Oman consists of the dishdasha, a simple, ankle-length, collarless gown with long sleeves. Most frequently white in colour, the dishdasha may also appear in a variety of other colours. Its main adornment, a tassel (furakha) sewn into the neckline, can be impregnated with perfume. Underneath the dishdasha, men wear a plain, wide strip of cloth wrapped around the body from the waist down. The most noted regional differences in dishdasha designs are the style with which they are embroidered, which varies according to age group. On formal occasions a black or beige cloak called a bisht may cover the dishdasha. The embroidery edging the cloak is often in silver or gold thread and it is intricate in detail.

Omani men wear two types of headdress:

  • the ghutra, also called “Musar” a square piece of woven wool or cotton fabric of a single colour, decorated with various embroidered patterns.

  • the kummah, a cap that is the head dress worn during leisure hours.

Some men carry the assa, a stick, which can have practical uses or is simply used as an accessory during formal events. Omani men, on the whole, wear sandals on their feet.

The khanjar (dagger) forms part of the national dress and men wear the khanjar on all formal public occasions and festivals. It is traditionally worn at the waist. Sheaths may vary from simple covers to ornate silver or gold-decorated pieces. It is a symbol of a man's origin, his manhood and courage. A depiction of a khanjar appears on the national flag.

Omani women wear eye-catching national costumes, with distinctive regional variations. All costumes incorporate vivid colours and vibrant embroidery and decorations. In the past, the choice of colours reflected a tribe's tradition. The Omani women's traditional costume comprises several garments: the kandoorah, which is a long tunic whose sleeves or radoon are adorned with hand-stitched embroidery of various designs. The dishdasha is worn over a pair of loose fitting trousers, tight at the ankles, known as a sirwal. Women also wear a head shawl most commonly referred to as the lihaf.

As of 2014 women reserve wearing their traditional dress for special occasions, and instead wear a loose black cloak called an abaya over their personal choice of clothing, whilst in some regions, particularly amongst the Bedouin, the burqa is still worn. Women wear hijab, and though some women cover their faces and hands, most do not. The Sultan has forbidden the covering of faces in public office.

Food

Omani cuisine is diverse and has been influenced by many cultures. Omanis usually eat their main daily meal at midday, while the evening meal is lighter. During Ramadan, dinner is served after the Taraweeh prayers, sometimes as late as 11 pm. However, these dinner timings differ according to each family; for instance, some families would choose to eat right after maghrib prayers and have dessert after taraweeh.

Arsia, a festival meal served during celebrations, consists of mashed rice and meat (sometimes chicken). Another popular festival meal, shuwa, consists of meat cooked very slowly (sometimes for up to 2 days) in an underground clay oven. The meat becomes extremely tender and it is infused with spices and herbs before cooking to give it a very distinct taste. Fish is often used in main dishes too, and the kingfish is a popular ingredient. Mashuai is a meal consisting of a whole spit-roasted kingfish served with lemon rice.

Rukhal bread is a thin, round bread originally baked over a fire made from palm leaves. It is eaten at any meal, typically served with Omani honey for breakfast or crumbled over curry for dinner. Chicken, fish, and lamb or mutton are regularly used in dishes. The Omani halwa is a very popular sweet, basically consisting of cooked raw sugar with nuts. There are many different flavors, the most popular ones being black halwa (original) and saffron halwa. Halwa is considered as a symbol of Omani hospitality, and is traditionally served with coffee. As is the case with most Arab states of the Persian Gulf, alcohol is only available over-the-counter to non-Muslims. Muslims can still purchase alcoholic drinks. Alcohol is served in many hotels and a few restaurants.

 

Travel to Oman: Lonely Planet

In Muscat's Grand Mosque, there is a beautiful hand-loomed carpet; it was once the world's largest rug until Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque, in the United Arab Emirates, pinched the record. This is poignant because Oman doesn't boast many 'firsts' or 'biggests' in a region bent on grandstanding. What it does boast, with its rich heritage and embracing society, is a strong sense of identity, a pride in an ancient, frankincense-trading past and confidence in a highly educated future.

 

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