This week we’re back in the Middle East…visiting a true Sultanate! Oman may fly under the radar for many, but a rich history and culture make it one of the region’s true standouts.
Want to learn more about Oman?
- Capital of Oman (and Largest City): Muscat
- Population of Oman (2016): 4,496,760 (124th)
- Total Area: 309,500 km² (70th)
- Official Language: Arabic
- Oman Currency: Omani rial (ع.ر.) (OMR)
History of Oman
Ancient and Medieval History
Signs of human settlement in Oman date back thousands of years. Records are sketchy however, until about the 6th century BCE – when the land came under the sway of the Persians. It would persist under the thumb of three separate dynasties for nearly a millennium. This changed with the influx of the Islamic faith in the 7th century AD. Oman was among the first regions to adopt the new religion.
The Portuguese and Early Modern Oman
We pick our story up again in 1507, with the arrival of the Portuguese in Oman. For 143 years, Portugal occupied Muscat, building a fortress and using the city as an important base for their sea trade. While incursions by the Ottomans disrupted this, the Portuguese remained until 1650 when local tribes pushed them out.
After establishing self-rule, Oman’s Imam began to make expeditions down south, even pushing the Portuguese out of Zanzibar. After a Persian invasion in the mid 1700’s disrupted the elite, the Al Said dynasty took power in 1749 – and they still remain the rulers of Oman today. Oman grew powerful following this, partly off the back of the Zanzibar-based slave trade. The island was important to Oman, even becoming the place of residence for its ruler at one point. Over the next hundred years, Oman expanded its territory in nearby regions as well (namely part of what is now Pakistan).
20th Century Oman
In the early 20th century, the country was split between the interior (known as Oman) and the area around Muscat. After disputes, an agreement was reached where the interior (under the Imam) was largely independent while the Sultan governed Muscat and oversaw external affairs.
In 1932, Sultan Said bin Taimur rose to power and initiated a strongly isolationist and conservative rule. Using dealings with oil companies as justification, he began to exercise greater power over the interior (the Imamate of Oman). Though there were rebellions, the Sultan managed to repress them with a more powerful army and assistance from British forces. Eventually the Sultan was overthrown bloodlessly in 1970, by his own son no less, who then set about modernizing and introducing social and more liberal reforms. He was successful in quelling rebellion once and for all – with the assistance of Britain, Iran, Jordan, and Pakistan.
Since coming to power, Sultan Qaboos bin Said has introduced economic reforms and pumped money into healthcare, education, and more social services. In 1997, it was decreed that women were allowed to vote and run for elected office. While Oman is an absolute monarchy, the Arab Spring did see calls for and protests in favour of some reforms as well as more jobs. While Sultan Qaboos has promised this and given some more power to the assembly, there has been a crackdown on Internet based criticism – including jail sentences. Despite this, Oman is one of the safer and more liberal countries in the Middle East.
Omani culture has much in common with other nearby Arab countries. Maritime travel and exploration has had a large impact on the country, which can be seen in the more diverse makeup of the populace (thanks to previous holdings in the Swahili Coast and Indian Ocean) and a long history of shipbuilding. Traditional male dress is common in Oman, while the garb of women differs throughout the country (most where a hijab while the burqa can be seen in some more remote areas, especially amongst the Bedouin). Of course, the Islamic faith is paramount in Omani culture – of which the country has its own subsect, Ibadism.
Flag of Oman
The flag of Oman features three horizontal stripes (white, red, green) as well as a vertical red bar on the left with the national emblem (a dagger and two swords) inside. White represents the Imam (the religious ruler of the interior), Green represents the ‘Green Mountains’ to the north, and red is common amongst most Gulf countries.
Omani people usually consume their main meal around lunchtime, while the later meal is often lighter. Chicken, fish, lamb, and rice are staples of the Omani diet, while spices, herbs, and marinades are usually used as well. A curry base is fairly ubiquitous for most dishes served throughout the country, despite some regional variation.
Sports in Oman
A variety of sports are popular throughout Oman, ranging from the traditional to the more modern. Among the country’s traditional sports are horse and camel racing, dhow racing, bullfighting, and falconry. However, soccer, basketball, waterskiing, and sandboarding have been gaining popularity amongst the younger population.
Geography of Oman
A vast desert plain covers the majority of the interior, while mountains (namely the Al Hajar Mountains) can be found in the north. Along the southern coast, where many of the larger cities are located, the climate is more humid.
Cities in Oman
Muscat is the largest city in Oman, as well as serving as the country’s capital. Resting between the Gulf of Oman (in the Arabian Sea) and the Western Al Hajar mountains, the city has an impressive backdrop. Since the reign of Sultan Qaboos began, the city has grown and modernized considerably.
Facts about Oman
- Oman is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited places on earth, dating back more than 100,000 years
- Dry dates are often served with coffee
- There is no income or sales tax
- You need a liquor license to purchase alcohol – generally costing about 10% of your base salary
- Pepsi products are sold instead of Coca-Cola in Oman. Mountain Dew in particular has become extremely popular (it’s often referred to as ‘Omani Alcohol’)
- You need permission to paint homes any colour other than white…so you’re going to see a lot of white
- Oman is the oldest independent Arab country
A long history and tensions between the interior and the Sultan have given way to bright future – even if there remain a few lingering questions.
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