As a region, the Middle East has some of the most fascinating history in the world, and the Sultanate is no different. Humans are believed to have lived in the area now known as Oman for more than 100,000 years, meaning it is one of the oldest human-inhabited places on the planet. Since then, Oman has been through periods of great change, including early successes in the copper and frankincense trade, Portuguese rule and the rise (and fall) of the Omani empire, until it finally became the stable country it is known as today.
As much as we’d like to be, we’re not history experts here at Time Out, but we think we can give you a pretty good run down of everything you need to know about Oman.
Modern day Oman
Looking around Muscat and other major cities in Oman, you’d struggle to believe that just 50 years ago the Sultanate had one hospital, no secondary schools, and a total of ten kilometres of paved roads. Between 1970 and today, Oman underwent a renaissance led by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died in January 2020. He abolished slavery, and used oil money to build all kinds of modern infrastructure including a telecommunications network, roads, and ports.
One of his biggest legacies lies in his foreign policy. Sultan Qaboos was a “friend to all, enemy of none”, and often played an important role in negotiations between Iran and other Arab states, as well as the United States. Talks between opposing countries are often held in Oman, including those behind the US-Iran nuclear deals.
Like many other Gulf states, Oman has long been attempting to diversify its economy to decrease its reliance upon oil. One of the sectors that has benefited the most from this is tourism, and now three million people visit the Sultanate every year.
Muscat and Oman split
The Al Hajar Mountains in Oman naturally split the country into two distinct regions: the interior, and the coastal. In the late 19th century this split was exacerbated, and the interior region was ruled by an Imam while the Sultan continued to control the coastal areas. During this time, the country was known as Muscat and Oman, with Muscat referring to the coastal areas and Oman referring to the interior. This arrangement was formalised in 1920 under the Treaty of Seeb.
The British helped negotiate the Treaty of Seeb and were heavily involved in Muscat at this time. Between 1891 and 1951, Muscat was considered a British Protectorate, and the British used their influence to block other European countries from trading with Oman and to exert greater and greater control in Muscat.
The two regions came under the rule of the Sultan during the reign of Said bin Taimur. The British helped the Sultan reclaim the interior as they wanted to continue the search for oil, which was eventually discovered in 1967. Frequent uprisings, including the Dhofar rebellion, were causing problems and the British helped a coup d’état against Said bin Taimur, leading the way for Sultan Qaboos to take over in 1970.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Oman expanded its empire rapidly, and Zanzibar came under its rule. At its peak, much of East Africa was under Oman’s rule as well as parts of what is now the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Pakistan.
Zanzibar became an important part of Oman’s empire, with ruler Said bin Sultan moving the capital to Zanzibar in either 1832 of 1840. After his death in 1856, the Sultanate of Zanzibar was established and ruled separately from Muscat and Oman. Eventually the British took over much of Zanzibar, turning it into a British protectorate in 1890, until it was granted independence in 1963.
The Omani coast has long played an important role in trade between the east and west thanks to its strategic position, and the Portuguese were keen to take advantage of this. In 1507, they sacked Muscat, and continued to rule much of the Omani coast until they were defeated in 1650. You can see their influence in Muscat by heading over to the old part of the city, where the Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort the Portuguese built are still standing.
Copper and frankincense trade
Early Oman was incredibly prosperous thanks to the copper and frankincense trade. From 5000BCE, Dhofar was producing the best frankincense in the world and using it to trade in Persia, India and North Africa. According to legend, the Queen of Sheba gave Dhofari frankincense to King Solomon as it was so renowned.
Oman is also believed to have once been a key source of copper in the region. Sumerian texts refer to a region known as Magan which was famed for its copper and shipbuilding between 2600 and 2000BCE, and archaeological evidence suggests Magan was located in Oman or the UAE.