Oman: Your Friendly Gulf Go-Between

As it turns out, the Iranian nuclear deal that has Saudi royals so concerned was made possible by the country that is probably Saudi Arabia’s most nondescript neighbor: Oman. The year-long series of secret talks that were held between negotiators from the United States and Iran were mostly held in Oman and were mediated by the ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos b. Saʿid al-Saʿid, who worked back channels to, among other things, secure the release of three American hikers who were arrested in 2009 for crossing the border into Iran illegally and (in the case of two of the three hikers) were held in Iran until September 2011. Oman has maintained good relations with Iran while the rest of the countries on the Arabian peninsula have, for the most part, not (more on that in a bit), so the Omani government made a natural, and apparently very effective, go between for the two belligerents.

Oman is not a country that carries a lot of weight on the world stage, particularly compared to its neighbors on the Arabian peninsula. The Saudis, between their oil wealth and their control of Mecca and Medina, are the 800 pound gorilla of the Arab world. Only Egypt has the size and strength to match the Saudis, and in case you haven’t noticed, the Saudis are kind of funding Egypt’s government at the moment. Qatar is ridiculously wealthy and keeps throwing that money around the region, aiding some Syrian Salafi rebels here, propping up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt there, and so on. Bahrain doesn’t have a lot of global heft, but what it does have is a nasty internal conflict between its Sunni rulers and its Shiʿi majority that threatens to become worse all the time. Yemen is a destabilized mess and home to probably the only branch of al-Qaeda that is still a legitimate threat to strike Western targets, so it’s definitely on everybody’s radar. The United Arab Emirates don’t boast a lot of natural resources like the Saudis and Qataris do, but between Abu Dhabi’s oil and Dubai’s commercial wealth they’re able to finance their own very muscular regional agenda.

Oman, meanwhile, just kind of quietly sits there amidst all these heavy-hitters and/or basket cases. There’s some oil and gas, but not all that much relatively speaking (Oman ranks in the 20s in the world in both oil and gas production). It’s an absolute monarchy with little or no rule of law and seriously curtailed civil liberties. Consequently, it saw some Arab Spring-related protests in 2011 that basically revolved around calls for higher wages and a bit more authority for the elected part of the legislature. But that’s really as far as they went. Qaboos was never in danger of facing an outright revolution like what happened in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Oman is a fairly small country, ranking 16th of the 22 Arab League member states in population. But it does have a rich history and culture, and I happen to like the place (I had a very enjoyable vacation there back when I was living in the Persian Gulf), so I’ll seize on any excuse I can find to write about it.

Oman’s geography and climate look mostly like the rest of Arabia; it is very hot and very arid, with lots of desert in the interior and running between mountain ranges in the north (the Hajar Mountains) and south (the Dhofar Mountains), and coastline running from the Strait of Hormuz along the Gulf of Oman and then along the Arabian Sea up to the border with Yemen. Oman controls the tip of the peninsula, known as Musandam, that jettisons out into the Strait and is actually home to a small Iranic-speaking group called the Kumzari, probably descendents of Persian fishermen who settled in the Musandam area in ancient times. Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by a strip of land belonging to the United Arab Emirates, which itself contains one enclave controlled by Oman (technically the entire UAE-Oman border is undefined, but the two countries seem to get along regardless).

Apart from the north, around Muscat, and the south, around Salalah, most of Oman’s coastline is barren and undeveloped, though there are a couple of major port development projects supposedly in the works. Oman’s coastline is increasingly threatened by oil washing up from the ship traffic going to and from the Strait of Hormuz as well as rising levels of soil salinity as seawater seeps into the groundwater table. What makes Oman unique, for Arabia, is that its southern extremes, around Salalah, are annually subject to heavy rains during the Indian Ocean monsoon season. For the three months when the monsoon rains hit Salalah, it is probably the greenest spot on the whole peninsula (naturally, anyway–I’m excluding places where Gulf wealth can pay to keep plants watered). Of the plant life that thrives on these monsoon rains, the most important is the frankincense tree, supplying the incense trade that was historically (i.e., prior to the discovery of fossil fuels) one of the two (along with seafaring) pillars of the region’s economy.

Archeology suggests that humans were settling in the area that is now Oman during the Paleolithic Era, probably as part of the earliest human migrations out of Africa, across the then-much smaller Red Sea and into the (probably) lush Arabian peninsula, starting in what is now Yemen and branching out from there. The earliest written evidence of human activity in Oman may be found in 3rd millennium BCE Sumerian records of a region called Majan (or Makkan), which was known for its copper production and was probably located where Oman is now. The Quran talks about a kingdom known as ʿAd that may have thrived in the 2nd millennium BCE in eastern Yemen and Oman, mostly on the back of the incense trade. According to the Quran, the ʿAd were very powerful but lacked piety; they were sent a prophet named Hud who exhorted them to change their sinful ways, but failed to heed his words and were destroyed by God in a sandstorm. With the rise of the successive Persian Empires in the first millennium BCE, Oman came under their sway and remained so until the arrival of envoys from Medina in the 7th century, who brought with them the message of Muhammad.

It should be noted that for most of its history since the arrival of Islam, the territory we call Oman today was considered two separate entities: “Muscat,” including the strip of land along the Gulf of Oman and north of the Hajar Mountains, and “Oman” or “Oman Proper,” which is effectively everything else. These entities were ruled separately until 1749. The interior was ruled for most of its history by an Imam of the Ibadi branch of Islam, which is distinct from both Sunni and Shiʿi Islam and is still the religion practiced by most (around 75%) Omanis today.

The Ibadi formed probably as a reform splinter group of the Kharijites, whom you may remember as the folks who assassinated Ali back in 661, although official Ibadi history contends that the Ibadis and Kharijites share a common precursor but that they went their separate ways before Ali’s murder. They share a basic belief that anyone (well, any man, anyway) can become the imam (or caliph depending on your perspective) regardless of his ancestry, so long as he demonstrates that his piety is unmatched. In practice, Ibadi imams were elected by their followers. But Ibadis only dissociate themselves from those who are deemed to be sinners or unbelievers (kafir), which is considerably more moderate than the Kharijite doctrine requiring that unbelievers and sinners be put to death. Despite the Ibadis’ historical connection to the folks who killed Ali, their rejection of Sunni Islam and their status as an Islamic minority gives Ibadism a natural affinity with Shiʿism. That plus their deep historical ties has kept Oman and Iran on decent terms even since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The power of the Ibadi Imams waxed and waned for centuries, and when it waned Oman came under the sway of foreign empires, like the Ismaili Qarmatians based in Bahrayn (the historical region covering most of what is now eastern Saudi Arabia) during the 10th century and the Seljuks during the 11th and 12th centuries, or local tribes, like the Nabhanis from the 12th-17th centuries. The Yaruba, who deposed the last Nabhani ruler in 1624, unified the Ibadi imamate with the temporal authority that the Nabhanis had held, and ruled both Oman and Muscat in the 17th and 18th centuries. For much of this time Muscat was actually under the authority of Portugal, which conquered the city in 1507 and held it, save for a couple of short periods of Ottoman control, until the Yaruba imam Sultan b. Sayf ousted them in 1650.

It was under the fourth Yaruba Imam, Sayf b. Sultan (d. 1711) when Oman began to establish itself as a major regional power by driving the Portuguese out of East Africa and becoming the dominant power from the southern part of Arabia all the way down the African coast to modern-day Tanzania. The island of Zanzibar was the main outlet for the East African slave trade and quickly became the most important part of this new Omani Empire. The decline of the Yaruba in the mid-1700s opened the door to Iranian control of Oman’s northern coastal regions (Muscat and its environs), but that was short-lived due to the efforts of the governor of Suhar, a city about 125 miles north of Muscat along the coast. This governor, Ahmad b. Saʿid al-Busaʿidi (d. 1783), resisted Iranian attempts to take Suhar in the early 1740s and forced the Iranians to reconfirm his position as governor. His position secure, Busaʿidi started to expand his support until he was powerful enough to drive the Iranians out of even Muscat in 1747.

A short conflict with the last Yaruba imam ended in 1749 with the imam’s death and Ahmad’s election as the new imam, reunifying Muscat and Oman and establishing the dynasty that still rules the country today. The fifth Busaʿidi sultan, Saʿid b. Sultan, ruled from 1804 to 1856 and after his death the empire split, with Zanzibar and East African being governed separately from Muscat and Oman. The real problem, however, was the British decision to outlaw slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, which had a bit of a negative effect on the Omani economy in the same way that fire had a bit of a negative effect on the Hindenburg. Much of the population of Oman migrated to East Africa, which Britain then pried away from Omani control. The Busaʿidis were mired in a series of internal conflicts with a reestablished Ibadi Imamate in the interior, which lasted from the 1860s until 1959 when, with British help, the army of Sultan Saʿid b. Taymur (d. 1972) forced the last Ibadi Imam, Ghalib b. Ali al-Hinali, into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2009.

Under Saʿid b. Taymur Oman’s first oil reserves were discovered in 1964, but a leftist revolt threatened to overthrow the Busaʿidis entirely until Saʿid was deposed by his son, Qaboos b. Saʿid, in 1970. Qaboos put down the rebellion and modernized Oman’s government, creating a consultative assembly to review legislation and delegating authority to his cabinet. Although he rules with almost unchecked power, Qaboos has pursued a slow, but steady, course of modernization (including allowing women to vote in and stand for election to the assembly in 1997) as well as a diplomacy built around maintaining relations with everybody (he somehow managed to maintain ties with Iraq despite actively aiding coalition forces during the Gulf War).

As I mentioned above, Oman saw some Arab Spring protests related to greater popular participation in government and a general discontent with Oman’s economy. Qaboos responded by giving the assembly some legislative powers, by expanding the Omani social welfare apparatus and pledging to increase job creation, and also by, uh, throwing some activists in prison and torturing them. Oman is still an absolute monarchy and rights like free speech and free assembly are not well-protected, but its human rights record is mixed with respect to women, children, migrants, and prisoners, which is more than you can say for some of its neighbors. Qaboos has no heir, so it will be up to the royal family to select a successor when he passes, and that could prove destabilizing but only time will tell.

So there’s everything you didn’t ever want to know about Oman, the quiet little country that may have been instrumental in bringing the United States and Iran back to a negotiating table after more than 3 decades of hostility.

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