When you’re a Middle Eastern state and you haven’t had a shooting war for 39 years, you’ve definitely done something right. The Sultanate of Oman’s last war was its Dhofar Rebellion, which ended in 1976. Since then, Oman has sat out three Persian Gulf wars (sending token forces to not fight in the 1991 one), several Yemeni civil wars, and pretty much the whole Middle Eastern struggle between jihadism and everyone else. There is a lot that should make Oman a target. Yet it’s enjoyed a peace unrivaled in both Arabia and the Middle East in general. What has this lovely holiday destination done so well? Let’s begin.
The cliff notes!
- Oman’s arid location has always kept it relatively weak, but not entirely depopulated, unlike all of its pre-modern neighbors.
- This means its had a state much longer than nearly every other Arabian peninsula state, minus Yemen, with all the maturity a thousand years of government entails.
- This maturity has translated to elites cooperating with strong outsiders when necessary while leveraging Oman’s relative isolation to keep most of their independence.
- But this maturity is heavily dependent on a smart ruler, which Oman has been lucky to have since 1970. But he is dying, and Oman’s strategic importance is only going to grow in the coming decades. The geopolitical challenge for his successor, or successors, is greater than Oman has ever seen before.
So, Oman, eh? First, it’s basic geography.
Oman’s more precisely divided into two pretty neat geographic regions: the coastal, developed, and more culturally moderate regions on the Arabian Sea dominated by open cities like Muscat and Sohar, and the more traditional, insular, and a bit rebellious desert regions of the interior. They are divided by the Hajar Mountains, which trap what moisture there is along the coastal plains. In past times, this enabled some pre-modern farming.
Since the coastal regions could support farming, they’ve also long supported civilization. Oman as a settled country goes way, way back, and civilization extended further inland during ancient times when rain was more plentiful. As Arabia dried out, these cities got covered in sand, including the famous lost city Iram of the Pillars. Nevertheless, settled towns and cities remained on both sides of the Hajar Mountains, with more people naturally living on the coast.
Still, the size of arable land in Oman is small; it has never been able to support large numbers of people, unlike Yemen, whose highlands have long given rise to powerful armies and tribes. Even now Oman is relatively poor by the standards of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, of which it is a member. Unlike every other GCC member, Oman hasn’t been blessed with massive oil resources; it’s had to do far more with far less.
Yet Oman has also benefited from its near total isolation by land, giving it a unique culture.
Omani don’t wear the same garb as other Gulf Arabs, nor do they practice the same version of Islam. Within Oman are remnants of pre-Islamic (and pre-Arabic) languages called South Arabian languages. Additionally, they’ve got a version of Islam that isn’t practiced anywhere else. Ibadism is a 7th century variant of Kharjirite Islam that preached a puritan strain of Islam very early in the history of the religion. It was wiped out almost everywhere else, but in Oman it had a powerful ally: planet Earth.
For while Oman by sea is quite connected to the rest of the world, by land its one of the most isolated places anywhere. On its western frontier is the impassible Empty Quarter, a desert so difficult to cross in force that successful invasions of Oman have only ever come by sea (and the early Islamic ‘conquests’ were less conquests and more missionary missions gone rather well). But because Oman is a relatively low populated country with little rainfall, it’s never been rich enough to justify a strong occupation, meaning when empires came a-conquerin’, they stuck to the coast. The Portuguese and Ottomans jostled over a handful of forts in the biggest cities. That’s a key reason why Muscat and not Nizwa has European-style forts.
Oman as we now know it today was long divided formally between the interior at Nizwa and the coast at Muscat, with the territory labeled as “Muscat and Oman.” Muscat understood it couldn’t afford the long war of occupation necessary to subjugate the interior without outside help, so it let Nizwa, with an Ibadi imam, call the shots for the tribes. This formula mostly kept the peace.
All this uniqueness means Omani elites don’t have much in common with any of their neighbors. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos certainly stands out when he’s side-by-side with other Gulf rulers. This is a double-edged sword; it gives Oman a level of independence unique in the GCC, but can also mean Omanis have to work harder to be accepted by their fellow Gulf Arabs.
Meanwhile, being on a major trade route has helped Oman keep in touch with the world.
Oman’s second most important geographic characteristic is its location between India, Iran, and the Red Sea. This made it a great stopping point in years gone by for merchant ships as they moved goods between the Far East/India and Europe. Marco Polo is even said to have had a short stay in Oman on his journey to the Mongol Empire.
That’s given Oman’s coastal regions access to world culture and goods for centuries, lending it a more moderate and cosmopolitan worldview. But it’s also meant that Muscat, Oman’s capital and largest city, has always been vulnerable to sea power. He who controls the Arabian Gulf may also control, or at the very least influence, Oman.
The experience with the Portuguese, and later the British, taught Omani elites the importance of cooperating with whoever was the biggest power in the neighborhood. When Britain arrived in force in the 19th century, Oman’s sultans decided it was best to get along rather than get bombed.
In between the space of other great empires, Oman’s fleets built a trading and slaving empire throughout East Africa, centered on Zanzibar. This odd Arab outpost could be built for three reasons: 1). Oman was close to a major sea, 2). Oman got just enough technology from trade to be able to field a regional fleet, and 3). Oman’s connections with other sophisticated states taught it the methods of empire-building.
However, as soon as the British arrived in force in the 19th century, Oman’s empire collapsed, unable to compete with a modern European power. Zanzibar is the location of what’s commonly cited as the world’s shortest war, lasting all of 38 minutes before the Omani sultan surrendered to a British bombardment.
From then on, Oman made it a point to cooperate as much as it had to with the Western powers that now surged into the Persian Gulf. But once more, Oman’s relative desolation made it so that full-scale colonization was unattractive. Britain preferred to use local leaders to control these territories, a decision that left the royal Omani house intact.
And Oman remained more or less frozen in time under the aegis of the British Empire. That is, until that aegis had incentive to change Oman.
Oman is a fine example of how states stagnate if they feel they can avoid change. Most people, in most places, won’t improve either themselves or their societies unless they have reason to. Oman was geopolitically shielded by the mighty British Navy; its western flank remained impassable for armies out of Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Under the country’s dual ruler system of sultan and imam, not much changed in Oman.
Then geopolitics got involved.
While tension always existed between the interior and the coast – with the interior feeling haughtily superior in its conservative religiosity while the coast looked down upon the backward savages of the desert – neither side had the power to totally overcome the other, and the British preferred a divided protectorate to allow them to play one against the other. Then, in the 1920s, oil was discovered in Oman. The British understood and preferred the Sultan of Muscat over the holy man in Nizwa; to him went the oil contracts. From then on, civil war was pretty much inevitable.
In the 1950s, Nizwa’s imamate began a full-scale uprising to try to win the oil fields within its traditional territory. The British were having none of that; spurred by London, the Sultan’s forces swarmed over the mountains and conquered Nizwa, supported by Royal Air Force bombers not terribly concerned with whose villages they were bombing. (I’ve visited one of these bombed-out villages, Wadi Tanuf, and their utter emptiness reflects the continuing policy of the Sultan’s government not to talk about past war crimes).
Nizwa enjoyed some support from the growing Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who aspired to conquer both the Trucial States and the strategic Buraimi Oasis. In 1954, Saudi forces had tried to take Buraimi by force, but were ousted by some superb British diplomacy and bluff. It would not be the last time Saudi Arabia posed a threat to Oman’s sultan.
With nothing more than brave Bedouin and a few muskets, the Imam and his forces were doomed to defeat. With British support, the Sultan of Muscat, Sultan Said bin Taimur, unified the country. Then he sat down and took quite the nap.
And Sultan Said might have been happy to just lock the gates of Muscat and call it a day, except the rest of the world was coming calling.
Sultan Said was a man content to sit about and do things as they’d always been done. But new challenges were emerging that meant the budding Omani nation-state could not survive with such a man at the helm.
When Britain withdrew from South Yemen in 1962, the new country almost immediately fell to Soviet-backed communists, whose ambition was to install communist regimes throughout the increasingly strategic Persian Gulf. While the Soviets couldn’t afford military largesse on the scale it provided other pro-Soviet regimes, it did arm South Yemen well enough to allow it to stoke Muscat and Oman’s divisions and cause a full-scale rebellion.
The Dhofar Rebellion was more than just a challenge to royal Omani authority; it was a subversion to Western influence in the Persian Gulf that spooked the British into action. Antiquated Omani institutions were gutted and the army reorganized from a tribal levy system to a professional army, drilled by British SAS to combat communist guerrillas who were rapidly gaining ground.
The most antiquated of all Omani institutions was Sultan Said himself. A man of profound tradition, he was losing the war with his old style of rule. Casting around the palace for would-be sultans, the British found Qaboos, who was happy to bloodlessly oust Said and take the throne in 1970. Renaming the country to simply the Sultanate of Oman, Qaboos unleashed long-overdue reforms. By the mid-1970s, these reforms bore fruit, and Oman’s communist movement was defeated.
Which heralded a long, long, long peace.
Qaboos was the wise ruler Oman needed to steer clear of the dangerous waters of Middle Eastern politics. His unique sect could avoid taking sides between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran; in fact, he’s often been a go-between for two rivals. When Saddam’s Iraq threatened to upset the order of the Persian Gulf by invading Kuwait, Qaboos gingerly tossed his hat into the ring with the alliance that crushed him; no Arafat was he, siding with an obvious loser. But nor did Qaboos ever believe Oman could aspire to be much more than a nice neighbor, a quiet retreat, and a place for subtle diplomacy. Oman’s profile on the world stage remained low.
As Britain withdrew from the Gulf in 1971, Qaboos drew closer to the United States without the sycophancy that plagued other Gulf rulers. Thanks to its distance from Iraq, Oman was never a prime location for a high profile American base. Oman’s obvious discomfort with Saudi’s Wahhabi fervor won it friends in Iran, keeping Oman clear of Iranian harassment. Meanwhile, its stewardship of the Strait of Hormuz was marked by moderation and reliability, winning friends in the West.
Mostly, Oman was able to avoid having to make difficult decisions; nobody saw it as a key piece for regional domination, nor did anyone see it as an obstacle. It could be largely left alone as the U.S. tried, in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, to reorder the region to its liking.
That effort failed miserably in the fires of the Iraq War, giving rise to a threat that may well suck Oman into a conflict it very much wants to avoid.
From Iraq emerged the wider Sunni-Shi’a struggle, a battle for domination between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As those two seek security from one another, Oman suddenly acquires a strategic value it didn’t have before. Religiously, it can find common ground with one or the other as it likes. In the 1970s, Iran’s Shah sent forces to help Qaboos crush the Dhofar rebels. In centuries past, Persian rulers claimed control of Oman’s coasts. Iran’s belief that it ought to have influence there has some merit.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia sees Oman as an extension of Arab civilization, which Saudi increasingly sees itself as the head of. As the Persian threat rises, Arab states are expected to fall in line behind Saudi Arabia. While Ibadi Islam might not be the most tasteful of sects to Wahhabi clerics, it’s still not quite the anathema that Shi’a Islam has become. Oman provides Saudi Arabia with access to the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz; such access could be used in a conflict with Iran to strangle Iranian exports.
Thus there’s incentive for both sides to bring Oman into their respective camps. Oman is closer to Saudi Arabia, having extensive trade links with Saudi’s close ally, the United Arab Emirates, with whom it shares a long border. It’s also part of the GCC, Saudi Arabia’s pan-Gulf political project.
But further afield, beyond the Gulf itself, is the growing importance of the Indian Ocean. As India’s economy grows, and as China and India flex their inevitable muscles, the Indian Ocean will only grow more strategic, not less, especially to the United States, which will continue to seek domination of the world’s oceans. An excellent base for the U.S. Navy could one day be Oman; in decades, China, India, and the U.S. could all be competing for basing rights in the sultanate. That could pull Oman into a global struggle it would much rather avoid.
Worse now is the looming death of Qaboos and the possible loss of a wise ruler.
Qaboos is rumored to be near death, and when he goes, so too will his governing style. Oman cannot afford the social contracts of other Gulf states, providing cradle to grave welfare. Rather, Oman’s government must provide jobs and grow the economy, which Qaboos has managed somewhat, but not at the dizzying rate of the nearby UAE. In 2011, Oman experienced protests that revealed Omanis are growing fed up with royal incompetence; their deep affection for Qaboos stymies most of their complaints, but whoever his successor is – and that’s still a state secret – may not be as well loved. A return to protests, rebellions, and unrest could follow should the new sultan, whoever he is, misread the situation.
Oman does well enough when left alone, but left alone it no longer is. Outsiders will increasingly demand it choose sides loudly and clearly. The days of the sleepy sultanate are coming to a close; may the next sultan have the wisdom to navigate the turmoil to come.