‘Renaissance’ is a term any visitor to Oman will hear, as it refers to the current period under Sultan Qaboos, a leader held responsible by most of the population for easing the country into modernity. Before he came to the throne after a bloodless coup in 1970, Oman had no secondary and only two primary schools, two hospitals run by the American mission and a meagre 10km of sealed roads. In addition, the country was in a state of civil war. Oman has since caught up with its more affluent neighbours, and it boasts efficient, locally run hospitals, universities, electricity to remote villages and an ever-improving infrastructure of roads. Furthermore, Oman is peaceful and stable, with an enviably low crime rate and a well-trained local workforce.
The term ‘renaissance’ is an appropriate one, as it suggests equally rich periods through Oman’s long history.
As far back as 5000 BC, southern Oman (now called Dhofar) was the centre of the lucrative frankincense trade. This highly prized commodity, produced from the aromatic sap of the frankincense tree, was traded for spices with India and carried by caravans across all of Arabia. While the trees grew in Yemen and one or other two locations, they grew best in the monsoon-swept hills of Dhofar, where they continue to be harvested to this day. So precious was the sap of these trees, that even the part-mythical Queen of Sheba hand-delivered Dhofari frankincense to King Solomon. Equally legendary, of course, are the gifts borne by the three wise men of biblical report.
The Bible also mentions the golden- pillared city of Ubar, built by the people of Ad. This fabled city, which has excited the curiosity of explorers for hundreds of years, grew out of the frankincense trade to become one of the most powerful cities in the region. The remains of the city were reputedly rediscovered in the 1990s by English explorer Ranulph Fiennes. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe this claim, looking at the virtually barren plot near Thumrait – much more persuasive is the fact that the presumed descendents of the remarkable civilisation of Ad still occupy the surrounding desert, speaking the distinct and ancient language of Jibbali, whimsically known as the ‘language of the birds’.
Oman enjoyed further prosperity in pre-Islamic times through the trading of copper. Indeed, Oman is referred to in some sources as ‘the Mountain of Copper’, and the Bahrain National Museum provides evidence of vigorous trading in copper between Oman and its Gulf neighbours. The country then slipped into a long period of isolation that prevailed until the 7th century AD when Islam was introduced by Amr ibn al-As, a disciple of the Prophet Mohammed. Oman was quick to embrace the new faith – it even gained a reputation for its proselytising zeal.
For about the next 500 years Oman came under the leadership of the Bani Nabhan dynasty (1154–1624).
Frequent civil wars during the Bani Nabhan dynasty, between the sultan’s forces and tribal factions, left the country vulnerable to outside hostilities that eventually came in the form of the Portuguese.
Alarmed by Oman’s naval strength and anxious to secure Indian Ocean trade routes, the Portuguese launched a succession of attacks against Omani ports; by 1507 they managed to occupy the major coastal cities of Qalhat (near Sur, and mentioned in the journals of Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo), Muscat and Sohar. Ironically, it was a talented sailor from Sohar, Ahmed bin Majid, who unwittingly helped Vasco da Gama navigate the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, leading to the Portuguese invasion a few years later.
Over the next 150 years Oman struggled to oust the occupying forces. Eventually, under the guidance of the enlightened Ya’aruba dynasty (1624–1743), Oman was able to build up a big enough fleet to succeed. The Portuguese were interested in Oman only as a sentry post for their maritime adventures and had barely ventured into the country’s interior. They were therefore easy to rout, given Oman’s newly established naval might. Other than Al-Jalali Fort, Al-Mirani Fort and Mutrah Fort, all of which dominate the centre of Muscat, the Portuguese left little behind, although their legacy of military architecture shaped fort construction in Oman.
By 1650 Oman became a settled, unified state of considerable wealth and cultural accomplishment, with influence extending as far as Asia and Africa. Many of Oman’s other great forts were built during this period, including the impressive, round-towered Nizwa Fort.
By the 19th century, under Sultan Said bin Sultan (r 1804–56), Oman had built up a sizable empire controlling strategic parts of the African coast, including Mombasa and Zanzibar, and parts of what are now India and Pakistan. Today it is easy to see the influence that Oman had on the coastal areas of those countries, and even more tangibly the extent to which its own culture and population was enriched by the contact. The Batinah coast, for example, is home to the Baluchi people originally from Pakistan; as a result, mosque design along the highway between Barka and Sohar bears more resemblance to the florid architecture across the neck of the Gulf than it does to the more austere Ibadi tradition of Oman’s interior.
When Sultan Said died, the empire was divided between two of his sons. One became the Sultan of Zanzibar and ruled the African colonies, while the other became the Sultan of Muscat and ruled Oman. The division of the empire cut Muscat off from its most lucrative domains, and by the end of the century, the country had stagnated economically, not helped by British pressure to end its slave and arms trading.
The new century was marked by a rift between the coastal areas, ruled by the sultan, and the interior, which came to be controlled by a separate line of imams (religious teachers). In 1938 a new sultan, Said bin Taimur, tried to regain control of the interior, sparking off the Jebel Wars of the 1950s. Backed by the British, who had their own agenda, Said successfully reunited the country by 1959.
In all other respects, however, Said reversed Oman’s fortunes with policies that opposed change and isolated Oman from the modern world. Under his rule, a country that a century earlier had rivalled the empire builders of Europe became a political and economic backwater. While neighbours such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait were establishing enviable welfare states and sophisticated modern patterns of international trade, Oman slumped into poverty, with high rates of infant mortality and illiteracy. Even the communist insurgency in Dhofar during the 1960s failed to rouse Said from his reclusive palace existence in Salalah, and by the end of the decade his subjects, the most powerful of which had been either imprisoned or exiled, lost patience and rebellion broke out across the country.
The unrest led to a palace coup in July 1970 when Said’s only son, Qaboos, covertly assisted by the British, seized the throne. With a face-saving shot in the foot, Said was spirited off to the Grosvenor Hotel in London, where he spent the remainder of his days. Some suggest that Said was not a greedy or malicious leader, just fiercely protective of his country’s conservative traditions, which he feared would be eroded by the rapid modernisation experienced in neighbouring countries. Perhaps the country’s contemporary balance between old and new, so skilfully maintained by his son, owes something to Said’s cautious approach to Western influence.
As soon as Qaboos bin Said was enthroned, the young sultan began to modernise Oman’s economy, and set in motion the social, educational and cultural renaissance that prevails to this day. With the help of British forces, he also resolved the Dhofari skirmishes, though they simmered on until 1982 when the Yemeni government in Aden cut off its assistance to the communist insurgents.
Each year, the anniversary of Sultan Qaboos’ reign is celebrated with due pomp and ceremony, including the Sultan’s ‘meet the people’ tour where he and his ministers camp in different regions of the country to listen to local requests. Any visiting dignitaries are obliged to go camping too. A royal camp can be a spectacular affair of pennant-carrying camel riders bringing their petitions across the desert with gifts of goats for His Majesty. Requesting lighting in their village on day two of the sultan’s visit, petitioners may well expect to see the pylons delivered by day four of the same trip. It is this accessibility on the part of the Sultan, together with his reputation for delivering promises, that makes him such an effective and beloved leader. Anyone from a Western country who has waited a year to get a street light mended, may well wonder exactly what democracy means.