The Kingdom of Oman
Oman was old even in biblical times. Records seem to indicate that the kingdom of "Magan" traded with the ancient Sumerians, supplying them with the bronze that put the bronze in "Bronze Age."
Oman also formed an important part of the ancient world. Its position and sea bent made it an integral part of trade with India. The southern portion of the country, as in Yemen, also lend themselves to the production of frankensinse. The ancient inhabitants can also lay claim to the invention of their own system of irrigation henceforth used throughout the Arabian peninsula. However, to speak of "Oman" in this sense implies a single unified kingdom. In fact, though the Omanis all speak Arabic, one can, then as now, divide Oman into at least three distinct regions. The heart of historical Oman lies in the many small villages/cities on the Gulf of Oman. Each of these villages sits fairly closely to the mountains and hills behind in which the hill people dwell, often at odds with the fishermen, growing their crops and herding their flocks. Beyond the hills lies the most arid, underpopulated part of the Arabian Peninsula, home to desert-dwelling nomads and a place better suited to camels than anything. Finally, one can even distinguish the small, but tropical peninsula around Salallah, with its distinctive crops, from the rest of Oman. Of course these regions enjoyed a kind of symbiosis, trading crops, ideas, and people. The geography of Oman also explains the fact that Oman has so many forts. Other than the coastal cities, nothing in Oman really justified an invasion from any quarter other than the sea. Hence, a fort, protecting the harbor, could keep out nearly any invader, whether another Omani or a foreign power. Most of Omani history, then, follows coastal Oman, the seafaring nation. At various times the rest of the country lived at odds, in defiance, and in subjegation to the port-dwelling, seagoing OManis. The advent of Islam found the coastal Omanis in an unfortunate position. The Sassanian Persians had crossed the straights and threatened, not for the first time, to conquer all the coastal areas (though the hills constitute a whole different question). At this crucial junction, the Omani princes, leaders of the opposition, embraced Islam. The Prophet lauded their willingness to believe despite having never seen or heard him preach and promised them a bright future. A more cynical interpretation lies in that the Omanis needed some means of rallying against the invaders, and Islam provided one. The Omanis generally prospered during the heyday of Islam, despite the fact that their Kharjite beliefs put them out of the mainstream. At one point, they actually made the tough march north and seemed poised to conquer all of Arabia, but they went home. Omani ports provided a home to many a rich merchant, including Sinbad the Sailor, who sailed from Sohar. Unlike many another Arabic nation, the Omanis actually had their greatest period after the Fall of Baghdad. When the Portuguese made their first attempts to conquer the Indian trade, they collided head-on with Omanis bent on doing the same thing. Curiously, the two nations possessed many similarities in terms of geography and maritime outlook. The Omanis, however, ultimately defeated the Westerners, a rare feat in the Age of Conquest, and built an empire based in Pakistan, India, and Zanzibar. The Omanis, at one point, controlled the Indian Ocean and threatened to make it "the Omani Ocean." Like the Portuguese, the Omanis never really controlled the hinterlands of their "conquests" but held the port cities and the trade. Their conquests mean that Omanis today enjoy quite a mixture of Arabic, African, and Indian blood. Unfortunately, the trade relied heavily on slaves. When the Omani sultans agreed, under British pressure, to discontinue the trade, this put heavy financial pressure on them. Things went downhill when, at his death, the Sultan divided his realms between one son, who retained Oman, and the other who received the rest. Actually, the son who received Oman didn't do so well either as the interior tribes gradually fell out of control. At the nadir, the current Sultan's father locked himself up in his palace while Oman stagnated. Under Sultan Qaboos, the current ruler, Oman greatly improved. First, the Sultan subdued local rebellions, north and south, and united the country. Second, he spent the oil wealth his father horded on improving the infrastructure of the country. Third, he entered an effective "customs union" with the UAE whereby the two currencies trade a par, a fair move since the two countries have complimenatary economies. Interestingly, one can argue that the Omanis probably did the best of all Arab countries with their oil money. They never had generous reserves in the first place. As a result, they spent on infrastructure, not on welfare. As a result, Omanis enjoy a better standard of living than oil-less Arab countries, but they have to work harder than their oil-wealthy brethren. They have no illusion about this and, correspondingly, seem far happier with their lot either than those with no oil or those overwhelmed by it.
I toured Oman in April of 2001. I found the Omanis, honest, polite, and kind. I think the tourist agencies somewhat oversell Oman as some kind of an Arab Shangri-la, but I can think of much worse places in which to spend a few weeks, whether one splurges on a big hotel or lives the frugal life.
I also want to observe that I consider Oman perhaps the most beautiful of Arab countries. One sees a real variety of countryside, from hills to rain forest to beeches, unlike any other country in the Arab world. Moreover, the architecture of Oman strikes a kind balance between traditional (which they often haven't the money to throw away) and modern (which they don't totally embrace).
Basically, I visited the country in three different pieces. First, I toured the environs of Muscat (which actually includes the three cities of Muscat, Mutrah, and Ruwi). Then, I went south and toured, using Salallah as my base. Finally, I went back to Muscat and day-tripped to surrounding areas.
Back to Virtual Tours
Back to Fruit Home