Oman is one of the oldest independent Arab countries. During the 19th century, it was considered the most powerful Arab entity, consisting of an emirate that stretched all the way to Zanzibar at the eastern edge of the African coast.
Oman is on the south-eastern corner of the Arabian peninsula between Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, bordering the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. It has a land area of 212,460 sq km.
Islam came to Oman in the seventh century, during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. However, Ibadhism, which is a distinct mixture of Shia and Sunni schools became the dominant religious sect in Oman a century later and is still the majority’s practice to this day.
The Europeans also have history in Oman. The Portuguese arrived in the 15th century and stayed for 150 years. One Portuguese legacy is the fortifications around the state.
In later times, the Turks and Iranians both conquered Oman and influenced its social and cultural composition.
In the 18th century, Franco-British rivalry played out in Omani territory. Britain emerged victor, establishing several treaties and granting protectorate status to the country as a signal for other interested western powers to stay out.
Modern political history
The present sultan Qabuus bin Said assumed power in July 1970, in a palace coup against his father, Said bin Taymur.
For the previous six years a rebellion had been brewing in the Dhofar province, in which a militia called the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) comprised of communist and leftist groups tried to overthrow the ruling family.
The new sultan was confronted with this insurgency and was also burdened with a population rife with illiteracy and poverty.
One of the sultan’s first measures was to abolish many of his father’s harsh restrictions that had caused thousands of Omanis to leave the country.
He established a modern government structure and launched a major development programme to upgrade educational and health facilities, built a modern infrastructure, and developed the country’s natural resources.
Since then Qabuus has opened up the country with oil as its economic backbone, providing around 40% of the total GDP. However, Oman remains relatively poor when compared to its Gulf neighbours.
Sultan Qabuus’s benign 34 years in power have maintained a level of popular support among Omanis.
Official name: Sultanate of Oman
Form of government: Monarchy
Gained independence: 1798
Oman’s most important mineral resource is oil, although its reserves are modest compared to those of neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Its economic performance has improved in recent years. The government has moderately moved ahead with its privatisation programmes and continues to liberalise its markets.
Oman joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2000. A key government objective has been to develop the nation’s gas resources.
Currency: Riyal (OMR) – 1 USD = (app) 0.38 OMR
Natural resources: Oil, copper, asbestos, some marble, limestone, chromium, gypsum, natural gas
Major industries: Crude oil production and refining, natural gas production, construction, cement, copper
GDP: $22.4bn (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: 0% (2002 est)
Per capita GDP: $8,300 (2002 est)
Imports: 35.5% of GDP (2002 est)
Exports: 56.8% of GDP (2002 est)
Although Oman enjoys a high degree of internal stability, regional tensions have led to large defence expenditures. In 2001, Oman budgeted $2.4bn for defence – about 33% of its GDP.
Oman maintains a small but professional military establishment, supplied mainly with British equipment in addition to military hardware from the US, France and other countries.
Military budget: $2.3bn (2002 est)
Army size: 41,700 active troops
Despite of Oman’s rapid modernisation, its way of life remains largely traditional with conservative Islamic values. Due to the diversity of Oman’s population, there are considerable differences in basic aspects of culture and everyday life.
The semi-nomadic Shihuh people, for example, speak dialects that are unintelligible to fellow Omanis. Additionally, the large urban Indian community has its own distinctive cuisine and dress.
Languages: Arabic (official), English, Baluchi, Urdu, Indian dialects
Religions: Muslim 75% (official; mostly Ibadhi)
Ethnic diversity: Arab, Baluchi, South Asian, African
Literacy rate: 75.8%
Sources: World Bank, countryreports.org, MSN Encarta, politinfo.com, The World Almanac