New Internationalist


July 1987

new internationalist
issue 173 - July 1987


Map of Oman To the world at large, the Sultanate of Oman attracts attention for its strategic position guarding the Straits of Hormuz through which passes fifty per cent of the world's oil supplies.

Omanis are used to foreign attention. Ever since the Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Persians began trading with other early civilisations thousands of years ago, Oman's natural harbours have played an important role in world history. Omani sailors gained fame for their navigational skills and indeed an Omani pilot guided the first Portuguese ships on the earliest European discovery of the trade routes to the East.

The helping hand for foreign travellers, a hallmark of Omani hospitality, proved misplaced on that occasion since the Portuguese - having mapped the routes to the lands of silk and spices - simply destroyed the Omani merchant fleets to prevent competition, while they occupied key ports to ensure that no other foreign vessels could pass by. No wonder the Omanis are cautious about opening up their country to foreigners, including tourists.

Like its Gulf neighbours, Oman has undergone a dramatic transformation from underdevelopment to a modern oil economy, building roads, housing, hospitals and schools at a great speed. But Oman differs from its northern neighbours. It is a vast country with many different peoples and terrains.

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Photo: Camera Press

The seafaring Omanis of the Batinah coast had little contact with the interior, but travelled far and wide in search of trade, even building a maritime empire in the era between Portuguese and British domination of the trade routes. Zanzibar was for many years an Omani-owned territory.

Oman was racked by perpetual civil wars and tribal feuds throughout its history. Only under the present ruler Sultan Qaboos, aided by modern communications and social development, has the country become united under one leader. Ruling in the traditional Arab-Islamic style, he enjoys supreme power as long as he has the consensus support of the people who are consulted through an appointed Advisory Council. The system is part of the regional heritage and is currently more relevant than Western forms of democracy.

Oman's military face, demonstrated by annual joint manoeuvres with American or British forces, is maintained to discourage foreign interference from any source. The country is one of the few Arab states which has full diplomatic relations with both Superpowers and China, for similar reasons. But these affairs of State are of little daily concern to the ordinary Omanis: industrious people striving to make their country prosperous. This they are doing at their own speed through a process of education and development, ensuring that Oman is run by Omanis, and not by foreign powers with distant interests.

Ken Whittingham

Leader: Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Busaid

Economy: GNP per capita $6,490 (US $14,110)
Monetary unit: Omani Rial (OR)
Main exports: Oil, fish, limes, bananas, gas

People: 1.2 million (US 234 million)

Health: Infant mortality: 109 per 1,000 live births (US 11 per 1,000)

Culture: Traditional Arabic with Persian, African and Indian sub-continent influences, overlaid with modern oil-based economy. Tribes which migrated here from Yemen in the third century AD settled in the mountainous interior. The cities of Rustuq, Ibri and Nizwa are continuing evidence of the civilisation achieved in these remote locations where access was almost impossible until modem roads were built.
Language: Arabic
Religion: Islam

Sources: World Bank, State of the World's Children 1987

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Wealthy merchant class in Capital, rural people nearer subsistence levels.

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Foreign personnel hold many technical positions.

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In regional context women enjoy good economic and social status.

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Non-aligned Sultanate

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There was no schooling for most before 1970. Rapid progress since.

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Tight control of media. Little discussion of state affairs.

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54 years. Increased state welfare services should mean higher life expectancy.
(US 74 years).

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This feature was published in the July 1987 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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