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Country Profile Oman

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ITE M WORLD GUIDE/ 1996/1997
By any criterion, Oman is a remarkable country. Separated by the Gulf of Oman and Straits of Hormuz from Iran and by the Arabian Sea from the Indian subcontinent, its culture has as much in common with those two regions as with its Arabian neighbours. Oman stands very much apart from other Arab countries.

Oman is the oldest independent state in the Arab world. Its Portuguese rulers were ousted in 1650, whereafter it became itself a considerable naval power in the Indian Ocean, with colonies on the East African coast. But the twentieth century saw the country decline into ever greater obscurity, reaching its nadir in the later years of the reign of Sultan Said, who came to power in 1938 and ruled until overthrown by his son Qabus in 1970.

Sultan Said ensured that Oman became a medieval anachronism. Travel inside the country was severely restricted, one could only leave or depart with a visa signed by the Sultan himself and anybody who complained was imprisoned. Slavery was common, the prisons were overcrowded, there were few roads, schools or hospitals and little in the way of infrastructure.

Since Sultan Qabus replaced his father, Oman has made great strides in catching up with the modern world. The country's limited oil revenues have been channelled into developing infrastructure and services, education and healthcare are now free to Omani citizens, slavery has been abolished and most of the country's political prisoners set free. Oman has also finally come to take part in the world beyond its frontiers, having belatedly joined the United Nations and League of Arab States in 1971. It is on generally good terms with all its neighbours, as well, paradoxically, as having relations with Iran, Iraq and Israel.

Qabus, however, is an absolute monarch. He is Sultan (head of state), prime minister, foreign minister and minister of defence. He rules by decree, with an elected Consultative Council proffering 'advice'. Further-more, as with all the other Arab monarchies, citizenship is the exclusive preserve of native-born Omanis. The 25 per cent of the population which is non-Arab, mostly from Pakistan, does the country's donkey work but is not entitled to any of the benefits of citizenship.

Around two million people are spread over Oman's vast area, much of which is desert. The economy has blossomed since Qabus came to power, with oil and natural gas accounting for over 80 per cent of its export earnings. What was until 25 years ago an impoverished backwater now compares favourably with its oil-rich neighbours.

Even tourism now plays a part: 50,000 tourists a year are attracted by spectacular scenery and a remarkable diversity of fauna and flora. The Omani Government has devoted a great deal of attention to the environment, with many nature reserves and an internationally admired program for protected species.

A key feature of Oman's history has been its relationship with Britain: the sultanate was protected by the British Empire after a 1798 treaty. Thereafter many of the sultans' political advisers and all their military commanders were British. Qabus himself was educated at Sandhurst and has surrounded himself with British advisers. He too has British military assistance ­ and defence accounts for over a third of government expenditure.

Qabus has said many times that his country is not yet 'ready for democracy'. But there is a widespread belief that his gradual extension of popular participation will continue. What happens after Qabus is open to speculation. He is 57, has no children, and has no apparent interest in changing that state of affairs.

Steve Sherman



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