The Sultanate of Oman: A Forgotten Empire


Britain’s crucial role in the history of an ancient Empire
As recently as 1959 Wilfred Thesiger described the interior of Oman as 'the least-known of the inhabited places of the East, even less well-known than Tibet'. He wrote with some feeling, for he had been denied access in 1950 when travelling in Arabia for the Middle East Locust Control. There is a strange paradox in this, for the coast of Oman has been very well-known for many centuries. The southern coast was famous in the ancient world as the source of frankincense. The northern was one of the most celebrated seafaring areas of the ancient and medieval world, the pivotal point of the trade of the Middle and Far East. Moreover, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Oman built one of the most notable of non-European empires, spanning both the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. It offered vigorous resistance to the Portuguese, and was instrumental in confining their Indian Ocean empire to Goa and Mozambique. But from the early nineteenth century, the now-forgotten empire of Oman inevitably tangled with Britain. The British found Oman a convenient agency through which to pursue their own designs, and in doing so ultimately undermined and destroyed the Omani economy. The Omani Empire collapsed with it, as did the unity of the Omani state. It was from this period that the Oman interior became one of the least-visited and little-known parts of the world.

But if British imperial interests destroyed Oman in the nineteenth century, Britain has played a crucial role in reconstructing Oman in the last twenty-five years. In fact, Oman's long-standing relationship with Britain offers one of the most instructive instances of the penetration and remodelling of a traditional state to provide it with the geographical identity, the administrative institutions, and the military capacity to cope with the modern world. This redesigning and rebuilding of an Arabian sultanate is all the more striking because it occurred entirely outside formal imperial controls, for Oman was never legally part of the British Empire. Yet few ex-colonial territories enjoy today such a close relationship with Britain as Oman. The visits of the Queen and Mrs Thatcher, the appointment of General Creasey as the Sultan's Chief of Defence Staff – joining many other British military, technical, and administrative personnel – the state visit of Sultan Qaboos to Britain in 1982, and the presence of the Royal Navy Gulf patrol, have all strengthened this close collaboration.

Oman comprises an area almost the size of Britain, and a coastline 1,000 miles long from the Strait of Hormuz to the Republic of South Yemen. It commands, therefore, not only the Gulf of Oman and the entrance to the Persian Gulf, but also the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden route to the East. Oman is like a great quoin, a crucial strategic and geographical corner to Arabia and the Indian Ocean. In recent times, that location has helped Oman to resume the position it enjoyed in the Middle Ages as the vital crossroads in the trading patterns of the East. As such, it has long had contacts with the Middle East, east Africa, the Indian Ocean islands, India and Ceylon, even South-East Asia and China, and provides a key to an understanding of Asian and African history far beyond its borders. But despite its size and importance, its population is small (variously estimated at between three-quarters and one and a half million) and highly fragmented. The people of Oman can be separated into several categories, matching the geographical divisions of the country. To the north and west of the capital, Muscat, is the Batinah coast, the belt of date palms which stretches for 200 miles, supporting an agricultural population, and which for many centuries produced the most important export surplus of Oman, dates. The inhabitants of the commercial cities of coastal Oman, including many immigrant groups, form another significant group, different in character from the town-dwellers of the interior and the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain), where the soil of the valleys and mountain wadis is cultivated by harnessing the groundwater through the distinctive falaj system of irrigation. The people of the Dhofar province in the south have extensive arable land and good rainfall, since the area catches the south-west monsoon of the Indian Ocean. The nomadic Bedu of the desert regions, who so fascinated Thesiger, historically linked north and south, maintaining social and economic relations with the town-dwellers through the sale of camels, which they bred. Finally, there are the various marginal peoples, the fishing communities of the Musandam Peninsula in the north, and of the coast and islands in the south.

The history of Oman is the history of the tense relationship between a seafaring and commercial people, for whom trading contacts were essential if they were to survive, and interior peoples who could remain relatively self-sufficient on the oases of the mountainous hinterland. This tension was rooted in tribal, geographical, and economic differences and was manifested in ideological ways: coastal seafarers were forced to make an accommodation with outside forces upon which they depended for survival, compromising religious and cultural tenets in the process, while those in the interior used their self-sufficiency to preserve their Ibadhi branch of Islam from corrupting political and economical influences.

This rivalry was characterised by the two different types of ruler which emerged in Oman during the medieval period. The imams, who usually had their seats of power in the great interior cities of Oman, were the distinctive elective authority of Ibadhism, the Muslim sect which came to make its home in this remote corner of south-east Arabia. They were scholar-soldier figures, preservers of religious purity. On the coast, the mercantile princes who ruled ports that were virtually city-states were usually the greatest merchants, deeply embroiled in foreign relations and commercial activity. The history of modern Oman has been the history of the struggles between these two sources of authority.

Oman's mercantile power rested not on its date exports, but on its convenient position as a jumping-off point for Indian Ocean trade. The Omani ports, like Sohar, Khor Fakan, Suwayq, Muscat, Qurayat, Sur, and others acted as the important links in the articulation of Persian Gulf, Indian, Far Eastern, and East African trade. Cargoes could be transhipped there from Gulf vessels sailing from Mesopotamia and Persia into sea-going ships for the long-distance trade, but primarily the ports were safe anchorages to await the setting-in of the winds that made the voyages to the Indian or East African coasts possible. Arab shipbuilders, navigators, and pilots, Indian capitalists and agents, were all there, servicing the traders and merchants of the Indian Ocean, the Gulf, and the Red Sea.

Similar entrepots and service-centres existed on the Indian Ocean shores, particularly in East Africa, many of them colonised from the Gulf area. But the fortunes of such trading centres were subject to severe fluctuations. Changes in trading patterns, problems of security, and the jealousies of rivals led to intense competition and strife among the mercantile centres. For these reasons there were repeated attempts to establish a wider regional and oceanic political authority to command the trade of the Gulf, India, and East Africa. Persians, Portuguese, Omanis, and British attempted in turn to achieve this. By the late nineteenth century European technology was comprehensively destroying the old system, leaving the ancient ports in disarray and decay from which many of them have never recovered. The collapse of European empires in the twentieth century produced a new political fragmentation, but in the abandonment of overseas pretensions a new Omani unity has been achieved.

Omani overseas power between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was based partly on its long seafaring tradition and its convenient geographical position, partly on the lessons learnt from the Portuguese. The Portuguese rekindled Omani independence by offering an alliance against the Persians and later the Turks. They emphasised the importance of Muscat by utilising its magnificent harbour and building fortresses, Forts Jalali and Mirani, on its mountainous flanks. There was already a long tradition of fortification in Oman: inter-tribal tensions, the terrain, and the ready availability of materials had led to forts and castles being built in all the main valleys and gaps of the Jebel Akhdar. Now Portuguese renaissance styles came to be fused with indigenous forms with spectacular results. The great castles at Nakhl, Rustaq, Nizwa, Ibri, Bahla (where the entire oasis is fortified by a wall many miles long), and Jabrin – each at different times the capital of the imams – were all built or re-built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Most of the great castles are still in use, often as administrative centres of the walis or regional governors.) Even more important was the other area of Omani adaptation, namely naval architecture. As the Omanis revived their shipbuilding and seafaring traditions they began to combine indigenous and Portuguese models. Domestic shipwrights adopted the high poop, the transom stern, and the centred rudder. Portuguese ships were captured, and the Omanis were to continue to use both western and Arab maritime methods until the nineteenth century.

The Omanis also produced a dynastic response. Two remarkable Omani dynasties, one still in power today, created the Omani empire out of the ruins of the Portuguese Indian Ocean system. From 1624 the new Ya'aruba dynasty succeeded in welding a coalition between interior and coast, which by 1650 had destroyed the Portuguese power in Oman. In the 1660s the Omanis attacked Mombasa, Bombay, Bassein, Diu, even the centres of Portuguese power in Mozambique. Between 1696 and 1698 an Omani fleet and Baluchi warriors employed by the Omanis besieged and eventually took great Fort Jesus at Mombasa. Omani success marked the end of Portugal's Indian Ocean hegemony, and the beginning of Oman's efforts to create its own oceanic empire.

Throughout the eighteenth century Oman's position was a precarious one. She found it difficult to establish her authority over East Africa, and between 1737 and 1744 her homeland was under threat from a resurgent Persia. It was at this point that the second great dynasty, the Al Bu Said, was thrown up. This dynasty was to succeed in establishing an Omani mercantile empire, but in doing so it was forced to neglect the interior. By the end of the eighteenth century, unlike their Ya'aruba predecessors, the Al Bu Said rulers no longer combined their secular power with that of the imamate.

The concentration on mercantile activity was symbolised by the change of capital from interior Rustaq to coastal Muscat in 1784, and by a new overseas expansionism. Between the 1750s and the 1850s, Oman re-established its authority over the islands of the Strait of Hormuz, leasing them from the Persians, secured more than 100 miles of the Makran coast of Baluchistan, reasserted its claims to Dhofar and to the ports of East Africa, and even attempted to take Bahrain. The Mazrui rulers of Mombasa were repeatedly attacked and finally submitted in 1837. The Omani fleet once again became the most powerful local force in the Indian Ocean, if not throughout the East. The architect of this remarkable Omani expansion in the early nineteenth century was the Sultan Seyyid Said, who reigned from 1804 to 1856. He ordered vessels from Indian shipyards, including, for example, the 74-gun Liverpool, launched in 1826, which from 1836 became the Royal Navy Imaum. He possessed in all fifteen western-style warships, as well as a vast fleet of Arab vessels, which could be used for both commercial and military purposes. He could probably embark as many as 20,000 troops. When the Sultan arrived at Zanzibar in East Africa in 1828, his fleet consisted of one 64-gun ship, three frigates of 36 guns, two brigs of 14 guns, and 100 armed transport dhows with about 6,000 soldiers.

Seyyid Said also diversified Oman's economy, and hit upon the idea that the East African coast could become a much surer source of wealth than the problematical trade of the Gulf. As far back as 1696, the Omanis had sacked the island of Zanzibar, then a loyal ally of the Portuguese; Said visited it several times in the early part of his reign to inspect its potential. By the time the Sultan moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840 he had established a highly successful economic system there: an Omani emigrant plantocracy was cultivating cloves, successfully introduced into Zanzibar in 1828, and Indian agents and capitalists, for centuries familiar in Oman and on the East African coast, were capitalising the ivory and slaving caravans which tapped the animal and human resources of the far interior of East Africa.

Such Omani success was, however, to prove its downfall. They had adopted western shipping methods which were rapidly becoming obsolete, and, despite becoming a significant centre of the nineteenth-century arms trade, both in the Gulf and East Africa, the Omanis had neither the technical nor institutional capacity to command such an extensive commercial empire. It was too dependent on the vigour of one man, Seyyid Said, and would die with him. Most significantly of all, by becoming the supreme local power in the Indian Ocean, Oman became the prime concern of the dominant European power in the region, Britain. Seyyid Said's economic system was a perilous adaptation, for it was based entirely on slavery, both in the production of cloves and for the transportation of ivory from the East African interior, and Britain was dedicated to the destruction of the Indian Ocean slave trade. To achieve this, the British could either break the sultanate or penetrate and utilise it to their own ends. They chose the latter course, and Omani over-extension was perfectly adapted to their purposes. In the course of the nineteenth century, the British converted Oman from an ally of significant independent standing into two separate states whose continued territorial integrity, as well as the survival of their ruling dynasties, was entirely dependent on British power. They achieved this with remarkable economy of effort, by a system of political agents, residents, and consuls, in Muscat from 1800, in Zanzibar from 1841. After the death of Said in 1856, the inevitable succession dispute was arbitrated by the Governor-General of India, since relations with Oman were considered to be an important element in the foreign policy of the Indian Government. Oman and Zanzibar were separated, and two sons of Said succeeded to the sultanates.

Having instituted this division, the British effectively destroyed the economic base of the two sultanates by continuing their efforts to abolish the slave trade. Little by little, they cut back the geographical extent of the trade, and ultimately the institution itself, by a succession of treaties in 1822, 1845, 1861, 1873, and finally by direct action in 1896. In this way, the British legitimated their naval activities in the Gulf and the western Indian Ocean. The contraction of the slave trade destroyed the sultans' prime sources of revenue, and this problem was soon compounded by the over-production of cloves which led to a collapse in prices. Moreover, the East India Company had virtually destroyed the centuries-old carrying trade of Omani ships, and from 1S62 the appearance of steamships of the British India Steam Navigation Company in the Gulf set the seal upon the Omani long-distance trade. By the late nineteenth century both branches of the dynasty were poverty-stricken, and entirely dependent upon the British for the security of their thrones. They required the British to put down anti-western revolts among their subjects, and they were propped up by British subsidies which they needed to buy off opposition to themselves, a long-standing Omani technique. In the past they had attempted to use the French as a counterpoise to the British, but with the resolution of Anglo- French imperial tensions after 1900 there was no countervailing force to use against their British masters.

Economic success had always favoured the extension of the coastal sultanate's authority; economic collapse inevitably led to the resurgence of the interior imamate as an anti-western force. Between 1869 and 1871, after a fierce succession dispute, the imamate once more controlled all of Oman. In 1871, the British engineered the return of the secular sultanate to the coast but by now its authority was so circumscribed that the Sultan controlled little more than Muscat itself. From 1869 to 1955 the main territorial authority in Oman was a xenophobic and puritanical imamate in the vast interior of the country. Successive imams attempted to reunite Oman in the years before and during the First World War when several attacks were made upon the coast at a time when the British were distracted elsewhere. To resolve this tension, the British in 1920 enforced a modus vivendi between the Sultan and the interior tribes through the Treaty of Sib, which acknowledged in effect the dual authority in Oman. So long as Oman was an economic backwater, its interior was irrelevant to British concerns. The system instituted at Sib survived for more than three decades, but in the 1950s a number of dramatic developments took place.

The great internal split in Oman, and the attendant vagueness of international frontiers, was to be highlighted by threats from a neighbouring regional power and by the development of oil exploration. In the past, the Persian threat to Oman had been warded off by the strength of Omani arms in league first with the Portuguese and later with the British. Another threat to Oman had been the encroachments of the Wahhabis from the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Now the danger came from a resurgent Wahhabist Saudi state, discovering under the tutelage of the Arabian American Oil Company the extent of its oil reserves, and their possible extension into disputed territory on the borders of Oman. For the British this posed a dilemma of conflicting interests, involving their long-standing client Oman, the British-protected sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi, the Saudi dynasty, Anglo-American relations, and the wider British position in the Gulf. Traditionally, the British had always supported the small states of the Gulf against their larger neighbours, but when the Saudis first claimed an area known as the Buraimi Oasis on the borders of western Oman and Abu Dhabi, the British restrained the Sultan, forcing him to disband a force of tribal levies he had raised against the Saudis. The death of the Omani imam, Mohammed ibn Abdullah al-Khalili in 1954 created a new situation.

A complex set of political forces was at work in the interior of Oman. The new imam, Ghalib, was under the influence of his brother, the Wali, or governor, of Rustaq, and of a striking figure, Sulaiman bin Himyar, the sheikh of the Bani Riyam tribe, and self-proclaimed Lord of the Green Mountain. Sulaiman was a restless baron who controlled the Sumail gap, the vital approach to the Jebel Akhdar. From his great castle at Birkat al Mawz he was able to dominate the affairs of the nearby capital of the imam at Nizwa. His ambitions were nothing less than the establishment of a separate state. He met Wilfred Thesiger in 1950 in an attempt to secure recognition from the British for 'a status similar to that of the Trucial Sheikhs'. In his search for allies he attempted to open relations with the Sultan at Muscat, and when rebuffed he began to flirt with Saudi Arabia. Recognising that the imam's policy of resisting oil exploration was impractical, Sulaiman hoped to control access to the oil-exploring areas and secure revenue from them. It was soon apparent that oil would demand a new political rationalisation, the reunion of coast and interior under one ruler. The imam sought modern political legitimacy by applying for membership of the Arab League, but the League turned him down because they were not at all clear where his territory was. Unlike his predecessor, who had declared a jihad or holy war against the Saudis, he decided to co-operate with the Saudi kingdom against the Sultan at Muscat. He made contact with the Americans through the Central Intelligence Agency, who favoured an extension of Saudi power. The successful alliance of the Saudis, the Americans, and the imam could have destroyed the coastal sultanate forever.

But the British now threw all their diplomatic and military weight behind the Sultan at Muscat, Taimur, who had succeeded in 1931, and helped him to impose his authority in the disputed territory and over the whole of interior Oman. It was a remarkable turn-around in the Sultan's fortunes and an extraordinarily independent action on the part of the British in the face of Saudi and American ambitions. In December 1955 Sultan Taimur entered Nizwa unopposed after a long expedition across the desert from Dhofar. He was backed by British troops, and the interior sheikhs had little alternative but to make their obeisance to him. The imam returned to his home village and internal exile. Talib, his brother, and Sulaiman escaped to raise support and arms from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world. Between 1957 and 1959 they returned to raise the standard of revolt once more. Again British military help was crucial to the survival of the Sultan's power. Nizwa had to be retaken, and in a celebrated operation the Special Air Services scaled one of the most difficult parts of the Jebel Akhdar to flush out the rebel redoubt. Sulaiman's power was finally destroyed when the RAF bombed his palace at Birkat al Mawz, as well as one of the main rebel strongholds, the township of Tanuf. Sulaiman's castle and Tanuf still stand today in their bombed state as gaunt reminders of the establishment of the Sultan's power with British aid.

The events of 1955 – 59 saw Oman move for the first time into the ranks of modern nation states with clearly defined international boundaries and centralised administration. While the Sultan was demarcating Arabian Oman and re-asserting his feudal authority within its new limits, he was continuing the withdrawal from overseas commitments. The ports of the Persian coast and islands in the Strait had been lost in the late nineteenth century. In 1958 the Makran coast was sold to Pakistan. Apart from a separate enclave on the Musandam Peninsula, overlooking the Strait of Hormuz, Oman was now a single geographical entity. But dangers to Omani dynastic authority remained, both from external enemies and from weakness in internal administration.

The British withdrawal from Aden (South Yemen) in 1967 helped to produce the familiar shift from fundamentalist religious forces to radical political ones as the prime anti-western movers in the region. The Front for the Liberation of Dhofar, soon transformed into the Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf, began to achieve some success in Oman's southern Dhofar province. The British now judged that Oman required a new and vigorous leadership to stand against these forces and to ride the tiger of oil exploitation and modernisation, for oil exports had begun in 1967. Taimur had become a recluse in his southern palace at Salalah in Dhofar, opposed to all elements of modernisation; he was overthrown in a British-inspired palace revolution which brought his son Qaboos to power in July 1970. Given the circumstances of his accession, and the dangers to his position in the early years of his reign, it is perhaps not surprising that the new Sultan maintained the tradition of so many of his predecessors in relying upon British advisers, and in periods of greatest difficulty, British troops. The fact that Oman had remained outside formal colonial control contributed to the lateness of its arrival in the modern nation-state system. The need for collaboration with an outside power for protection, and for technical, administrative, and military assistance was therefore all the more essential.

If the fall of Oman was directly attributable to imperial Britain, the rise of modern Oman, shorn of its overseas commercial possessions, is equally attributable to its relationship with post-colonial Britain. Until 1955 the Al Bu Said dynasty paid a heavy price for its survival: economic decline and territorial contraction. But as soon as the interior of Oman ceased to be economically irrelevant, the British rolled back the imamate, after a period of ignoring or simply co-existing with the ancient Ibadhi institution. Britain took commercial, coastal Omani authority, and gave it a new territorial area, within boundaries such as it had never known before. It was achieved in the face of the Saudis and their American allies, now ironically the closest supporters of Sultan Qaboos.

In less than twenty years, a revolution has occurred in Oman. Military, technical, and administrative collaboration has produced one of the most rapid transformations of any Third World state. Thesiger's remote and little-known interior, still largely inaccessible when Qaboos came to power, is now penetrated by fast motor roads built only in the last few years. Muscat has rapidly spread to be a large and important capital. Yet the old city round the harbour, which Sir Ronald Storrs described in 1917 as 'Byronically picturesque' retains much of its character. The great fortifications of the interior remain some of the finest monuments of the Islamic world, but for the first time in their history they no longer have a defensive role. Yet in this picture of rapid modernisation there are elements of feudal continuity too. The sultan still requires the loyalty of the tribal sheikhs, and oil revenues now give him the capacity to supply the subsidies which kept so many of his predecessors in power. The imamate remains a spent force, and the forces of religious fundamentalism, so powerful on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf, seem to be held in check. In the conflict between the uncompromising xenophobic mountains of Oman and the tolerant outward-looking coast, the latter seems, with its strong western alliance, currently to have the victory.

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Further Reading
Britain's Oceanic Empire: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, c.1550-1850
Ed by H. V. Bowen

Great Britain in the Indian Ocean
by Gerald S. Graham

Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795-1880
by J.B. Kelly Oman Since 1856: Disruptive Modernization in a Traditional Arab Society
by R.G. Landen

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by Stephen Luscombe