Oman adopted Islam in the seventh century A.D., during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Ibadhism, a form of Islam distinct from Shiaism and the "Orthodox" schools of Sunnism, became the dominant religious sect in Oman by the eighth century A.D. Oman is the only country in the Islamic world with a majority Ibadhi population. Ibadhism is known for its "moderate conservatism." One
distinguishing feature of Ibadhism is the choice of ruler by communal consensus and consent.
Contact with Europe was established in 1508, when the Portuguese conquered parts of Oman's coastal region. Portugal's influence predominated for more than a century, with only a short interruption by the Turks. Fortifications built during the Portuguese occupation can still be seen at Muscat.
Except for a period when Iran conquered Oman, Oman has basically been an independent nation. After the Portuguese were expelled in 1650 and while resisting Persian attempts to establish hegemony, the Sultan of Oman extended his conquests to Zanzibar, other parts of the eastern coast of Africa, and portions of the southern Arabian Peninsula. During this period, political leadership shifted from
the Ibadhi imams, who were elected religious leaders, to hereditary sultans who established their capital in Muscat. The Muscat rulers established trading posts on the Persian coast and also exercised a measure of control over the Makran coast (now Pakistan). By the early 19th century, Oman was the most powerful state in Arabia and on the East African coast.
Oman was the object of Franco-British rivalry throughout the 18th century. During the 19th century, Oman and the United Kingdom concluded several treaties of friendship and commerce. In 1908, the British entered into an agreement of friendship. Their traditional association was confirmed in 1951 through a new treaty of friendship, commerce, and navigation by which the United Kingdom recognized
the Sultanate of Oman as a fully independent state.
When Sultan Sa'id bin Sultan Al-Busaid died in 1856, his sons quarreled over his succession. As a result of this struggle, the empire--through the mediation of the British Government under the "Canning Award"--was divided in 1861 into two separate principalities--Zanzibar, with its East African dependencies, and Muscat and Oman. Zanzibar paid an annual subsidy to Muscat and Oman until its
independence in early 1964.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sultan in Muscat faced rebellion by members of the Ibadhi sect residing in the interior of Oman, centered around the town of Nizwa, who wanted to be ruled exclusively by their religious leader, the Imam of Oman. This conflict was resolved temporarily by the Treaty of Seeb, which granted the imam autonomous rule in the interior, while
recognizing the nominal sovereignty of the sultan elsewhere.
The conflict flared up again in 1954, when the new imam led a sporadic 5-year rebellion against the sultan's efforts to extend government control into the interior. The insurgents were defeated in 1959 with British help. The sultan then terminated the Treaty of Seeb and eliminated the office of the imam. In the early 1960s, the imam, exiled to Saudi Arabia, obtained support from his hosts and
other Arab governments, but this support ended in the 1980s.
In 1964, a separatist revolt began in Dhofar Province. Aided by communist and leftist governments such as the former South Yemen (People's Democratic Republic of Yemen), the rebels formed the Dhofar Liberation Front, which later merged with the Marxist-dominated Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf (PFLOAG). The PFLOAG's declared intention was to overthrow all traditional
Arab Gulf regimes. In mid-1974, PFLOAG shortened its name to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) and embarked on a political rather than a military approach to gain power in the other Gulf states, while continuing the guerrilla war in Dhofar.
Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id assumed power on July 23, 1970, in a palace coup directed against his father, Sa'id bin Taymur, who later died in exile in London. The new sultan was confronted with insurgency in a country plagued by endemic disease, illiteracy, and poverty. One of the new sultan's first measures was to abolish many of his father's harsh restrictions, which had caused thousands of
Omanis to leave the country, and to offer amnesty to opponents of the previous regime, many of whom returned to Oman. He also established a modern government structure and launched a major development program to upgrade educational and health facilities, build a modern infrastructure, and develop the country's natural resources.
In an effort to curb the Dhofar insurgency, Sultan Qaboos expanded and re-equipped the armed forces and granted amnesty to all surrendered rebels while vigorously prosecuting the war in Dhofar. He obtained direct military support from the U.K., Iran, and Jordan. By early 1975, the guerrillas were confined to a 50 square kilometer (20-sq. mi.) area near the Yemen border and shortly thereafter
were defeated. As the war drew to a close, civil action programs were given priority throughout Dhofar and helped win the allegiance of the people. The PFLO threat diminished further with the establishment of diplomatic relations in October 1983 between South Yemen and Oman, and South Yemen subsequently lessened propaganda and subversive activities against Oman. In late-1987, Oman opened an
embassy in Aden, South Yemen, and appointed its first resident ambassador to the country.
Since his accession in 1970, Sultan Qaboos has balanced tribal, regional, and ethnic interests in composing the national administration. The Council of Ministers, which functions as a cabinet, consists of 26 ministers, all directly appointed by Qaboos. The Majlis Al-Shura's (Consultative Council) mandate is to review legislation pertaining to economic development and social services prior to
its becoming law. The Majlis Al-Shura may request ministers to appear before it. In September 2000, about 100,000 Omani men and women elected 83 candidates, including two women, for seats in the Majlis Al-Shura. Further, in December 2000, Sultan Qaboos appointed the 48-member Majlis Al Dowla, or State Council, including five women, which acts as the upper chamber in Oman's bicameral
representative body. In early 2003, Sultan Qaboos declared universal suffrage for the October 2003 Majlis al-Shura elections. Two women were elected to sit with 81 male colleagues in those elections, which were observed to be free and fair.
In November 1996, Sultan Qaboos presented his people with the "Basic Statutes of the State," Oman's first written "constitution." It guarantees various rights within the framework of Quranic and customary law. It partially resuscitated long dormant conflict-of-interest measures by banning cabinet ministers from being officers of public shareholding firms. Perhaps most importantly, the Basic
Statutes provide rules for setting Sultan Qaboos' succession.
Oman is strategically located on the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf, 35 miles directly opposite Iran. Oman is concerned with regional stability and security, given tensions in the region, the proximity of Iran and Iraq, and the potential threat of political Islam. Oman maintained its diplomatic relations with Iraq throughout the Gulf War while supporting the UN allies by sending a
contingent of troops to join coalition forces and by opening up to prepositioning of weapons and supplies. In addition, since 1980 Oman and the U.S. have been parties to a military cooperation agreement, which was revised and renewed in 2000. Oman also has long been an active participant in efforts to achieve Middle East peace.
Following the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, the Omani Government at all levels pledged and provided impressive support to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. Oman is a signatory of most UN-sponsored anti-terrorism treaties.