While geography is essentially a question of location, terrain and land or sea borders, it also represents a kind of dialogue between nature, resources and environment and man’s response to them – not only in the way he attempts to overcome any difficulties they may pose, but also in the extent of his success in converting them into material assets. The Sultanate of Oman occupies a uniquely important location strategically and this fact has been reflected time and again in the choices it has made, along with its policies and style of execution, dictating how it interacts with issues and developments affecting it. Situated in the extreme south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman extends from latitude 16.40 to 26.20 degrees north and from longitude 51.50 to 59.40 degrees east. Its 3,165 kilometre coastline runs northwards from the Arabian Sea and the entrance to the Indian Ocean in the far south-west to the Sea of Oman and Musandam, where it overlooks the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf. Oman shares borders with the Republic of Yemen to the south-west, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the west, and the United Arab Emirates to the north. It has sovereignty over a number of small islands in the Sea of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz, including Salamah and Her Daughters, as well as Masirah and the Hallaniyat Islands, and some other small islands in the Arabian Sea.
Lying on the Tropic of Cancer, Oman is one of the world’s hot, arid regions, though part of the south of the country has a tropical climate. As well as dominating the oldest and most important sea trade route in the world between the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, Oman – with an area of 309,500 square kilometres – is also criss-crossed by the old north-south and east-west overland trans-Arabian caravan routes. The Sultanate’s most distinctive geographical feature is the Hajar
mountain range, which extends down from the north in a great arc from Ru’us al Jibal at Ras Musandam (by the Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the Gulf) to Ras al Hadd - the Arabian Peninsula’s most south-easterly point, which overlooks the Indian Ocean. At its highest point in the Jabal al Akhdar region, the Hajar range reaches a height of 3,000 metres. In the governorate of Musandam the mountains rise to a height of around 1,800 metres above the Strait of Hormuz, which runs between the Omani and Iranian coasts; the navigable international shipping lanes lie on the Omani side. Omanis compare the Hajar mountain range to a human backbone. They call the area lying on the Sea of Oman the Batinah, or “Stomach”, and the area to the west of the mountains the Dhahirah, or “Back”. The Batinah – the coastal area formed by the wadis (dried up areas of river bed) that flow down from the mountains – is between 15 and 80 kilometres wide and over 300 kilometres long.
The Sultanate’s main agricultural area, which boasts farms and orchards irrigated by groundwater, runs northwards from Muscat to the borders of the United Arab Emirates. Several wadis cut right through the Hajar mountains. The largest – Wadi Samayil – links the city of Muscat on the coast with the wilayats of Izki and Nizwa in the interior. Omanis call the mountains to the west of this wadi al Hajar al Gharbi (the Western Hajar); this region includes the Jabal al Akdhar and the wilayats of Rustaq, Nakhl, al Awabi and several others.
The mountain area to the east of Wadi Sumail is called al Hajar al Sharqi (the Eastern Hajar) and includes – among others - the wilayats of Sumail and Bidbid. The highest peak in the Hajar range is Jabal Shams in the Dakhilyah Governorate, the summit of which is around 3,000 metres above sea level. At Qurm Heights in Muscat the Omani coast narrows and becomes rocky with numerous inlets. The shoreline from South Muscat Point to Ras al Hadd is similar. From Ras al Hadd to Filim on Masirah Bay the Sharqiyah Sands extend over a band of terrain some 160 Kilometres long by 8 Kilometres wide. To the south west of Masirah Island lies a vast area of flat, stony ground known as the Jiddat al Harasis. To the west of the Sharqiyah Sands is a stretch of low-lying rocky terrain around 250 kilometres wide crossed by wadis running from north to south; these include Wadi Halfain and Wadi Andam. West of Masirah Island is the peninsula of Barr al Hikman, which is separated from Masirah by a channel 14 kilometres wide. It consists of salt flats, which can reach as far as 5 kilometres inland and, at some times of the year, are covered by the sea. The population of this area earns its living from fishing. The Omani coast – including the Wusta and Dhofar Governorates – extends along the Arabian Sea for a distance of 560 kilometres, some 130 kilometres of which are exposed to monsoon rains. This latter stretch consists of a coastal plain between eight and ten kilometres wide and includes Salalah and several other wilayats such as Taqah, Mirbat, Sadah, Rakhyut and Dhalkut. The coastal areas of the Governorate of Dhofar are rich in fish including prawns and hamour (grouper), as well as sardines, the surplus catches of which are used as animal fodder or fertiliser.
The mountain region of Dhofar extends from east to west for a distance of around 400 kilometres, from opposite the Hallaniyat Islands to the borders of the Republic of Yemen, forming a continuous chain which includes Jabal Samhan in the east and Jabal al Qamar in the west. At no point is this range more than 23 kilometres wide or higher than 2,500 metres. A 75 kilometre swathe of these mountains is cloaked in greenery from June to September each year during the khareef (monsoon) season, when the south-western monsoon winds give the region a very different character from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula and the rains transform the land into a delightful summer resort with rich pastures. Frankincense trees grow in some areas – a living reminder that the region was once renowned for its trade in this substance – the main source of its wealth in ancient times. Fresh water springs flow abundantly in Dhofar throughout the year.
At various times in its history, Oman’s reputation on the high seas was second to none. It commanded fleets of ocean-going trading ships that explored far distant shores and interacted with the great civilisations of the past - Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Roman and others. The navigational skills of Omani sailors were legendary and brought merchants to the southern shores of Persia and the Orient and westwards across the Arabian Sea to Africa, where they were frequent and welcome visitors to East African ports, from Somalia south to Mozambique. With the rise of Islam, the fame of Omani sailors breached new boundaries. Fearing only God, they displayed tremendous courage at sea and became persuasive instruments in the early dissemination of the faith, to Iraq, Persia, Sindh and beyond. Though trade provided the initial spur for their extensive explorations, it was for their contribution to the spread of Islam that Omanis were most proud. They took their new faith into the very interior of Africa from the coastal ports where they exchanged goods.
They brought it with them to China and the Asian ports in between. Their calm demeanour, the honesty which characterised their dealings, and their embrace of difference, were the factors that made them such effective missionaries of the new faith. Islam sat well with their temperament and Omanis made contributions to culture and intellectual activity in the early Hijri centuries that were both outstanding and longstanding in their impact. The Portuguese reached the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf in the 16th century AD and Oman lost control of the Eastern trade routes. Its towns were looted and brutally vandalised. In time the inhabitants succeeded in closing ranks and re-establishing a naval fleet that was capable of evicting the Portuguese from the strongholds they had occupied in the country. There followed a succession of naval campaigns, dispatched to the western Indian Ocean, to the shores of Persia, to the Arabian Gulf and Eastern Africa, until one by one they had completed the destruction of Portuguese strongholds to end their presence in the region. With the establishment of the Al Busaidi state by its founder, Imam Ahmad bin Said, in 1744 a succession began which continues today in the person of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Oman’s fortunes recovered.
As its influence returned, it set about building what would become its largest ever fleet, an armada which in 1805 numbered four frigates, four corvettes, two single-sail ships, seven boats with mast and twenty armed commercial vehicles. The resurrection of Muscat’s maritime influence was accompanied by unprecedented commercial and diplomatic activity. The Omani vessel Sultana sailed to New York on 30 April 1804, carrying aboard Ahmed bin al-Nu’man, the first Arab envoy to officially visit America. The governor of Mombasa, then an Omani province, also flew to London in 1842 as ambassador to Queen Victoria. The ship “La Caroline visited Marseille in1849. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the country had once again retreated into isolation, weakened by internal division and external influence. But 23 July 1970 saw an end to this reversal with the advent of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Once again, Oman banished misfortune to emerge from stagnation into a new era of selfmastery, with all its inherited aspirations intact.
The arrival of Islam marked an important turning point in the history for Oman. The population responded voluntarily and peacefully to the invitation of the Prophet Muhammad to join the community of the faithful, and went on to play a leading role in the consolidation of the faith and promotion of the banner of Islam in its journeys both East and West. The collected accounts agree that Mazin bin Ghadhuba was the first Omani to travel to the city of Madinah to meet the Prophet, to whom he said, “O son of a good and blessed people! Allah has shown the path of righteousness to the people of Oman through your religion. I hail from a country where prosperity and sustenance abound.” The Prophet Muhammad replied, “My religion is the religion of Islam. Allah shall double the prosperity of the people of Oman. May blessings and prosperity be granted to those who believe in me and have seen me; may blessings and prosperity be granted to those who believe in me without having seen me, and to those who haven’t seen those who have seen me. Allah shall increase the faith of the Omani people. Oman was one of the first countries to embrace Islam in the lifetime of the Prophet, who dispatched Amr Ibn al Aas to Oman’s two kings (Jaifer and Abd, sons of Al Julanda ibn al Mustakbir) advising them to embrace Islam. Oman responded positively under the leadership of the sons of Al Julanda and has ever since become a strong fortress of Islam and helped in the religion’s propagation in many regions, particularly in east and central Africa.
The Prophet Mohamed (PBOH), in a well-established Hadith, said of the pious inhabitants of Oman: “God’s mercy be on the people of Al Ghubaira (the people of Oman) …. “They believed in me although they had not seen me.” The Prophet’s singular commendation acknowledged the reports that had come to his attention of the genuineand wholesale embrace of Islam by the Omanis, in its purest interpretation. The speech delivered by the Caliph Abu Bakr to the Omani delegation that travelled to Madinah under the leadership of `Abd bin Al Julanda after the death of Prophet Muhammad is an important record that tells of the good character and hospitality of the Omani people and their adherence to Islam.Oman played a leading role in the spread of Islamic civilisation to other parts of the world. Omanis participated in the Arab conquests by land and sea of Iraq, Persia, the Indus valley and other places. Omanis took Islam to East Africa, China and ports in other parts of Africa and Asia where they engaged in commerce. The Omani people are well known for their adherence to their religion and values. This has created strong bonds between the people, which they are dedicated to preserving.
Omani historians are agreed that the Bani Nabhan ruled for a combined five hundred years, spread over two separate periods. The first of these two, or the First Nabhan Period, lasted four hundred years, from the death of Imam Abi Jaber Moussa bin Abi Al-Maali Moussa bin Najad in 549 AH/1154 AD to the defeat of Suleiman bin Suleiman bin Mudhaffar Al Nabhani, the celebrated poet king, and swearing in of Muhammad bin Ismail as Imam of Oman in 906 AH/1500 AD. What followed was a violent succession of wars and invasions waged against the Bani Nabhan from within and without the country’s borders, with intermittent periods of government by the Imamate. The second or Later Nabhan Period, which lasted from 906 to 1034 AH/1500 to 1624 AD, featured a succession of failed imams and was beset by power struggles among the Bani Nabhan themselves, and between the Nabhan and several other tribes in a jostle for power. Yet, the most significant of the events of this period was undoubtedly the occupation by the Portuguese of coastal Oman. For portions of their rule, the Nabhan were confined in their influence to the interior of the territory, and at their peak they held sway as far as the coast. At yet other times dissident tribesmen managed to secede from Nabhan control by retiring to the coastal regions. As to relations between the Nabhan and external powers, Omani sources point to a developing interplay of political and diplomatic connection between Nabhani Oman and the external world, evidenced in exchanges of visits with neighbouring countries, particularly those of the Gulf and East African region, and with a number of Asian kingdoms.
While the Portuguese were systematically quelling all resistance in the region and extending their control over large stretches of the Omani coast, despite strong resistance, a new energy was being awakened in Oman. In 1624, Nassir bin Murshid emerged as a charismatic leader to become the first Imam of the Ya’rubi State. He was quick to grasp the scale of the task to be accomplished, and the nature of the changes taking place, both in Oman and the region. He became convinced that no confrontation with the Portuguese could be decisive unless undertaken by a disciplined and cohesive national force, which demanded that he take on the formidable task of uniting fractious Omani tribes. In this enterprise he succeeded, consolidating the country under his leadership for the first time in many years, then went on to empower it with a strong naval fleet, which curtailed Portuguese influence and liberated several coastal cities from their grip. The Imam Sultan bin Saif continued the task, until he managed to liberate Muscat in 1650. The Omanis did not rest, having dispatched the Portuguese from their own coastline, but launched a succession of raids against Portuguese strongholds in the Indian Ocean and East Africa. In the reign of Imam Saif bin Sultan, the foundation stone was laid for the invincible navy that took control of all of the East African coastline, from Mombasa to Kilwa, turning Muscat into the principal entrepot of the Gulf region and one of the principal ports of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula.
The swearing in in 1744 of Imam Ahmed bin Said, Wali of Sohar, as ruler of Oman ushered in a new era in the history of the country, an era that has passed through many stages of its process up to the present day, a span of more than two hundred and sixty-seven years. The selection of the Imam was promoted by an influential stratum of society, who appreciated the positions he had taken and recognized in him the quality of courage that had ensured the successful dispatch of an attempted Persian invasion of Oman. During the reign of Imam Ahmed bin Said, Oman had for the first time in its history a central government. Imam Ahmed was able to unify the warring tribes and took the steps necessary to lay the foundations for a modern state. This involved establishing an armed force to address the defence needs of Oman, modernising commercial activities and developing a naval fleet. During the reign of Imam Ahmed, Muscat maintained its position as one of the most important trading cities in the region. The Port of Muscat became a major port on the European trade routes. Imam Ahmed revived Oman’s prominent role in the region. On one occasion, Imam Ahmed sent a 100- boat force led by the naval cruiser Al Rahmani in 1775 to the northern sector of the Gulf to break a siege set by the Persians around the Iraqi city of Basra in response to the call of the Wali of Baghdad.
Arab and European historians agree that a number of factors led to the Omanis playing a leading role in the region. The most significant of these factors was Oman’s legacy of centuries of maritime trade, the country’s geographical location, and the unique heritage, coupled with the stability that prevailed in Oman at a time when the rest of the Gulf region was gripped by chaos and continuous instability. Imam Ahmed bin Saidwas a great asset to the nation. He commanded a great degree of selfdiscipline, steadfastness and the ability to make the right decision at the right time. Imam Ahmed gained the respect of European powers, and their confidence in his leadership attracted foreigners and encouraged them to set up commercial agencies in Omani cities, particularly in Muscat which in 1790 became “one of the most important cities in Asia” according to a report drafted by the British East India Company. Arab and European historians agree that a number of factors led to the Omanis playing a leading role in the region. The most significant of these factors was Oman’s legacy of centuries of maritime trade, the country’s geographical location, and the unique heritage, coupled with the stability that prevailed in Oman at a time when the rest of the Gulf region was gripped by chaos and continuous instability. Imam Ahmed bin Said was a great asset to the nation.
He commanded a great degree of selfdiscipline, steadfastness and the ability to make the right decision at the right time. Imam Ahmed gained the respect of European powers, and their confidence in his leadership attracted foreigners and encouraged them to set up commercial agencies in Omani cities, particularly in Muscat which in 1790 became “one of the most important cities in Asia” according to a report drafted by the British East India Company. Arab and European historians agree that a number of factors led to the Omanis playing a leading role in the region. The most significant of these factors was Oman’s legacy of centuries of maritime trade, the country’s geographical location, and the unique heritage, coupled with the stability that prevailed in Oman at a time when the rest of the Gulf region was gripped by chaos and continuous instability. Imam Ahmed bin Said was a great asset to the nation.
He commanded a great degree of self-discipline, steadfastness and the ability to make the right decision at the right time. Imam Ahmed gained the respect of European powers, and their confidence in his leadership attracted foreigners and encouraged them to set up commercial agencies in Omani cities, particularly in Muscat which in 1790 became “one of the most important cities in Asia” according to a report drafted by the British East India Company. Imam Ahmed bin Said died in 1189 AH/1775 AD in Rustaq, the capital of Oman at that time. He was succeeded by a number of imams and sultans of the Al Busaid Dynasty. The capital city was moved from Rustaq to Muscat by Hamad, the grandson of Imam Ahmed bin Said. He ruled from 1193 AH/1779 AD to 1207 AH/1792 AD. Muscat has remained the capital of Oman until the present day. The Omani people have a deep sense of belonging to their land, and a keen awareness of the need for unity in order to confront any challenges the country may face. This sense of unity has been a consistent feature of the Omani national identity throughout the history of Oman. The Al Busaid family’s continuous leadership since the mid-18th century until now has played a significant role in contributing to national unity, especially during the reign of Sayyid Said bin Sultan (1807- 1856), and during the current reign of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the builder of Oman’s Modern Renaissance.
Although periods of weakness occurred from time to time, the rule of the Al Busaid Dynasty has yielded many great achievements, notably the elimination of foreign occupation and the establishment of an empire which extended to many parts of East Africa during the first half of the 19th century. This empire had a strong maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, leading to the fostering of balanced political relations with major world powers such as Britain, France and the United States. During that time, many domestic and regional challenges were overcome and solid foundations for balanced regional and international relations were established. This enabled the Sultanate to protect its national interests and emerge as a prosperous country which ensures the right of all of its people to equal citizenship. With Oman’s unity remaining intact as it had throughout its history, the nation has revived its former glory and continued to make a contribution to the advancement of human civilisation.