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Oman - History

Oman History

As in much of the rest of Arabia, the earliest known settlements in Oman date from the 3rd millennium BC. In that era an empire known as Magan developed along the Batinah, Oman's northern coast, exploiting the rich veins of copper found in the hills around Sohar. The region's economy declined over the centuries and sometime around 563 BC northern Oman was incorporated into the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Southern Oman's Dhofar region flourished due to the presence of frankincense-producing trees. This aromatic gum was one of the ancient world's most sought-after substances and it kept southern Arabia wealthy well into the 6th century AD.

In the mid-8th century AD the tribes of northern Oman swept into the rest of Arabia, briefly conquering Medina, where they were subsequently overthrown by the Abbasids. Though defeated, Oman managed to remain relatively free of Abbasid control. Until 1506, when the Portuguese began prowling the Indian Ocean, Omani naval power had few rivals in the area. The Portuguese occupied Oman for more than a century, until they were expelled by Imam Sultan bin Saif in 1650.

This victory marked the beginning of a great expansion: by the end of the 18th century the Omanis ruled a far-flung empire. At its peak in the 19th century, under Sultan Said bin Sultan, Oman controlled both Mombasa and Zanzibar and operated trading posts even further down the African coast. It also controlled portions of the Indian subcontinent. Oman stagnated after Said's sons split his empire, a situation which the British exacerbated by pressing the sultan to end the trade in slaves and arms for which the country had long been known. This left the sultan a great deal poorer, and lack of money left the interior difficult to control.

When Sultan Faisal bin Turki died in 1913, the interior's tribes refused to recognise his son as imam, leading to a split between the coastal area ruled by the sultan and the interior, which came to be controlled by a separate line of imams.

In 1938 a new sultan, Said bin Taimur, came to power, but it took him until 1959 to gain full control of the interior. Said turned Oman into a medieval anachronism, fueling an ever-escalating nationalist rebellion. In 1970, the hermit-like, acquisitive Said was overthrown by his only son, Qaboos, in a bloodless palace coup. Although the British denied any involvement in the coup, the fact that British officers commanded the Oman army at the time seems to tell a different tale. Said spent the rest of his life living in exile in a London hotel, rumoured to have subsisted on a diet of fried Mars Bars.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said quickly set to modernising Oman's semi-feudal economy and repealing his father's oppressive social restrictions. Oman's comparatively modest oil revenues were used to build roads, hospitals and schools, which had all been in short supply. He also opened the country to tourism in 1987, which has yet to become an important sector of the economy.

In foreign affairs, the Qaboos government has developed something of a maverick reputation, managing to maintain friendly relations with post-revolutionary Iran and diplomatic ties with Egypt after it signed a peace treaty with Israel. In 1993, Qaboos welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a brief visit to Oman, which remained a supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through the late 1990s. In 1998, Oman was one of several oil-producing countries that announced slight cuts in output, touching off a rise in oil and petrol prices.

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