The Sultanate of Oman is the oldest independent nation in the Arab world. It occupies the SE corner of the Arabian peninsula and includes the tip of the Musandam Peninsula which is separated from the rest of Oman by UAE territory. This peninsula overlooks the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The Al Halar al Gharbi range, rising to 3,019m [9,904ft] above sea level, borders the narrow coastal plain in the N. This fertile plain along the Gulf of Oman is called Al Battinah. Inland are deserts, including part of the Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter). Much of the land along the Arabian Sea is barren, but the province of Zufar (or Dhofar) in the south-east is a hilly, fertile region.
Temperatures in Oman can reach 54°C [129°F] in summer, but winters are mild to warm. Rainfall in the N mountains can exceed 400mm [16in] per year, while in the SE it can be up to 630mm [25in], but for most of Oman the desert climate means less than 150 mm [6 in] per year. Sandstorms, duststorms and droughts feature and occasionally, tropical cyclones bring stormy weather.
Oman first became a major trading region 5,000 years ago, on the main route between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Islam was introduced into the area in the 7th century ad and today 75% of the population follow the strict Ibadi Islam sect.
The Portuguese conquered several ports, including Muscat, in 1507. Portugal controlled maritime trade until expelled by the Ottomans in 1659. Oman set up trading posts in East Africa, including Zanzibar in 1698. Until the 1860s it was the dominant Arabian power. The Al Bu Said family came to power in the 1740s and have ruled the country ever since.
British influence dates back to the end of the 18th century, when the two countries entered into the first of several treaties. By 1850 most of Oman's overseas possessions were in British hands, and Oman's influence declined. During the early 20th century, the sultanate was often in conflict with religious leaders (imams) of the Ibahdi sect, who sought a more theocratic society. In 1920, Britain brokered an agreement whereby the interior was ruled by imams, with coastal areas under the control of the Sultan. Clashes between the two groups continued into the 1950s, but Sultan Said bin Taimur regained control of the whole country in 1959.
Under Sultan Said bin Taimur, Oman had been an isolated, feudal country. Its economy was backward compared to its oil-rich Gulf neighbours. Oman made substantial strides after Sultan Said bin Taimur was deposed by his son Sultan Qaboos ibn Said in 1970. With the help of soldiers from Iran and Jordan, he saw an end to war against Yemen-backed separatist guerrillas in the province of Zufar (1965-1975). He also led the way in developing an expanding economy based on oil. Production began in 1967 and reserves proved far larger than expected. Qaboos opened up Oman to the outside world, ending its long isolation. At home, he avoided the prestigious projects favoured by Arab leaders to concentrate on social programmes, including the education of girls. His leadership proved popular despite the lack of a democratic government.
In 1991 Oman took part in the military campaign to liberate Kuwait. In 1997, Oman held its first direct elections to a Consultative Council. Unusually for the Gulf region, two women were elected. In 1999 Oman and the United Arab Emirates signed an agreement, confirming most of the borders between them. In 2001, while a military campaign was being launched in Afghanistan, Britain held military exercises in the Omani desert. This was an example of the long-standing political and military relationship between the two countries. In 2003 elections were held to the Consultative Council. For the first time, all citizens over 21 were allowed to vote although no parties are allowed. In 2004 the Sultan appointed the first woman minister with portfolio. In 2005 nearly 100 suspected Islamists were arrested and 31 were convicted of trying to overthrow the government, but they were later pardoned.
The World Bank classifies Oman as an 'upper-middle-income' developing country. It has sizeable oil and natural gas deposits, a large trade surplus and low inflation. Oil accounts for more than 90% of Oman's export revenues. Huge natural gas deposits, equal to all the finds of the previous 20 years, were discovered in 1991. Although only about 0.3% of the land is cultivated, agriculture and fishing are the traditional economic activities. Major crops include alfalfa, bananas, coconuts, dates, tobacco and wheat. Water supply is a major problem. Oman depends on water from underground aquifers, which will eventually run dry. and also from desalination plants. Industries include copper smelting, cement, chemicals and food processing. Tourism is a growing activity.
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