The Geographical Journal

Oman: the Curiosity of Informal Empire

by Benjamin Sacks

ONE COULD be forgiven lest they forget that the Sultanate of Oman borders Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The peaceful desert state rarely receives a mention in newspapers or television. Certainly, Oman has conspicuously avoided Yemen’s political instability and violence. Permitting a degree of good fortune, Oman has clearly used this internal stability to its advantage. A 1974 development report in The Geographical Journal noted that, before the late 1960s, Oman had changed little in the preceding century: ‘Basic resource use was largely limited to traditional and only partially commercial agriculture and fisheries; other economic activity consisted of medium-scale Indian Ocean maritime trade and the small-scale regional exchange of local products’. The Sultan in Muscat enjoyed tremendous wealth, but little national authority. Quiet and insular, Oman remained a sparsely-populated, tribal frontier.

But geography had one important card to play. Although in 1902 S M Zwemer lamented in The Geographical Journal that ‘historically, politically, and geographically, Oman has always been the most isolated part of Arabia,’ the Sultanate was nonetheless situated at one of the world’s most strategic crossroads. From its position on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman faces the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Most importantly, the Sultanate controls the Musandam frontier, a Gibraltar-like spit of land projecting itself in between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, creating the Strait of Hormuz. Whomever controlled Oman could regulate the flow of trade between the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and South Asia.

When N L Falcon, former Chief Geologist of British Petroleum (now BP), led an expedition to Musandam in mid-1972, Oman’s strategic value had long been recognized by British colonial authorities. Oman was never officially “colonized”; Muscat and its environs have been under the continuous control of the Qaboos dynasty since 1749. But the British nonetheless developed an intimate relationship with the Persian Gulf state. From the early nineteenth-century onward, London and Muscat signed a number of treaties prioritizing British imperial trade and military needs. British strategic interest in Oman facilitated growing interest in Arabic history and culture, or what Edward Said later described as “Orientalism”.

The rapid contraction of the British Empire in the decades following the end of the Second World War only marginally affected Muscat’s relationship with London. A 1959 internal Chatham House report warned that American efforts to expand their regional influence to Oman could be disastrous for British foreign policy. Chatham House did not have long to wait; Britain’s opportunity to reassert local authority soon presented itself. In 1968, the British Army pulled out of Aden. Marxist-Leninists soon filled the vacuum and, in an effort to spread their ideology to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, attacked Dhofar, Oman’s western desert province.

In Muscat, meanwhile, the British overthrew Sultan Qaboos’ father, Said bin Taimer. Trained at Sandhurst and regularly briefed by members of the British military, intelligence services, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Qaboos quickly moved to cement his authority. Backed by thousands of British troops, Qaboos crushed the Dhofar insurgency.  The educated Qaboos opened Oman to foreign investment and culture, albeit under Britain’s informal protection. It is a relationship that continues, in many respects, to this day.

The so-called ‘Oman Question’ clearly stands at odds with the global decolonization movement of the late twentieth-century. In the 1970s alone, Britain divested itself of many of its remaining West Indian and Pacific territories. Other possessions, including Belize (formerly British Honduras) gained self-autonomy status, a precursor to full independence. Oman’s departure from the norm remains a curiosity to many. J C Wilkinson, an Oxford geographer writing just as British-Oman military operations in Dhofar reached their apex, struggled even to define Oman’s geopolitical status: ‘The very title of the largest political unit of south-east Arabia, the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman [now simply the Sultanate of Oman],  indicates a territorial dichotomy which tells only part of the story’. Although Oman’s foreign policy and commercial negotiations have become more international in recent years, the Queen’s warmly-received visit to the Sultanate on 26 November 2010 reaffirmed Wilkinson’s forty year-old question. What is Oman?

W B Fisher and H Bowen-Jones, ‘Development Surveys in the Middle East‘, The Geographical Journal 140 no. 3 (Oct., 1974): pp. 454-466.

S M Zwemer, ‘Three Journeys in Northern Oman‘, The Geographical Journal 19 no. 1 (Jan., 1902): pp. 54–64.

N L Falcon, ‘The Musandam (Northern Oman) Expedition 1971/1972‘, The Geographical Journal 139 no. 1 (Feb., 1972): pp. 1-19.

See John B Kelly, Chatham House Memoranda: Sultanate and Imamate in Oman (London: Royal Institute for International Affairs and Oxford University Press, 1959), and Benjamin J Sacks, ‘A Path to Decolonization: British Reactions to the Winds of Change’, Tufts Historical Review 1 no. 1 (Spring, 2008): pp. 29-38.

J C Wilkinson, ‘The Oman Question: the Background to the Political Geography of South-East Arabia‘, The Geographical Journal 137 no. 3 (Sep., 1971): pp. 361-371.


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