POPULATION: 1.5 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic; English
RELIGION: Islam (Ibadi sect)
The present-day land of Oman was home to a fairly advanced civilization as far back as about 5000 BC . From 3000 BC until AD 1500, the Omanis were a prosperous, sea-faring, export-oriented people. During the sixth to seventh centuries AD , Islam was brought to Oman by the Arabs.
During the 1500s, the Portuguese invaded and built forts in the coastal towns to control the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf trade route. The Portuguese occupied the area for about 100 years until the Omanis drove them out. Oman had trade agreements and dealings with other European nations during the 300 years that followed. For the most part, Oman has not been under foreign rule since the Portuguese were driven out in the 1600s.
During the early to mid-nineteenth century, Oman became an important commercial center for the Persian Gulf area, and relations with other countries were developed. In the 1860s, the invention of the steamship and the opening of the Suez Canal eliminated the demand for Omani sailing ships and the need to stop at Omani ports. Oman entered a time of economic hardship, which lasted until oil production began in 1970. Until 1970, Oman also had been kept completely isolated by a succession of rigidly fundamentalist rulers. In 1970, Sultan Said bin Tamir was forced into exile by his son, Qaboos, who then became sultan. Sultan Qaboos began the production of oil and used the profits to make much-needed improvements in the country. Sultan Qaboos has brought electricity and running water, free modern education and health care, and great improvements in housing and roadways to Omanis.
The population of Oman is over two million. Approximately three-quarters are Omanis. The capital is Muscat, located on the northeast coast. All Omanis are Arabs.
Oman is located on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The total area of Oman is slightly smaller than the state of Kansas. Its landscape includes a fertile coastal plain, mountains, and vast expanses of desert. Parts of Oman receive monsoon rains during the summer months. Rain also falls in the mountains. The rest of the country receives little or no rain, making water a very valuable commodity. An ancient water-management system dating back 2,500 years still operates, carrying water from the mountains down into the dry plains below. Oman is known for its extreme heat and humidity. Summer temperatures can rise as high as 110° F (43° C ) in the shade, and humidity reaches a drenching 96 percent.
Omanis speak Arabic. A few pockets of other languages exist as well. English is taught as a second language to all students beginning in primary school. Arabic, spoken by 100 million people worldwide, has many distinct dialects. Consequently, people living as few as 300 miles (about 500 kilometers) apart may not be able to understand one another. The written form of Arabic is the same for all literate Arabs (those able to read and write), regardless of how different their spoken dialects are. Arabic is written from right to left.
"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum (Peace be with you), with the reply of Wa alaykum as-salam (and to you peace). Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afwan. "Yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, thamanya, tisa'a, and ashara.
Arabs' names consist of their first name, their father's name, and their paternal grandfather's name. Women do not take their husband's name when they marry. They keep their father's family name as a sign of respect for their family of origin. First names usually indicate an Arab's religious affiliation. Muslims use names with Islamic religious significance, such as Muhammad and Fatima, while Christians often use Western names, as well as Arabic Christian names, such as Elias and Butrus.
Folktales include the legends of Sinbad the Sailor. There is also a legend that King Solomon of Israel flew to Oman on a magic carpet with his jinn (a spirit who can take on human or other animal form). He then built 10,000 channels for the ancient water-carrying system in ten days.
The original inhabitants of Oman were pantheists, worshiping various goddesses and gods. Many later converted to Christianity. When the Islamic revolution swept through in the seventh century AD , Omanis were among the first to adopt the new religion. All Omanis are Muslim, most belonging to the Ibadi sect. Ibadis are traditionalists who believe in maintaining the original purity of Islam as conceived by the Prophet Muhammad.
The Islamic religion has five so-called "pillars": (1) Muslims must pray five times a day; (2) Muslims must give alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) Muslims must fast from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan; (4) Muslims must make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca (the spiritual center of Islam, located in Saudi Arabia); and (5) each Muslim must recite the shahada, which in English means, "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." Arabs say all their prayers facing in the direction of Mecca.
Islam is a simple, straightforward faith with clear rules for correct living. It is a total way of life, inseparable from the rest of one's daily concerns. Therefore, there is no such thing as the "separation of church and state" in Islamic countries such as Oman.
The one secular holiday in Oman is National Day on November 18. Otherwise, all the holidays are Muslim ones. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, so their dates on the standard Western (Gregorian) calendar move back by eleven days each Western year. The main Muslim holidays are Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; al-Mawlid An-Nabawi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid al-Isra wa Al-Mìraj, a feast celebrating Muhammad's nocturnal visit to heaven. Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed.
Omani boys are circumcised at either fifteen days or six years of age. In the past, circumcision was performed at the age of fifteen years in a ceremony involving both women and men.
Births are an occasion for celebration, particularly if the child is a boy. Weddings are perhaps the most elaborately celebrated occasions, with great feasts and dancing.
Arab hospitality reigns in Oman. When talking, Arabs touch each other much more often, and stand much closer together, than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking or walking. (In earlier days, members of the opposite sex, even married couples, never touched in public. This is changing today.) Arabs talk a great deal, talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures.
Before Sultan Qaboos took over in 1970, conditions in Oman were extremely primitive. There was no electricity or running water. Houses were built of either mud brick or woven and knotted palm fronds. There were almost no paved roads, and the only means of transportation were camels and donkeys. There were no newspapers and no television or radio stations. Since 1970, Sultan Qaboos has introduced electricity and running water to most of the country, built many new structures of cement block, constructed extensive paved roads, and modernized communications, health care, and education, all of which are provided free of charge. Most Omanis now own cars and trucks. The distance from the capital city of Muscat in the northeast to the city of Salalah at the other end of the country can now be crossed in one day. It used to take two weeks by camel caravan.
Omanis are a tribal people, and the family is the center of their life. Marriages are traditionally arranged by parents, with first cousins being the preferred match. The groom pays the bride a dowry (marriage gift of goods or money), or mahr, which becomes her property no matter what happens. Polygyny (more than one wife) is legal, but it is very rarely practiced. Divorce is rare. Girls can be betrothed (engaged) as young as eleven or twelve years of age.
An Omani woman's role is domestic, while the man's is public. Men take care of all business and public transactions, even doing most of the food shopping. Women take care of the home, doing all the cooking, cleaning, and child care. Women and children do most of the sheep, goat, and poultry herding. On farms, women do most of the work in the fields. Weaving and embroidery are also women's tasks. Although Oman is one of the most traditional Islamic countries, women are actually much less restricted in Oman than are women in other Arab nations. Omani women are the only women on the Arabian Peninsula who are allowed to vote.
Omani men wear the traditional dishdasha, an ankle-length robe, usually white. Sometimes they wear a bisht, a kind of cloak, over their dishdasha. On their heads they wear a skullcap or a turban. Many Omani men carry a camel stick—a length of bamboo with a curved handle, like a cane. Almost all Omani men wear a curved dagger called a khanjar through their belt.
Women in Oman wear very colorful dresses over loose-fitting pants that are gathered tightly at the ankles. They wear scarves on their heads, and a lot of jewelry. In public, most Omani women wear a black ankle-length robe called an abaya, and many veil their faces.
All Omanis wear leather sandals on their feet.
Staple foods in Oman consist of rice, dates, fruit, fish, and meat. Most meat is cooked in a tanour, a hole in the ground where a fire is built and then allowed to burn down to ashes. Meat is wrapped and cooked for twenty-four hours before eating. Omanis eat their meals on the floor or ground, the dishes spread on a cloth. Food and drink are always taken with the right hand. The main meal of the day is at noon; breakfast and supper are light meals. A favorite dessert is halawa (halvah), a sweet, flaky treat usually made of crushed sesame seeds and honey. Coffee is drunk strong and black, sometimes flavored with cardamom. Bedu (or Bedouin) nomads eat the locusts that swarm over farmers' crops.
Before Sultan Qaboos took over in 1970, there were only three schools in Oman, with a total of 900 students, all boys. Today there are over 1,000 schools, with a total enrollment of 482,000 students, almost half girls. Girls and boys go to separate schools, but their education is similar. Education is free to all Omanis from the preschool through postgraduate levels. Children's education goes through primary, preparatory, and secondary stages. Some students attend college or technical training institutes after secondary school. The Sultan Qaboos University was opened for classes in September 1986. Sixty-five percent of its students are female. The literacy rate (ability to read and write) in 1995 was determined to be about 59 percent for Omanis over fifteen years of age. Hundreds of adult-education and literacy centers have been established to help eliminate illiteracy.
Adapted from Moosewood Collective, Sunday at the Moosewood Restaurant, New York: Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster, 1990, pp. 84–85.
The Ministry of National Heritage and Culture was established in 1976. It has restored many historic buildings, including forts, castles, and ancient houses. The Ministry has also built numerous historical museums, libraries, and cultural centers, and organized excavations of ancient remains. Excavations have uncovered pottery jars, beads, and arrowheads dating back to the third millennium BC .
Music is not encouraged by the Ibadi sect of Islam. Yet some folk music has developed in Oman. The Oman Center for Traditional Music was founded in August 1983 to collect and document Omani folk music. Folk music is played on traditional instruments such as drums, a trumpet made out of horn, a straight pipe, and the rebaba, a stringed instrument. Sea chanteys (sailors' songs) have been sung throughout the sea-faring Omanis' history. In 1985, Sultan Qaboos established the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, as well as a music-training school that is attended by both sexes.
Visual arts in Oman are mostly confined to everyday objects, such as kitchen utensils, rugs, ceramic pots, and clothing.
In the fertile areas of Oman, most people are farmers. About 10 percent of Omanis are fishers in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea. Boatbuilding is an ancient craft passed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, boats were built from palm fronds, and larger ones from wood. These traditional boats are still used, although recently many fishers have purchased aluminum boats. Sails and oars used to be the means of propulsion; most boats now have motors.
Omani nomads herd sheep, goats, and camels. Oman is the camel-breeding capital of the world.
Although most of Oman's revenue currently comes from oil, that industry employs only a few thousand Omanis. Roughly two-thirds of laborers in the work force are currently foreign workers.
Since 1970, Sultan Qaboos has increased the scope of sporting activities in the country. Sports complexes and sports clubs have been built throughout Oman. The traditional sport of camel racing is very popular, as is horse racing. Hockey was introduced into Oman from India in the nineteenth century and is very popular. Many Omanis enjoy target shooting, and some have won regional or international shooting competitions. Omani national teams have also competed in the Olympic games.
Omanis enjoy plays and concerts performed by the national Youth Theater, established in 1980. Boys have joined Boy Scout groups since 1948; girls have been able to be Girl Scouts since 1970. The National Organization for Scouts and Guides, established in 1975, aims to develop in youth a sense of service, self-reliance, responsibility, and public spirit. There are ten Scout camps in the country.
All art in Oman is utilitarian (designed for usefulness rather than beauty) and can therefore be seen as folk art. Silver-, gold-, and coppersmithing are perhaps the most highly developed arts. Weaving, embroidery, and woodcarving also are highly intricate and require great skill. Pottery is also a well-developed utilitarian art.
Ecologically, Oman is a very clean country, with stiff fines for littering (or even for having a dirty car). However, there is a great deal of coastal pollution from oil tankers, from the mining of sand to build new roads, and from the dumping of wastes.
The once nearly extinct white oryx, an antelope, has been successfully reintroduced into the wild in Oman. However, several species of sea turtles continue to be endangered by the Omani taste for turtle soup. Groundwater reserves are being rapidly used up, and the dry climate of today cannot provide enough rain to refill them.
Politically, Oman has operated under a traditional sultanate structure, in which family members are given all the positions of authority and decision-making. This system is quickly becoming harmful to Oman's welfare. Many commoners are now much better educated and trained in the skills needed for government posts than members of the ruling family. Since the production of oil began in 1970, the ruling family has kept Oman's citizens quiet by giving them great benefits and financial gifts. In return, citizens have not questioned the way the government is run. But those days are quickly disappearing. Oman has very limited oil reserves and they are likely to run out soon. Government handouts will then have to be severely cut back. Sultan Qaboos is trying to develop non-oil industries, but he has had limited success so far.
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Hawley, Sir Donald. Oman and Its Renaissance. London: Stacey International, 1990.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: The Middle East and North Africa. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
Zahlan, Rosemarie Said. The Making of the Modern Gulf States: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. London: Unwin Hymen, 1989.