Personal Reflections on Oman:
A Land of Tradition and Neutrality
by Melissa Rossi
Melissa Rossi is a researcher at the Brazilian Naval War College
When I was very young, around 10 or 11 years old, I remember being particularly curious about a book in my mother’s library. The cover was of a man serving what seemed like tea, standing in the midst of his travel companions surrounded by the desert. Growing up in the South American tropics, there was something quite unusually fascinating about that image. Later, when I was 16, I got around to reading Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. It was the first book I read in English.
Arabian Sands transported me to a different world, with an almost outer worldly landscape—I was mentally standing in front of the Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarters of the Southern Arabian desert. I could sense the silence of the desert, so different from the lively and familiar sounds of the Atlantic Forest outside of my window. For some strange reason, the silence of that imaginary desert has never left my mind.
Fast forward to the present and almost by chance I find myself researching about Salalah in Oman for an article which should highlight some of the country’s cultural and historical elements. Thanks to its location along the Arabian Sea, the city enjoys lush, green, vegetation during its summer months/monsoon season, which runs from June to September.
Thesiger's starting point for his journey to cross the Empty Quarters was exactly from a Royal Air Force base in Salalah in 1945, where he joined the Bait Kathir Bedouin who led him to the Al-Qara mountains and beyond. Suddenly, I close my eyes and The Rub al-Khali is getting closer again. Perhaps I will visit, one day, in person. Inshallah! (God willing!)
Oman also caught my attention while studying about the geopolitics of the Gulf. First, because it is conflict free in the midst of a geopolitically charged area. Second, it occupies an incredibly important strategic location in the Southeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula. One of the most fascinating strips of land belonging to Oman is its Musandam Peninsula, separated from the rest of the country by a stretch of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The patch of land that belongs to Oman faces the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point, is about 35 miles wide (between Oman and Iran). This is indeed one of the most important, and tense, maritime bottlenecks in the world and about one-fifth of the world´s oil passes through the narrow strait. Beyond the giant tankers and multinational warships stationed in bases in different Gulf states, I cannot help but imagine how past navigators ventured into those same waters, crossing the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Oman: from the Portuguese who arrived in 1507 and were expelled from Oman in 1650 (the Omanis still celebrate that event with great joy and I certainly don’t blame them as we also celebrate their departure here in Brazil, except that our independence was in 1822) to British protectorships in the 19th and 20th centuries. After expelling the Portuguese, the Omanis extended their territory all the way to the eastern coast of Africa and eventually Zanzibar became the capital of the Omani Kingdom for a short period of time in the 19th Century when Sultan Said of the Al Busaidi dynasty moved his court to the east African island. This is somewhat similar to what happened in Brazil when the entire Portuguese court escaped to Rio from Lisbon fleeing from Napoleon’s 1808 invasion. Interestingly, a considerable group of Omanis still speak Swahili nowadays.
Back to the British: Interested in controlling the maritime routes that led to India and in eliminating the Al Qasimi naval attacks (which was considered as piracy) in the north of Oman, the British signed treaties with the northern Sheikdoms in 1820, creating what became known as the Trucial States, which in 1971 formed an independent federation from Oman called the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The British only began leaving the region in 1968, when they decided to withdraw from all posts east of the Suez Canal. It is important to mention that Oman had remained independent from the British de jure, but not de facto. British troops helped them regain control of a rebellious interior under Sultan Said bin Taymur (1932-1970) in exchange for loans, advice and assistance (1).
In 1970, Sultan Said was overthrown by his son Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said who ruled the country until his death in 2020. Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman underwent a rapid process of modernisation thanks to growing oil revenues and the need to catch up with the rest of the world and its neighbours. From what I gather, he was greatly loved by his people due to his opening towards the world while also trying to preserve traditional traits crucial to Omani identity. In fact, in contrast to its more lavish neighbours, Oman’s capital, Muscat, has retained a greater density of its traditional architecture and avoided the skyscraper building spree of some other Gulf states.
Finally, in terms of its strategic interests, Oman is described as the Switzerland of the Middle East and its diplomacy strives to seek out peaceful solutions to conflicts, often playing a mediating role between regional powers. Under the country’s present leader, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, the country continues to play a balancing act: maintaining diplomatic channels to Iran and acknowledging that Israel is a legitimate player in the region. Indeed, last month Oman participated in the International Maritime Exercise (IMX 2022) led by the United States, together with Israel. It was the first time Oman and Israel conducted a naval exercise together. Until now, however, there is reluctance to join the Abraham Accords—the country remains neutral.
While only touching the surface of this incredible country’s history, with its diverse landscape, strategic location, traditional architecture and neutral approach to its neighbours, I hope to have given readers a sense of the various aspects of this unique and diverse culture and sparked interest in learning more.
21 March 2022
(1) William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East (New York: Routledge, 2016), 409.