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Oman (ōmänˈ), officially Sultanate of Oman, independent sultanate (2015 est. pop. 3,287,000), c.82,000 sq mi (212,380 sq km), SE Arabian peninsula, on the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. It is bordered on the west by Yemen and Saudi Arabia and on the north by the United Arab Emirates, which separates the major portion of the sultanate from a smaller area (the Musandam Peninsula) on the Strait of Hormuz and very small landlocked exclave between them (Madha). The capital and largest city is Muscat.

Land and People

For the most part, Oman comprises a narrow coastal plain backed by hill ranges and an interior desert plateau. The highest point is Jebel Sham (c.9,900 ft/3,018 m).The inhabitants are mostly Arabs; there are also minorities of Baluchis, South Asians, East Africans, and migrant workers of varied ethnicities. About 75% are Ibadhi Muslims; the rest are mostly Sunni or Shiite Muslims, with smaller groups of Christians and Hindus. Arabic is the official language; English, Baluchi, and Urdu are also spoken.


In the extreme north, dates, limes, nuts, bananas, alfalfa, and vegetables are cultivated, and in the southwest there is an abundance of camels, cattle and other livestock. Fishing is an important industry. The major product, however, is oil, which was discovered in Oman in 1964 and first exported in 1967. Crude oil is produced and refined; other industrial products include natural gas, copper, steel, chemicals, and optic fiber. Petroleum, reexported goods, fish, metals, and textiles are important exports; imports include machinery and transportation equipment, manufactured goods, foods, livestock, and lubricants. Oman has a large trade surplus. The main trading partners are Japan, the United Arab Emirates, China, and South Korea.


Oman does not have a constitution, but the Basic Law, which was promulgated by royal decree in 1996 and has since been amended by decree, is considered by the government to be a constitution. The monarch is both head of state and head of government. The bicameral legislature consists of the 58-seat Majlis al-Dawla, or upper house, whose members are appointed by the monarch, and the 84-seat Majlis al-Shura, or lower house, whose members are popularly elected to serve four-year terms. Though its influence was increased in 2011, the legislature is mainly an advisory body. Administratively, the country is divided into 11 governorates.


Ancient settlements in Oman, initially associated with nomads, date back to c.6000 B.C. Beginning in the 6th cent. B.C. and for roughly a millenium thereafter, much of coastal Oman was dominated by Persia (under the Achaemenids and Sassanids) and Parthia. Sumhuram, ruins in S Oman near modern Salalah, was founded (late 1st cent. B.C.) as a port in the frankincense trade and was closely linked to ancient Sheba. In the 6th cent. A.D. the region converted to Islam, and was successively controlled by the Umayyads, Abbasids, Karmathians, Buyids, and Seljuk Turks. Much of the coast of Oman was controlled by Portugal from 1508 to 1659, when the Ottoman Empire took possession. The Ottoman Turks were driven out in 1741 by Ahmad ibn Said of Yemen, who founded the present royal line.

In the late 18th cent., Oman began its close ties with Great Britain, which still continue. In the early 19th cent., Oman was the most powerful state in Arabia, controlling Zanzibar and much of the coast of Iran and Baluchistan. Zanzibar was lost in 1856, and the last Omani hold on the Baluchistan coast, Gwadar, was ceded to Pakistan in 1958. The sultan of Oman had frequent clashes with the imam (leader) of the interior ethnic groups. In 1957 the groups revolted but were suppressed with British aid. Several Arab countries supporting the imam charged in the 1960s that the sultan's regime was oppressive and that the British were exercising colonial influence in Oman.

In 1965 the United Nations called for the elimination of British influence in Oman. In 1970, Sultan Said bin Taimur was deposed by his son, Qaboos bin Said, who promised to use oil revenues for modernization. Rebel activity continued until the mid-1970s, however, particularly in Dhofar, in the south, where a Chinese-aided liberation front was strong. Oman joined the United Nations and the Arab League in 1971, but it did not become part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In 1981, Oman joined Persian Gulf nations and Saudi Arabia in founding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and has since sought to promote ties among the participating nations.

Relations between Oman and the United States have been close since the 1970s. However, Oman did not establish full diplomatic relations with its neighbor Southern Yemen until 1983 and with the Soviet Union until 1985. As a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in Aug., 1990, Oman opened its bases to international coalition forces against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In 1996 the sultan issued a decree promulgating a new basic law that established a procedure for choosing the royal successor, provided for a bicameral advisory council with some limited legislative powers and a prime minister, and guaranteed basic civil liberties for Omani citizens. Military bases in Oman were used (2001) by U.S. forces involved in ground raids against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. In 2003 the lower house of the advisory council was freely elected for the first time.

In the first half of 2011, Oman, like many other Arab nations, experienced antigovernment protests; in response, the sultan offered some economic concessions and political reforms, but dissent and discontent, in the form of strikes and protests, continued to fester on a small scale. The sultan died in Jan., 2020, and was succeeded by Haitham bin Tariq Al-Said, his cousin. A year later, the new sultan introduced changes into Oman's basic law that called for the appointment of a crown prince.


See P. Risso, Oman and Muscat (1986); C. H. Allen, Jr., Oman (1986); D. Hawley, ed., Oman and Its Renaissance (4th ed. 1987); J. C. Wilkinson, The Imamate Tradition of Oman (1987); M. Valeri, Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State (2009, repr. 2014); A. R. Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965–1976 (2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Sultanate of Oman), a state in the southeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bounded by Saudi Arabia, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates, which also divide a small part of Oman on the Strait of Hormuz from the rest of the country. In the southeast it is washed by the Arabian Sea, and in the northeast by the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz. Oman has an area of 212,400 sq km (1972 UN Yearbook) and a population of 750,000 (1973 UN estimate). The capital is Muscat, and the country is divided into provinces. Oman is an hereditary monarchy.

Natural features. Most of the southern coast is flat and indented, forming the bays of Masira, Sauqira, and Kuria Muria. Coral reefs fringe the southern coast for a considerable distance. The northern coast has a greatly indented ria shoreline. Along the Gulf of Oman, the Oman Mountains rise to 3,019 m (3,353 m according to some sources) at Jabal al-Sham. At the northern foot of the mountains is a narrow 40–50 km coastal lowland, called al-Batinah, with numerous oases. Central Oman is occupied by the eastern edge of the Rub al-Khali sand desert (the Empty Quarter), where rows of dunes extend in a predominantly meridional direction. In the southwest the elevation increases from 100–200 m to 500–1,000 m or more on the Dhofar Plateau. The country has petroleum and natural gas deposits; in 1973 known petroleum reserves totaled 695 million tons.

The climate is tropical and, throughout most of the country, arid. Winter temperatures range from 18°C to 25°C, and summer temperatures average 30°035°C, reaching a maximum of 45°– 50°C. The annual precipitation averages 150 mm, increasing to 500 mm in the Oman Mountains and to 700 mm in the southwest, which is influenced by summer monsoons.

Although the country has no permanent rivers, there are many wadis, or seasonal watercourses. A system of karezes supplies groundwater for irrigation.

Tropical deserts predominate everywhere but in the mountains, which support savannas, deciduous forests, and meadows. Trees of the genera Boswellia and Commiphora predominate on the Dhofar Plateau, and date and coconut palms grow in the oases. Among common mammals are the Arabian gazelle, foxes, jackals, and hyenas, and there are many jerboas, lizards, and snakes. The coastal waters abound in tuna and herring.


Population. Arabs constitute more than 90 percent of the population. The rest of the inhabitants include Baluchis, Persians, and immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Africa, all of whom live mostly in the cities. The official language is Arabic, and the dominant religion is Islam. The official calendar is the Muslim lunar Hegira, although the Gregorian calendar is also used.

Between 1963 and 1972 the population increased at an average annual rate of 3 percent. The population is concentrated along the Gulf of Oman, where the most densely settled areas are al-Batinah and Jabal al-Akhdar. The average density is 3.5 persons per sq km. Most of the people have adopted a settled way of life, and 9 percent are urban dwellers. The largest cities are Muscat, with more than 10,000 inhabitants in 1973 (about 29,000 including the port of Matrah), Salalah, Nizwa (Nazwa), Sur, and Suhar.

Historical survey. Oman’s location at the junction of routes connecting the oldest civilizations of the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus basins contributed to the founding of port cities along its coast as early as the fourth millennium B.C. These port cities conducted a flourishing entrepôt trade. In the fourth and third millennia B.C., the Omani seafarers traded with the ports of Egypt, Ethiopia, the Persian Gulf, and India. The Arabs of the Oman coast were the first navigators in the Indian Ocean.

At the beginning of the first millennium B.C., the Yamani (Yemenites), among whom early class relations had evolved, came to Oman from Yemen and played a decisive role in the region’s development. The Yamani migration strengthened Oman’s contacts with Yemen and hastened the evolution of an early class society. In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., the coastal areas were controlled by the Achaemenids. Between the third and first centuries B.C., Oman’s port cities played an important role in the entrepôt trade between India, Mesopotamia, and the Nile basin. The port of Oman became a major shipbuilding center in the Near East.

In the sixth century A.D., Oman was devastated by the army of the Sassanid Khosrow I Anushirwan. The Persian invasion and nomad attacks from neighboring parts of Arabia destroyed Oman’s irrigation system, built in ancient times, and retarded the country’s economic development. In the mid-seventh century, when feudal relations were evolving in Oman, the area was incorporated into the Caliphate. The process of feudalization was accelerated, and Islam became the dominant religion. The population took an active part in the struggle against the Umayyads that spread throughout the Caliphate. In the mid-eighth century a general insurrection broke out against the caliph’s representative in Oman. After the overthrow of the Umayyads in 750, the imam emerged as the supreme ruler, and Oman became an independent imamate. In the late ninth century, the Abbasids conquered Oman, making the imams their vassals. The independence of the imamate was restored in the late 11th century. For a long time Oman was ruled by hereditary kings from the powerful Arab Nabhan tribe. In 1429 the elective imamate was restored in Oman.

During the Middle Ages, the harbors of Oman continued to play a crucial role in the trade of the East. By the early 15th century much of the trade between India and Southeast Asia on the one hand and the Ottoman empire and East Africa on the other was controlled by Omani merchants. Omani merchant colonies flourished in many port cities in India and Southeast Asia. By 1515 the Portuguese controlled almost the entire coast of Oman. Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean trade undermined Oman’s maritime shipping and trade, the chief occupations of the coastal inhabitants.

In the 1620’s Portuguese control over the Persian Gulf and particularly Oman was weakened by the attacks of Persian forces and the Anglo-Dutch fleet. Led by the rulers of the Omani Yaariba dynasty, the Omani tribes fiercely resisted the Portuguese, and in 1650, Oman was completely liberated. The army of Imam Abu Yaariba captured the islands in the Strait of Hor-muz and several Persian Gulf islands and occupied a stretch of the southeastern coast of Persia. In the 1660’s Oman subjugated Zanzibar and part of the East African coast. Persian forces seized the coastal regions of Oman in 1737, and after they were expelled in 1744, the Al Bu Said dynasty again extended the authority of the imams over Persian territory along the Persian Gulf.

In the second half of the 18th century, Great Britain, France, and later the Wahhabis of central Arabia struggled for control over Oman and particularly its coastal areas. Taking advantage of a dynastic struggle and the growing conflict between the feudal lords in the interior and those in the coastal regions of Oman, Sultan bin Ahmed, the imam’s brother, supported by the British East India Company, captured part of the coast of Oman in 1792, including the cities of Muscat and Suhar, and founded a separate state, the Sultanate of Muscat. At about the same time the imamate lost territory along the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz to the Wahhabis. By the early 19th century, Oman was divided into the Imamate of Oman, the Sultanate of Muscat, and the northern Omani coast, called Pirate Coast by the British.

In the second half of the 19th century Muscat and the Pirate Coast were transformed into the British protectorates of Muscat and Trucial Oman; the latter subsequently became the United Arab Emirates. The formation of the protectorates isolated the Imamate of Oman from the coast, ruined its trade, and contributed to the preservation of tribalism and feudalism in Oman. Anti-British revolts, headed first by Imam Azan ibn Qais and later by Fahad, the son of the sultan of Muscat, broke out in 1865, 1886, and 1890. The insurgents demanded the reunification of Muscat and Oman and abrogation of the one-sided agreements between Muscat and Great Britain. When an Omani tribal army entered Muscat in 1895, it was supported by some of the local population. All these uprisings were ruthlessly crushed by the British authorities and their Muscati henchmen. In 1913, Omani tribal detachments led by Imam Salim al-Harusy liberated a large part of Muscat and besieged the city of Muscat. British intervention in Oman in 1915 helped keep the sultan of Muscat in power and prevented the country’s unification. Under the Treaty of Sib, signed on Sept. 25, 1920, the British colonial authorities and the sultan of Muscat recognized the Imamate of Oman as an independent state.

The developing liberation movement in Muscat and the sheikdoms of Trucial Oman, the separatist tendencies among some Omani feudal lords, the growing anti-imperialist sentiments in all three parts of Oman, and the discovery of large oil reserves in the Imamate of Oman—all prompted Great Britain to invade the Imamate of Oman in the autumn of 1955 in violation of the Treaty of Sib. British troops and armed detachments of the sultan of Muscat, Said bin Taimur, who had come to power in 1932, captured Nizwa, Rustaq, and other Omani towns. Some Omanis rallied around Imam Ghalib ibn Ali, and in 1955 began fighting Said bin Taimur and the British colonialists. However, in 1959 a large part of the imamate was occupied by British troops and their allies, and many Omanis fled their homeland. Most of the Arab countries supported Imam Ghalib, and from 1958 onward the question of Oman’s future was repeatedly raised in the UN.

On the insistence of the Afro-Asian countries, the Commission on Oman was created at the 18th session of the UN General Assembly. The committee’s recommendation that British troops be withdrawn from Oman and that the country be granted independence was approved at the 20th session of the UN General Assembly in 1965. A rebel movement arose in June 1965 on the Dhofar Plateau in southwestern Oman, headed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Dhofar. In 1968 the front was renamed the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf. In 1970 the National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf was founded in the Jabal al-Akhdar region. At the end of 1971 both these organizations, along with several other patriotic groups and democratic organizations, united to form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Occupied Arabian Gulf, called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman since August 1974.

The organized national liberation movement, aimed at ending British domination and bringing about social changes, intensified. To protect their political, military, and economic interests in Oman, Muscat, and adjacent areas, where the extreme reactionary policies and the medieval government of Said bin Taimur provoked growing discontent, the British colonialists cooperated in removing him from power on July 23, 1970, and installing his son Qabus bin Said. At the end of 1970, Qabus bin Said announced the formation of the Sultanate of Oman, comprising the Sultanate of Muscat and the Imamate of Oman. On Sept. 29, 1971, the Sultanate of Oman joined the Arab League, and on Oct. 7, 1971, it became a member of the UN. In the 1970’s the ruling circles of Oman, supported by foreign military forces, tried to suppress the liberation movement in the western province of Dhofar.


Economy. Oman is a land with a backward agriculture and an expanding petroleum industry. More than 90 percent of the work force is engaged in farming. The principal crop is dates (47,000 tons in 1971), grown chiefly on irrigated land in al-Batinah. Alfalfa, lemons, mangoes, pomegranates, and bananas are also raised, and grain crops include African millet, corn, barley, and wheat. Cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, and vegetables are cultivated for local use. The nomadic bedouin raise sheep, goats, and camels. There is fishing along the coast. Industry is restricted to domestic food processing (flour, confectionery). The leading handicrafts are leatherworking, textile weaving, dyeing, and jewelry-making. Omani artisans also make daggers and small boats.

Oil drilling began in 1967, when 2.8 million tons were produced. By 1973 production had increased to about 14.5 million tons. The oil concession is held by Petroleum Development Oman, Ltd. Prior to 1974, 85 percent of the company’s capital belonged to Royal Dutch Shell, 10 percent to the Compagnie Française du Pétroles, and 5 percent to the Gulbenkian group. Since 1974, 25 percent of the company’s stock has been transferred to the Omani government, which is to acquire 51 percent of the stock by 1982. Since 1971 royalties paid to Oman have amounted to 55 percent of the company’s oil revenues. The oil is shipped by pipeline to the port of al-Fahal, near Matrah.

Electric-power production totaled 29 million kilowatt-hours in 1973. The country has more than 1,000 km of vehicular roads. The chief seaport is Muscat, and in 1974 the construction of port facilities in Matrah was almost completed, enabling the port to handle 1.5 million tons of freight annually. There is an international airport at al-Sib, near Muscat. In addition to petroleum, Oman exports dates, fish, and citrus fruits. The chief imports are equipment for the petroleum industry, motor vehicles, textiles, and foodstuffs. The principal trading partners are Great Britain, the United Arab Emirates, India, Japan, Australia, and Iran.

The monetary unit is the Omani riyal. In 1973 1 riyal equaled £1.11.


Public health. There is no official census. Infectious and parasitic diseases predominate, and there are no significant regional differences in the occurrence of disease. In 1973, Oman had 11 medical facilities (825 beds), 56 physicians, 2 dentists, 1 pharmacist, and about 150 medical assistants. Physicians are trained abroad, and medical assistants at the school of nursing attached to the hospital in Muscat.

Education. Until the mid-20th century the only educational institutions in Oman were schools attached to mosques, where children were taught the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The first secular schools were established in the 1950’s. In these schools boys and girls are segregated and the basic tenets of Islam are taught as a required subject. The overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate as of the early 1970’s, but efforts were being made to develop education. Whereas in 1970 here were only three secular primary schools with 600 boys enrolled, by 1973 the number of schools had increased to 69 (including three lower secondary schools) with an enrollment of 26,000 boys and 5,000 girls. Instruction is free, as are textbooks and uniforms. There are a few centers of vocational training, but no higher educational institutions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Official name: Sultanate of Oman

Capital city: Muscat

Internet country code: .om

Flag description: Three horizontal bands of white, red, and green of equal width with a broad, vertical red band on the hoist side; the national emblem (a khanjar dagger in its sheath superimposed on two crossed swords in scab­bards) in white is centered near the top of the vertical band

Geographical description: Middle East, bordering the Ara­bian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and Persian Gulf, between Yemen and United Arab Emirates

Total area: 119,498 sq. mi. (309,500 sq. km.)

Climate: Dry desert; hot, humid along coast; hot, dry inte­rior; strong southwest summer monsoon (May to September) in far south

Nationality: noun: Omani(s); adjective: Omani

Population: 3,204,897 (July 2007 CIA est.)

Ethnic groups: Arab, Baluchi, South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi), East African

Languages spoken: Arabic (official), English, Baluchi, Urdu, Swahili, Hindi and Indian dialects

Religions: Ibadhi Muslim 75%, other (includes Sunni Mus­lim, Shi’a Muslim, Hindu, Christian) 25%

Legal Holidays:

New Year's DayJan 1
Renaissance DayJul 23
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


a sultanate in SE Arabia, on the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea: the most powerful state in Arabia in the 19th century, ruling Zanzibar, much of the Persian coast, and part of Pakistan. Official language: Arabic. Official religion: Muslim. Currency: rial. Capital: Muscat. Pop.: 2 935 000 (2004 est.). Area: about 306 000 sq. km (118 150 sq. miles)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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