Oman Table of Contents
Figure 1. Persian Gulf States: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, 1993
THE COUNTRIES OF THE PERSIAN GULF covered in this volume-- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates--have assumed added prominence as a result of Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991. These states share certain characteristics while simultaneously differing from one another in various respects. Islam has played a major role in each of the Persian Gulf states, although Kuwait and Bahrain reflect a greater secular influence than the other three. Moreover, the puritanical Wahhabi (see Glossary) Sunni (see Glossary) sect prevails in Qatar; Bahrain has a majority population of Shia (see Glossary), a denomination of the faith that constitutes a minority in Islam as a whole; and the people of Oman represent primarily a minor sect within Shia Islam, the Ibadi.
The beduin heritage also exerts a significant influence in all of the Persian Gulf states. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, a sense of national identity increasingly has superseded tribal allegiance. The ruling families in the Persian Gulf states represent shaykhs (see Glossary) of tribes that originally settled particular areas; however, governmental institutions steadily have taken over spheres that previously fell under the purview of tribal councils.
Historically, Britain exercised a protectorate at least briefly over each of the Persian Gulf states. This connection has resulted in the presence of governmental institutions established by Britain as well as strong commercial and military ties with it. Sources of military matériel and training in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, were being provided by other countries in addition to Britain.
Because of the extensive coastlines of the Persian Gulf states, trade, fishing, shipbuilding, and, in the past, pearling have represented substantial sources of income. In the early 1990s, trade and, to a lesser extent, fishing, continued to contribute major amounts to the gross domestic product (GDP--see Glossary) of these states.
Of the five states, Oman has the least coastal area on the Persian Gulf because its access to that waterway occurs only at the western tip of the Musandam Peninsula, separated from the remainder of Oman by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Partly as a result of this limited contact with the gulf and partly because of the mountains that cut off the interior from the coast, Oman has the most distinctive culture of the five states.
In general, the gulf has served as a major facilitator of trade and culture. The ancient civilization of Dilmun, for example, in present-day Bahrain existed as early as the fourth millennium B.C.
The Persian Gulf, however, also constitutes a ready channel for foreign conquerors. In addition to Britain, over the centuries the gulf states have known such rulers as the Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians, Iranians, and Portuguese. When England's influence first came to the area in 1622, the Safavid shah of Iran sought England's aid in driving the Portuguese out of the gulf.
Britain did not play a major role, however, until the early nineteenth century. At that time, attacks on British shipping by the Al Qasimi of the present-day UAE became so serious that Britain asked the assistance of the ruler of Oman in ending the attacks. In consequence, Britain in 1820 initiated treaties or truces with the various rulers of the area, giving rise to the term Trucial Coast.
The boundaries of the Persian Gulf states were considered relatively unimportant until the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932 caused other gulf countries to define their geographic limits. Britain's 1968 announcement that in 1971 it would abandon its protectorate commitments east of the Suez Canal accelerated the independence of the states. Oman had maintained its independence in principle since 1650. Kuwait, with the most advanced institutions--primarily because of its oil wealth--had declared its independence in 1961. Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE followed suit in 1971. In the face of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, all of the Persian Gulf states experienced fears for their security. These apprehensions led to their formation, together with Saudi Arabia, of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in May 1981.
Of all the gulf states, Kuwait clearly has the greatest security concerns. By early 1994, Kuwait largely had succeeded in rebuilding its damaged infrastructure and oil industry facilities ravaged by Iraq in the course of its August 2, 1990, invasion and subsequent scorched-earth policy concerning Kuwait's oil wells. By June 1993, Kuwait had increased its oil production to such an extent that it refused the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quota of 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd--see Glossary); instead, it demanded parity with the UAE at 2.2 million bpd, which OPEC refused.
The war and the occupation left significant scars on the Kuwaiti population. The war caused the departure of more than half the population, including two-thirds of the foreigners, many of them Palestinians and other Arabs. In the postwar period, most citizens returned, but the government apparently decided not to allow foreigners to exceed 50 percent of the population, and the number of Palestinians permitted to return dropped sharply.
The war also did away with most of the financial reserves from foreign investments that Kuwait had prudently accumulated in its Reserve Fund for Future Generations. War costs were estimated at a minimum of US$20 billion, a reconstruction figure less than originally feared. Economic progress in 1993, however, was such that a projected current account surplus of US$3.2 billion was predicted, together with GDP growth of 11.5 percent in 1994. Kuwait's willingness to implement World Bank (see Glossary) recommendations concerning the strengthening of its economy appeared questionable, however. The bank recommended that Kuwait eliminate subsidies, encourage government workers to move to the private sector to reduce serious government overstaffing, liberalize business regulations to promote private-sector growth, and privatize a number of state assets. Various of the recommendations would affect significantly members of the ruling family, many of whom engage in the business sector.
Kuwait's life is connected intimately with the Al Sabah, who have ruled Kuwait since 1756; the rule has alternated between the Jabir and Salim branches, descendants of two sons of the ruler Mubarak the Great. In 1963 the ruler took the first step of any gulf state to create a popular assembly. The narrow electorate and the ruler's right to dissolve the assembly have limited the influence of the legislature, and the assembly has been dissolved twice, in each case for a number of years. In October 1992, the National Assembly was reconstituted. However, only 15 percent of the Kuwaiti population was able to vote. Freedom of the press, which had been suspended in 1976, was restored in early 1992. Despite the existence of several liberal opposition movements and some Islamist (also seen as fundamentalist) pressures, the postwar government represents little change, and the ruling family continues to hold all major ministerial posts.
Apart from development of its oil industry, which dominates its economy despite attempts at diversification, Kuwait's main concern continues to be the threat from Iraq to its national security. In late 1993, incidents continued to occur along the Kuwait-Iraq border, and Iraqi media persisted in referring to Kuwait as the "nineteenth province" of Iraq. As of late 1993, Iraq was believed to hold more than 800 Kuwaiti prisoners of war.
Kuwait has taken several steps to counter the ongoing menace of Iraq. Although Kuwait sought help from its GCC allies when Iraq invaded, it recognized that the GCC states lacked the military strength to provide effective assistance. Kuwait's postwar army was reportedly down to about 8,000 from a prewar total of about 16,000 personnel. Kuwait therefore determined to build up and indigenize its own armed forces. Accordingly, a new military conscription law was enacted in December 1992. Furthermore, to upgrade matériel, a postwar 1992 decree authorized the expenditure of US$11.7 billion on military equipment over twelve years. Immediate orders included 218 M-1A2 United States main battle tanks, forty F/A-18 United States Hornet fighter aircraft, five United States Patriot missile fire units with missiles, 200 British Warrior armored personnel carriers, and miscellaneous French matériel. Kuwait also contracted in January 1993 with the United States Hughes Aircraft Company for an early warning system. In 1993, however, the National Assembly demonstrated its intent to review arms contracts and, if feasible, to reduce expenditures, in particular by eliminating commission payments to members of the royal family.
Other major steps included the signing of a security agreement and a Foreign Military Sales agreement with the United States in 1991, defense agreements with Britain and France in 1992--followed by additional matériel purchases in 1993--and an agreement with Russia in 1993. These agreements, as well as participation in the GCC, involve joint training exercises, thus strengthening the capabilities of the Kuwaiti armed forces. In line with its closer relations with the West, Kuwait took immediate action against perpetrators of the alleged Iraqi- inspired assassination attempt on former United States president George H.W. Bush during his attendance at Kuwait's April 1993 celebration of its liberation. In a further defense measure, with private donations, Kuwait in 1993 began construction of a defensive wall along its 240-kilometer border with Iraq.
With regard to regional relations, Kuwait in 1993 made conciliatory gestures toward some of the Arab countries that supported Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Statements by Minister of Foreign Affairs Sabah al Ahmad Al Sabah in late June 1993 and by Crown Prince and Prime Minister Saad al Abd Allah Al Sabah in late October 1993 set forth conditions for such states to mend relations with Kuwait. The conditions covered support of United Nations (UN) resolutions condemning Iraqi aggression and pressure on Iraq to comply with UN resolutions, particularly those concerning border demarcation and release of prisoners. These statements, which did not name countries or organizations concerned, appear directed primarily at Tunisia and Yemen and to a lesser degree at the Palestine Liberation Organization. Relations with Jordan, however, continued to be chilly, and Kuwait's relations with Qatar cooled over the latter's rapprochement with Jordan in August and its restoration of diplomatic links with Iraq.
Bahrain, the only island state of the five Persian Gulf states, came under the rule of the Al Khalifa (originally members of the Bani Utub, an Arabian tribe) in 1783 after 180 years of Iranian control. Prior to 1971, Iran intermittently reasserted its claim to Bahrain, two-thirds of whose inhabitants are Shia Muslims although the ruling family is Sunni Muslim. Because of sectarian tensions, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath had an unsettling effect on the population; the government believed that a number of Shia plots during the 1980s received clandestine support from Iran. In 1992 the island's predominantly urban population (85 percent) consisted of 34 percent foreigners, who accounted for 55 percent of the labor force. The exploitation of oil and natural gas--Bahrain was the first of the five Persian Gulf states in which oil was discovered--is the island's main industry, together with the processing of aluminum, provision of drydock facilities for ships, and operation of offshore banking units.
The Al Khalifa control the government of Bahrain and held eight of eighteen ministerial posts in early 1994. A brief experiment in limited democracy occurred with the December 1972 elections for a Constituent Assembly. The resulting constitution that took effect in December 1973 provided for an advisory legislative body, the National Assembly, voted for by male citizens. The ruler dissolved the assembly in August 1975. The new Consultative Council, which began debating labor matters in January 1993, is believed to have had an impact on the provisions of the new Labor Law enacted in September 1993.
Bahrain's historical concern over the threat from Iran as well as its domestic unrest prompted it to join the GCC at the organization's founding in 1981. Even within the GCC, however, from time to time Bahrain has had tense relations with Qatar over their mutual claim to the island of Hawar and the adjacent islands located between the two countries; this dispute was under review by the International Court of Justice at The Hague in early 1994. Bahrain traditionally has had good relations with the West, particularly Britain and the United States. Bahrain's cordial association with the United States is reflected in its serving as homeport for the commander, Middle East Force, since 1949 and as the site of a United States naval support unit since 1972. In October 1991, following participation in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Bahrain signed a defense cooperation agreement with the United States.
Bahrain's relationship with Qatar is long-standing. After the Al Khalifa conquered Bahrain in 1783 from their base in Qatar, Bahrain became the Al Khalifa seat. Subsequently, tribal elements remaining in Qatar sought to assert their autonomy from the Al Khalifa. Thus, in the early nineteenth century, Qatar was the scene of several conflicts involving the Al Khalifa and their rivals, the Al Thani, as well as various outsiders, including Iranians, Omanis, Wahhabis, and Ottomans. When the British East India Company in 1820 signed the General Treaty of Peace with the shaykhs of the area designed to end piracy, the treaty considered Qatar a dependency of Bahrain. Not until the signing of a treaty with Britain by Abd Allah ibn Qasim Al Thani in 1916 did Qatar enter into the Trucial States system as an "independent" protectorate. Britain's 1971 withdrawal from the Persian Gulf led to Qatar's full independence in that year.
In preparation for independence, Qatar enacted a provisional constitution in 1970 that created an Advisory Council, partly elected. Twenty members are selected by the ruler from nominees voted in each of ten electoral districts; fifteen members are appointed directly by the ruler. In January 1992, fifty leading Qataris petitioned the ruler for an elected council "with legislative powers" and "a permanent constitution capable of guaranteeing democracy and determining political, social, and economic structures"; as of early 1994, no action had been taken on these requests. Governmental control has clearly remained in Al Thani hands; in January 1994, ten of eighteen members of the Council of Ministers belonged to the family.
Exploitation of the oil discovered in Qatar in 1939 was delayed until after World War II. The petroleum industry has grown steadily, and in 1991 the North Field natural gas project was inaugurated; the North Field, a 6,000-square-kilometer offshore field considered to be the world's largest, extends slightly into Iranian territorial waters. The Qatari government, however, has sought to encourage diversification and investment in such industries as steel, fertilizers, and petrochemicals. The work force is predominantly foreign; in 1992 Qataris were estimated to represent only 20 percent of the approximately 484,000 total population.
In part because most Qataris belong to the Wahhabi sect that originated in the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar historically has enjoyed close relations with Saudi Arabia, with which it settled its 1992 border dispute in 1993. Although Qatar supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, it subsequently improved its relations with Iran, undoubtedly in part because of its shared gas field. As a GCC member, Qatar sent forces against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War but continued to maintain a diplomatic link with Iraq. Qatar's relations with the United States improved following Operation Desert Storm, and the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement in June 1992 that includes a provision for the pre-positioning of supplies.
The UAE represents an independent state created by the joining together in the winter of 1971-72 of the seven former Trucial Coast states of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubayy, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn. In early 1993, UAE citizens constituted about 12 percent of the total population of nearly 2.0 million. Oil is the major source of income for the federation, but it is found in a significant amount only in Abu Dhabi and to a lesser extent in Dubayy, Ras al Khaymah, and Sharjah. In principle, each amirate is required to contribute to the federation's budget (according to the provisional constitution, each state's natural resources and wealth are its own), but in practice only Abu Dhabi and, to a lesser degree, Dubayy have financed the federation. The resulting disagreement over budget contributions as well as over the integration of defense measures and forces led to the recurring renewal at five- year intervals of the 1971 provisional constitution, rather than the intended adoption of a permanent constitution. In fact, the separation of powers is nominal; UAE organs consist of the Supreme Council of the Union (SCU) composed of the rulers of the seven amirates (Abu Dhabi and Dubayy have a veto right on proposed measures), the Council of Ministers, and the presidency. The chairman of the SCU is the president of the UAE. In addition, there is an advisory Federal National Council (FNC) of forty members appointed by the rulers of the amirates, based on proportional representation; members serve two-year terms. Following a one-year delay in naming members, the FNC met with UAE citizens in January 1993, after which it held several sessions. FNC actions included a call for private firms to employ more UAE citizens and the establishment of a federal housing loan program for UAE nationals.
Like other gulf states, the UAE has security concerns, of which one is its dispute with Iran over the islands of Abu Musa, Tunb al Kubra (Greater Tumb), and Tunb as Sughra (Lesser Tumb). This dispute flared anew in early 1992, after lying dormant for twenty years, when Iran took actions on Abu Musa that violated a shared sovereignty agreement. The UAE was concerned that Iran intended to extend its control over the entire island. However, in November 1992 the two countries agreed to abide by the provisions of the 1971 memorandum. The UAE would prefer a final resolution of this dispute and has expressed a willingness to have its sovereignty claims arbitrated by the International Court of Justice or the United Nations.
Militarily, the UAE participated in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and contributed personnel to the UN peacekeeping force in Somalia in 1992. The UAE's experience in the Persian Gulf War led it to consider itself inadequately prepared in terms of matériel; consequently, in February 1993 it ordered Leclerc main battle tanks and other equipment from France.
Oman is the only one of the Persian Gulf states whose ruler bears the title of sultan instead of shaykh. Until 1970 the ruler was known as the sultan of Muscat (the coastal area) and Oman (the rugged interior imamate), reflecting the diverse parts of the country. To Ibadi Muslims, the political ruler is also the imam (see Glossary); the title sultan, taken from Ottoman usage, indicates a Muslim ruling sovereign combining religious and political connotations.
The present sultan, Qabus ibn Said Al Said, began his rule in 1970 and immediately started emphasizing economic development and modernization. Such an emphasis was essential because Oman's oil, first produced commercially in 1967, had a relatively limited production span; 1992 estimates projected seventeen more years of output at the 1992 production rate. National development plans, therefore, have focused on reducing the dependence on oil and on confronting problems occasioned by the dramatic rural-to-urban population shift, the accompanying social transformation, and the large number of foreign workers, all in the interests of promoting stability. Oman never has had a census, but in 1992, for planning purposes, the government estimated the population at 2 million persons (the actual figure may be closer to 1.5 million), of whom about 500,000 were foreigners. The latter constituted approximately 55 percent of the labor force.
Oman faces a number of problems. The government must attempt to provide adequate housing and utilities, especially water; stimulate agriculture to increase food production; and discourage urban migration. Specific development goals include establishing new industries and industrial estates; training indigenous personnel; developing minerals other than oil; encouraging agriculture, fishing, and tourism; increasing privatization of state-controlled enterprises; and diminishing regional imbalances, particularly in the Dhofar region.
On coming to power, Qabus ibn Said confronted the rebellion in the Dhofar region, which had began in 1964. To counter the revolt, he concentrated on establishing development projects in this neglected area of the country and on improving the transportation and communications infrastructure. With the assistance of Iran, Jordan, and several gulf states, he also took military action to repress the rebellion. The sultan was aided in these efforts by the fact that the bureaucracy and major posts were largely in the hands of ruling family members. Leading government posts contined to be in the hands of ruling family members into the 1990s. For example, in early 1994 the sultan also served as prime minister, minister of defense, minister of finance, minister of foreign affairs, and chairman of the central bank. Other members of the ruling family served as deputy prime minister for legal affairs, deputy prime minister for security and defense, and minister of national heritage and culture. Still other ruling family members served as special advisers and as governors of the capital and of the Dhofar region. Close cooperation occurs between the ruling family and the merchants; tribal shaykhs now play a lesser role. Following the example of other gulf states, in 1991 Qabus ibn Said created the Consultative Council, which has representatives from the forty- one wilayat, or governorates, but no government officials, in contrast to the State Consultative Council, established in 1981, which the new council replaced.
In the area of foreign relations, Oman has been closely aligned with Britain and the United States; it first signed a military accord with the latter in 1980. This "facilities access" agreement was most recently renewed in 1990. In the region, Oman has sought to play an independent, nonconfrontational role. In late October 1992, Oman ended a twenty-five-year border dispute with Yemen by signing a border-delineation agreement; it also concluded a border agreement with Saudi Arabia as a result of which Oman began demarcating the boundary between the two countries. Moreover, Oman has acted as mediator between the United States and Iran and between Britain and Iran. Meanwhile, Oman has been increasing its arms purchases and building up its armed forces.
Oman's purchase of military matériel is consonant with the general pattern of Persian Gulf states, which have been spending heavily on military equipment since at least the early 1980s, primarily to compensate for their limited manpower. In most instances, women are not included in the armed forces. Lacking domestic arms production capability, the gulf states mainly need aircraft, air defense missile systems, early warning systems, and small missile attack craft, as well as main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers. The gulf countries recognize the potential threats they face, particularly from Iraq and possibly from Iran. In addition, they have experienced the need to counter domestic insurgencies, protect their ruling families and oil installations, and possibly use military force in pursuing claims to disputed territory. A partial solution to their defense needs lay in the formation of the GCC in 1981.
The Persian Gulf War brought with it, however, the realization that the GCC was inadequate to provide the gulf states with the defense they required. As a result, most of the states sought defense agreements with the United States, Britain, France, and Russia, more or less in that order. Concurrently, the gulf countries have endeavored to improve the caliber and training of their armed forces and the interoperability of military equipment through joint military exercises both within the GCC framework and with Western powers. The United States has sought to complement GCC collective security efforts and has stated that it does not intend to station forces permanently in the region.
At a November 1993 meeting, GCC defense ministers made plans to expand the Saudi-based Peninsula Shield forces, a rapid deployment force, to 25,000. The force is to have units from each GCC state, a unified command, and a rotating chairmanship. The ministers also agreed to spend up to US$5 billion to purchase three or four more AWACS aircraft to supplement the five the Saudi air force already has and to create a headquarters in Saudi Arabia for GCC defense purposes. The UAE reportedly considered the proposed force increase insufficient; furthermore, Oman sought a force of 100,000 members.
In addition to these efforts, directed at the military aspects of national security, declining oil revenues for many of the states and internal sectarian divisions also have led the gulf countries to institute domestic efforts to strengthen their national security. Such efforts entail measures to increase the role of citizens in an advisory governmental capacity, to allow greater freedom of the press, to promote economic development through diversification and incentives for foreign investment, and to develop infrastructure projects that will increase the standard of living for more sectors of the population, thereby eliminating sources of discord. The ruling families hope that such steps will promote stability, counter the possible appeal of radical Islam, and ultimately strengthen the position of the ruling families in some form of limited constitutional monarchy.
January 26, 1994
Helen Chapin Metz
Data as of January 1993
Oman Table of Contents