Oman Table of Contents
With the exception of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the Arab coast of the gulf was ruled by ten families: in Kuwait the Al Sabah; in Bahrain the Al Khalifa; in Qatar the Al Thani; in the present-day UAE the Al Nuhayyan in Abu Dhabi, the Al Nuaimi in Ajman, the Al Sharqi in Al Fujayrah, the Al Maktum in Dubayy, the Al Qasimi in Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah, and the Al Mualla in Umm al Qaywayn; and the Al Said in present-day Oman. These families owed their positions to tribal leadership; it was on this traditional basis that the British had negotiated treaties with their leaders in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.
A major provision of these treaties was the recognition of sovereignty. The British were concerned that rulers of the weaker gulf families would yield some of their territory under pressure from more powerful groups, such as the Al Saud or the Ottomans. Accordingly, the treaties signed between 1820 and 1916 recognized the sovereignty of these rulers within certain borders and specified that these borders could not be changed without British consent. Such arrangements helped to put tribal alliances into more concrete terms of landownership. This meant that the Al Nuhayyan of Abu Dhabi, for example, not only commanded the respect of tribes in the hinterland but also owned, as it were, the land that those tribes used--in this case, about 72,000 square kilometers of Arabia.
Controlling, or owning, land became more important with the discovery of oil. When oil companies came to explore for oil, they looked for the "owner" of the land; in accordance with British treaties, they went to the area's leading families and agreed to pay fees to the heads of these families. As oil revenues increased, the leaders became rich. Although the leaders spent much of their new wealth on themselves, they also distributed it in the area they controlled according to traditional methods, which initially consisted mostly of largesse: gifts for friends and food for whomever needed it. As time passed, the form of largesse became more sophisticated and included, for example, the construction of schools, hospitals, and roads to connect principal cities to towns in the interior.
Oil revenues did not change traditional tribal ideas about leadership. New money, however, increased the influence of area leaders by giving them more resources to distribute. Because of oil exploration, tribal boundaries became clearer, and areas were defined more precisely. Distinctions among tribes also became more evident. A new sense of identity appeared in gulf shaykhdoms and aroused a growing expectation that they should rule themselves. To do this, shaykhs had to cut themselves off from British control and protection.
By the early 1960s, this was something to which the British had little objection. India and Pakistan won their independence in 1947; this meant that Britain no longer had to worry about protecting the western flank of the subcontinent. Britain was also burdened by the tremendous sacrifices it made during World War II and could not be as globally involved as it had been before the war. Therefore, Britain yielded many of its strategic responsibilities to the United States in the postwar period or gave them up entirely. However, the British were bound to the gulf by treaties and so remained in the region, but it was clear by the 1960s that they sought to leave the gulf.
Kuwait was the first state to terminate the agreement connecting it with Britain. Oil production in Kuwait had developed more quickly than in neighboring states; as a result, Kuwaitis were better prepared for independence. They declared independence in 1961 but ran into immediate trouble when Iraq claimed the territory. The Iraqis argued that the British had recognized Ottoman sovereignty over Kuwait before World War I and, because the Ottomans had claimed to rule Kuwait from what was then the province of Iraq, the territory should belong to Iraq.
The British immediately sent troops to Kuwait to deter any Iraqi invasion. British and Kuwaiti positions were supported by the newly formed League of Arab States (Arab League), which recognized the new state and sent troops to Kuwait. The Arab League move left the Iraqis isolated and somewhat intimidated. Accordingly, when a new Iraqi government came to power in 1963, one of its first steps was to give up its claim and recognize the independence of Kuwait.
The experience of Kuwait may have increased the anxiety of other gulf leaders about declaring their independence. Even into the 1970s, Iran and Saudi Arabia continued to make claims on territory in Bahrain and the UAE, although by the end of 1971 those states were independent, and nothing came of those claims. Gulf leaders also faced uncertainty about the form their state should take. Should they all, with the exception of Oman whose situation was different in that its treaty relationship with Britain did not guarantee its borders as did treaties of the other gulf states, band together in the largest entity possible? Or should they break up into nine separate states, the smallest of which had little territory, few people, and no oil?
British action forced gulf leaders to decide. Because of domestic financial concerns, Britain decided in the late 1960s to eliminate its military commitments east of Suez. As a result, the gulf shaykhs held a number of meetings to discuss independence. Initially, leaders considered a state that would include all nine shaykhdoms; Qatar had even drawn up a constitution to this effect. In the end, however, so large a federation proved unworkable.
An obstacle to creating a "superstate" was the status of Bahrain, which had been occupied by Iran at various times. The shah of Iran argued that he had a stronger claim to the island than the Al Khalifa, who had only come to Bahrain in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, the shah indicated that Iran would not accept a federation of Arab states that included Bahrain.
In the end, the United Nations (UN) considered the issue of Bahrain; it decided to deny the Iranian claim to the island and to allow the Bahrainis to form an independent state. Bahrain was better suited to independence than some of the other shaykhdoms because the island had been a center of British administration and had a more developed infrastructure and education system than its neighbors. Ironically, the greater British presence on Bahrain made residents more resentful of treaty ties to Britain. Bahrain was the only place in the gulf where demonstrations against Britain occurred.
Backed by the UN decision, Bahrain declared its independence on August 15, 1971. On September 3, 1971, Qatar followed, removing another state from any potential federation. Although Qatar had minimal contact with Britain, it was well suited to independence because it had a history of support from the Al Saud that went back to the beginnings of the Wahhabi state. Accordingly, at independence, Qatar could expect continued support from Saudi Arabia. It could also anticipate substantial oil revenues that had been increasing since the 1950s.
The same was not true for the other gulf states. The five southern shaykhdoms--Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn--had little oil in their territory and so could not afford self-sufficiency as countries. Although substantial deposits had been discovered in Abu Dhabi and Dubayy, these two states preferred the security of a confederation rather than independence. Abu Dhabi, for example, had an outstanding border dispute with Saudi Arabia and a history of poor relations with that country because of Abu Dhabi's opposition to Wahhabi Islam. Abu Dhabi might have protected itself by forming a federation with the five southern shaykhdoms, but this would not have suited Dubayy. Although Dubayy had oil of its own, its rulers, the Al Maktum, had a history of hostility toward their relatives in Abu Dhabi, the Al Nuhayyan, from whom they split in the early nineteenth century. The Al Maktum would not have liked the Al Nuhayyan to dominate a confederation of gulf leaders while they were isolated in Dubayy.
Powers beyond the gulf coast also had an interest in the state to be formed. The Saudis no longer sought to control the gulf coast, but they remained concerned about stability on the eastern border. The British and other oil-consuming countries in the West were similarly concerned, and all parties believed that the largest state would also be the most stable. Accordingly, many forces were applying pressure in 1970 to convince the seven shaykhs to stay together.
Thus, in 1971 soon after Qatar became independent, the remaining shaykhs, with the exception of the Al Qasimi in Ras al Khaymah, took the preliminary constitution that Qatar had originally drawn up for a nine-member confederation and adapted it to a six-member body. On December 2, 1971, one day after the British officially withdrew, these six shaykhdoms declared themselves a sovereign state.
Ras al Khaymah originally refused to join the confederation. The Al Qasimi, who ruled the area, claimed a number of islands and oil fields within the gulf to which Iran laid claim as well. In the negotiations to form the UAE, the Al Qasimi sought support for their claims from Arab states on the peninsula as well as from some Western powers. When their efforts proved unsuccessful, the Al Qasimi pulled out of the negotiations. They quickly realized, however, that they could not exist on their own and joined the union in February 1972.
Oman was never considered a possible confederation member. Always geographically separate from its neighbors to the north, Oman had never entered into the agreements with Britain that governed other gulf rulers. The British had been closely involved in Oman since the middle of the nineteenth century, but they were under no official obligation to defend it.
The issue in Oman was one of internal unity rather than of sovereignty over foreign affairs. The historical split between coast and interior had continued through the second half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth. In 1920 the Al Said sultan, Taimur ibn Faisal, came to terms with this split by granting limited sovereignty to the tribes of the interior. Because of ambiguous language, the peoples of the interior believed that the treaty cut them off from the Al Said; the Al Said, however, never gave up their claim to all of Oman.
The dispute between the two groups was exacerbated by the exploration for oil, which began in Oman in 1924. The oil fields lay in the interior, and the oil companies negotiated for access to them with the Al Said in Muscat. This Al Said sultan gladly sold them rights to the Omani oil fields, although the tribes of the interior claimed sovereignty over the area. When the oil men went inland to explore, they were attacked by the tribes, whom the sultan considered to be rebels, leading the oil companies to complain to the British government. Their complaints encouraged the British to continue their aid to the sultan, hoping that he would pacify the area and ensure Western access to Omani oil.
The sultan was eventually successful. In 1957 forces loyal to Said ibn Taimur captured the town of Nazwah, which the Al Said had not controlled since the nineteenth century. In 1958 the sultan withdrew to his palace in the coastal city of Salalah in Dhofar, a southern province that the Al Said had annexed in the nineteenth century, and took little interest in maintaining stability in the country. While keeping his military relationship with the British, he restricted Oman's contact with the rest of the world, discouraged development, and prohibited political reform.
In the end, the Al Said control over a united Oman survived, but Said ibn Taimur did not. Although the sultan had partially reestablished his authority in the Omani interior, he was unable to handle the increasing complexity of domestic politics. By the 1960s, Omani affairs had become international issues. Western oil companies sought to work in the interior of the country, and foreign governments, such as the Marxist state of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, were sending arms to the rebels in Dhofar.
The Al Said hold over the region remained problematic, however, and in 1964 another rebellion arose, this time in Dhofar. The Dhofar rebellion, which was not brought under control until 1976, obliged the sultan to seek foreign military assistance; therefore, British forces, particularly the air force, resumed action in the country. The rebels pointed to British involvement as an indication of the sultan's illegitimacy and brought their case to the UN, which eventually censured Britain for its continuing involvement in Oman.
Said ibn Taimur's policies frustrated many, not only in Oman but also in Britain, whose citizens were heavily involved in the sultan's military and intelligence apparatus. By 1970 these elements decided they could bear with the situation no longer; a coalition of Omani military and civilian forces, as well as British forces, attacked the palace and forced Said ibn Taimur to abdicate. They replaced him with his son, Qabus ibn Said Al Said, who had played no role in Said ibn Taimur's government. The sultan had actually locked his son in the palace for fear that Qabus ibn Said, who had been educated in Britain, would challenge his archconservative policies.
On his release, Qabus ibn Said consolidated the sultanate's hold over the interior and then solicited regional rather than British help to put down the rebellion in Dhofar. Other Arab leaders, as well as the shah of Iran, sent troops to Oman in response to Qabus ibn Said's requests; with the help of this coalition, by 1976 the sultan ended the Dhofar rebellion.
Qabus ibn Said was not an Ibadi imam as the first rulers in his line had been, but in 1970 this was less important than it had been in earlier times. Only about 60 percent of Oman's population was Ibadi, concentrated in the northern mountains. Furthermore, the province of Dhofar had a relatively short history of association with the rest of Oman.
Data as of January 1993
Oman Table of Contents