Oman Table of Contents
Reciprocity has characterized Oman's relationship with foreign powers. Historically, Oman has relied on foreign powers to ensure political stability, domestically and regionally. In turn, Oman's geostrategic location at the entry point of the Strait of Hormuz and its long coastline have guided the interests of foreign powers.
Relations with the British date back to 1798 when the first treaty of friendship was concluded between the sultan of Muscat and the British government of India. British interests in Oman were predicated on Whitehall's concern with the defense of India and the imperative of maintaining secure trade routes and containing the expansion of other European powers in the Indian Ocean. Following the discovery of the potential for using oil as fuel, and later the conversion of the British naval fleet from coal-fired ships to oil-fired ships in 1911, the security of tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz gained increasing importance. Britain's Royal Air Force had staging and diplomatic telecommunications facilities on the island of Masirah from 1932 to 1977.
The British largely facilitated the extensive military buildup and modernization of Oman's armed forces during the course of the Dhofar rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s. Without British military assistance in suppressing the rebellion, the sultanate probably could not have contained the threat, even with troops from Iran and advisers from Jordan. This close military relationship continued after the suppression of the insurrection. The chief of the general staff and the commanders of the air force and navy were British officers through the mid-1980s.
United States influence in Oman has been felt more strongly since the 1970s. Britain's disengagement east of Suez in 1971 opened up the region to greater competition for influence, primarily from the United States. When Sultan Qabus ibn Said assumed power, there was no United States diplomatic presence in Oman. A United States consular officer made at least an annual visit, with contacts managed by the British, who had full control of Oman's foreign relations and defense matters. A United States missionary medical doctor was prominent in the health program. In addition, a United States archaeologist, explorer, and oilman briefly extended his exploration from the PDRY into Dhofar in the 1970s.
United States interests in regional security and in maintaining local allies, particularly after the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979, called for the reinforcement of close security links to the sultanate. Since the 1970s, Sultan Qabus ibn Said has quietly asserted his independence and engaged United States petroleum professionals to advise the government. The selection of United States citizens to manage the development programs in the Musandam Peninsula and the Al Buraymi Oasis and to develop water resources in the sultanate was a dramatic departure from the sultanate's exclusive reliance on British advisers. Relations between Oman and the United States strengthened as Qabus supported United States peace initiatives in the Middle East, as manifest in Muscat's support of the Camp David Accords signed in 1979 by Egypt and Israel and mediated by the United States.
United States influence in Oman widened with the signing of a facilities access agreement in June 1980 (renewed in 1990) providing United States military access to Omani bases under specified conditions. This was part of a larger regional strategy that also included facilities in Somalia and Kenya. The air bases at As Sib and Thamarit and on Masirah (the latter abandoned by the British in 1977) were upgraded with United States assistance.
The Joint United States-Oman Commission was established in 1980 with the mandate to fund and administer economic assistance programs in the country. Activities funded through the commission reflect sectoral priorities and include a school construction project, a scholarship and training project, a fisheries development project, a management project, and a water resources project.
The activities funded reflect United States Agency for International Development (AID) priorities. In the 1990s, AID development assistance focused on the agency's interest in privatization and institution building. The annual Omani budget proposal for fiscal year 1993 allocated US$5 million (or 33 percent of the total program) to private-sector development, US$9.5 million (or 63 percent) to institution building, and US$8.8 million (or 58 percent) to develop education facilities.
Despite these programs promoting economic development and education, Oman faced significant problems in the early 1990s. A wealthier, better educated population will demand greater participation in the political process. As of early 1993, the sultan was unwilling to relinquish real power, and he carefully preserved his political autonomy. A new Consultative Council was established in late 1990 but was essentially an advisory body without legislative power. To serve as a mechanism for true political reform, the council must be empowered with a legislative role; as of early 1993, this had not occurred.
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The literature on Oman is scarce and varies in quality. Most works were published in the late 1970s or 1980s and concentrate on contrasting the periods before and after Qabus ibn Said came to power. Although such comparative analysis is valid, it seems dated because more than twenty years have elapsed since the accession of the sultan. Government publications, such as the annual Statistical Yearbook, provide information on every sector of the society and economy and are helpful tools in determining economic and social trends.
Monographs offer a general framework for understanding Oman's contemporary scene and also provide a detailed history. Among the more useful is J.E. Peterson's Oman in the Twentieth Century. Also valuable is a work by John Townsend, former adviser to sultans Said ibn Taimur and Qabus ibn Said, Oman: The Making of the Modern State, which focuses on institution building in the post-1970 period.
Various journal articles provide more up-to-date material. General economic information is reported weekly in Middle East Economic Survey and Middle East Economic Digest and periodically in London's Financial Times country surveys. Current information on the hydrocarbon sector is best found in industry journals, particularly the Oil and Gas Journal, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, and Petroleum Economist. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)
Data as of January 1993
Oman Table of Contents