In the first century CE, the Roman historian Pliny wrote that the frankincense trade had made the people of southern Arabia among the richest in the world. As much as 3,000 tons of the aromatic gum were exported each year from the ports of Oman to Greece, Rome and the Mediterranean world. Five hundred years later the Omanis were among the first people on the Arabian peninsula to embrace Islam, while Omani sailors ventured to India, Africa and many points in between. After expelling the Portuguese in 1650, Oman went on to command its own maritime empire with outposts along the coasts and islands of the Persian Gulf and East Africa.
Despite this proud history, by the 20th century Oman had become a sleepy medieval anachronism. Under the iron hand of Sultan Said ibn Taimur, it was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones, to install a lavatory or a gas stove, to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan's permission. Among the items banned in Taimur's Oman were medicines, radios, music, dancing, glasses, trousers, cigarettes and books; infant deaths and diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis were widespread. Finally Taimur's son (with the help of the British, who had also been instrumental in putting his father on Oman's throne) engineered a bloodless coup in 1970 and took control of the throne. Today Sultan Qabus ibn Said remains in power in a region where petroleum has taken the place of frankincense.
One of the reasons the British backed Qabas ibn Said was their fear of the alternative; Marxist rebels from then-communist South Yemen had gained control of large sections of the Omani inland and threatened to take control of the entire country. Sultan Qabas cemented his hold on power by appealing to the conservative religious sheikhs who despised Marxism's secularist and atheistic ideology even more than they despised Said ibn Taimur. Today Oman remains one of the more conservative countries in the Gulf, with some 75% of the population adhering to the conservative Ibadi school of Islam. Despite this, Qabas has worked to preserve the religious rights of foreign workers in the region. While proselytizing to Moslems is forbidden, the Sultan has provided land to build churches and Hindu temples for workers from India and the West.
Qabas has also tried to put the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians on the back burner; he was the only Arab head of state to endorse the Camp David treaty between Egypt and Israel, and has supported Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. In 1990 Qabas tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Kuwaiti crisis: when that failed, he allowed U.S. and British forces to use Omani military bases. In 1994 Qabas welcomed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to Oman, and later became the first Gulf state to establish relations with Israel.
Oman's geopolitical position is both a strength and a weakness. Its location on the southern shores of the Strait of Hormuz, through which over 60% of the world's seaborne oil passes, ensures its importance. Its placement between major and sometimes conflicting powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq ensures that Qabas must tread carefully lest he earn the wrath of his neighbors. Thankfully Qabas has proven himself to be exceptionally skilled at foreign policy. He played a major role in brokering an end to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict and at present Oman enjoys cordial relations with both Iraq and Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia.
Qabas is generally well-liked within Oman, and is considered by outsiders to be an "enlightened despot." While he maintains absolute control of the government, he has generally worked to improve living conditions for his people. Still, he faces an uncertain future; Oman's proven oil reserves are modest next to those held by its neighbors, and are expected to run out within the next few years. Since approximately 40% of Oman's GNP comes from the oil industry, this is likely to have major repercussions. There is also the question of who will lead the country after Qabas's demise. An enlightened despot is one thing; an unenlightened despot is quite another. While Qaboos has opened a few paths to citizen participation in government, most notably by establishing the Majlis Al-Shura [State Consultative Council] in 1991, at present there is little foundation upon which a democratic Omani society could be built. It is likely that after Qabas things will get considerably worse before they get better.