Oman: Facts and History

Nizwa Mosque, Nizwa, Oman - February 28, 2016
Emad Aljumah / Getty Images

The Sultanate of Oman long served as a hub on the Indian Ocean trade routes, and it has ancient ties that reach from Pakistan to the island of Zanzibar. Today, Oman is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, despite not having extensive oil reserves.

Fast Facts: Oman

  • Official Name: Sultanate of Oman
  • Capital: Muscat
  • Population: 4,613,241 (2017)
  • Official Language: Arabic
  • Currency: Omani Rial (OMR)
  • Form of Government: Absolute monarchy
  • Climate: Dry desert; hot, humid along coast; hot, dry interior; strong southwest summer monsoon (May to September) in far south
  • Total Area: 119,498 square miles (309,500 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Jabal Shams at 9,856 feet (3,004 meters)
  • Lowest Point: Arabian Sea at 0 feet (0 meters)


Oman is an absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. The Sultan rules by decree. Oman has a bicameral legislature, the Council of Oman, which serves an advisory role to the Sultan. The upper house, the Majlis ad-Dawlah, has 71 members from prominent Omani families, who are appointed by the Sultan. The lower chamber, the Majlis ash-Shoura, has 84 members who are elected by the people, but the Sultan can negate their elections. 

Population of Oman

Oman has about 3.2 million residents, only 2.1 million of whom are Omanis. The rest are foreign guest workers, mainly from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Egypt, Morocco, and the Philippines. Within the Omani population, ethnolinguistic minorities include Zanzibaris, Alajamis, and Jibbalis. 


Standard Arabic is the official language of Oman. However, some Omanis also speak several different dialects of Arabic and even entirely distinct Semitic languages. Small minority languages related to Arabic and Hebrew include Bathari, Harsusi, Mehri, Hobyot (also spoken in a small area of Yemen), and Jibbali. About 2,300 people speak Kumzari, which is an Indo-European language from the Iranian branch, the only Iranian language spoken on the Arabian Peninsula.

English and Swahili are commonly spoken as second languages in Oman, due to the country's historical ties with Britain and Zanzibar. Balochi, another Iranian language that is one of the official languages of Pakistan, is also widely spoken by Omanis. Guest workers speak Arabic, Urdu, Tagalog, and English, among other languages.


The official religion of Oman is Ibadi Islam, which is a branch distinct from both Sunni and Shi'a beliefs, that originated just about 60 years after the Prophet Mohammed's death. Approximately 25% of the population is non-Muslim. Religions represented include Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Ba'hai, and Christianity. This rich diversity reflects Oman's centuries-long position as a major trade depot within the Indian Ocean system.


Oman covers an area of 309,500 square kilometers (119,500 square miles) on the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula. Much of the land is a gravel desert, although some sand dunes also exist. Most of Oman's population lives in the mountainous areas in the north and the southeast coast. Oman also possesses a small piece of land on the tip of the Musandam Peninsula, cut off from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Oman borders on the UAE to the north, Saudi Arabia to the northwest, and Yemen to the west. Iran sits across the Gulf of Oman to the north-north-east. 


Much of Oman is extremely hot and dry. The interior desert regularly sees summer temperatures in excess of 53°C (127 °F), with annual precipitation of just 20 to 100 millimeters (0.8 to 3.9 inches). The coast is usually about twenty degrees Celsius or thirty degrees Fahrenheit cooler. In the Jebel Akhdar mountain region, rainfall can reach 900 millimeters in a year (35.4 inches).


Oman's economy is perilously reliant on oil and gas extraction, even though its reserves are only the 24th largest in the world. Fossil fuels account for more than 95% of Oman's exports. The country also produces small amounts of manufactured goods and agricultural products for export - primarily dates, limes, vegetables, and grain - but the desert country imports much more food than it exports.

The Sultan's government is focusing on diversifying the economy by encouraging manufacturing and service sector development. Oman's per capita GDP is about $28,800 US (2012), with a 15% unemployment rate.


Humans have lived in what is now Oman since at least 106,000 years ago when Late Pleistocene people left stone tools related to the Nubian Complex from the Horn of Africa in the Dhofar region. This indicates that humans moved from Africa into Arabia around that time, if not earlier, possibly across the Red Sea. 

The earliest known city in Oman is Dereaze, which dates back at least 9,000 years. Archaeological finds include flint tools, hearths, and hand-formed pottery. A nearby mountainside also yields pictographs of animals and hunters.

Early Sumerian tablets call Oman "Magan," and note that it was a source of copper. From the 6th century BCE forward, Oman was usually controlled by the great Persian dynasties based just across the Gulf in what is now Iran. First it was the Achaemenids, who may have established a local capital at Sohar; next the Parthians; and finally the Sassanids, who ruled until the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE.

Oman was among the first places to convert to Islam; the Prophet sent a missionary south around 630 CE, and the rulers of Oman submitted to the new faith. This was prior to the Sunni/Shi'a split, so Oman took up Ibadi Islam and has continued to subscribe to this ancient sect within the faith. Omani traders and sailors were among the most important factors in propagating Islam around the rim of the India Ocean, carrying the new religion to India, Southeast Asia, and parts of the East African coast. After the Prophet Mohammed's death, Oman came under the rule of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, the Qarmatians (931-34), the Buyids (967-1053), and the Seljuks (1053-1154).

When the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean trade and began to exert their power, they recognized Muscat as a prime port. They would occupy the city for almost 150 years, from 1507 to 1650. Their control was not uncontested, however; the Ottoman fleet captured the city from the Portuguese in 1552 and again from 1581 to 1588, only to lose it again each time. In 1650, local tribesmen managed to drive the Portuguese away for good; no other European country managed to colonize the area, although the British did exert some imperial influence in later centuries.

In 1698, the Imam of Oman invaded Zanzibar and drove the Portuguese away from the island. He also occupied parts of coastal northern Mozambique. Oman used this toehold in East Africa as a market of enslaved people, supplying African forced labor to the Indian Ocean world. 

The founder of Oman's current ruling dynasty, the Al Said took power in 1749. During a secession struggle about 50 years later, the British were able to extract concessions from an Al Said ruler in return for supporting his claim to the throne. In 1913, Oman split into two countries, with religious imams ruling the interior while the sultans continued to rule in Muscat and the coast. 

This situation grew complicated in the 1950s when likely-looking oil formations were discovered. The sultan in Muscat was responsible for all dealings with foreign powers, but the imams controlled the areas that appeared to have oil. As a result, the sultan and his allies captured the interior in 1959 after four years of fighting, once again uniting the coast and interior of Oman.

In 1970, the current sultan overthrew his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur and introduced economic and social reforms. He could not stem the uprisings around the country, however, until Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, and Britain intervened, bringing about a peace settlement in 1975. Sultan Qaboos continued to modernize the country. However, he faced protests in 2011 during the Arab Spring; after promising further reforms, he cracked down on activists, fining and jailing several of them.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Oman: Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 27). Oman: Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Oman: Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).