Government and Politics

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Historical Patterns of Governance

Until 1970 the political title for the Al Said rulers was sultan of Muscat and Oman, implying two historically irreconcilable political cultures: the coastal tradition, the more cosmopolitan, secular, Muscat tradition of the coast ruled by the sultan; and the interior tradition of insularity, tribal in origin and ruled by an imam according to the ideological tenets of Ibadism. The more cosmopolitan has been the ascending political culture since the founding of the Al Said dynasty in 1744, although the imamate tradition has found intermittent expression.

Several millennia ago, Arab tribes migrated eastward to Oman, coinciding with the increasing presence in the region of peoples from present-day Iran. In the sixth century, Arabs succeeded in repelling encroachments of these ethnic groups; the conversion of Arab tribes to Islam in the seventh century resulted in the displacement of the settlers from Iran. The introduction of Ibadism vested power in the imam, the leader nominated by tribal shaykhs and then elected by public acclamation.

The Ibadis had five imamates before the founding of the Al Said dynasty. The first imamate in the ninth century became the example of the ideal Ibadi state. The fifth imamate, the Yarubid Imamate, recaptured Muscat from the Portuguese in 1650 after a colonial presence on the northeastern coast of Oman dating to 1508. The Yarubid dynasty expanded, acquiring former Portuguese colonies in East Africa and engaging in the slave trade. By 1719 dynastic succession led to the nomination of Saif ibn Sultan II, who had not yet reached puberty. His candidacy prompted a rivalry among the ulama and a civil war between the two major tribes, the Hinawi and the Ghafiri, with the Ghafiri supporting Saif ibn Sultan II. He assumed power in 1748 after the leaders of both factions had been killed in battle, but the rivalry continued, with the factionalization working in favor of the Iranians, who occupied Muscat and Suhar in 1743.

The Al Said dynasty was founded when Ahmad ibn Said Al Said was elected imam following the expulsion of the Iranians from Muscat in 1744. Like its predecessors, Al Said dynastic rule has been characterized by a history of internecine family struggle, fratricide, and usurpation. Apart from threats within the ruling family, there was the omnipresent challenge from the independent tribes of the interior who rejected the authority of the sultan, recognizing the imam as the sole legitimate leader and pressing, by resort to arms, for the restoration of the imamate.

Schisms within the ruling family were apparent before Ahmad ibn Said's death in 1783 and were later manifest with the division of the family into two main lines, the Sultan ibn Ahmad Al Said (r. 1792-1806) line controlling the maritime state, with nominal control over the entire country; and the Qais branch, with authority over the Al Batinah and Ar Rustaq areas. During the period of Sultan Said ibn Sultan Al Said's rule (1806-56), Oman cultivated its East African colonies, profiting from the slave trade. As a regional commercial power in the nineteenth century, Oman held territories on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa, in Mombasa along the coast of East Africa, and until 1958 in Gwadar (in present-day Pakistan) on the coast of the Arabian Sea. But when the British declared slavery illegal in the mid-1800s, the sultanate's fortunes reversed. The economy collapsed, and many Omani families migrated to Zanzibar. The population of Muscat fell from 55,000 to 8,000 between the 1850s and 1870s.

The death of Sultan Said ibn Sultan in 1856 prompted a further division: the descendants of the late sultan ruled Oman (Thuwaini ibn Said Al Said, r. 1856-66) and Zanzibar (Mayid ibn Said Al Said, r. 1856-70); the Qais branch intermittently allied itself with the ulama to restore imamate legitimacy. In 1868 Azzam ibn Qais Al Said (r. 1868-71) emerged as self-declared imam. Although a significant number of Hinawi tribes recognized him as imam, the public neither elected him nor acclaimed him as such.

Imam Azzam understood that to unify the country a strong, central authority had to be established with control over the interior tribes of Oman. His rule was jeopardized by the British, who interpreted his policy of bringing the interior tribes under the central government as a move against their established order. In resorting to military means to unify Oman, Imam Azzam alienated members of the Ghafiri tribes, who revolted in the 1870-71 period. The British gave Imam Azzam's rival, Turki ibn Said Al Said, financial and political support. Turki ibn Said succeeded in defeating the forces of Imam Azzam, who was killed in battle outside Matrah in January 1871.

The deteriorating economy resulting from the suppression of the slave trade rendered Sultan Turki ibn Said's rule susceptible to opposition from the interior. For a brief period, Turki ibn Said appeased his opposition with cash payments and British backing. His authority extended from the Al Batinah coast to Suhar, with the rest of the country operating autonomously. Sultan Turki ibn Said suffered a stroke in the early 1870s and was incapacitated. He was succeeded in 1888 by his son, Faisal ibn Turki Al Said, who was the first ruler of the Al Said family in the nineteenth century to assume power peacefully, without resort to arms or political subterfuge.

Four sultans of the Al Said family have ruled Oman in the twentieth century: Faisal ibn Turki Al Said (1888-1913), Taimur ibn Faisal Al Said (1913-32), Said ibn Taimur Al Said (1932-70), and the present sultan, Qabus ibn Said Al Said (1970- ). In large part, Omani political developments in the twentieth century followed the temperament and priorities of successive sultans. Each, to varying degrees, responded to threats to his authority from the interior; each had to balance independent action with an indirect role by Britain, with which Oman had treaties of friendship.

The process of state formation in Oman and the centralization of political power within the ruling family followed the same pattern found in other gulf shaykhdoms, particularly Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. Oil revenues and income redistribution facilitated a pattern of continuity of political power within the ruling family and the traditional political elite as well as change with the modest creation of new institutions and expanded administration engaging an increasingly diverse segment of Omani society.

Faisal ibn Turki, 1888-1913
Taimur ibn Faisal, 1913-32
Said ibn Taimur, 1932-70
Qabus ibn Said: The Emergence of a Modern State
The Dhofar Rebellion
State Formation and Politically Influential Groups
The Al Said Dynasty
Established Merchant Families
Government Institutions

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Oman.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress