Oman's history can be traced to very early times. In Genesis 10:26–30, the descendants of Joktan are said to have migrated as far as Sephar (now Dhofar). The area was already a commercial and seafaring center in Sumerian times, and Phoenicians probably visited the coastal region. Other groups that probably came to the area in ancient times include the Baida and Ariba, Semitic tribes from northern Arabia, now extinct; the first Himyar dynasty from Yemen, which fell to the Persians in the time of Cyrus, about 550 BC ; ancient Greek navigators; and the Parthians (174– 136 BC ).
The entire population was converted to Islam during the lifetime of Muhammad, but Oman soon became—and remains today— the center of the Ibadhi sect, which maintained that any pious Muslim could become caliph or imam and that the imam should be elected. Omani tribes have elected their imams since the second half of the 8th century.
The first prolonged contact with Europe came in 1507–08, when the Portuguese overran Muscat. They maintained control until they were driven out with Persian aid in 1649. During the next 75 years, Oman conquered Mombasa, Mogadishu, the island of Zanzibar, and the Portuguese possessions in East Africa. Later it held parts of what are now Iran and Pakistan.
The first sultanate was established in Muscat about 1775. In 1798, Britain concluded its first treaty with Muscat. Sa'id bin Sultan (r.1804–56) became dependent on British support, and after his death his sons quarreled over his succession (the basic Ibadhi tenet having been rejected). Thus weakened by political division, Muscat lost control of the interior. In 1920, the Treaty of Seeb was signed between the sultan of Muscat and the imam of Oman, acknowledging the autonomy of the imamate of Oman under the sovereignty of the Sultan. From 1920 to 1954 there was comparative peace. On the death of the imam in 1954, Sultan Sa'id bin Taymur moved to succeed him.
That year, Sa'id concluded a new agreement with Petroleum Development (Oman) Ltd., a British-managed oil company that had the oil concession for Oman. By this agreement, the company maintained a small army, the Muscat and Oman Field Force (MOFF), raised and led by the British. In early 1955, it subdued the area up to and including the town of 'Ibri. When British troops took Buraymi, MOFF occupied the rest of Oman and expelled the rebellious new imam. By 1959 when the last of the insurgents supporting the imam were defeated, the sultan voided the office and declared the Treaty of Seeb terminated. The imam, exiled in Sa'udi Arabia, tried in vain to muster Arab support for his return.
Under the terms of the Anglo-French Declaration of 10 March 1962, the sultanate of Muscat was proclaimed an independent and sovereign state. Certain Arab states charged, however, that the UK was maintaining a colonial presence in the former imamate of Oman. In 1965 and repeatedly thereafter, the UN called unsuccessfully for the elimination of the British presence. Oman joined the UN late in 1971.
Meanwhile, as early as 1964, a tribal rebellion had been brewing in the Dhofar region. The rebel tribes, organized as the Dhofar Liberation Front and aided by South Yemen, later joined forces with the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf. The insurgency was suppressed in 1975 with direct military assistance from Jordan and Iran. A treaty with Yemen defining the border was ratified in 1992.
Qabus bin Sa'id ousted his father, Sa'id bin Taymur, on 23 July 1970 and has ruled as sultan since that time. He immediately changed the name of the country from Muscat and Oman to the Sultanate of Oman and has presided over an extensive modernization program, easing his father's harsh restrictions and opening the country to the outside world, while preserving political and military ties with the British. Oman has been a proponent of cooperation among the Gulf states. A member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has also sought to keep good relations with Iran. Because Oman dominates the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf, its strategic importance drew it and the United States closer together with the start of the Iran–Iraq war in 1979. Under the terms of a pact signed in 1980, US military personnel and ships have been given access to Omani military and naval bases and are permitted to preposition military material for use in contingencies.
Oman pursues a moderate, independent foreign policy. Unlike most Arab states, it supported the Camp David accords and did not break relations with Egypt following its peace treaty with Israel. Similarly, during the Gulf War, Oman sent forces to Sa'udi Arabia and granted strategic facilities to the United States, but did not sever diplomatic relations with Iraq during the conflict.
In 1994 reports began appearing of arrests of critics of the Omani government. It was estimated that nearly 500 such critics with points of view ranging from the Arab nationalist Ba'th movement to Islamists supporting the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood were detained by the Omani government.
Through 1995 Oman was considered as having "graduated" from the ranks of under-developed nations needing World Bank loans. Its ambitious economic goals included a 10-year plan for cultivating tourism and plans to improve its infrastructure, including water desalinization. However, in 1998, the economy was adversely affected when the price of oil dropped below $10 per barrel, a 25-year low. Oman agreed with the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Oman is not a member, to reduce global oil production by 2.1 million barrels of crude per day until April 2000 in the hope of raising oil prices to $18 per barrel. In October 1999, the Omani oil minister recommended extending oil production cuts beyond the date originally proposed. Meanwhile, Oman has sought to diversify its economic base and ease its dependence on oil. A gas liquefaction plant at Sur was slated for completion in 2000.
As of 1999, Oman held to a middle-of-the-road stance of conciliation and compromise in Middle Eastern politics. In January 1999, Oman's foreign minister met with his counterparts from Egypt, Sa'udi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen at a closed meeting in Cairo to forge a position on the question of Iraq. Also in 1999, Oman's sultan, Qabus bin Sa'id, signed an agreement with the president of the United Arab Emirates defining the borders between Oman and the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
During 2002 and into 2003, Oman, along with the other countries of the Persian Gulf, were confronted with the situation of a potential US-led war with Iraq. On 8 November 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, calling on Iraq to immediately disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WMD weapons capabilities, to allow the immediate return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN weapons inspectors, and to comply with all previous UN resolutions regarding the country since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. If Iraq was found to be in "material breach" of the resolution, "serious consequences" were to result. The United States and the UK began amassing troops in the region, and by the end of February 2003, the number of troops in the Persian Gulf was approximately 200,000. As of 1 February, there were 3,600 US military personnel, 100 elite British special forces, and approximately 40 aircraft in Oman. As well, a new airbase was under construction, which would have a 14,000-ft. runway. However, Oman has said it would not act in a conflict with Iraq
without UN approval. At an Arab League summit held at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on 1 March, sharp divisions between Arab leaders on the Iraq situation emerged, particularly between Libya and Sa'udi Arabia. However, the leaders issued a declaration expressing "complete rejection of any aggression on Iraq," and called for continuing UN weapons inspections. It also called upon Iraq to disarm itself of WMD and the missiles needed to deliver them. At the summit, some leaders argued war was inevitable and that the countries of the region should prepare for its aftermath; some argued that war could be avoided if Iraq were to comply with weapons inspections; and a third group argued that the summit should issue an unequivocal anti-war declaration.