German and International Research on Oman 1998

Oman and the West: state formation in Oman since 1920
by Francis Owtram [abstract]

This paper will present an analysis of the external and internal influences on the process of state formation in Oman since 1920 and consists of three main sections.

1. Three interrelated analytical themes are identified in the relationship between Oman and the West: the international context of western involvement in Oman, the nature of that involvement and its impact on Omani society.

2. Five historical stages of state formation in Oman are identified.

i. Oman and British imperial expansion 1798-1920

The period since 1920 can be divided into four stages. In each of these stages up to 1977 the decisive factor in the process of state formation was British strategic interest. This is the era of British 'informal empire' in Oman.

ii. Informal empire in Oman 1921-1931. The period immediately after the 1920 Treaty of Sib represents the high point of British intrusion into the daily government of Oman. Sultan Taimur bin Faisal was unwilling to 'rule' in the situation Britain presented him and absented himself from Muscat. Therefore a Council of Ministers (1920-1932) 'governed' with British advisers and British control of customs revenue. Also during this time the development of new Western strategic interests in Oman in the form of air routes and oil prospecting began to increase the strategic importance of Oman.

ii. The expansion of the Sultanate 1932-1955. Sultan Sa'id bin Taimur initially sought to take an active part in the government of the Sultanate and develop independence from the British. His interest in obtaining any revenues from oil coincided with the interest of the British government and oil companies. The outcome was the overturning of the Sib settlement and the British financing, staffing and development of armed forces which occupied Nizwa and ousted the Imamate in 1955.

iv. British withdrawal and the consolidation of the Omani state 1956-1977. Following his tour of the interior Sultan Sa'id retreated to Dhofar and also absented himself from Muscat as his father had done. The Suez Crisis of 1956 marked the end of European attempts to act in the Middle East independently of the United States and was to be followed by British withdrawal and decolonisation in the region. In Oman this finally took place in 1977 when the British vacated their bases at Masirah Island and Salalah having defeated the left wing rebellion in Dhofar and secured a political order in Oman conducive to western interests. This involved allowing the modernising Qabus to become Sultan in 1970.

v. The development of the contemporary Omani state 1978-1995. The final stage is that of the contemporary state. The development of significant oil revenues enabled Qabus to embark on a vast development programme for Oman whilst maintaining a close grip on power. Whilst British personnel and influence remained significant in military matters there was a far greater American financial and political involvement following the 1980 US-Oman Access Agreement. This reflected the western strategic interest in Oman for the planning of rapid deployment force capabilities to secure western access to Gulf oil; this was demonstrated in the Gulf Crisis 1990-1991.

3. The paper will assess the implications of Oman's relationship with the West for theories of 'informal empire' and state formation.

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Last updated on 25 May 1998.