Diplomatic contacts between Arab nations and the United States date back to the days of George Washington. But it was not until 1840, in one of the most colorful episodes in the 19th century, that the Sultan of Oman established formal relations by sending a ship called the Sultanah to New York City to serve as the first Arab embassy in the United States.
Behind the Sultan's move was a complicated plan by which Oman, heir to a 1,000-year tradition of seafaring and trade, hoped to take over Mozambique in Africa from Portugal. The point of this plan was to take control of Mozambique's trade with China. Unfortunately, there was an obstacle. To capture Mozambique, the Sultan, Sayyid Said, needed arms. But he was hesitant to seek them from Great Britain or France, the day's superpowers. He feared they might exploit Omani military dependence to strengthen their own positions in the Gulf. So Sayyid Said decided on an oblique approach to the United States—a country known to Sayyid through American vessels which had called at Muscat.
Although the Yankees had tried to interest Sayyid in letting Americans enter the British-dominated local markets, Sayyid was impressed by the Americans' lack of political designs in the area and hoped he might be able to get weapons there without incurring political obligations. Sayyid, therefore, determined to open diplomatic relations with the United States. He reasoned that if he could sell Omani goods to the Americans, he could at least finance arms purchases. But Sayyid also hoped to find in America a loophole in what amounted to a regional arms embargo imposed by Britain and France.
In the winter of 1840, therefore, the Sultanah, pride of the Omani fleet—a three-masted, 80-foot wooden sailing ship—set out from Oman and nearly three months later dropped anchor in New York.
In 1840 there was no Statue of Liberty to welcome incoming ships. Nevertheless the Sultanah created an immediate stir—especially when Ahmad ibn Na'aman, the Sultan's envoy, stepped onto a New York wharf in a bright turban, sparkling cashmere shawl and long black caftan trimmed in gold, raised the Sultan's crimson ensign over the battered Sultanah and calmly announced that this was Oman's temporary embassy in the United States.
Even for the boisterous Americans of the period it was a colorful moment. The Sultanah was a wreck, its sails torn, its ropes frayed and the crew—well . . . Hired in India, the crew was composed of "gleanings of the toughest stuff" palmed off on the Sultanah's skipper by an unscrupulous contractor.
Another piquant touch was the presence on board of two Englishwomen who taken passage in Muscat in hopes of eventually returning to England via New York. To protect them during the long voyage, the captain had them closely guarded in their cabins, but rumors quickly spread in New York that the Sultan had sent "two or three Circassian slaves of outstanding beauty" as gifts to the American President, Martin Van Buren. As President Van Buren was a sober-sided Victorian, jocular columnists wondered whether the White House would add a wing to accommodate a Presidential harem.
As it happened, the Sultan had sent gifts: fine jewels, a silk Persian rug, a gold-mounted sword and two slightly seasick Arabian horses. But even though they were a far cry from slave girls the gifts presented Van Buren with a problem. As the Constitution forbids an American President to accept gifts, the Sultan's well-meant generosity put the Congress in an uproar and Van Buren, bending to Congressional pressure, had to sell them at a public auction and deposit the revenues in the United States Treasury.
The Congressional attitude intended no disrespect to Sultan Sayyid. To the contrary, one Congressman during the debate urged that the U.S. government refit the battered Sultanah. Another suggested that the President supply Sayyid with a sloop of war.
Meanwhile, New York had gone wild over the Omani visit. Crowds pressed against the gunwales of his tattered vessel and police had to ward off unscrupulous curio hunters. Crewmen were followed by curious onlookers, some of whom yanked on the mariners' beards to verify their authenticity. Other New Yorkers were content to troop alongside admiring the sailors' colorful national costumes.
Ahmad ibn Na'aman was not slow to capitalize on New York's eager curiosity. Dressed in long silken robes and sandals with upcurved toes, the Omani ambassador gladly inspected military parades, visited model welfare institutions and, at night, gladdened the hearts of officials vying for his appearance in their homes. But he also tended to business. After presenting his letters of credence and messages from Sultan Sayyid he set about selling his cargo: bags of Omani dates, cloves from Zanzibar, sacks of coffee from Mocha, bales of Persian carpets, salted hides and ivory tusks.
The goods were snapped up and the proceeds—more than $25,000—plowed back into arms: three hundred muskets and three tons of gunpowder. As Ahmad ibn Na'aman also hinted to the Americans that the Sultan would be delighted if arms appeared in their official gifts to him, the President sent four splendid five-chambered revolvers and two repeating rifles boxed in mahogany and elegantly inlaid with silver and pearl.
A few citizens sent other gifts. One was an Arabic translation of the Bible and another was 50 different kinds of throat lozenges which, the donor claimed, could cure anything from nervous headaches to heartburn.
In the meantime, the President, taking the Congress at its word, insisted on seeing that the Sultanah was completely overhauled. It took three months and by the time the job was finally done Ahmad ibn Na'aman was ready to leave. New York, even then, was an expensive town; the Sultanah's account book shows he was making frequent advances to his crew against the salaries due to be paid them back in Muscat. Even more worrying was the number of crewmen incited to desert by American abolitionists. Thus in early August, five months after landing, the Sultanah, her crew rounded out with a handful of newly articled American tars, weighed anchor for the voyage home, her mission completed.
Sultan Sayyid died before he could mount a campaign in Mozambique and Omani-American relations lapsed for generations. But the Sultanah's, voyage nevertheless planted a seed. In 1975 the United States and Oman again established formal relations and resumed a friendship 135 years old.
Joseph Fitchett, a free-lance reporter, contributes frequently to Aramco World.