In a sense, Oman plays just as important a role in the world today as it did in the past. Heir to a long seafaring and trading tradition — it was the ancient world's chief supplier of copper and frankincense, and its merchants pioneered the sea route to China in the eighth century— Oman now commands the western shores of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, gateway to Arabian Gulf oil.
Though it once ruled a medieval empire, was a major maritime power, and was the first Arab nation to send an ambassador to the United States, Oman sank into obscurity in the late 19th century partly as a result of losing its African and Asian colonial interests and revenues, partly because the new western steamships easily out sailed its dhows.
Plagued by poverty and racked by internal conflicts, Oman was bypassed by the 20th century — it had, for example, just one 12-bed hospital and had diplomatic relations with only three states—until, in 1964, oil was discovered and, in 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id took power.
Known affectionately as "Super-Q" among expatriates in Oman, Sultan Qaboos immediately launched a sweeping development program at home, and reactivated Oman's once-important role abroad. Among the results: Oman has more hospitals today—14— than it had hospital beds in 1970, and has diplomatic relations with over 70 states.
Oman today is also a full-fledged member of the United Nations, Non-Aligned Movement and Arab League, and it played an active part in setting up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the potentially important economic and mutual security pact linking Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The second-largest country, after Saudi Arabia, on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman was one of the first nations to embrace Islam as it swept out of western Arabia in the seventh century. The religion has acted as a unifying force among Oman's diverse groups and still serves as the foundation of its legal and political systems today. Though a monarchy, Oman has a Consultative Council that was set up in 1981 and allows some participation in government by the people.
The transformation of Oman, in little more than a decade, from the region's most-backward country to one of its fastest-developing states, has been achieved even though the sultanate is only a modest oil producer. And though some social dislocation has inevitably occurred because of the speed at which change has taken place, by and large Oman has emerged from the experience with its institutions intact and its future promising.