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Volume 37, Number 4July/August 1986

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An Omani Celebration

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Helmut R. Schulze

Americans in Oman during the festivities compared them to the  Fourth of July, and one visiting British reporter waxed lyrical I about a "winter wonderland" by the Arabian Sea. But the fireworks in Muscat last November - and a brilliant display of colorful lighting - were actually something else: part of the celebrations marking 15 years of dramatic transformation.

The five million light bulbs illuminating the capital, the rockets exploding playfully against mud-brick forts and the presence of presidents, prime ministers and - princes from 50 nations provided a particularly vivid testimony to the importance of that transformation - possibly the fastest and most visible in recent history.

Before1970 - when Sultan Qaboos bin Said took over power and launched his sweeping programs of development - people in Muscat had had to walkat night by lantern light, provincial garrisons were besieged by rebels and Oman had relations with only three states.

Though Oman once ruled a medieval empire, though it was a major maritime power, and though it was the first Arab nation to send an ambassador to the United States (See Aramco World, May-June 1983), the country, by the late 19th century, had sunk into obscurity - partly as a result of losing its African and Asian colonial interests and revenues, partly because the new Western steamships that had begun to penetrate the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea regions could easily outsail Oman's trading dhows.

Thus, plagued by poverty and racked by internal conflicts, Oman was bypassed by the 20th century; in 1970, for example, it had only 10 kilometers of asphalted road (six miles), three schools - educating 900 children to primary school level only - and a total of 12 hospital beds.

Today, however, such conditions have changed. Today there are more than 3,300 kilometers of asphalted highway (2,100 miles), almost 200,000 pupils in 561 schools, and 2,600 civilian hospital beds provided by the government. Average income, moreover, has risen 40-fold - to about $8,000 a year - unrest in the southern province of Dhofar has been resolved and thousands of disaffected Omanis, who had left the country to study and work abroad, have now returned to help rebuild it.

In fact, as the fireworks and fairy lights testified, Oman had much to celebrate on the 15th birthday of what government officials call its "renaissance."

That renaissance began in July, 1970, when Sultan Qaboos succeeded his father, Sultan Sa'id ibn Taimur, a ruler in such financial straits that he had to sell the last of Oman's foreign territories - the Gwadur enclave in Pakistan - to Pakistan to keep Oman solvent.

Even the discovery of oil in Oman - in 1964 - made little difference, since Sultan Sa'id, after years of necessarily - frugal, rigidly - centralized rule, was unable to adapt to changing times; though the oil revenues raised Oman's export earnings from $2.5 million in 1964 - from sales of limes, dates, fish and frankincense - to $18 million in 1970, the sultan was slow to use the new wealth to modernize the country and help its people.

In his first speech after assuming power, Sultan Qaboos promised his people "a new dawn" and as five million light bulbs in the red, green and white colors of the Omani national flag showed last November, he kept his promise. Using income from oil, Sultan Qaboos brought in a corps of expert advisors and, in 15 years, revolutionized a way of life untouched for centuries by the outside world by building schools, hospitals, clinics and roads, introducing welfare programs and initiating construction of the country's first university. It opens later this year.

The Sultan and his advisors have also built new ports and airports, set up industries, brought in television, modernized the armed forces and restored Oman's relations with the rest of the world.

As Oman is only a modest oil producer - an average of 416,000 barrels a day in 1984 - it has had to use its money sparingly and plan well. But because its development began late, Oman has been able to learn from the mistakes of others. Consequently, there are few prestige projects in Oman, and much of the country's original character and charm has been preserved.

It did, to be sure, go a bit overboard for its "modern" 15th birthday-building a one million-dollar-a-room hotel to accommodate visiting dignitaries, staging a massive military parade and youth pageant, and inviting hundreds of journalists from all over the world to whom to show off its achievements. Few of those present, however, saw cause to criticize. Oman, after all had good reason to be proud.

Contributing editor John Lawton coordinated coverage of Oman's celebrations for Worldivide Television News

This article appeared on pages 42-48 of the July/August 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: OMAN

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1986 images.