Population

5,036,065 inhabitants (2019).

Official language

The classical Arabic (a Semitic language).

Languages spoken

Only Saudi Arabs (0.6% of the population) have classical Arabic as their first language. The main dialects are Arabic Oman (45.9%), the Arab Gulf (16.8%) and the Arab Dhofari (2.6%). Immigrant populations use their original languages: South Baluchi (4.9%), Malayalam (4.7%), Bengali (4.2%), etc. Many immigrants speak English. Some Omanis, called ‘Omani Africa’, who lived in the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, speak French.

People

The Arabs (Omanis, 45.9%; Gulf 16.8%; Dhofari, 2.6%) represent approximately 75% of the population. The remaining 25% are immigrants, mainly Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Filipino and Sinhalese.

Religion

Oman is a Muslim country, but around 13% of the population is Hindu. Three-quarters of Muslims are Ibadi – a school of Islam that prevails in Oman, often seen as a tolerant sect of Islam. The remaining quarter is Sunni – the largest denomination of Islam and the traditionalist branch.

National Holiday

November 18: Anniversary of Sultan.

Holiday Schedule

Muslim religious holidays (depending on the lunar calendar, they change dates every year) include: Ramadan; Eid al-Fitr (or Eid el-Seghir) which marks the end of Ramadan; Eid-Kabir (or Eid Adha) which commemorates Abraham sacrifice; Mouloud celebrates the birth of the Prophet, in May; Muslim New Year (El Hijriya). January 1: New Year's Day. 23 July: Day of rebirth (marks the beginning of the reign of Sultan Qaboos, credited for the modern rebirth of the country). November 18: National Day.

History

There are ancient traces of settlements in Dhofar. But the story of present-day Oman began in the 7th century as Arabisation and Islamisation spread across the region. Over the next 100 years, people adopted Ibadism, and the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (766-809) sought to convert the masses over to the Sunni orthodoxy. From this period, the Omani sailors had flourishing commerce agreements with India and East Asia, thanks to its strategically important position on trade routes – something the Portuguese recognised and overtook in the 15th century with the arrival of the caravels (Portuguese sailing ships) around Africa. The Portuguese took Muscat (1508) and Hormuz (1519) and cemented themselves along this trade route. But by the mid-17th century, Omani tribes forced the Portuguese out of Muscat and over the next few decades, the Omani Empire expanded down the east coast of Africa and the nation became a powerful stronghold of maritime trade with a flourishing slave trade. Subsequently, the wealth of Arabian merchants ballooned. Meanwhile, Britain signed a treaty of friendship in 1798 with the Sultan.

Around this time, the Omani capital was transferred to Zanzibar. In the mid-19th century, the ‘empire’ was divided into the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, and the Sultanate of Zanzibar. In 1891, Oman and Muscat became a British Protectorate. Between 1915 and 1920, civil war erupted and the Sultan Taimur bin Faisal (1913-1932) called in British troops. His successor did the same in 1955 during a period of unrest, around the discovery of oil in the oasis of Bureimi. Under the 1951 Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, Oman received independence from Britain. A few years later, a rebellious Marxist guerrilla movement broke out and the war of Dhofar lasted until 1976 – until the defeat by British-supported Sultanate of Muscat and Oman. Meanwhile the Sultan Said ibn Taimur (1932-1970) was overthrown by his son and the protectorate was abolished (1971). He renamed the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, changing it simply to Oman and spearheaded widespread modernisation and prosperity.

Policy

Oman is a parliamentary monarchy. Combined with advancing democracy (with voting eligibility of women in 1994 and elections by universal suffrage in 2003), an autocratic paternalism tradition (the Sultan combines the functions of head of state and prime minister, controls the army, directs the economy and directs the legislative work).

Famous Omanis

  • Qaboos bin Said al Said (born 1940), is the incumbent Sultan of Oman, having overthrown his father in a coup in 1970. A lover of European classical music, he has overseen some modernisation of Omani politics and its pro-Western policies have thus far proven beneficial in a difficult regional context.
  • Jabir ibn Zaid al-Azdi (who died in the early eighth century), was an Omani student and one of the founding figures of Ibadism.
  • British explorer and travel writer, Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) rightfully gained a reputation for his travels to Arabia, riding out on intrepid expeditions with camels and Bedouin guides. His books have been well revered: Arabian Sands recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter of Arabia. He also plotted the mapping of some mountainous parts of Oman.

Etiquette

Tipping is at your discretion. For all locals who work with us, you have our assurance that tips will never replace their salary. Nevertheless, tipping is very gratefully received. For drivers, we recommend a minimum of around £1-£2 per person per day when driving a group, or £6 for a private driver; double this amount for guides. At hotels, leave around £1-£2 for baggage handlers. It’s best to align your tip with the economy of the place: estimate the amount by comparing with the price of a beer or of a tea to ensure it fits with the standard of living. Hotel and restaurant bills usually include service – though if they don’t, the standard is 10%.

Oman is a Muslim country and it’s imperative you respect this. There’s nothing out of the ordinary but follow these rules as a matter of courtesy: avoid wearing tight or revealing clothing. For locals, the traditional dress is a Dishdasha – a long tunic covering men and women from the neck down; tourists don’t have to wear these, but respectful dress is a must. When visiting mosques, remember to remove your shoes; women should cover their arms and legs. Bikinis are prohibited on public beaches, though you can wear swimwear on private beaches and hotel pools.

During the month of Ramadan, avoid eating, drinking or smoking in public during the day. If you accept an invitation to lunch or for coffee (lucky you!) with a local family, be prepared to stay a while. If you’re in a hurry, it’s best to decline the offer. Remember to remove your shoes before entering a home. Your host will utter the word ‘bismillah’ (praise to God) and that’s your signal to begin eating and drinking. Keep in mind that even if you’re left-handed, you must use your right hand to take the food (the left is considered unclean in Islam).

Other things to note: do not give sweets or gadgets directly to children; and do not photograph a person without asking permission to do so.

Haggling is expected in Oman but always bargain with a smile and a sense of humour; don’t be too insistent; and be prepared for small discounts only.

Heading to the desert? Always burn your toilet paper and stay wary of the creatures of the desert - you may encounter critters including vipers and scorpions, though sightings are very rare since the hibernation period largely coincides with that of peak travel season. As a precaution, however, do not upturn stones and pebbles, avoid walking barefoot, and set up camp away from bushes and piles and stones.

Shopping

For a maddening yet mesmerising shopping experience, make a beeline for Muttrah Souk – a gargantuan bazaar, where travellers follow the rich scent of incense and rummage through stalls of clothing, fabrics, jewellery and household trinkets. Always try bargaining, but don’t expect huge discounts. A popular souvenir to search for is the Bedouin khanjar - a traditional knife with a curved blade, often bought in a wrought sheath. Today it is a component of the male ceremonial dress, but many years ago, pulling the sheath was a sign of vengeance and death.

Food

Waves of immigration over the centuries have shaped Oman’s foodie scene, and Indian influences are prominent, from kitchens cooking up rich tandoori masala, to plates of biryani doled out to locals and travellers – biryani is said to be Oman’s national dish. The cuisine of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly Lebanon, has also carved local gastronomy. Also on the menu are barbecued meats, dusted in Omani spices; super-sweet halwa with honey, sugar and rose water; and dates, pimped up with sesame paste or ground coconut. Restaurants are closely monitored by the health authorities.

Drink

Tap water is drinkable and mineral water for sale is often imported from Europe. Coffee drinking is a way of life in Oman. Should you be invited to a locals’ home for coffee, always take up the offer: ‘qahwa’ is not only the Arabic word for coffee, but it’s often used as a verb by Omanis when inviting people into their homes – for coffee, for dates, for halwa and for cakes. International hotels and some restaurants in Muscat serve alcohol, but it’s difficult to find elsewhere.

Contact one of our Oman specialists