For American travelers, Oman is an encouraging and reassuring place. An Arizona-size country in a strategic location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, it is devoutly Islamic yet peaceful, prosperous and hospitable to Western visitors. On a recent trip, I strolled through the streets of the capital, Muscat; meandered along the narrow alleyways of its souk; and visited the huge Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. I never felt ill at ease, and I encountered nothing but friendliness and polite curiosity.
Unlike neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Oman is steeped in ancient history and culture. The mountains on the edge of the famous “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian Desert were the chief source of frankincense — the aromatic resin used in religious ceremonies and consecrations — and its trade generated immense wealth for southern Oman for more than 1,500 years. And from the late-17th until the early-20th centuries, Oman was an important regional trading power, which controlled the eastern coastline of Africa as far south as its colony of Zanzibar, in present-day Tanzania.
Modern Oman, however, came into being with the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Although it has only the world’s 23rd-largest reserves of petroleum, the revenue has been sufficient to transform the country. The 4.6 million Omanis pay no tax; education and health care are universal and free; and all citizens become recipients of a government pension. This welfare state, combined with strictly controlled immigration and the autocratic but benign 47-year rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, has provided Oman with a high degree of political and social stability. The Arab Spring that toppled or discomfited many long-standing regimes had little effect here.