The Middle East has hosted many of the world’s most storied cultures and empires. In antiquity, Ancient Egypt and Babylonia made some of humanity’s longest-lasting advances, and the Sasanian Empire in Persia rivaled its Roman and Byzantine counterparts. After the rise of Islam, the Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid Caliphates conquered much of Africa and Asia. The Ottoman Empire, which survived well into the 20th century and whose reach extended deep into Europe, might have had the greatest geopolitical impact on the Western world.
Sandwiched between these imperial celebrities, the little-known history of the Omani Empire has failed to pique the interest of popular culture or more than a handful of scholars. Even so, the centuries-long saga of this one-time regional power played a crucial role in the development of two civilizations—not only Oman but also Zanzibar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa. As the Omani Empire’s size fluctuated, these two territories remained the core of its state.
For much of Oman’s history, its strategic location served as a blessing and a curse. Whoever ruled Oman could control transit between the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Arabian Peninsula’s eastern shoreline, and the Gulf of Oman, an outlet to the Indian Ocean. The prospect of holding this chokepoint attracted the Portuguese Empire, whose military captured much of the area around Muscat in 1507. The Ottomans, who competed with their Portuguese adversaries for access to lucrative sea lanes, also made several forays into the area.
The end of Oman’s subjugation to Portugal came in 1650, when Omani tribes retook Muscat from Portuguese forces. Soon after, Oman began to establish its own colonial empire—this time at Portugal’s expense. Omani forces targeted Portugal’s holdings in East Africa, launching assaults on Zanzibar in 1652, Mombasa in 1661, and Mozambique in 1671. By the end of the 17th century, Zanzibar had become an integral component of the Omani Empire.
Even before the Omani conquest, Zanzibar had a strong connection to the Arab world. As early as the first century according to some sources, Arab traders had established contact with their counterparts in Zanzibar and across East Africa. In later centuries, Omani sailors formed a commercial exchange with the inhabitants of Zanzibar that included ivory, slaves, and spices. Zanzibar also attracted business from India and Persia, with its status as one of the Indian Ocean’s most important trading posts serving as the basis of foreign designs on the island.
Even before the Omani conquest, Zanzibar had a strong connection to the Arab world.
Despite Zanzibar’s historical ties to the Middle East, Omani rule had a particular effect on the territory. Many Arabs relocated to the island, introducing Zanzibar to Ibadism, the obscure strand of Islam to which a majority of Omanis subscribe. The island soon became a hub of Islamic learning in its own right—to the extent that a number of leading Ibadi scholars from Oman chose to migrate to Zanzibar. Muslim academics from elsewhere in East Africa made the same move.
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Even as the Omani Empire expanded into East Africa and seized the critical South Asian port of Gwadar in 1783, Zanzibar retained pride of place. The relationship between Oman and Zanzibar culminated in 1840: that year, Omani Sultan Said bin Sultan changed the seat of government from Muscat to Stone Town, Oman’s most significant outpost on the East African island.
Until his death in 1856, the sultan split his time between Oman and Zanzibar, a period marking the height of the Omani Empire’s decisive influence over international trade in the Indian Ocean.
The sultan’s death resulted in a dispute between his sons over who would replace him, a succession crisis that the Omani Empire’s greatest European rival at the time, the British Empire, sought to exploit. Under an 1861 agreement mediated by Britain—known to historians as the Canning Award—the sultan’s sons decided to cut his empire in half. Thuwaini bin Said al-Said ruled the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, and Majid bin Said served as Sultan of Zanzibar. This bifurcation represented the anti-climactic demise of the Omani Empire.
Oman and Zanzibar themselves fell into the British sphere of influence within a matter of years, returning the Middle Eastern sultanate and its former African territory to the control of a European colonial empire.
At the same time, however, vestiges of the Omani Empire remained. Over a century of Omani presence in Gwadar, for example, only ended in 1958: following four years of negotiations between Omani and Pakistani officials, Pakistan bought the city from Oman for US$3 million, equivalent to about US$28 million today.
In the end, Oman and Zanzibar followed divergent geopolitical paths. As Britain’s colonial empire declined in the second half of the 20th century, Oman returned to its status as a sovereign state. Under Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who reigned from 1970 to 2020, the country pursued an independent foreign policy that emphasized non-interventionism. Sultan Qaboos eschewed Oman’s imperial past, trying to steer his country away from the diplomatic rows and military quagmires that entangled his neighbors.
While Oman directed its focus inward after the 19th-century fall of its colonial empire, Zanzibar found itself wrestling with the implications of Omani rule for some time after. The Canning Award split Zanzibar from Oman, but the Arab descendants of Omani royalty continued to govern the island for decades.
The Canning Award split Zanzibar from Oman, but the Arab descendants of Omani royalty continued to govern the island for decades.
In a violent 1964 uprising known as the Zanzibar Revolution, the island’s non-Arab majority revolted. Only then did Zanzibar’s population wrest back control for itself. Zanzibar’s new government then opted to merge with the neighboring republic of Tanganyika, forming what would become Tanzania.
As disparate as Oman and Zanzibar’s trajectories may seem, a shared history still informs their ties. In a nod to the pair’s scholarly collaboration during the time of the Omani Empire, the education ministers of Oman and Zanzibar met last November to discuss further cooperation. A month later, Zanzibar’s President, Hussein Ali Mwinyi, agreed to launch a museum at a former Omani palace in Stone Town to celebrate Oman and Zanzibar’s mutual cultural heritage.
The relationship between Oman and Zanzibar no longer rests on an African colony’s involuntary absorption into an Arab empire. Today, the peoples of Oman and Zanzibar can engage as equals, building on their centuries of commercial, educational, religious, and even familial links. Consider Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, a native of Zanzibar who has ancestral ties to Oman. If her Omani relatives’ excitement at her ascent to power serves as any indicator, Oman and Zanzibar’s ancient cultural connection will thrive for many centuries to come.