Historical Setting

Historical Setting

THE FIVE COUNTRIES covered in this volume--Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman--are all Arab states on the Persian Gulf that share certain characteristics. But they are not the only countries that border the gulf. Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia share the coastline as well, and they too shared in the historical development of the area. Of the five states covered in this volume, Oman has a particular culture and history that distinguish it from its neighbors. It also is the state with the shortest coastline along the Persian Gulf. Most of Oman lies along the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

The main element that unites these countries is the nature of their involvement with people and nations beyond the region. The gulf has been an important waterway since ancient times, bringing the people who live on its shores into early contact with other civilizations. In the ancient world, the gulf peoples established trade connections with India; in the Middle Ages, they went as far as China; and in the modern era, they became involved with the European powers that sailed into the Indian Ocean and around Southeast Asia. In the twentieth century, the discovery of massive oil deposits in the gulf made the area once again a crossroads for the modern world.

Other factors also bring these countries together. The people are mostly Arabs and, with the exception of Oman and Bahrain, are mostly Sunni Muslims. Because they live in basically tribal societies, family and clan connections underlie most political and economic activity. The discovery of oil and the increasing contact with the West has led to tremendous material and social changes.

Important distinctions exist, however, among the five countries. Bahrain is an island with historical connections to the Persian Empire. Kuwait is separated from the others by Saudi Arabia. In Oman high mountain ranges effectively cut off the country's hinterland from the rest of the region. Moreover, various tribal loyalties throughout the region are frequently divisive and are exacerbated by religious differences that involve the major sects of Islam -- Sunni and Shia --and the smaller Kharijite sect as well as Muslim legal procedures.

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