Oman - Geography, Climate and Population
Oman is located in the southeastern quarter of the Arabian Peninsula and, according to official estimates, covers a total land area of approximately 300,000 square kilometers; foreign observer estimates, however, are about 212,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of the state of Kansas. The land area is composed of varying topographic features: valleys and desert account for 82 percent of the land mass; mountain ranges, 15 percent; and the coastal plain, 3 percent.
The sultanate is flanked by the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter) of Saudi Arabia, all of which contributed to Oman's isolation. Historically, the country's contacts with the rest of the world were by sea, which not only provided access to foreign lands but also linked the coastal towns of Oman. The Rub al Khali, difficult to cross even with modern desert transport, formed a barrier between the sultanate and the Arabian interior. The Al Hajar Mountains, which form a belt between the coast and the desert from the Musandam Peninsula (Ras Musandam) to the city of Sur at Oman's easternmost point, formed another barrier. These geographic barriers kept the interior of Oman free from foreign military encroachments.
Natural features divide the country into seven distinct areas: Ruus al Jibal, including the northern Musandam Peninsula; the Al Batinah coastal plain; the Muscat-Matrah coastal area; the Oman interior, comprising Al Jabal al Akhdar (Green Mountain), its foothills, and desert fringes; the barren coastline south to Dhofar; Dhofar region in the south; and the offshore island of Masirah.
The northernmost area, Ruus al Jibal, extends from the Musandam Peninsula to the boundary with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at Hisn al Diba. It borders the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman, and is separated from the rest of the sultanate by a strip of territory belonging to the UAE. This area consists of low mountains forming the northernmost extremity of the Al Hajar al Gharbi (Western Al Hajar) Mountains. Two inlets, Elphinstone (Khawr ash Shamm) and Malcom (Ghubbat al Ghazirah), cleave the coastline about onethird the distance from the Strait of Hormuz and at one point are separated by only a few hundred meters of land. The coastline is extremely rugged, and the Elphinstone Inlet, sixteen kilometers long and surrounded by cliffs 1,000 to 1,250 meters high, has frequently been compared with fjords in Norway.
The UAE territory separating Ruus al Jibal from the rest of Oman extends almost as far south as the coastal town of Shinas. A narrow, well-populated coastal plain known as Al Batinah runs from the point at which the sultanate is reentered to the town of As Sib, about 140 kilometers to the southeast. Across the plains, a number of wadis, heavily populated in their upper courses, descend from the Al Hajar al Gharbi Mountains to the south. A ribbon of oases, watered by wells and underground channels (falaj), extends the length of the plain, about ten kilometers inland.
South of As Sib, the coast changes character. For about 175 kilometers, from As Sib to Ras al Hadd, it is barren and bounded by cliffs almost its entire length; there is no cultivation and little habitation. Although the deep water off this coast renders navigation relatively easy, there are few natural harbors or safe anchorages. The two best are at Muscat and Matrah, where natural harbors facilitated the growth of cities centuries ago.
West of the coastal areas lies the tableland of central Oman. The Al Hajar Mountains form two ranges: the Al Hajar al Gharbi Mountains and the Al Hajar ash Sharqi (Eastern Al Hajar) Mountains. They are divided by the Wadi Samail (the largest wadi in the mountain zone), a valley that forms the traditional route between Muscat and the interior. The general elevation is about 1,200 meters, but the peaks of the high ridge known as Al Jabal al Akhdar (Green Mountain)--which is considered a separate area but is actually part of the Al Hajar al Gharbi Mountains--rise to more than 3,000 meters in some places. Al Jabal al Akhdar is the only home of the Arabian tahr, a unique species of wild goat. In the hope of saving this rare animal, Sultan Qabus ibn Said has declared part of Al Jabal al Akhdar a national park. Behind the Al Hajar al Gharbi Mountains are two inland regions, Az Zahirah and inner Oman, separated by the lateral range of the Rub al Khali. Adjoining the Al Hajar ash Sharqi Mountains are the sandy regions of Ash Sharqiyah and Jalan, which also border the desert.
The desolate coastal tract from Jalan to Ras Naws has no specific name. Low hills and wastelands meet the sea for long distances. Midway along this coast and about fifteen kilometers offshore is the barren island of Masirah. Stretching about seventy kilometers, the island occupies a strategic location near the entry point to the Gulf of Oman from the Arabian Sea. Because of its location, it became the site of military facilities used first by the British and then by the United States, following an access agreement signed in 1980 by the United States and Oman.
Dhofar region extends from Ras ash Sharbatat to the border of Yemen. Its exact northern limit has never been defined, but the territory claimed by the sultan includes the Wadi Mughshin, about 240 kilometers inland. The southwestern portion of the coastal plain of Dhofar is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Arabia, and its capital, Salalah, was the permanent residence of Sultan Said ibn Taimur Al Said and the birthplace of the present sultan, Qabus ibn Said. The highest peaks are about 1,000 meters. At their base lies a narrow, pebbly desert adjoining the Rub al Khali to the north.
With the exception of Dhofar region, which has a light monsoon climate and receives cool winds from the Indian Ocean, the climate of Oman is extremely hot and dry most of the year. Summer begins in mid-April and lasts until October. The highest temperatures are registered in the interior, where readings of more than 50° C in the shade are common. On the Al Batinah plain, summer temperatures seldom exceed 46° C, but, because of the low elevation, the humidity may be as high as 90 percent. The mean summer temperature in Muscat is 33° C, but the gharbi (literally, western), a strong wind that blows from the Rub al Khali, can raise temperatures from the towns on the Gulf of Oman by 6° C to 10° C. Winter temperatures are mild and pleasant, ranging between 15° C and 23° C.
Precipitation on the coasts and on the interior plains ranges from twenty to 100 millimeters a year and falls during mid- and late winter. Rainfall in the mountains, particularly over Al Jabal al Akhdar, is much higher and may reach 700 millimeters. Because the plateau of Al Jabal al Akhdar is porous limestone, rainfall seeps quickly through it, and the vegetation, which might be expected to be more lush, is meager. However, a huge reservoir under the plateau provides springs for low-lying areas. In addition, an enormous wadi channels water to these valleys, making the area agriculturally productive in years of good rainfall. Dhofar, benefiting from a southwest monsoon between June and September, receives heavier rainfall and has constantly running streams, which make the region Oman's most fertile area.
A comprehensive population census has never been conducted, but in 1992 the sultanate solicited help from the United Nations (UN) Fund for Technical and Financial Assistance in taking a full census. For planning purposes, the government in 1992 estimated the population at 2 million, but the actual figure may be closer to 1.5 million, growing at a rate of 3.5 percent per annum. The population is unevenly distributed; the coastal regions, the Al Batinah plain, and the Muscat metropolitan area contain the largest concentration.
The population is heterogeneous, consisting of an ethnic and religious mix derived in large part from a history of maritime trade, tribal migrations, and contacts with the outside world. Although Arabs constitute the majority, non-Arab communities include Baluchis--from the Makran coast of Iran and Pakistan--who are concentrated in Muscat and the Al Batinah coast and play a significant role in the armed forces; ex-slaves (a legacy of Oman's slave trade and East African colonies); and Zanzibari Omanis, who are well represented in the police force and the professions. The integration of Omanis of African descent is often circumscribed by a language barrier (they often speak Swahili and English but not always Arabic). The presence of Omanis of Indian descent in Muscat reflects the historical commercial ties between the sultanate and the Indian subcontinent. The Khoja community in Matrah, of Indian origin, is perhaps the richest private group in Oman, and its members are among the best educated. The Shihuh of the northern Musandam Peninsula numbered about 20,000 in the early 1990s. They speak Arabic and a dialect of Farsi and engage primarily in fishing and herding.
Because of the small indigenous population, the government has been obliged to use foreign labor. In 1992 about 60 percent of the labor force was foreign. Some 350,000 foreign workers and their families (primarily Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, and Sri Lankans) live in Oman. The high percentage of foreigners in the work force, combined with improvements in the country's education system, has prompted the government to institute a program of indigenization whereby Omani nationals gradually replace foreigners.
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