The Arabs are an ignorant, savage and barbarous people. Those on the coast are pirates; those in the interior are robbers. – J. Olney, A Practical System of Modern Geography
1836-1838: The Foundations
In 1806 Sa'id al Said, fifth of his line, murdered his brother, with whom he shared the Sultanate, and became the undisputed Sultan of Muscat and Oman. For the next thirty years, he would increase Omani influence and revenue within the region tremendously.
The British courted the powerful Sultan, wishing to maintain security on the route from Europe to India so that merchants could safely send goods between India and the Gulf. Britain also sought to increase their influence over the region at the expense of other powers, such as the Ottomans and France. Strategically located, and certainly the friendliest of the so-called “Trucial States”, Oman swiftly became Britain’s closest ally in the region.
However, the British – who since 1807 had abolished slavery throughout most of the Empire - increasingly demanded that Oman abolish their own slave trade, which was the main source of wealth for the Sultanate. Flourishing trade centres for slaves existed in Kilwa, Bagamayo and Zanzibar – the latter to supply India and the Arab countries. The country resisted as long as possible, but eventually the British control of the Indian Ocean forced their hand. In 1822 the Sultan was reluctantly bound by the Governor of Mauritius to sign a treaty abolishing the human trade. The agreement did not affect traffic with other Arab countries, but it did prevent Oman from selling slaves to other Western Powers.
The treaty was a blow to the economy of the Omani kingdom. Slaves, ivory and cloves were its largest exports. In fact, such was the volume of its cloves export that it would remain the worlds largest producer of cloves until well into the 20th century.
However, even with their dominance of the clove market, the loss of one of their richest sources of income caused the kingdom to suffer. The Sultan could no longer afford to purchase the latest arms, and as time passed it became increasingly difficult to control the ever-volatile tribes of the interior. Unruly at the best of times, the Bedouin had no use for a Sultan who could not bring the disparate tribes under his control.
Thus it was that in 1836, Sultan Sa'id sent diplomats to Constantinople to arrange a deal with Omans northern neighbours. Despite having thrown out the Turks in the previous century, relations between the two powers were friendly – mostly due to the actions of Mahmud II, the Great Reformer, who was at that time engaged in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to enact a series of Western-style reforms in the empire – the Tanzimat.
A deal was soon arranged between the Padishah and the Sultan. In return for control of the province of Mogdishu, the Ottomans would supply arms – obsolete flintlock rifles in this case – to the Omani military. They would also loan some of their Western trained leaders, who would pass on knowledge of these new tactics to the Omani soldiers. These post-Napoleonic theories would be quickly accepted by the Royal Army of Oman, at that time 20,000 strong.
The Royal Army of Oman would embrace these new methodologies with such vigour that they adopted what the Europeans called a Clausewitizian attitude to battle – a rarity amongst the Arab nations of the day, which usually pursued a more Jomnian style. In time, this embrace of the Western Way of War would prove to be one of Oman’s greatest assets in its battle for supremacy of the Peninsula. For themselves, the Ottomans fortified Mogdishu, hoping to use it to gain control of the Red Sea, and exert some measure of control over their truculent Egyptian vassals.
For the next two years, the Sultan would ensure that the Royal Army of Oman fully embraced the new methods. Only two divisions strong, it was still one of the best armed and best led armies in the region.
In 1838, the Sultan enacted a series of reforms designed to better the lives of his populace. Concerned both with the Wahabist growth to the north, and the Christian missionaries that unsuccessfully prowled the land under the aegis of the British, he urged Imam’s to increase their efforts to improve the literacy of the people. The ability to read, he proclaimed, was the one of the best ways to worship Allah – reading the words of Mohammed and understanding them, as well as the works of the founders of Ibadhism was also the surest way of preventing the fundamentalist attitudes of the Wahabists from making any headway into Oman.
As well as increasing the education of his populace, the Sultan ensured that medical care was available to all. All Omani citizens would receive the very best medical care that the kingdom could give. In time, this would lead to increased immigration from the neighbouring states as other Arabs sought to take advantage of the Sultans generosity.
Both of these reforms may have been brought about under pressure from the Chief Resident of Bahrain, Samuel Hennell, who was a vocal proponent in Britain of a united Arabia. As the Omani’s were the easiest to deal with, it made sense to Samuel that they would be the uniters. He was well aware that the process would take decades, and was prepared to do what was necessary to ensure this was the case. By urging the Sultan to increase the education ahd health of his subjects, he hoped to bring the Omani’s closer to Western interests.
Following the Sultans promise of free health care, he sponsored a series of exchanges of personnel – British medics would serve in Oman, and Omani men travelled to London itself to learn the latest medical techniques of the Empire. In time, this cross-pollination of people and ideas would lead to a great friendship between Britain and Oman.
However, it had become increasingly apparent to Samuel – who was in charge not just of British Affairs in Oman, but also in Abu Dhabi, Yemen, Nejd and Ha’il – that Oman required the presence of a full-time Resident. Thus it was that in January of 1839, he dispatched Captain Atkins Hamerton to Muscat, where he would serve as the British Resident for the next seventeen years. With the Captain he dispatched a series of secret orders that would change forever the face of the Peninsula.