The main factor that gave Oman its importance is its strategic position right at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Contrary to popular belief, it is not in the Arabian Gulf, but has the Gulf of Oman on one coast, and the Indian Ocean on another. But, entirely cut off from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates, is the Omani enclave of Musandam, from which Oman can control south bank of the Straits of Hormuz, through which pass 20% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments from the countries around the Gulf.
Even before the discovery of oil, the capital and main port, Muscat, was noted for trade, both legal and illegal. Silks and pearls, slaves and spices; all passed through Muscat, especially after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama identified it as an important stop on the trade routes from India to Europe. In 1507, the Portuguese actually took possession of Muscat and its surrounding area, and remained in power for about 150 years until the Omanis, under Sultan bin Saif, wrested it back.
But, the Portuguese didn’t only control Oman. They held much of the West African coast, especially the important trading ports of Mombasa, in present-day Kenya and Zanzibar, in what is now Tanzania. It took Sultan bin Saif, succeeded by his son Saif bin Sultan nearly fifty years to conquer these, thus giving Oman a vast domain, which they held until 1856, when the ruler died, and an argument between his sons caused Oman and its colonies to go their separate ways.
Around the time he ousted the Portuguese, Sultan bin Saif built the Nizwa Fort, on the site of an earlier fortification over an underground spring. Really, it was more in the nature of a fortified palace; there are several such forts in Oman, for it seemed that just about every sheikh or leader of the time felt a need to fortify his home. It’s a hilly country, and sometimes it seems, like some parts of Germany, there’s a castle on every hilltop.
You can even see some of these forts in Muscat itself, as you sail into the harbour. Unlike other Middle Eastern cities, development is more restrained, for the Sultan has ruled that no towers or skyscrapers shall be built. So, many of the old buildings remain … and, rather than reel off a list of them, here’s a video.