British Colonial Policy in Oman, an Informal Colony

By Ingeborg de Koningh

The Sultanate of Oman, which I called home for a number of years, never formally constituted part of the British Empire, yet the extreme dependency of the Omani regime enabled the British to exert economic and political control of Oman, similar to colonial levels. In their analysis of pre- and post-colonial development statuses, Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson limit their discussion to those colonies legally recognized by colonial powers. Bearing Oman’s status as an informal colony in mind, I wondered to what extent the reversal of fortune might be applicable here too.  

After a brief period of colonization, Oman expelled the Portuguese in 1650 and subsequently established equitable trading relations with the Brits. In the following centuries, Oman expanded its territory by colonizing areas down the East African coast and flourished from the slave and ivory trade. Thus, by the mid-nineteenth century Oman was a powerful and prosperous nation.

Yet, this agreement ceased to satisfied the British- Oman had become too powerful for their taste and domestic anti-slavery agenda in the Indian Ocean condemned Omani trading policies. An internal power struggle in Oman’s ruling family arbitrated by the British consul in Muscat gave opportunity to increase political control, sustained by the new regime’s dependence on British arms for its existence, and to bend Oman’s trade and regional influence towards utilization for own benefit. Consequentially, the British gradually institutionally abolished the slave trade and restricted the extent of extraterritorial control. While British control of the Indian Ocean was secured, Oman was left in economic malaise until the discovery of oil fields in the 1950s.

So Oman’s time as an informal British colony did cause a reversal of fortune, yet not through the implementation of extractive institutions. It was the institutional destruction of Oman’s main sources of revenue which caused the reversal of fortune.