A Tale of Two Sultanates

In 1960, Muscat, the capital of Oman and home to the Sultanate, lay mostly between the remains of two Portuguese watch towers that bracket the city’s small harbor. About four miles of paved roads, total. Average life expectancy, 47 years. Only three schools in the whole country, two of them in Muscat. No newspapers, radio or television. No civil service and just one hospital, with a mere 23 beds. A national literacy rate of 5%.

In 1960, Stone Town, capital of Zanzibar and home to the Zanzibar sultanate, was a graceful city built on an epic spice trade that gave the one-time kingdom its “spice island” nickname. The winding alleys of the city were lined with the consulates of world nations (including the US), its English (now Africa) House a starchy redoubt of British colonialism. The city’s leading citizens were so prosperous they could afford not only the maximum allowance of four wives each but individual houses for each lady.

So delicious had Zanzibar been over the centuries that Said bin Sultan (Said the Great) of Oman had moved Oman’s capital to the island in the first half of the 1800s. When a sibling dispute over who would succeed him led to the creation of separate sultanates for Oman/Muscat and Zanzibar in 1856, the Zanzibar sultanate was required to pay Muscat an annual subsidy to compensate for getting the richer part of the deal.

What a difference a decade can make.

The Sultanate of Oman

In 1970, Qaboos bin Said Al Said deposed his father as sultan of Oman and sent him, humiliated but in one piece, to London to live in exile. That’s Qaboos’s house at the top of the blog.

In short order, the 30-year-old sultan put his blue-chip Western education and vision to work transforming dusty, undeveloped, illiterate Oman into a modern nation. A civil service was created, roads were paved, schools and hospitals built. By the second decade of the 21st century, adult literacy in Oman had skyrocketed to 94%, higher than that of the United States, and life expectancy at birth was 75 years.

Tax-free zones were created to attract business and diversify the economy away from oil and gas, and business came. So did tourists. Jobs were created, more roads and schools and hospitals were built. The modern fish market built in the Muscat port with hygienic stainless steel sinks, running water and drains is typical of how thoroughly Qaboos’s initiatives have reached into the lives of the people and the economy.
Modern fish market
Once the basic infrastructure was in place, the Sultan turned to history, the spirit and the arts. He built what was at the time (since surpassed by Abu Dhabi’s) the largest mosque in the world and arguably one of the most beautiful, an exercise in perfect geometry that can accommodate 20,000 worshippers bowing on the world’s largest carpet.

Even Louis’s photos cannot do the mosque justice

Qaboos also restored historic ruins like the 17th-century fort and castle at Nizwa, a former garrison that long kept marauders from seizing a key crossroads and valuable oasis but had fallen into ruin.
A music lover, he erected a state-of-the-art Royal Opera House with retractable stage and seating and screens on every seatback to provide members of the audience with translations of the arias in a choice of languages.
Opera House
Instruments from his private collection are displayed in the hallways.
Processed with MOLDIV
During our week in Oman, we questioned multiple taxi drivers, waiters, hotel employees, the docent at the mosque, our tour guide to the interior and the random Omanis who approached us on the street and the beach to welcome us and ask how we liked their country. To a man (it is notable that none of these were women, though the Sultan also expanded numerous rights to women and women today serve in the elected national government), they were proud and happy with the changes.

Father son on beach
When this father and son walking on the beach of Muscat reached us, they said Welcome, welcome, welcome, to our country.

If there is a groundswell to make Oman great again by turning back the clock, it was nowhere in evidence.

Meanwhile, Muscat itself is a reportedly harmonious stew of native Omanis and immigrant Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Nepalese and countless other nationalities. The immigrants come like they once came to America—to improve their lives and those of their families back home. Often, they work and save money to build a family home, start a family business and ultimately reunite in their homelands with a better way of life.

Muscat reminds of us Dubai but with soul, low-rise buildings and and admirable sense of balance between new and old.

The Zanzibar Sultanate

In December 1963, Zanzibar acquired its independence from British protectionism. Already throughout the region, tribal, ethnic, political and other tensions were igniting in the aftermath of decolonalization. In the Sultanate of Zanzibar, gerrymandering and suspected election fraud that resulted in the continued control of the island by minority Arabs was one more stick of kindling.

At 3 am on January 12, 1964, a rebel African coalition armed with sticks, machetes and knives overwhelmed the well-armed Arab police force on Zanzibar. By 7 am, they had seized the department’s weaponry and the local radio station and broadcast the end of the Sultanate. Within days, a few dozen Americans and a few hundred lucky locals were evacuated by the US Navy; the Sultan fled on his yacht.

Almost immediately, a pogrom of stupendous speed and effectiveness ensued. As many as one-quarter of Zanzibar’s Arabs and Asians (estimates vary significantly) were massacred, and their homes and businesses looted and destroyed. By the time order was largely restored in early February, the non-African populations that had been the island’s traders and landowners were largely dead or fled.

Today, the Old World consulates that once lined the streets are mostly abandoned, the roofs of their former headquarters long-ago collapsed, their exterior walls blackened by decay.

Like Havana
Our guide told us buildings are often allowed to collapse so new ones can be built.

The left-leaning rebel government and its successors broke up the big spice plantations, redistributing the groves to the people, an act of largesse that sacrificed economies of scale to ideals and ultimately contributed to Zanzibar’s eclipse as the world’s spice cabinet. The only local bank at the time of the revolt, owned by an Indian, closed, along with essentially all the other industries and trades the Arabs and Indians had owned.

We are nearly a week in a beachfront house in Jambiani village, about an hour out of Stone Town. Our hosts are a Danish couple who fell in love with Jambiani while working in Dar es Salaam. As required by law, they have a local partner, a Zanzibarian who tells us the country never recovered and now is getting worse. His name is Maulid.

Maulid says civil liberties are few. The public education and health services the revolution brought are being reduced or eliminated. The rains that once watered the arid island have dwindled, the sea has warmed, and the traditional fishing grounds have shrunk to subsistence levels. Many women are left to trap and dry seaweed for export to Japan to support themselves and their families, hard labor that is seasonal at best.

Sea weed farm
Sticks corral the seaweed.

Maulid’s father had three wives, he told us. Now a man cannot even afford two, much less a full measure of four.

Locals take some encouragement from the fact that Stone Town has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, bringing money and restoration to the legendary community. But, in a supreme irony, our city tour guide of the old city told us that Zanzibar’s mismanagement of UNESCO projects has been so spectacular, the organization brought in Omanis to take them over.

If there is any remnant multiculturalism on Zanzibar, it is along tribal lines, not racial or ethnic ones. Nobody with Arab blood can serve in the military (just as only Arabs once were allowed to be police). Few Indians or other Asians are in evidence, and even the ubiquitous selfie-wielding Chinese tourists are not to be seen.

The city most strongly reminds us of Havana, its prosperity and influence arrested in the 1960s and inexorably, sometimes tragically, eroding ever since.
Stone town street
One royal line. Two sultanates. Polar outcomes.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • A day on a dhow: On a clear day in the fjords of the Musandam Peninsula, you can see Iran across the Strait of Hormuz.
  • A wander in Stone Town: Zanzibar is virtually 100% Muslim but not Arab. Women’s traditional dress is as different from that of the Arabian peninsula as the sparrow is from the parrot.
    Stone town scene.jpg
  • A taste of spices: We lost count of the times guides and others told Louis that nutmeg is “Viagra for women” (ginger for men).

    Processed with MOLDIV
    Clockwise: Nutmeg as fruit on the tree, the nut exposed, the nut for sale (by the kilo!) in the open market, cloves in their undried state and licorice.
  • A beach read: Under the palapa at our house in Jambiani
    Beach Zanzibar

Coming soon: Dreams for Sale or Rent

Nizwa us






2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Sultanates

  1. What a wonderful story you shared. Actually so sad about Zanzibar and it’s history. What a shot of the two of you looking forward to the next moment. Enjoy the adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of all things (learned only by wild, sheer coincidence), Ken Sanger was on the ship that evacuated the Americans and local escapees. He remembers it well.

      Right now our primary adventure is figuring out what to do with the 27 days we expected to be in Italy and the Netherlands and now cannot be because of our visa problem. Another day, another challenge!


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