Sa‘īd Becomes Ruler of Oman

Ahmad ibn Saՙīd helped bring an end to the Yaՙrubi Dynasty in Oman. Establishing himself as imam of the country, he founded his own dynastic house, the House of Āl Bū Saՙīd, which continues to rule in the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

Oman was ruled for many hundreds of years by a theocracy, which meant that secular and religious authority were invested in the same institution, the imamate. The ruler, or imam, was the head of the Ibadi branch of Islam, which grew out of the same reform movement that had led to the creation of Shia Islam Shia Islam in the seventh century. When Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd became the ruler of Oman in 1749, he founded a new dynasty called the Āl Bū Saՙīd Dynasty that fundamentally changed the nature of the imamate. [kw]Sa{ayn}{imacr}d Becomes Ruler of Oman (June 10, 1749)
[kw]Oman, Sa{ayn}{imacr}d Becomes Ruler of (June 10, 1749)
[kw]Ruler of Oman, Sa{ayn}{imacr}d Becomes (June 10, 1749)
{Amacr}l B{umacr} Sa{ayn}{imacr}d Dynasty[Al Bu Said Dynasty]
[g]Oman;June 10, 1749: Sa{ayn}{imacr}d Becomes Ruler of Oman[1290]
[c]Government and politics;June 10, 1749: Sa{ayn}{imacr}d Becomes Ruler of Oman[1290]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 10, 1749: Sa{ayn}{imacr}d Becomes Ruler of Oman[1290]
Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd
Nādir Shāh
Saif II ibn Sultān
Balՙarab ibn Himyar ibn Sulṭān
Taqī Khān

Saՙīd’s accession to the imamate signaled the end of the Yaՙrubi Dynasty, Ya{ayn}rubi Dynasty[Yarubi Dynasty] which had controlled the imamate of Oman since 1650. The Yaՙariba (plural) in turn had ended 150 years of colonial rule by the Portuguese Empire and established an Omani foreign empire of their own, primarily in East Africa. Problems began, however, with the election of Sulṭān II ibn Saif as Imam in 1711. He ruled only for eight years but seriously depleted the treasury and needlessly provoked the Persians by harassing their ships.

The successor of Sulṭān II ibn Saif, Saif II ibn Sulṭān, had not yet reached puberty when he was made imam, and his accession failed to improve the situation. Although he developed into a wily political survivor, Saif was never able to control the centrifugal forces and rival factions contending for influence. A long drought and widespread hunger in the interior of Oman also put pressure on the Yaՙrubi Dynasty. The situation continued to degenerate through the 1720’s and 1730’s.

Because of his reputation for having a self-indulgent, decadent lifestyle, Saif II ibn Sulṭān lost support among the Ibadi fundamentalist tribes of the interior. Balՙarab ibn Himyar was put forward as a rival imam by a faction of tribal leaders in 1732. By 1737, Saif was losing support rapidly and found himself confined to the coastal city of Muscat. In desperation, he appealed to the Persian Empire for help. In response, an expeditionary force led by Latif Khan landed at Gambroon in March of that year.

The combined forces of Latif and Saif marched inland and won a decisive victory at the oasis town of Buraimi, but soon after, the two argued over the chain of command. Saif left along with his troops, and Latif was replaced by Taqī Khān as the Persian commander. Taqī, though, had trouble dealing with the forces under his command, who were almost all Huwala Arabs, and the campaign stalled. Nādir Shāh, the ruler of Persia, sent orders to press ahead, and Taqī began seizing English and Dutch ships in the area to use in his offensive. The British East India Company paid a large bribe to be left alone, but some individual English seamen were induced to join the Iranians.

In the meantime, Saif had decided that he needed the help of Iran after all, and he formed another alliance, this time with Taqī Khān. They won two more battles in the interior and took control of the towns of Bahla and Nizwa. They then took Muscat without difficulty, but even after a five-week siege, they failed to gain control of the nearby ports of Jalali and Marani, which were tactically more important. Saif again fell out with the Persians and withdrew to Barka. There, he negotiated an agreement with the rival imam, Balՙarab ibn Himyar, who renounced his claim to the throne.

Disappointed with Balՙarab’s capitulation, another faction of leaders from the interior elected a new rival imam in 1743, a cousin of Saif named Sulṭān ibn Murshīd. He went to the assistance of Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd, the governor of Sohar, which had also come under siege by Iranian forces. Sulṭān was killed in action in Sohar. His death so shocked Saif II ibn Sulṭān that he gave up all worldly pursuits and retreated to his ancestral home in the mountains. He died there later that year.

Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd held out against the Persians for eight months, inflicting three thousand casualties upon them, but he was eventually forced to surrender. Using deft diplomacy, however, Aḥmad managed to arrange a deal with Taqī Khān whereby he was made governor of both Sohar and Barka. In partnership with the Persians, then, Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd had taken control of the rich coast of Oman, but he still faced opposition from the interior. Tribal chiefs again put forward Balՙarab ibn Himyar as rival imam.

Fortunately for Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd, war broke out between Persia and the Ottoman Empire in 1743, and the priorities of Nādir Shāh changed dramatically. Persia ceased adequately to support its forces in Oman. Aḥmad understood the situation and also withdrew his support. He stopped paying the agreed tribute to the local Persian authorities. They were thus unable to pay their troops, and the Huwala Arabs began deserting. Aḥmad invited a number of Persian officers to Barka to negotiate a solution to the problem. In the middle of the feast where discussions were being held, Aḥmad’s agents entered and killed most of the Persians. His control of the coast was thereby solidified. Nādir Shāh was assassinated by his own officers in 1747, which plunged Persia into chaos and ended any threat to Aḥmad from that nation.

Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd was now free to focus on opposition in the interior. He had been born in the frontier mountain village of Adam and understood the traditional tribal mentality. With this understanding and his Hinawi tribal connections, Aḥmad was able to gain support and prevail over Balՙarab, whom he eventually killed.

Just as the Yaՙrubi had come to power in 1650 by ending the Portuguese colonial occupation, the Āl Bū Saՙīd Dynasty was founded one hundred years later by expelling the Iranians. Ironically, the dynasty has maintained and strengthened its hold on power since then by developing a close working relationship with another foreign power, Britain.


Āl Bū Saՙīd’s cooperation with the British began as early as 1775 under Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd himself, when both nations supported the Ottoman Empire against Persia in a struggle for control of Basra. Deeper involvement, however, developed after the decline of Āl Bū Saՙīd fortunes following the death of Saՙīd ibn Sulṭān (r. 1806-1856) in 1856. His domain was divided between his two sons: Thuwayn inherited control of Oman itself, while Majīd got control of most of the East African empire, particularly Zanzibar. Britain eventually became so involved in the administration of affairs that the Āl Bū Saՙīd empire became a British protectorate in all but name.

The balance of power in Oman has traditionally been contested between the maritime interests of port cities like Muscat and the Ibadi tribes inland. The Āl Bū Saՙīd Dynasty shifted the center of control decisively to the coast, away from the fundamentalist interior. Aḥmad ibn Saՙīd did not come from one of the traditional ruling families, and he used primarily military means to secure power, instead of the traditional process of vetting and selecting candidates through tribal chiefs. Therefore, he and his successors have been regarded with suspicion. Gradually, however, during the Āl Bū Saՙīd Dynasty, the traditional theocracy ceased to exist, and the ruler of Oman has come to be known as the sultan, instead of the imam.

Further Reading

  • Badger, G. P., ed. The History of the Imams and Sayyids of Oman, by Salil bin Razik. London: Darf, 1986. First published in 1871, this is a primary source for subsequent writing on the subject.
  • Risso, Patricia. Oman and Muscat. London: Croom Helm, 1986. History of Oman from the Yaՙrubi Dynasty to the late nineteenth century, focusing on the heyday of the empire, 1775-1856.
  • Smith, Rex. Studies in the Medieval History of Yemen and South Arabia. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997. A collection of essays on the historical background of Oman and other countries in the region.
  • Vine, Peter. The Heritage of Oman. London: Immel, 1995. A beautifully illustrated introduction to the country, culture, and history.
  • Vine, Peter, and Paula Casey-Vine, eds. Oman in History. London: Immel, 1995. Selected papers presented at a conference at Sultan Qaboos University in 1994, covering all aspects of the history, culture, economics, and politics of Oman.
  • Wilkinson, John C. The Imamate Tradition of Oman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. The most detailed account of the entire history of the Omani political system.

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