cricket oman
Locals play a cricket match on a dirt patch behind the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman Getty

The Sultanate of Oman is a country that does not make it into the headlines very often. Surprising, considering how many column inches its neighbours manage to generate - Oman has a land border with Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and is a boat-ride away from Iran and Pakistan.

But this Arabian state is more interesting than you might think. Oman might seem content to watch its tourism industry boom but it also quietly positions itself as an intermediary between big political powers. It seems genteel and stable compared to some of its volatile neighbours but no-one knows who will succeed the current Sultan.

To help you out, below are 10 things you should know about Oman;

Longest-serving head of state in the Arab world

sultan qaboos
Qaboos's 45 years in power makes him the longest-serving head of state in the Arab world Getty

Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has led Oman since 1970, after a palace coup saw him take power from his father. Qaboos is the 14th member of his family to rule the country, the al Saids have been in power since 1744. Qaboos's 45 years in power makes him the longest-reigning head of state in the Arab world and a man who has seen his country through some of its biggest changes - when Qaboos came to power, it is said there were only three schools in the whole of Oman, there are now over a thousand.

Next Sultan might be chosen through a name in an envelope

Sultan Qaboos has no children. He was married once but divorced in 1979 and never remarried. There have even been rumours about his sexuality, which would raise a number of other questions in a state where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment.

Recent health scares the Sultan has suffered has made the country and the wider world jittery about what would happen in the event of his death. With no appointed successor, the choice would come down to the royal family but they have a time limit. If the royal council do not agree on a successor within three days, a number of envelopes around the country will be opened. Inside, a piece of paper will state Qaboos's choice as heir to the throne but nobody really knows how many names will be inside or whether the letters, kept in different parts of the country, will say the same thing.

Though, Qaboos did give an interview to Foreign Affairs magazine in 1997 in which he said: "I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions."

But could the letters stating his wishes avert a power vacuum? Or could they cause more problems? What would happen if the royal council chooses a successor and then a letter is leaked with a different name? Would the new Sultan suddenly lack legitimacy?

Oman fought a communist insurgency through the 60s and 70s

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Sultan Qaboos in 1970 Getty

Starting around 1962, Oman fought against a series of insurgent groups in the southern Dhofar region until the official end of the rebellion in 1976. Most of these were politically left-leaning and were helped considerably by the communist People's Republic of South Yemen, which had a border with Dhofar through which weapons from China and the USSR could be transported.

Sultan Said bin Taimur, Qaboos's father and Sultan during the beginning of the rebellion, was said to exacerbate issues with his reactionary paranoia and the rebellion is cited as a reason Qaboos was supported in toppling him.

When Qaboos ascended the throne, the objectives of the counter-insurgency changed. Rebels were given an amnesty and a number of less ideologically inclined members swapped sides in return for money and promises of development in their regions. British SAS troops were brought in to help train groups of former rebels and win hearts and minds.

The final push came with the help of 4,000 Iranian troops and a number of Jordanian planes, when the last of the rebels were defeated in the mountains, surrendered or escaped to Yemen.

The rebellion was officially pronounced defeated in 1976, though a few isolated incidents occurred in the ensuing years.

'Round the bend'

Telegraph Island, Oman
The long-abandoned Telegraph Island Bob McCaffrey via Wikimedia Commons

The English expression to 'go round the bend' has a disputed etymology but one theory centres around a tiny island off the coast of Oman. Telegraph Island was once used by the British as a repeater station to boost telegraph messages from British-ruled India. The island was incredibly isolated because of worries that local tribes would be hostile to it and the isolation was thought to send officers unlucky enough to be stationed there insane.

If the officers were driven mad by the heat and isolation, they would then be shipped off to India, taking a route through the Strait of Hormuz which curves around the Musandam Governorate on the boot's tip of the Arabian peninsular - hence the phrase driven 'round the bend'.

An important part in securing the Iranian nuclear deal

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Sultan Qaboos with Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani Getty

Though Oman did not get a seat at the table during the P5+1 talks with Iran over the country's nuclear programme, they were influential in getting all parties to the table. The Sultan of Oman acted as emissaries between the US and Iran in 2013 while relations between the two countries were especially strained, delivering a letter from US President Barack Obama to his newly-elected Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. In 2011, Oman brokered the release of four American hikers detained in Iran, thanks to Oman being one of the few countries in the region that has kept historically positive ties to both Iran and the west.

Oman regularly puts itself forward as a country to host negotiations between Iran and the US and had previously hosted secret meetings between American State Department officials and a delegation from the Iranian foreign ministry. The role of Oman in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran was seen as so indispensable that some even joked that it should have been called the 'Oman plus six' talks.

The Arab Spring

Protest in Muscat, 2011
The crowds listen to speeches during a protest in Muscat, 2011 Getty

Though Oman was one of the Arab countries that stayed relatively calm during the Arab Spring upheavals, a few protests did take place. A few hundred people burned down a shopping mall in Sohar and a few hundred more were arrested in clashes elsewhere.

In response to the protests and the growing mood for change in the region as a whole, Sultan Qaboos fired a third of his government and announced a number of welfare initiatives to help people disgruntled with stagnant wages. There were some calls for political reforms which the Sultan answered by giving the Council of Oman more powers.

Most Omanis are Ibadi

The Omani government does not keep official statistics on religion but it is generally believed that around 75% of Oman's population are Ibadi Muslims - as is Sultan Qaboos. Oman is the only Arab country where Ibadi Islam is prevalent. The only other place with a majority of Ibadi Muslims is Zanzibar, which was once part of the Omani empire. The Ibadi school of Islam is one of the oldest, having been founded only 20 years after the death of the prophet Mohammed and, though still conservative, it is considered a tolerant faith.

The only Persian language spoken in the Arabian peninsular

Villagers load a boat in Kumzar Reuters

Because of a short space of sea separating the two nations, Oman and Iran have long had links. One of those being the town of Kumzar and the Kumzari language. Only a few thousand speakers remain and with Arabic being the dominant language in education, few of the newer generation speak Kumzari to the level of their parents and grandparents.

Kumzari is particularly interesting as it is the only language with Persian roots that exists on the Arabian peninsular - Kumzari is also thought to have been influenced by at least 40 languages including English and Portuguese. For example, 'car' in Kumzari is 'motor' from English while 'oven' is 'forno' from Portuguese.

Keeps its sovereignty

Oman is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but is careful of keeping its autonomy. During the uprising in Bahrain, Oman stayed neutral and declined to send troops to support the regime, unlike other GCC memebers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Attempts to bring the GCC closer together through monetary union has also faced opposition from Oman which opted out of the union before the proposal was even launched in 2010. It is also one of the few Arab countries to maintain close relations with Iran - much to the irritation of larger GCC partners like Saudi Arabia.

It is not all desert...

salalah oman khareef
Visitors enjoy the greenery around Salalah Reuters

Though Oman is largely arid and desert, the mountains are not the only sights of natural beauty. During monsoon season, the southern part of Oman is hit by Khareef (the local word for the monsoon) and erupts in greenery. The Khareef is especially prominent around Salalah where they hold a Khareef festival at the beginning of the season every year.