Oman: Use and Management of Frankincense Trees in the Dhofar Region



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Western Asia


  • Oman (Dhofar Region)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of the use and management of frankincense trees in the Dhofar Region of Oman.


  • Agroforestry, frankincense, drylands


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

Oman is located in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, facing the Arabian and Oman Seas. It is one of the Gulf oil countries, with a public administrative system of 4 Governorates and 5 Regions. The country has a land area of some 310,000 km2, of which the plains account for about 3%, the mountains for some 15% and barren desert for about 82%. The mountainous area is composed of the Hajar Range stretching along the Oman Gulf in the north, and the Dhofar Mountains comprised of three mountain ranges around Salalah in the south.

In Oman, irrigated agriculture is practiced both in the coastal area of the Oman Gulf, using groundwater from the Hajar Range with the highest peak at over 3,000 m, and in the inland areas, using oases (Japan Cooperation Center for the Middle East, 1996). The current cultivation area in the country amounts to 2.3 million ha, accounting for about 7% of the total land area (Shima, 2009). Of the cultivated area, the irrigated land area constitutes over 40% (3% of the total land area). In the arid area, as well as the livestock industry, frankincense (resin from frankincense trees) as a non-timber forest product has been collected.

In Oman, where the political system is an absolute monarchy, the Sultan started an environmental conservation initiative in the 1970s to protect its unique natural environments, as well as historical remains, including the establishment of nature reserves. The Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, for instance, covers a total area of 4,500 km2 around the habitat of frankincense trees in the Dhofar region in the south, and the Ra’s al Hadd Turtle Reserve for sea turtles is situated in the northern coastal area. In the inland area, the irrigation facilities (“flaj”) are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List due to the highly appreciated cultural aspect of the country’s long history, representing the fact that human beings have used such natural resources since the pre-Christian era (Hammer et al., 2009). One could argue that, owing to its topographical characteristics, the country’s national land possesses a greater variety of landscapes compared to other Persian Gulf Arab states (Coppi et al, 2010).

From June to September, the Dhofar region in the south has high precipitation due to the influence of the monsoon, and hence is covered with a carpet of green as it rains almost every day in that season (Japanese Embassy in Oman, 2011). This region, with a precipitation of 182 mm/ year, is among the highest rainfall areas in Oman (Kwarteng et al, 2009). In terms of its ecological features, the Dhofar region can be categorized into desert, semidesert scrub, short grassland, long grassland and woodland areas, according to the influence of the mountain ranges (Al-Zidjali, 1995). The desert area stretches throughout the mountainous area at a higher altitude, while the grassland area spreads over the foot of the mountain ranges. The woodland is located in the coastal areas, where agriculture is also practiced. With such varied ecological characteristics, the Dhofar region has the greatest biodiversity in the country. The description below will mainly concern the desert and semidesert scrub portions of the Dhofar mountainous area, where grasslands spread out and frankincense trees grow wild.

Use and Management of Frankincense Trees

Grazing prevails in the grasslands around the Dhofar mountainous area, and about two-thirds of the local people earn their livelihoods by dairy husbandry (pasturage) (Shima, 2009). It based on 1.6 million head of goats, 350,000 head of sheep, 335,000 head of cattle and 123,000 head of camels according to the 2004-05 census. Commercial chicken farming is also on the rise (Shima, 2009). In the mountainous area, nomads have lived in caravans with camels as their mode of transportation.

In the Dhofar region, frankincense trees (Boswellia sacra Acacia spp.) grow and produce a variety of products that represent the country (Photo 1). The habitat of frankincense trees is limited to areas behind the Dhofar ranges blown by the monsoon winds, and the arid areas where the monsoon rain does not reach, but cool winds blow (Miller and Morris, 1988). The frankincense trees distribute between 60 m and 1,770 m above sea level. There are four varieties of frankincense trees: Hojar/ Habjar, Nejdi, Shazri and Sha’bi, with a different habitat for each variety (Mohamud 2009). They have been maintained by manual planting, as well as by direct seeding by camels. They grow wild along areas where there is groundwater in arid areas. The Dhofar ranges with desert and semidesert scrub have been famous as a habitat for high-quality frankincense trees (Fisher and Fisher, 1999). A frankincense tree has a high content of viscous resin and the tapped resin becomes hard like a piece of white stone. The use of frankincense resin has a long history: it was utilized as a perfume and a medicine and traded to Mesopotamia and Egypt since 2000 BC. Until AD 300, the resin trade flourished in the Arabian Peninsula (Blom et al., 2000), and even extended to Greece and the Roman Empire (Fisher and Fisher, 1999). The resin was brought to Mecca and Medina from the Dhofar region between 200 BC and AD 300 (Hammer et al., 2009). In Oman, the resin was traditionally used as a disinfectant and a medicine for mitigating hyperemesis gravidarum (Van Beek, 2006) and was also burned as an insect deterrent and incense since its distinctive aroma was perceived to remove evil spirits and calm people down. The soft resin when harvested was chewed like chewing gum to enhance the teeth and gums and prevent halitosis (Miller et al., 1988).

Photo 1. Frankincense Trees (Photo: Ministry of Tourism, Sultanate of Oman)

Photo 1. Frankincense Trees (Photo: Ministry of Tourism, Sultanate of Oman)

Photo 2. Frankincense (Photo: Ministry of Tourism, Sultanate of Oman)

Photo 2. Frankincense (Photo: Ministry of Tourism, Sultanate of Oman)

The frankincense trees have been owned and managed by local kinship groups of herders mainly grazing goats and sheep. Trees over 5-6 m high, in particular, are considered to produce a larger amount of resin, and hence have been managed with greater care. Basically, their ownership is inherited and divided as the generation changes.

As for the tapping method, in principle, the main tree trunk is slit once and again at the same spot in 14 days, and for the third time in another 14 days before collecting the resin oozing out of it. The collected frankincense is dried and offered for sale in the main cities in Dhofar, including Salalah city as the regional center. The nomad’s caravans with camels moved to the market places while collecting the resin little by little from the frankincense trees along their route, and used the frankincense as a cash income source or a trade resource. Thus, even non-owners were allowed to use the frankincense trees owned by the herders. The utilization of frankincense trees both by the herders as the owners and the nomads as the non-owners has been said to be sustainable due to their minimal amount of harvest. Today, the frankincense is tapped mainly by migrant workers from Somalia, a neighboring country, mainly due to the migration of the herders to urban areas. The frankincense is used as an aromatic material within the country or exported abroad.

Changes in Use and Management of Frankincense

Frankincense provides the herders with an economic value as a cash income source, while nomadic caravans use it as a resource for cash income or exchange in kind even in extremely arid areas. Camels, which only require a minimal amount of forage, can sustain their physical strength for a long time in arid areas by eating the leaves of the frankincense trees. Nomadic caravans conducted transportation activities passing through the desert area while tapping the frankincense in the Dohfar ranges.

The increase in cash income, as a result of migration for work, has enabled the nomads to start a semi-sedentary life instead of their traditional life style of high mobility, and hence they have come to purchase donkeys instead of camels for their mode of transportation. Donkeys, however, require more forage (pasture, etc.) than camels. Thus, today when a caravan uses donkeys for their mode of transportation, they do not take the route passing over the mountain range in the desert area where the frankincense trees grow, but choose to move to the market places through the grasslands at the foot of the mountain range. Therefore, the opportunities for the nomads to use the frankincense trees have declined, and hence their economic value is on the decline, while over use of pastures at the foot of the mountain rage is leading degradation of the grassland ecosystem of the area.

The traditional uses of frankincense trees by the herders are also on the wane. This is partly because young people wish to get high-income jobs in the oil-related industry, which has been boosted since the late 1970s. Another reason for the decline is the harsh manual labor involved in frankincense tapping. The owners of the frankincense trees have recently migrated for work and have rented the rights to use the trees for tapping to the Omani frankincense buyers or migrants from Somalia. Prior to 1970, the number of Somali people that were engaged in the tapping of frankincense accounted for less than 10% of the Omani people involved. In 1998-1999, however, approximately 95% of the Somalis living in Oman worked for the tapping of frankincense, which is considered to be almost their only source of cash income. Nowadays, in the Dohfar region, around 3,000 households are engaged in the tapping of frankincense, the economic value of which, however, has been changing for the herders.

On the other hand, through inheritance, the frankincense trees and the relevant owned land have been increasingly subdivided among the herders who own and still tap the frankincense without renting out the rights to use them. In this context, the people have tried to increase the amount of the frankincense by shortening the tapping cycle (once every 14 days) to increase the frequency of tapping. This imposes an additional stress on the frankincense trees, allegedly causing damage from diseases. In addition, there is a possibility that the continuation of excessive tapping over a short period leads to the decline of seed production and the degradation of the trees. Moreover, it is considered that the soil fertility has also been increasingly degraded due to the excessive plantation to increase frankincense production.

References have been made to Farah (2008)


Al-Zidjali, T.M. 1995. Oman: Country Report to the FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resource, Leipzig, Germany, 17-23 June 1996. 29p.

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Coppi, A; Cecchi, L; Selvi, F; Raffaelli, M. 2010. The Frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra, Burseraceae) from Oman: ITS and ISSR analyses of genetic diversity and implications for conservation. Genetic Resources Crop Evolution. 57, p.1041-1052.

Embassy of Japan in the Sultanate of Oman. 2011. Guide to Oman. Embassy of Japan in the Sultanate of Oman, p.44.

Farah, M.H. 2008. Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP) Extraction in Arid Environments: Land-Use Change, Frankincense Production And The Sustainability of Boswellia Sacra in DHOFAR (OMAN). Doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Arizona, 231p.

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Van Beek, G.W. 2006. Frankincense and myrrh in ancient south Arabia. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 78(3), p.141-152.