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Is Oman ready to mourn Qaboos?

It seems likely that Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said is approaching his final days in this mortal realm. As NPR reported, the 74-year-old leader of the tiny – often overlooked – but by no means insignificant gulf state of Oman is undergoing treatment in Germany for a long-term illness. His absence is even more conspicuous this week as it means he missed Oman’s national day yesterday that celebrates the sultanate’s liberation from Portuguese rule in the mid-17th Century.

The loss of Qaboos, whether as a result of his passing or his continued withdrawal from public life, seems ever more likely as each day of treatment and absence from the country goes by. Some editorials have hinted that the rupture in the regime’s rule is likely to lead to a “nightmare scenario” such as Oman joining Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Iraq in terms of becoming another site for the Saudi-Iranian/Sunni-Shia proxy conflict.

While it’s reasonable to consider the likelihood of interference in a post-Qaboos Oman by its powerful neighbours, such a simplistic conclusion fails to represent the complexity of Oman’s political reality. Rather, it would be better to dampen down the hyperbole and instead take a more sober look at the challenges already facing Oman and consider how the loss of Qaboos would affect them.

A tight grip on power

Qaboos took the thrown in 1970 after he deposed his father in a bloodless coup. The coup took place in the context of an internal conflict between the government – which enjoyed backing from the British and the Shah of Iran – and, Egyptian and South-Yemen supported leftist separatists in the province of Dhofar. Upon taking over control, Qaboos gained enough support from his allies to crush the rebellion. This came in the form of more than 1,000 Iranian troops and a deployment of the British Special Air Service.

Unlike his father, who was known for his inward looking stance, Qaboos embraced a more active role in the politics of the region. He maintained strong ties with regional allies including the British and Iranians, even after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Despite maintaining a low profile, Oman remains an extremely important regional actor, particularly as it is on good terms with both Iran and the Saudi-West alliance. In particular, Oman was the only gulf state to recognise the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and more recently it has played a significant role in supporting the P5+1 talks over Iran’s nuclear programme, including hosting the latest round of talks.

Qaboos brought significant reforms that were designed to cement a genuine form of Omani national independence. These included expanding the oil industry, which became the backbone of Oman’s rapid economic advancement. As Business Today – an Omani magazine – pointed out, the country’s GDP grew from $256 million at the time of the coup, to approximately $80 billion last year. One other product of these reforms was the consolidation of Qaboos’ personal grip on power. Indeed, even today, the Sultan rules through decree and occupies several positions at the top of government.

Yet supporters also note that Qaboos has also embraced some, albeit largely nominal, steps toward modernisation. These include elections for the Majlis a-Shura (advisory council), one chamber of the bicameral Majlis-Oman, in 2007 and 2011 – which led to the election of the first woman, Nema Al-Busaidi – and greater independence for the Supreme Judicial Council. The result of all this is that Oman has managed to cultivate a reputation as the “world’s most charming police state“.

Omanisation

The overarching structure of Oman’s modernisation programme is the Oman 2020 plan, launched in 1995. With the goal of diversifing the economy away from hydrocarbons and increasing the ratio of nationals in public and private employment to 95 per cent, from 68 per cent in 1996. However, these two goals have proven somewhat contradictory.

The high rate of foreign labour in both the public and private sectors has increased since 2009 when a Free Trade Agreement with the US came into force– more than doubling the 2005 figure. High rates of unemployment, low wages and the concentration of wealth among elites aligned to the government were contributing factors to the popular unrest of 2011-12.

Succession concerns

The absence of an obvious successor is a major concern for Omanis. Qaboos remained unmarried and has no heirs. Under a 1996 constitutional provision a council comprising members of the ruling family and senior officials is granted three days from the Sultan’s death to choose a successor. If this process fails to provide a clear transition, then a contingency plan would be activated. This, as Qaboos himself told Foreign Affairs in a 1997 interview, would mean that:

“As for a successor, the process, always known to us, has now been publicised in the Basic Law. When I die, my family will meet. If they cannot agree on a candidate, the Defence Council will decide, based on a name or names submitted by the previous sultan.

I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions.”

Nightmare scenarios?

It is the obvious potential for uncertainty around succession combined with the ineffectiveness of the government’s reforms that leads some commentators to warn of such things as “nightmare scenarios” about the expansion of Saudi-Iranian/Sunni-Shia hostilities into the country. While I’ve argued elsewhere that the basic logic of conflating these two phenomena is not only flawed, but also potentially extremely damaging, in the case of Oman these kinds of arguments are an even more ill-conceived fit.

This is because – even if it were reasonable to argue that sectarian conflict is an inevitable product of Sunni and Shia cohabitation (which I contend is not reasonable) – Oman’s demographic make up is dissimilar to that of its neighbours to such an extent that such a “nightmare scenario” would be irrelevant. Indeed, while Oman boasts a relatively diverse population, its dominant religion Ibadism, of which the vast majority of the population are members, is distinct from both major Islamic schools.

More importantly than that however is that – despite being oligarchical and monopolistic – the style of rule imposed by Qaboos has not replicated the kind of harsh utilisation of force that is apparent in many of the more brittle regimes in the region. In other words, if we follow the categorisation of the region’s regimes discussed by Henry and Springborg in Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East, we can see that Qaboos’ Oman represents an almost completely different approach to government from most other regimes in the region.

Indeed, it reflects neither the kind of practices of a bunker state – associated with rule “through military/security/party structures that are in turn controlled by alliances of these leaders’ families and tribes“, such as was the case in Salah’s Yemen, Assad’s Syria or Gaddafi’s Libya – nor the kind of “bully praetorianism” which characterised the kleptocratic regimes of Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Mubarak’s Egypt or the PLO/PA under Arafat.

Moreover, it also differs from the strife riddled monarchies in Riyadh and Manama particularly in as much as the ruling family has not gone out of its way to ostracise, exclude and oppress particular sections of the population. Instead, according to Henry and Springborg, “being the sole GCC ruler without a solid family and tribal base … [Qaboos’ Oman has] been the most assiduous in seeking to build an identity that simultaneously glorifies the Sultan himself”.

Real challenges

Rather than painting Oman with the same brush as its neighbours, a better analysis would be that Oman faces a number of pressing, and distinctly Omani-challenges in the immediate and mid-term. The most important of these is concern over the ability of the state to meet the expectations of its coming generations.

This is particularly significant as Oman is one of the youngest populations in the world with 49 per cent of residents under the age of 20 – as a result of its stronger sense of national identity which was encouraged in order to supplant tribal linkages – the pressure on the government to fulfill the role as a social provider is likely to become even greater.

Indeed, some dissatisfaction arose during the height of the uprisings across the region in 2011-12. Though initially it appeared that Qaboos had handled popular protests deftly – through increased public sector spending, and some political reorganisation and an anti-corruption campaign – frustration at the slow pace of reform contributed to strikes by workers at Petroleum Development Oman and protests elsewhere. Authorities countered with arrests and a draconian crackdown on freedom of speech including hacking the social media accounts of intellectuals involved in the protest.

These protests eventually grew to become the largest public demonstrations since the Dhofar war and the impact on the Sultan’s image was extremely damaging. As Marc Valari noted at the time:

“[Qaboos] has fallen from his symbolic pedestal … if anything, the ‘Omani Spring’ … marked the de-sacralisation of Sultan Qaboos. This dramatic change in the relationship between the society and its leadership confronts the Qaboos-State with unprecedented questioning and forces the sultan to re-evaluate his legitimation strategies as a whole.”

Thus, if Qaboos’ passing really is just round the corner, it is more likely to mean the acceleration of a changing dynamic within the sultanate that is already underway, than the kind of hyperbolic, sudden, ‘nightmare scenario’ that some commentators warn of.

Of course none of this means that there won’t be some political struggles between other regional actors over Oman should Qaboos die. But there is also no reason to believe that such a proxy struggle will be the only dynamic worth examining, and certainly no reason to believe that the kind of “cookie-cutter” analysis that assumes sectarian strife is inevitable in all Arab states without strong leadership, is appropriate here.

Rather, the challenges that Oman faces now are real and profound, but there are also uniquely Omani and how they pan out is likely to be very particular to the country’s distinct nature too.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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