Oman is an oasis of stability and moderation in the Middle East. Perhaps problematically for Western liberal democrats, this is thanks to Sheikh Qaboos bin Said al Said, Oman’s absolute monarch. He took power in 1970 in a British-supported coup against his father, the previous Sultan. It was a country only in name: a collection of tribal areas racked by poverty and sporadic outbursts of sectarian insurgency. Oil extraction started in 1967, but it looked like any money would vanish to private interests while the population continued to suffer from chronic underdevelopment.
The Sultan revolutionised the country. A huge network of roads, schools and hospitals were built, all free at point of use. Substantial effort and resources were invested in the quality of these services: in 2000, the World Health Organisation ranked Oman’s healthcare system as the 8th best in world, compared to the UK’s and US’s rankings at 18th and 37th respectively. Oil revenues were pumped into the private sector, too, allowing business to provide consistent growth and an increasing number of jobs over the past 40 years.
Qaboos also ended Oman’s political isolation; it became a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981. Oman combines these close ties to its Arab neighbours with strong links to Iran, which other such countries see as the Shia monster across the Straits of Hormuz. This balanced foreign policy is matched with moderate social policies. Since 1997 women have been voting and taking seats in the Consultative Assembly. The country’s religious and ethnic diversity is recognised in the spirit of pluralism: while the country is roughly 75% Muslim, there are flourishing communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Baha’is and Christians from numerous denominations. A rich ethnic diversity also abounds: for example, a significant majority of the population are descendants of immigrants from the Baluchistan region of Iran and Pakistan, who have kept their distinct language and culture.
The Sultan’s rule has not been perfect. The Consultative Assembly may be a pluralistic parliament giving strong voices to women and minorities, but it has no real power on the issues with the greatest underlying importance – finance and budgetary affairs, security, foreign affairs and defence. The Sultan has sole responsibility for these matters.
Yet it is telling that Oman emerged relatively unscathed from the Arab Spring of 2011. Like elsewhere, there were widespread protests asking for higher living standards and democratic representation. But in contrast to those in other Middle Eastern countries, these demonstrations were peaceful and protests carried placards showing their respect and support for the Sultan. He forbade the police from intervening, and accepted the demonstrators’ petition.
Qaboos’s response was also swift and concrete. At the heart of the protests was the grievance amongst private sector workers that those in the public sector had enjoyed higher wage increases. Consequently the Sultan enacted a vast increase in the private sector minimum wage – from $364 a month to $520, while introducing a new unemployment benefit of $390 per month. Ministers that protesters accused of corruption were removed, and the parliament was granted sweeping new powers. The demonstrations stopped; the Sultan had given people what they wanted.
But now the Sultan is gravely ill with cancer. His only recent public appearance was early last month, when he announced on TV that he would miss Oman’s national holiday on 18 November. Looking seriously frail, he spoke from Germany, where he has gone for the medical treatment that he will require for the foreseeable future.
Despite government reports insisting that the Sultan is well, he gave a mysterious justification for his absence. Fixing an intimate look on the camera, as if letting the mask of formality slip, he said it was “for reasons that you all know”. Throughout Oman this was taken as an explicit signal of what his absences and gravely fragile look suggest: he is dying.
The Omanis’ emotional attachment to their noble 40-year ruler is not the only reason why they fear this. Qaboos has never married; he no children or brothers, and is yet to name a successor. A dangerous power vacuum seems likely to ensue – an ominous prospect. Hegel’s maxim that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history” is a tragic truth in the Middle East.
Recent trends suggest that when power in an authoritarian Middle Eastern country is concentrated in a single person’s hands, and that person leaves power, severe instability, often anarchy and sectarian conflict, follows. Whereas in Egypt, for instance, Mubarak’s reign was one of de facto power-sharing with the Egyptian army, and they have thus been able to stabilise the country after his removal, in Iraq and Libya a breakdown of order has followed the removal of the strongman. Yes, Qaboos will leave power through a natural death, and will be justly mourned – the opposite of what happened to Saddam and Gaddafi. But like Iraq and Libya, Oman is far from a unified nation-state in the Western paradigm; the leader’s power holds it together. The Sultan pulled his country together through benevolent leadership, not fear and oppression, and this will mitigate circumstances significantly. Nevertheless, when he goes this unity is likely to die with him too.
There is strange succession clause in the Omani constitution, leading to the Sultan’s approved candidate accepting his role. This entails members of the royal family reaching a consensus on who will replace Qaboos as Sultan, and if they cannot reach one, they open an envelope containing the name of his anointed successor. But it is easy to see these members of the royal family – shut out for so long from the power-structures he has dominated – squabbling over who should take over, each trying to place himself or an ally in power. This means that there is no guarantee that certain factions will accept the Sultan’s choice.
Moreover, the lack of experienced candidates created by Qaboos’s monopolisation of power means that even a successor agreed by the royal family or anointed by him will find it difficult to use the levers of government. All royal candidates – including his closest relatives and ergo the frontrunners, Assad, Shihab and Haitham – have little or no administrative experience. They have, however, been in the public eye for appearing to possess wealth far beyond that of the average Omani, which doesn’t offer them an auspicious start in replacing the revered Sultan.
In any case, there are a number of prominent historical examples in which Dauphins who must hold together a country and its tenuous political order after the unifying force of their brilliant and charismatic predecessor fail spectacularly in the endeavour. The disastrous rule of Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s sickly son whose attempt to lead and maintain the English republic lasted a mere seven months from 1658-9, provides the standard narrative arc for such anointed successors.
The diverse nature of Oman is the biggest reason why it will be hard for anyone succeeding Qaboos to govern. The Westernmost province of Dhofar waged a gruelling war of communist separatist rebellion against the Sultan, and his father before him, from 1965-75. It took a loan of troops from Britain, Iran and Pakistan to quell this insurrection, but Qaboos went on a huge charm offensive with the Dhofaris. He has demonstrated his lack of grievance towards Dhofar with the message that the government will allow their separate culture and identity to flourish. He also introduced a massive development programme.
Thanks to that, Salahah, the region’s capital, enjoys excellent infrastructure, including one of the Middle East’s biggest sea ports, an international airport and a variety of schools and higher education institutes. For these reasons, the Sultan has built up much respect amongst the Dhofaris. Whoever succeeds may have difficulty maintaining their fundamentally tenuous acceptance of rule from Muscat.
However, despite the odd flare-up of separatism, Dhofaris have responded well to the Sultan’s policy of promoting strong economic growth in the region whilst maintaining its distinctive culture. Hardcore separatists will inevitably use Qaboos’ death as an opportunity to push their case and unsettle the status quo. But as long as Muscat doesn’t descend into factionalism (admittedly a big if) and the new Sultan furthers Qaboos’s sustainable development programme, a push for Dhofari separatism will only be a short-term issue.
In this respect and others, despite parallels with those countries and an inevitably difficult and precarious few years ahead, Oman is unlikely to descend into the same egregious carnage as Iraq or Libya. Their moderate foreign policy seems set to continue, with Oman’s links to the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council secured by the $10 billion worth of infrastructure funding flowing from the Gulf states over the next decade. Oman looks similarly tied into good relations with Iran thanks to an agreement for a $60 billion gas pipeline between the two countries.
Nevertheless, there is a danger that anyone engaged in a power struggle after the Sultan’s death or struggling to strengthen their position at the top will seek the support of a powerful outsider that wants Oman to take its side in the Sunni Arab / Shia divide. For example, Saudi Arabia has long been irked by how Oman’s ties to Iran undermine its efforts to isolate its great enemy in the Middle East. If many sections are vying for power, key players will be tempted to ask Riyadh for assistance in cementing their power – which would entail cutting ties with Iran and thus ending Oman’s balanced foreign policy.
It is important for the West that Oman keeps its links to both Sunni Arab countries and Iran. Co-operation amongst the Gulf states is vital for both political stability and economic development in key Western export markets. But Oman’s relative friendliness with Tehran also makes it an invaluable channel for engagement with Iran. For example, as WikiLeaks revealed from stolen American diplomatic cables, it was thanks to Oman’s help that the British sailors captured in Iran in 2007 were released.
As a major Omani ally with powerful historic links, the UK can play a crucial role in softening the blow from the ramifications of the Sultan’s death. A combination of carrots and sticks should be used. If there is a factional struggle or a new Sultan deviates from Qaboos’s path of moderation, the flow of arms from Britain should stop immediately. But the vast expertise and financial clout of the UK Department for International Development could make a huge difference in further enhancing living standards in Oman – especially in terms of reducing its high unemployment. This should be given only to a Sultan arising from a legitimate succession process, who not only keeps Qaboos’s enlightened approach but takes it to its logical conclusion – making the Consultative Assembly into a proper parliament with full legislative powers on domestic policy areas. Would-be dissident voices kept happy by Qaboos’s stellar economic management would have real representation. More powers should gradually go to the Assembly over the medium- to long-term, with the ideal endpoint of a constitutional monarchy within decades. The UK and other Western allies of Oman should be unashamed in using soft power to push for this.
As Omanis watched the frail-looking Sultan’s poignant TV appearance last month, they had every reason to fear their precarious future. The forthcoming turn of events after Qaboos dies is, of course, incalculable. The worst-case scenario is that protracted factional infighting follows a power struggle while a discontent Dhofar bursts into another bloody war of separation. But the best-case scenario is one that the West can help realise. Omanis should have every reason to hope that, through a gradual process, their country will prove wrong all the analysts who have said that stable, functioning democracies are impossible in the Arab world.