After Qaboos

Check out this Reuters article on succession in Oman first, then read:

I’ve followed Oman closely since late 2010, when my MA research group at George Washington University chose to write about Omani foreign policy and the open question of succession. We visited Oman for a research trip in March 2011. At the time, Oman was experiencing its first civil unrest since the Dhofar rebellion ended in the mid-1970s. “Civil unrest” is a relative term in this case.

Oman is called the “sleepy Sultanate” because it has been so quiet for so long. It was quiet when we visited but not by Omani standards. Unlike Syria or Egypt, which saw hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets, only dozens protested economic conditions and corruption outside Omani government ministries; hundreds protested in the industrial city of Sohar, where riots broke out and a market was burned. The death toll stayed in the single digits.

The reason for Oman’s limited restiveness is simple: the country may have issues, but Sultan Qaboos has ruled it effectively and with a light hand for 42 years. How much longer he can rule is an open question, however. Qaboos–healthy at 71–has no heir. His accomplishments are many but they could be reversed if a successor failed to guide the country with a steady hand. The dangers of succession spread far beyond the country in this case. Oman’s posture in world affairs is unique. It’s continuity is essential.

Indeed, Oman’s live-and-let-live foreign policy, which seems immune to the power politics of the Gulf region, is at least partially attributable to the monarch–Qaboos–who brought Oman into the modern world by exporting oil, building infrastructure, establishing a welfare state without antagonizing neighbors. Ibadhism, a conservative but tolerant form of Islam practiced in Oman, also explains the sultanate’s good relations with so many countries regardless of sect and ethnicity. Oman’s merchant tradition has certainly made it more inclined to enter transactions with many states–even those that view themselves as mortal enemies of the other (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Iran). In the 19th century, Qaboos’ predecessors maintained a coastal empire stretching from Zanzibar to Pakistan.

In conversation, Omanis connect their country’s outward-looking history and Sultan Qaboos’ vision to Oman’s prosperity and speedy development. According to the UN, Oman was the fastest developing nation in the world between 1970–when Qaboos assumed the throne–and 2010, when the study was published. That’s a pretty impressive record. Also during that time, the sultan proved to be a reliable ally of the U.S. Qaboos has granted U.S. forces access to Omani territory and helped negotiate the release of Americans detained by Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, official messages have been passed from the U.S. to Oman and then onto Iran. It’s no exaggeration to say Gulf security hinges on Oman because it plays a positive role in regional politics. It also shares possession of the world’s most strategic waterway, the Strait of Hormuz. Clearly the succession drama matters outside of Oman.

Here are a few selections from the Reuters article by Martin Dokoupil that are worth reviewing:

The ruling dynasty includes 50 to 60 male members who could be eligible to become sultan, but there is no clear candidate and no formal discussions have taken place.

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, there is no division of labour with other members of the family – Sultan Qaboos is prime minister and holds other key government portfolios including foreign affairs and defence.

“It is an unspoken agreement that we don’t talk about it (succession) because once we do, there will be an immediate division and the power struggle will start right away,” a senior family member told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

And who might be the next sultan? Dokoupil focuses on three cousins:

Oman observers say the sultan’s three cousins – Assad, Shihab and Haitham bin Tariq al-Said [all related] – stand the best chance of taking over.

None of the three brothers would be likely to change Qaboos’ policy of balancing the interests of neighbours Iran and Saudi Arabia with that of Western countries – offering Britain and the United States military facilities.

“Everybody in Oman knows about them but they do not know them in action,” said J.E. Peterson, who worked as a historian of the Royal Armed Forces in Muscat until 1999 and is now an expert on Gulf affairs.

“They don’t know a lot about their personalities and capabilities. And therefore they’re a bit anxious.”

Assad, 62, is seen as the frontrunner by some experts, partly because he may have the support of the military. Another Sandhurst graduate, he commanded the sultan’s armed forces for many years and now serves as his personal representative. Shihab, 57, is a retired navy commander, while 55-year-old Haitham is a veteran minister of national heritage and culture who worked previously in the foreign ministry.

What might they face if one becomes sultan?

Whoever next leads Oman will face pressing demands to create tens of thousands of private sector jobs as the recent social measures have stretched the budget and there is simmering resentment about the around 800,000 expatriates with jobs there.

The population has been growing at around 3 percent a year, oil reserves, which provide nearly 70 percent of budget revenues, are shrinking and unemployment – at 24.4 percent in 2010 – is rising, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The article also notes that “None of the three brothers [Assad, Shihab and Haitham] would be likely to change Qaboos’ policy of balancing the interests of neighbours Iran and Saudi Arabia with that of Western countries – offering Britain and the United States military facilities.” I have to agree. Our research focused on youth opinions of Omani foreign policy and how formal and informal modes of education reinforced support for this approach.

We tried to answer one big question: Will the Sultan’s vision outlast his reign? In order to answer that question, we measured (through extensive interviews with dozens of Omanis between the ages of 20-28) how they learned about their country’s unique posture, how much they agreed with it, and whether they thought Qaboos’ principles were essentially Omani–and therefore timeless–or invented by the sultan and subject to change.

Our findings were convincing. In our final paper, we argued that Qaboos’ pragmatic vision was carefully constructed. The sultan himself often cites Oman’s history of maritime trade and empire as confirmation of his foreign policy, even though his father, Said bin Taimur, had cut Oman off from the world in the twentieth century before being ousted in 1970. Qaboos’ vision is further enhanced by formal schooling. Today’s curriculum emphasizes Oman’s uniquely tolerant version of Islam and its connections with the world going back centuries. In interviews, young Omanis also repeatedly told us that these principles were confirmed in the home as well, often by family members who could remember harsher times before Qaboos ruled and invited the world to do business.

Oman gets little attention so I had to share this Reuters feature. If you’re really interested in the topic, check out my capstone paper from last year: Education and Continuity in Omani Foreign Policy (PDF).

Update 5/24: And here’s a bonus book review for Oman, Culture and Diplomacy recently posted by the Middle East Policy Council. The book, by Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout, argues that Omani foreign policy is an extension of culture:

a tendency (1) to focus on enduring geopolitical considerations (hence the priority given to maintaining good relations with Iran); (2) to abstain from ideological or sectarian conflict (which…arises in part from Oman’s unique religious heritage); (3) to work towards achieving consensus…and (4) to emphasize tolerance for the customs and practices of foreigners (a function of a long history of cosmopolitan interaction).


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