Fear and pride as Oman looks to the future

Fear and pride as Oman looks to the future
As Oman celebrates its 44th national day, the poor health of Sultan Qaboos mean thoughts inevitably turn to succession. His rule saw the country emerge as a modern nation but it also pacified social divisions that might yet re-emerge.
6 min read
18 November, 2014
A frail Qaboos addressed the nation, sparking widespread demonstrations of support

When Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father in 1970, years of neglect had left a country the size of Italy with only six miles of paved road, three schools, and a deeply fragmented society. Now, after heavy investment in the country's infrastructure, Oman very much resembles its Gulf neighbours, countries which used their oil wealth to modernise decades earlier.

Reminders of the past remain. Monday saw a blackout of internet, phone, and ATM links in the country. It was a
throwback, though this time it also served to remind Omanis just how much their lives now revolve around technology.

     There are serious obstacles ahead... should Oman continue as is, over the next few years costs will become unmanageable.

It is heard of every Arab leader, but in this case it is probably true: for lifting his country out of the dark ages, Qaboos commands the loyalty of the vast majority of his subjects. Oman has turned from sustenance farming communities forty years ago to having some of the highest living standards in the region. A UN human development report in 2010 credited Oman as the most improved country in the world over the past forty years.

But the man credited with this rapid modernisation departed Oman four months ago. He is undergoing medical treatment in Germany for an illness that official channels have refused to specify but many suspect to be cancer.

Frail but fighting

Following a televised speech last week, a frail but coherent Qaboos updated the country on his health. Social media profiles almost immediately changed to display the 74-year old ruler's image and apparently spontaneous "loyalty parades" cropped up across the country. The vast majority of Omanis have only ever known rule under Qaboos. To many, the prospect of an Oman after his death seems terrifying.

In part, the problem lies in uncertainty over succession. Qaboos married only briefly in 1976, and has no heirs, an unusual choice of lifestyle for a Gulf leader. Official protocol says that when he does pass away, leading members of the al-Said ruling family will agree among themselves on a new leader.

If, after 48 hours, consensus is not reached, then a military junta will effectively administer the country while two letters, kept in safes in two unknown locations - said to be in Muscat and Salalah - are opened. These letters each contain two names Qaboos recommends as successors.

This system might appear archaic, but, should it come to it, Qaboos' word is probably the best way for a new ruler to ensure a peaceful transition of power and his own legitimacy. The sultanate is one of the most peaceful countries in the region. But changes to the status quo will open up many questions about possible divisions in society, which are rarely spoken about now.

Multicultural nation

Oman might at first sight seem quite homogenous. Most people wear the national dress of white dish-dashe and either the kumar hat or masar headdress. Yet Oman, though it has no official census, is a multi-cultural nation with a complex sectarian makeup.

Omanis celebrate but fears over the future linger

Swahili-speakers and Balochi and Zadjali Omanis with their origins in modern day Pakistan make up significant parts of Muscat and the Batinah region in the north. This is a legacy of the country's empire that saw it rule Zanzibar, parts of east Africa and the city of Gwadar in Pakistan. A small Shia community, hailing from the Indian subcontinent, some arriving via Iraq, traditionally live in the Mutrah district of old Muscat.

Oman's interior is the heartland of the Ibadi, a branch of Islam distinct from Shia and Sunni schools. Although the Ibadi branch of Islam is the official religion of the country, and the faith of the ruling family, many question whether they make up a majority. There are also no official statistics on intra-Muslim demographics.

Around the city of Sur, in the far eastern corner of Oman, Sunnis dominate as they appear to in large parts of Batinah and Dhofar.

Dhofar, in Oman's far south, is host to numerous Semitic languages and was the scene of an armed separatist Marxist uprising against Muscat's rule during the 1960s and 1970s. Mistrust of the north of Oman still lingers there, though arguably it was the region's abject poverty that gave rise to the rebellion rather than any deep nationalist sentiment. Certainly, with the region's better standard of living today, separatist tendencies appear to have been put to rest.

     It is impossible to predict how things will play out when the sultan dies, but one man does not make a nation.

Other potential sources of tension are bubbling to the surface. There are rising Islamist and populist conservative trends in society, reflected in reactionary recommendations for new laws, such as a ban on alcohol, that have been made in the Shura Council.

These trends are largely held in check by the relatively secular traditions of the Said dynasty and the nationalist tendencies of the powerful armed forces and security services.

For the greater good

It is impossible to predict how things will play out when the sultan dies, but one man does not make a nation. Young Omanis have a strong sense of national identity and while there are secular divisions, Sunnis and Ibadis pray at the same houses of worship. Inter-faith marriages and those that cross ethnic divides are on the rise among this generation.

The new ruler will have to play a delicate balancing act to appease the more conservative and Islamist currents with the needs of the state. Tourism is an important industry for the country and it will have to continue to at least appear as secular to remain an attractive destination for all.

Inward investment also needs to be encouraged and better representation for Oman's poor and its disaffected youth is necessary for this to be achieved.

And there are serious obstacles ahead. Oman's all-important oil resources, which make up the bulk of government receipts, are reportedly close to depletion. This shortfall needs to be recovered and with almost no taxes on the population, and government subsidies that cost billions each year, that is the obvious place to start. Many believe that should Oman continue as is, costs will become unmanageable very quickly indeed.

Despite this, Oman is unlikely to witness dramatic change when Qaboos departs. The assumption of power of a new ruler will not see the country destabilised by that alone. More challenging will be to find a way to ensure a system that faces up to imminent economic realities while decentralising power.

The next ruler will also have to avoid the excesses the family has come to be associated with, especially a decadence that irks many. But with war ravishing large parts of the region, Omanis take great pride that their country is stable: as long as they have a stake in their nation's future, few will want to gamble on challenging the new order.