Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) and a long-time observer and commentator on Gulf affairs
It was announced on Friday that Sultan Qabus bin Said, who had ruled over the Sultanate of Oman and its five million citizens for nearly fifty years, had died. Under his rule, Oman emerged as a modern state, at peace with itself and with its neighbours.
Sultan Qabus assumed the leadership of Oman in July 1970. The first man had landed on the moon a year earlier, but Qabus inherited from his father a country that appeared stuck in the Middle Ages: it still had slaves; its education system consisted of only three primary schools; it had only one hospital; and there was no press. The latter was hardly surprising since illiteracy was nearly universal. For many, Oman appeared as if it had been forgotten by time.
Qabus seized power in a coup instigated by the British, who were in the process of withdrawing “east of Suez”. Under the British protectorate system, foreign and defence policy were London’s prerogative, whilst the Sultan controlled the rest. Qabus’ father, Said bin Taymur, ruler since 1932, kept Oman in a time warp, isolating himself from his people and refusing to embrace modernity except in those areas where it suited—notably the military, to protect his regime, and in oil exploration, which brought him revenue. The British had just had their nose bloodied in neighbouring Yemen, pushed out by a Communist revolution that created the Arab world’s only ever Marxist state, South Yemen. With this base for Soviet power feeding the military capacity of the Communist rebellion in Oman’s western region of Dhofar, the British sought to blunt the political appeal of the insurgency by addressing the widespread discontent. Said bin Taymur refused to make the necessary reforms, undermining the counter-insurgency efforts of the British and the Shah of Iran, so London moved to replace him. Qabus, who had been trained as a military officer at Sandhurst, and whose relationship with his father was extremely difficult, acquiesced.
The circumstances around Qabus’ accession to power led some to subsequently brand Qabus as simply being a British stooge. While Qabus remained all his life a committed Anglophile, the determination to modernise his country and bring in many much-needed changes was his own initiative.
Important as the military effort was, the benign policies of Qabus—which saw Omanis for the first time benefiting from a health service and education system that hitherto they had not even dreamed of—helped cut the support base from under the rebellion in Dhofar.
Perhaps the most astonishing part of Qabus’ story is that for fifty years he managed to insulate Oman from the troubles of its neighbours. Oman is almost entirely Muslim, but Omanis follow various Islamic traditions: Sunnism, Shi’ism, and Ibadism. At a time when sectarian conflict tore apart other Gulf countries, Oman remained immune, mainly because the Sultan’s policy was to allow, at least in this realm, personal freedom. This tolerance reflected itself in foreign policy, with Oman being one of the few countries to maintain good relations with Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, often offering its good offices to the international community to defuse regional crises. This has also meant that Omanis are hardly present in the radical Islamic groups in the Gulf—no mean feat. The contrast is striking: where his father was a distant, unpopular ruler, Qabus travels throughout his country, meeting people, hearing their concerns, and balancing what is in fact a very complex society.
The transformation of Oman in the past fifty years, and particularly the giant leaps in the quality of life of its ordinary citizens, its successful pursuance of an independent foreign policy at a time of constant crisis in the Gulf region, and the genuine respect that most Omanis held for the Sultan and his memory, are a testimony to Qabus achievements.
Sultan Qabus leaves no heir. The ruling family will now need to choose his successor. In case they are unable to, Qabus left a letter in a sealed envelope in which he expresses his wish as to who should succeed him. A balancing act between the various branches of Al-Busa’idi family is likely to follow in order to ensure cohesion. Regardless of what is in the letter, the transition will not be a simple affair. Some argue that the question that is important is not who will succeed Qabus, but what kind of governance the country will have. The letter may or may not address the issue, but questions on whether Oman can transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, the role of the armed forces, and the establishment of a proper parliament, are things that are now being openly discussed. It is unlikely that the new leadership would want to move very quickly on any of these issues, but a road map may emerge soon.
Governance issues are likely to dominate in the early stages of the post-Qabus era. Under Qabus, Oman has been good at finding Omani solutions for Omani problems and the question is whether this can continue. Whilst an increase in popular representation in the country’s decision-making process may occur, this is likely to be modest. Oman, like other Gulf counties, looks at the experience of Kuwait in parliamentary practice as a model to avoid rather than to follow. The new leadership may, however, be willing to strengthen the role of citizens in the running of municipalities and through active involvement of professional and commercial groups.
Oman’s rapid economic development over the last fifty years has been fuelled by revenues from oil and gas. Compared to other GCC countries, these revenues have been modest. The fact that oil reserves are dwindling, the volatility in the market prices for oil, and a desire to move away from dependency on energy resources, has pushed the government in seeking to develop other sectors of the economy. In a document entitled Vision 2040 published a few weeks ago, the Government of Oman identified five sectors which it wants to focus on as an alternative, or at least as supplements to, the oil and gas sector. These are agriculture and fisheries, manufacturing, logistics and transport, energy and mining, and tourism.
The Vision 2040 document states: “Striving to become a developed country, the Sultanate of Oman is building a productive and diversified economy, founded on innovation, integration of roles, and equal opportunities; leveraging Oman’s competitive advantages, driven by the private sector towards integration into the world economy and active contribution to international trade; to ultimately achieve inclusive and sustainable development, based on effective economic leadership that operates within an institutional framework of coherent and contemporary economic policies and legislations, to ensure financial sustainability and diversify public revenues.” The vision and the ambition are there, but the new leadership will have to turn them into a reality.
Key to the success of Vision 2040 is the policy of Omanization—the process of building up the capacity of local talent in order to replace foreign, and usually expensive, expat expertise and labour. This policy has been in place for some time but with mixed levels of success. Oman has, under Qabus, developed a sound education system, but the country still does not produce enough people with the education and skills in areas where it matters.
Under Sultan Qabus, Oman pursued a niche foreign policy, balancing its relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between different GCC countries, and even between the Arab world and Israel. Oman established informal contacts with Israel long before most other Arab countries. Whilst Britain retains a certain privileged position in Oman, these days this is largely symbolic and is likely to dwindle further in a post Qabus era as Oman increases its commercial relations with Asia.
Oman currently spends around 10% of its annual GDP on defence, way above the international average of 2.2%. In 2015, it spent more than 16%, making it the highest spender on defence in the world for that year (as a percentage of GDP). A new leadership is likely to look closely at defence expenditure, but sharp cuts could cause discontent in the armed forces—which the new leadership cannot afford. For half a century, the Armed Forces have been Qabus’ personal domain, and it will be in the military where his absence will be felt most. Here, particularly, the policy of Omanization will be put to the test.
Most Omanis were born and lived all their lives in the Qabus era. The end of the era will bring challenges and opportunities. Sultan Qabus has defined modern Oman. The country is now in a much better shape than when he took it over fifty years ago and a lot of the success is to his credit. His successors will have a different set of challenges ahead of them, and change is inevitable.
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