Oman is this small little country on the southern border of Saudi Arabia and northern border of Yemen.
With everything going on in the Middle East, what with the new Saudi king, the embassy shutdowns in Yemen (in which Oman played a part, thank you very much), and of course the Islamic State (and everything that entails), it seems to me as if Oman is forgotten. Sure, the only crisis the country will face is the demise of its king, but we all know how much of an effect that has globally (no, I’m not being sarcastic).
In an effort to give (one of) my hometown(s) (I grew up in Muscat, and after a 4-year hiatus, my parents are based there again). some recognition, here is a paper I wrote to remind people why they need to pay attention to the health of the current sultan, and keep an eye on the next.
For the first time in 42 years, Omanis fear their future. Since the current ruler, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Zayed, led a British-backed coup against his father, Sultan Taimur, in 1970, the country has not looked back. From being isolationist, Oman has transformed into a modern state, different in many aspects from its neighbouring Arab states, with a per capita GDP of $22,181. Although an Islamic country, the majority of Omani citizens are Ibadis – a distinctly different sect of Islam from Sunnis or Shi’as. Despite being a police state, the sultan rules with a looser grip on his subjects compared to the rulers of its largest neighbour, Saudi Arabia. Also unlike many of its regional neighbours, Omani citizens are in great support of their current sultan. “Where Taimur denied Omanis freedom of movement and education, Sultan Qaboos has been more palatable, both to his own people and to Western backers such as the United States and former colonial power Britain,” a Reuters article states.
Age seems to have caught up with the sultan. The 74-year-old ruler has been in Germany for medical treatment since July and his absence from Oman since has cause significant alarm in the country, particularly in the capital, Muscat. Little is known about his illness and “the royal court continues to issue statements that the sultan is in good health.” The sultan gave a televised speech to the nation on Nov. 5 ahead of the country’s national day celebrations (and his birthday) on Nov. 18. He announced he would not be returning to the country either for the celebrations or for the talks between U.S. and Iran. Following his speech, the streets of Muscat, were crowded with people waving flags, honking their horns as they drove by. To an outsider, the scene would have resembled celebrations following a win by the national football team. However, things were not all they seemed. “’ We were living in terror and fear,’ said 24-year-old onlooker Ahmed al-Harrasi to a reporter from Foreign Policy. ‘We were afraid because we don’t know, if he goes, what will happen after him.’”
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Oman is of particular “strategic importance” to Washington because of its “domestic tranquility, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance, and skillful diplomacy.” In an interview with NPR, Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said, “Qaboos’ great strength has been to play the outlier.” The ruler has maintained good relations and trade with countries both in the Arabian Gulf and beyond, particularly with Saudia Arabia, Iran, Britain and the U.S. Oman also hosted and mediated talks between the U.S. and Iran in 2012 about Iran’s nuclear program.
The uncertainty about Oman’s future stems from the fact that there is no declared heir to the throne. Unlike the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, there is no crown prince to take over after the sultan’s death. Sultan Qaboos does not have any brothers or sons, neither has he named a successor. With his death, the sultan will also vacate three powerful positions: prime minister, defence minister and finance minister. After his death, locals fear royal infighting or the resurfacing of old ethnic and tribal conflicts from the southern region of Dhofar. According to the Basic Law of the country, the royal family is expected to name a successor within three days of the sultan’s death. Should they fail, a letter containing two names penned by the sultan will be opened (Reuters).
The biggest challenge the successor will face will be the issue of rising unemployment for the growing number of educated youth. Currently, the number of expatriates working in the private sector is more than the number of Omani nationals, a fact that creates resentment between the two groups. However, it must be noted that most of the senior positions within any privately owned company are held by Omanis – qualified or not. With that in mind, and taking into consideration the growing number of educated Omani youth, the current government has decided to take 100,000 jobs from expatriates and give them to Omanis. The process of increasing the number of Omanis working in the private sector is called “Omanisation.” If the next ruler decides to continue with Omanisation, the number of unemployed expatriates will increase. Many of those expatriates are also U.S. citizens. Should they lose their jobs in Oman, they would need to return to their home countries. Although it would be by a small percentage, Omanisation has the potential to increase unemployment levels in many countries of the world, particularly the U.S., U.K., Philippines, and India.
Another issue the country faces with the question of its next ruler is the religious inclination of the successor. In an interview with Reuters, an unnamed Omani historian mentioned the possibility of tribal leaders re-establishing “the Imamate the Busaidi family (current royal family) got rid of.” The establishment of an imamate (independent religious government) could lead to further religious strife within the country, especially regarding the expatriate population, which has enjoyed religious freedom thus far.
Oman and Iran share ownership of the Strait of Hormuz, which is immense geopolitical importance. While Sultan Qaboos has been instrumental in maintaining a balance between Iran and the West, his successor may not be as inclined to continue to do so, especially since the Omani government has signed a $1 billion deal with Iran to build a natural gas pipeline between the two countries, allowing Iranian gas to flow into Oman, according to a report by Yemen Times. Should the next sultan be more pro-Iran than pro-West, specifically pro-U.S., it could affect the talks about Iran and the United States about the former’s nuclear program. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a deeper tie with Iran than with the United States could also “jeopardize the significant U.S. military assets that are stationed in Oman,” which would have “major consequences for U.S. military strategy in the region.”
With the death of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the U.S. stands to lose a major ally in the Arabian peninsula. There are many possibilities that could follow the death of the sultan. Whatever the consequences for the rest of the world, it will be hardest for the people of Oman, both nationals and expatriates.