The Perfect Storm: Can the Government of Oman Survive the Sultan's Death?
As a western tourist in a globalized world, I often find myself surrounded by too much familiarity when travelling internationally. The ubiquity of Starbucks, the growing uniformity of clothing and culture, and the assurance of modern amenities in many parts of the world often leaves me jaded; perhaps there isn’t too much to see anymore (or perhaps I need to travel more). Yet, as I sat in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in Muscat, listening to Abdul Aziz Al-Rowas field our questions, felt as though I had landed in some orientalist film from the 1940’s. The room was ornate, with a painting of a stoic Sultan Qaboos on the front wall presiding over the meeting. Dishdasha clad men quietly circled the room, serving rounds of coffee, fresh juice, and date paste. Unlike a typical citizen, the culture minister wore an Omani dagger around his waist. His words were peppered with references to “his majesty” and “his wisdom” — jarring phraseology to one raised in a democracy.
This scene, juxtaposed with the modern city of Muscat outside, seemed to embody the book gifted to us at the end, “Oman reborn – Balancing Tradition and Modernization.” It seemed to be all part of the carefully constructed, centrally planned reality crafted by the Sultan over the course of his reign. A reality that began only in the seventies, and which consists of whitewashed buildings, clean streets, relative safety, and numerous apolitical freedoms. This combined with a “traditional” Omani identity (largely the result of the government’s construction of history and a mandated dress code), and a moderate local Ibadi Islam have seemingly resulted in a bastion of calm in a region fraught with unrest and the reality of collapsed states. The single palpable tension in the air in Oman is the prospect of the imminent death of the ageing Sultan, who remains in treatment in Europe for cancer, and who has no apparent heir. This begs the question as to whether Oman as it is can survive without his majesty’s guiding wisdom.
In response to a question about external media influence, the Minister noted that, “a healthy organism can absorb things from the outside.” As far he was concerned of course, Oman is the organism, and it is resilient to outside pressures. However, here is where the dichotomy between the Omani people and the Sultanate becomes critical. It is quite possible that Sultanate is the only glue holding the country together, and is in effect the “organism.” If it goes, so does the stability. However, if the Omani people are truly the organism, then the country has a chance of surviving the Sultan’s death.
But this question of Oman’s national cohesion and identity isn’t the only concern for the post-sultan world. The transition to a new sultan comes at an inconvenient time and could be compounded by a confluence of external pressures.
The first of these pressures is the price of oil. Oman, like many of the gulf countries, is primarily an oil-dependent state. Despite efforts to diversify the Omani economy, oil still represents the majority of the country’s gross domestic product. However, in the past four years, the price of oil has dropped from an average of $125 a barrel to approximately $50 today. This has had profound effects on the average Omani citizen and is a dwindling resource. Historically however the relative abundance of Oman’s oil reserves has meant the small population (around four million), has been generously subsidized by the government, in areas such as utilities, gas, and housing. Additionally, there has traditionally been no VAT or income tax imposed on the citizens. However, with the price of oil dropping, many of these subsidies are being slashed. A new VAT is being introduced for the first time, and the imposition of a minor income tax has been discussed for the future. Consumer subsidies will also be scaled back. It can be safely assumed that if this trend in oil prices continues, government welfare programs will continue to shrink. While there might still remain a minor absorptive capacity for discontent, these proposed reforms could have vast consequences for the ruling regime. In Oman during the Arab Spring, most of the demands from youth street protests were largely met by accommodation, in terms of minor political and economic reforms. And while there is currently no overt lingering protest movement, recent history has shown the potential for an “explosion” as one of our speakers at the Oriental Research Center in Dubai phrased it. Omani youth are internet and social media savvy, and it would be unwise to assume that risk there for large scale protests has fully abated.
The other critical factor is regional instability. The GCC is currently involved in an armed conflict to prop up the Yemeni Regime against Houthi rebels. Sultan Qaboos has so far kept Oman neutral in the conflict, and in regional politics at large. However, he has acted as a mediary between the West and the Iranian regime, an anomaly in a Sunni, largely anti-Iranian region. There is no guarantee that Sultan Qaboos’s replacement will have the same steadying hand. Ties to Iran and US could be damaged and Oman could become drawn into regional conflicts.
In the absence of the Sultan, any of these external pressures could create a positive feedback loop that would quickly impact the relative tranquility of Oman. If, however, the Sultan makes a wise choice in his successor, and the transition is supported by the elites and wider population, perhaps Oman has a chance, even a good chance.
Yoni Rabinovitch is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort.