Will Oman survive the end of Sultan Qaboos? The 74-year-old ruler, who modernized the country and kept it safe from most Middle East turmoil for almost half a century, is said to be terminally ill. His birthday — the sultanate’s national holiday — was not celebrated last month. And Qaboos is childless.
He has selected three of his closest relatives as potential heirs. The final choice will be made by the Royal Family Council. Should any problem arise, the matter will be settled by the National Defense Council.
Upon landing in Muscat, the capital city, visitors immediately realize that Oman is very different from other Gulf countries. Forget the skyscraper extravaganzas of Kuwait City, Manama, Doha, Dubai, and Abu-Dhabi. By law, buildings in Muscat must be built in stone or similar traditional materials, and must follow a low-rise, castle-like architectural pattern. Forget also the other states’ apartheid-style system of Bedouin minorities lording over majorities of immigrant workers: in Oman, 70% of the 3.2 million inhabitants are native citizens.
Oman differs from its neighbors in many more ways. While the other Gulf countries are tiny enclaves no larger than New Jersey or even Rhode Island, Oman is big: 309,000 square kilometers, the size of Kansas, or Poland. Admittedly, the hinterland is chiefly mountains and semi-desert. Still, there is a sense of strategic width, and strategic security.
While the other Gulf countries interact out of geographical necessity with the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia), the Fertile Crescent (Iraq and Syria), and Persia (the Islamic Republic of Iran), Oman is an Indian Ocean country. The hinterland’s mountain ranges effectively sever it from the peninsula. The monsoon winds have allowed the local population, from time immemorial, to trade with India and East Africa, or even to establish distant colonies like Zanzibar. And throughout the past 500 years, the Omanis have been in touch with the European maritime powers: first the Portuguese, from the 16th century on, and then the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Even more stunning is Oman’s religious singularity: most inhabitants do not belong to Sunni or Shiite Islam. They follow a third way, Ibadism, an offshoot of Kharijism, that is also to be found in parts of North and East Africa.
Just like the early American Puritans, the Ibadis are both more strictly religious than the Sunnis and the Shiites, and much more tolerant and open-minded in political, social, and even intellectual matters. They have usually promoted good relations with Jews, Christians, and even Hindus. Moreover, they have comparatively democratic tendencies: they know not of hereditary kings-caliphs or hereditary imams, but rather of elected imams and secular kings or sultans.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Oman had lost its naval and commercial edge, and was so impoverished that the British did not even attempt to turn it into a full-fledged protectorate. It was ridden with civil wars between imams based in the hinterland, and the Al-Said, a royal family based in Muscat. In the 1950s, Sultan Said bin Taimur suppressed the last imamate rebellion with British help, and set up a reactionary and isolationist rule. In the 1960s, however, a new rebellion flared up further south in the Dhofar province, a bizarre mix of tribal unrest and Marxist rhetoric.
Qaboos ibn Said, Sultan Said’s English-educated son, took over in a bloodless coup in 1970 and gradually suppressed the Dhofar insurgency with much help from Britain, imperial Iran, and Pakistan. He then embarked on a resolute, if cautious, modernization program, supported by increasing oil revenues. Oman’s GNP is now 90 billion dollars. The average income per capita is 30,000.
Qaboos’ priority, in strategic and international terms, was to keep his country independent from any foreign interference and at peace with every nation. He very adroitly balanced American influence with strong British ties, and Saudi regional power with Iranian links. Many American-Iranian conversations, from Reagan to Obama, took place in Oman.
Qaboos would have welcomed a complete peace betwen Israel and the Arab and Islamic world, and he knew that the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat or Hamas was not helpful in that respect. In the fall of 1993, he attended a discreet, high-level academic and political conference in the United States, where the Oslo Accords and many other issues were discussed. He listened politely when a European journalist of Jewish origin attempted to vindicate Israel’s decision, and then left. One of his aides stayed, however, and bluntly told the orator: “The Arabs will never forgive Israel for bringing back so prominently the Palestinians on the Middle East’s scene.”
The sultan’s shortlist for his successor is said to include Prince Fahd bin Mahmud Al Said, the acting prime minister; Prince Shehab bin Tariq Al Said, the minister of science; and Prince Haitham bin Tareq Al Said, the culture minister. Sources say, however, that General Sultan bin Mohamad Al-Naamani, the head of the royal administration, will be the real kingmaker. And perhaps the next king.