Will Even Oman Now Face Turmoil?

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.