Oman has long been portrayed as one of the good news stories of the Arab world. Moderate, stable and run by a British-trained Sultan, it has long been thought of as a Western ally unlikely to rock the boat. Recently however, the poor health of Sultan Qaboos has thrown the country into considerable uncertainty. He has no clear heir, and has been the absolute ruler of Oman for over 40 years. The true sense of uncertainty and fear that pervades Omani society is ably reported on in a Foreign Policy article which can be read here.
While Western observers (and indeed many Omanis) cast around for a new benevolent strong-man who can concurrently hold Oman together while managing demographic transitions and perhaps the creation of a more democratic system of government, the reality is that the imminent death of Qaboos serves as the greatest evidence that he is a model for absolutely nothing.
Understandably many casual observers of the Middle East will not be particularly familiar with Oman. It is a relatively small country, both in size and population, and despite having achieved a modest standard of development and having strong ties with the West, it has not attempted to become a dominant political player in the Middle East in the same way as some regional rivals. Indeed, Omani policy has been based on the principle of avoiding making enemies, making it one of the few countries to enjoy a strong relationship with the West (particularly Britain and the United States) as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
During the reign of Qaboos (who came to power after ousting his own father in a coup), Oman has changed beyond all recognition. Major efforts have been made to use the not-inconsiderable mineral wealth of the country to invest in creating an educated workforce and a diversified economy. Without doubt there have been some significant achievements, not least in terms of improved infrastructure; educational standards and security in those provinces that historically resisted rule from the capital Muscat. Away from the improvements in the day to day life of Omanis, the Sultan must also be commended for the fact that the country is one of the least religiously extreme in the region. Rarely do news reports on terror attacks begin with the line ‘The alleged perpetrators are Omani nationals…’. In the region under discussion, that is an achievement not to be set aside lightly.
That said, the palpable sense of fear that the overwhelming majority of Omanis and Oman-lovers have over what will happen when the Sultan finally dies is evidence of the fundamental fragility of the Sultanate. Elections take place in Oman, but candidates are vetted (albeit more gently than in neighbouring Iran), and the parliament is fundamentally unable to challenge decisions made by the Government, which derives complete authority from the Sultan. Over the past 40 years the system has worked (more or less), but it is now and will always be dependent on a benevolent and skilful autocrat for it to continue. Such people are rare and in a world more transparent and accessible through better communication networks have less time to get up to scratch before the masses demand change.
Any system of government that rests exclusively on the strength of one individual rather than an institution is doomed to fail. This is a truth recognised in modern Western political thought, perhaps most famously in the development of the United States constitution and system of government. For some reason, however, many in the West insist that this is either not transferable practically, or undesirable morally when it comes to the Middle East. As a result, interested observers in London, Washington and the capitals of their autocratic Arab allies are casting around for a new Qaboos.
Instead of cajoling the Sultan to allow the development of an autonomous government, separate from his person and independent of his political whims, the West have encouraged Qaboos to modernise at his own pace. While this might have appeared sensible during periods of intense instability in the Middle East – as a way of safeguarding against Oman collapsing too – it was evidently a shortsighted policy.
No bloodline will last forever, and there is no guaranteed way of passing on the characteristics that have made Qaboos an effective ruler. The only way of achieving legitimacy and long-term stability in a country with considerable potential to be a meeting point of East and West such as Oman is to trust the people.
Democracy and the rule of law should have been the legacy of Sultan Qaboos. His death might have been followed by a period of mourning, the appointment of a new Sultan with tempered powers and a transition to democracy. Instead, Oman is faced with no clear leadership, the potential reassertion of regional insurgencies, and an uncertain future.
There is only one reason why. The Sultan did not trust his people, and the West went along with it. We may yet pay the price for believing that the ideas of Franklin, Madison, and Washington are exclusive to the West, rather than a beacon for humanity.
By Philip A. Gardner