The Last Sultanate
Modernity, Identity, and Fragility in Oman
The bulk of public discussions on the Middle East and North Africa typically manifests among two extremes. The first is on the multitude of violent conflicts that plague the region. The second is the fossil fuel politics that constantly define diplomatic rifts and intrigues between regional powers, especially in the Gulf. Although these matters are undoubtedly important, they make it too easy to overlook other subjects unrelated to these two spectacular problems. The Sultanate of Oman is one such subject deserving of much greater attention.
Oman is the last sultanate in the Middle East, with the only other sultanates in the world that wield national power elsewhere in Brunei (absolute) and Malaysia (ceremonial and rotational). The title of Sultan is unique to Muslim dominions and, historically, has implied leadership that is both secular and religious, with the root of the word meaning “authority” or “strength.” Whereas Kings have typically been defined by Divine Right and/or titled claims to land within formal feudal structures, the authority of Sultans has been more circumstantial. Sultanates were historically formed by centers of power differentiated from the Caliphate and not claiming Caliphal authority.
Oman has a deep cultural history stretching back to the beginning of Islam. However, its modern era began only decades ago. Since then, it has charted a cautious path forward in both domestic and foreign affairs, undergoing comprehensive modernization while preserving traditional governance and serving as a pragmatic actor in diplomacy.
A History of Expansion and Contraction
As is true for other countries in the Middle East, Oman’s history is indelibly linked to the spread of Islam, which arrived in what is now Oman in the 630s. The particular branch of Islam that took hold in the region is the Ibadi School of Thought, which has become primordial to Omani identity. Oman’s political history, from Islamic contact onward, has mostly been an ebb and flow of power lost and gained between local rulers asserting authority with relative security in the interior, while the strategic coast has been contested by local rulers and foreign colonial powers, from the Portuguese to the Ottomans and the British.
Beyond the Omani peninsular heartland, the first half of the 19th Century saw the dominion grow into a powerful thalassocracy benefiting from the slave trade. Omani colonies stretched from what is now coastal Pakistan to Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast of Africa. For two decades, 1840–60, the seat of the Sultanate was even moved from Muscat to Zanzibar. The division of the thalassocracy came about in 1861 due to internal power struggles in the Omani royal family and the British decision to ban the slave trade, which heavily affected Oman’s economy.
Just as important to this history were the internal power structures among Omanis themselves. During 1820–1970, the dominion was formally known as the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, reflective of an internally dualistic leadership. Muscat referred to the Arabian Coast of what now corresponds with modern Oman and was controlled by the Sultan, while Oman referred to the interior and was controlled by the Ibadi Imam. Foreign affairs were handled by the Sultan, while over time, local control of the interior was increasingly in the exclusive hands of the Imam as an Ibadi theocracy. Tensions between the two domains would occasionally manifest into violent conflict. The Imam’s autonomy was formalized in the 1920 Treaty of Sib, but a full-blown war between the Imam and the Sultan, known as the Jebel Akhdar Rebellion, erupted in the 1950s. The Rebellion ended with the Imam’s defeat and exile and the abolishment of interior autonomy.
The long tenure of Sultan Said bin Taimur, who ruled during 1932–70, saw living conditions in Oman decline drastically and development come to a standstill. Despite the country having great oil wealth, Said’s policies were conservative, passive, and greedy, using little of the wealth to pro-actively invest in infrastructure, education, and public welfare. Before 1970, Oman had only several miles worth of paved roads, a literacy rate of 5%, and a staggeringly high infant mortality rate of 75%. These conditions and regionalist sentiment contributed to the Dhofar Rebellion during 1963–76, which made Said even more personally reclusive and paranoid following an assassination attempt on him.
The Palace Coup and Autocratic Modernization
Said was heavily dependent on British military training and leadership in his campaign against the Dhofar Rebellion. The British, however, recognized that his poor leadership was contributing to the strength of the rebels, who soon adopted a Marxist/Arab nationalist orientation and thus made Oman a theater of the broader Cold War. Looking to turn the tide, the British reached out to Qaboos, Said’s son, who had been under house arrest for some time due to his father’s growing paranoia. Qaboos agreed to the British plan of action and a bloodless palace coup was then executed on 23 July 1970. Qaboos became Sultan and, per the agreement with the British, exiled his father to the United Kingdom. He then rebranded the country as the Sultanate of Oman.
Beyond military strategy, Qaboos recognized that modernizing the country and improving quality of life was essential to weakening the rebels’ appeal. Using the oil revenues properly, at last, a massive project of electrification was undertaken and, with that, the construction of new paved roads, hospitals, schools, universities, and even a desalination plant to boost the fresh water supply. Private enterprise was incentivized to diversify the economy and a national currency, the Omani Rial, was established to replace the Indian Rupee. Slavery, which had never been formally abolished, was finally banned by Qaboos. The Sultan also offered a general amnesty to rebel forces wishing to surrender and to Omanis in exile who had opposed his father.
While Qaboos has fully embraced the modernization of Oman, he has also fully preserved the traditional political structures in place, including his own absolute power as Sultan. As Sultan, he is both Head of State and Head of Government, simultaneously assuming the roles of Prime Minister, Armed Forces Chief, Minister of Defense, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Chairman of the Central Bank. All laws to this day are still made through royal decree, which includes the 1996 Basic Law. The Law formally guarantees basic liberties for Omani citizens and also created the Council of Oman, the bicameral national legislature. In 1997, Qaboos further declared that all women could vote and run for office. However, the Council has mostly been advisory. Its upper house, the Council of State, is appointed by the Sultan and its lower house, the Council of Consultation, is elected but nonpartisan and the Sultan still has the final say on selections.
The Sultan further appoints a Cabinet of Ministers that is also advisory and executes various policy portfolios, from Oil and Gas to Endowments and Religious Affairs. The Dhofar Rebellion does have a legacy in the Cabinet structure. Oman is divided into Governorates (Muhafazah) that are further subdivided into Provinces (Wilayah), with each of the latter led by a Governor (Wali). However, the legal designation for Dhofar is such that the Governorate is also treated as one whole Province, with Cabinet-level representation vested in the Minister of State and Governor of Dhofar. The only other Governorate with this status and Cabinet representation is Muscat. All other Wali operate under the Ministry of Interior. It is apparent that the Sultan wants to keep regionalist issues in Dhofar close and coopted to reduce the risk of future rebellion.
Before discussing contemporary issues further, it is important to consider the central place of Ibadi Islam in Omani society. The Ibadi School of Thought originated out of the Khawarij, an early militant sect of Muslims that were critical of Rashidun Caliphs Uthman and Ali, especially when the latter sought to negotiate with Mu‘awiyah, the Umayyad pretender to the Caliphal seat. The Ibadi, then and now, however, objected to the later extremism of the Khawarij when it came to justifying violence against Muslim leaders and believing that all Muslims who held different viewpoints from the Khawarij were infidels.
The development of the Ibadi during these first generations of Islam, therefore, make the School older than both the Sunni and Shi‘a denominations. Their consolidation in the isolated region that became Oman also gave them relative security and stability, which is why Omani identity is so primordially tied to the deep history of the Ibadi. The fact that the majority of Omani Muslims belong to the same School has provided Omanis a strong sense of identity and, with that, relative social stability, even with rebellions like Jebel Akhdar and Dhofar. Granted, there exist social differences between the interior, which is more conservative and parochial, and the coast, which is more cosmopolitan and culturally imbued with the diverse ethnic lineages of Oman’s formerly vast thalassocracy. That said, the Ibadi orientation itself, even in the interior, does contribute to a certain social conviviality that Oman is known for.
Internally, the Ibadi School is theologically orthodox, but it encourages a tolerant and welcoming disposition towards other faiths and other Schools of Thought in Islam. Furthermore, Oman has freedom of religion and Qaboos has even financed the construction of Catholic and Protestant churches and Hindu temples. The law also does not punish apostasy from Islam. Other issues may incidentally arise from leaving Islam, however, as personal matters (marriage, divorce, and inheritance) still fall under the jurisdiction of Islamic Law. Becoming non-Muslim alters legal standing in such matters. Notwithstanding issues like this that ideally require reform, the Ibadi disposition, combined with the cultural legacy of venturing outwards beyond Oman’s shores, has made the bulk of Omanis highly supportive of the modernization and opening of Oman that has occurred under Qaboos.
An Aging Sultan Navigates the Arab Spring and Diplomacy
Despite a new and mostly positive trajectory under Qaboos, Oman has not been immune to the problems that have struck other Middle Eastern countries. It thus got swept up in the larger Arab Spring, with a series of protests occurring throughout the country in 2011. In Oman’s case, protesters were not actually calling for the overthrow of the Sultan or broader government. Rather, demands included a higher minimum wage, lower cost of living, job growth, and firmer measures against corruption.
In response, Qaboos decreed a higher minimum wage and new unemployment benefits, instituted university student stipends, reshuffled the Cabinet, and formed a state audit committee. He also decreed that the Council of Oman would have more powers beyond its advisory capacity. The Council itself, likely at the behest of Qaboos, struck a delicate balance by issuing a statement condemning violent “sabotage” while also stating that peaceful protests were within “the legal rights of citizens.” Protesters were mostly pleased with the swift and sober response to their concerns and Oman was spared the severe uprisings that occurred in other Arab countries. There was a smaller set of protests that occurred once more in January 2018, but once again, the demands focused mostly on employment opportunities rather than reform. For now, the Omani public appears more focused on moving developmental progress forward versus further liberal political reform.
Another issue for the present and the future is the Sultan himself. Qaboos, at 78 years old, is currently the longest serving leader in the Arab world and has no apparent heir. He was married only once for three years in the 1970s until the marriage ended in divorce. Qaboos has never remarried since then. Domestic and foreign anxieties over this status quo have only increased since last year, when Qaboos began receiving ongoing treatment for cancer. By default, Oman uses male primogeniture, so the next royals in line would be his second cousins. The rules, however, require the royal family to agree by consensus or else a sealed letter from Qaboos would be opened stating his specific wishes. Expert observers have argued that these rules are intentional. Given that the family would likely not reach consensus, this allows Qaboos to secretly name his successor without causing controversy, and having to deal with it, while he is still alive.
The reason why even foreign actors are anxious about the matter of succession is because Oman has been a relatively peaceful oasis in an increasingly turbulent Middle East. Further to that, Qaboos has consistently maintained a pragmatic foreign policy that often has Oman playing the role of mediator. The country has had a historically close connection to the United Kingdom and, in the recent decades, has also forged friendly ties with the United States and maintained working relationships with the Gulf Arab states and Iran. Oman’s exclave of the Musandam Peninsula forms the Arabian half of the strategic and tension-riddled Strait of Hormuz with Iran. The future of Omani stability and leadership, therefore, has major international implications.
A Fragile Future
Although negative judgments about Oman’s lack of political and institutional liberalization are understandable and legitimate, it remains the case that Qaboos’ autocratic leadership has delivered on a wide swath of progress after the stagnant rule of his father. However, even when autocratic leadership is conducted in relatively good faith and with the general welfare in mind, the problem for the future is the void left behind by such personalized rule made vulnerable with mortality. Although state institutions do exist beyond Qaboos himself, the question remains as to what extent these institutions have the genuine procedural expertise and memory to properly fulfill their functions without the express presence and direction of the exceptional Qaboos.
When the Sultan does pass away, it will be important to consider how key sectors of Omani society react and maneuver. Depending on the strength or weakness of Qaboos’ successor, the intelligence and security apparatuses may prove important in ensuring stability, or, destroying it, if personal, parochial agendas are put ahead of the national interest. Furthermore, if the national political leadership, by greed or incompetence, ignores regional and interior issues, it might well be possible for Dhofar or the Ibadi hinterlands to agitate again militantly. Without a strong and exceptionally popular leader like Qaboos, foreign actors may encourage and aid such agitations, most notably Saudi Arabia, which gave aid to both aforementioned rebellions.
The challenge for Oman, as true for other Middle Eastern countries, is how to meaningfully translate effective personalized leadership into effective institutional competence and permanence. Unlike other countries, however, which have demographic and structural differences that expedited and exacerbated conflict, Oman has a greater internal cohesion that is its strength. Perhaps its current and sustained success, too, may provide ongoing positive inspiration, allowing Omanis to eschew the fatalism and extremism that have decayed or collapsed other countries in the region.