After Saudi Arabia’s succession speculation, following the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Arabia last January from pneumonia, Oman comes next. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos has been in power since 1970, making him the longest serving ruler in the Middle East.
Sultan Qaboos came to power in a coup orchestrated by the British intelligence and army against his father in July 1970, after having the British army officers take control of the palace and his father flown out of the country on a never to return flight.
Qaboos has been in Germany since last July taking several medical tests for unspecified health issues, which made him miss two major events: the Omani National Day celebration (his birthday) and the Saudi King’s funeral, a notable absence for a fellow Gulf monarch. His long-lasting absence from the country’s political and daily life alongside the unsubstantiated rumors about his health are giving way to scenarios about a looming succession crisis in the Sultanate.
So far the Sultanate of Oman has been characterized as one of the most stable and modernized country of the Gulf region. The Sultan succeeded in modernizing the country by establishing a parliament and consolidating a well-governed country in the Middle East, through numerous social reforms in an attempt to answer the calls for change. However, Qaboos's prolonged absence from the Sultanate together with the current events in the war-racked neighboring Yemen and the severe drop in oil prices are posing a challenge both for the Sultan himself and the political and economic future of the Sultanate.
The Sultan has been maintaining close ties with both the United Kingdom and the USA. Oman has been an ally of both countries and has taken part in several military operations, such as the Desert Storm operation as a member of the coalition to liberate Kuwait; as a staging post for the ill-fated American hostage rescue mission in 1980 in order to get the American diplomats home from Iran; and as an intermediary between the United States and Iran allegedly hosting secret talks between the two sides on Iran’s nuclear program.
Nevertheless, Oman is now facing two major dangers. The first one is the war and the chaotic atmosphere in neighboring Yemen, following the collapse of its government and the resignation of President Mansour Hadi. As a result, Oman has to be prepared for potentially uncontrollable situations in its western borders.
Qaboos has to deal with Yemen’s current civil war and its long-term stability problems, in order to protect and secure Oman’s interests. Although the Sultan has kept a rather neutral position on regional conflicts and crises, and Oman in general has acted as a mediator as well as a peace broker between the Western powers and the Middle East, Yemen’s unpredictable situation might cause significant problems for Oman.
The second danger comes from the country’s dependence on oil for most of its income, which is also the case for all GCC states. Omani oil reserves and revenues have been the fuel behind the country’s rapid development since 1970. Henceforth the Sultanate has been relying considerably on the oil industry. However, Oman’s small own reserves of oil as well as the fall of the oil prices are causing major concerns as to where the economic situation for the Sultanate is heading.
Specifically, Omani oil price fell below US$80 this month, despite current budget estimations of US$85 oil price per barrel. Mohammed al-Busaidi, member of the Omani Majlis Al Shura local parliament, recently posted on social media his views on the crucial matter. As he characteristically put it: “let's tighten our belts and prepare together for the coming challenge, the honeymoon is over.” The aforementioned comment of the Omani official is bringing back to the fore the need for dialogue on Oman’s absolute reliance on oil.
However, Oman has so far been unsuccessful in its attempts to develop alternative sources of income, such as developing its ports and tourism infrastructure. Due to Oman’s less cushion, the Sultanate is way more vulnerable to the dropping oil prices than any other GCC state.
Besides the economic concerns of the overall stable and prosperous Sultanate, another looming threat is the matter of Qaboos’ succession. Persistent rumors about his health issues are adding to an already tense debate on who will succeed him.
Qaboos is a childless, brotherless divorcee and has not designated an heir of his choice yet. The succession process in these cases goes as follows: the royal family is supposed to determine the successor within three days from the Sultan’s passing over; if the members of the royal family fail to agree on a person, then a sealed letter is opened, written by the Sultan and designating the name of his successor.
The most likely candidates for the throne are presumed to be the three sons of Tariq bin Taimur—Qaboos’s late uncle; namely, Assad bin Tariq, Haitham bin Tariq and Shihab bin Tariq.
Moreover, it is said that Qaboos has written numerous letters, in which he maybe designates different successors, instead of just naming one heir to his title. This means that if the royal family fails to agree in a short time on the matter, then a succession crisis in the Sultanate is inevitable. Qaboos himself told Foreign Affairs magazine back in 1997, “I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions,” causing major anxiety to the royal family.
The growing concern in the small but powerful Gulf country is mainly about the future of its citizens after forty-four years of successful reign by Sultan Qaboos. The seventy-four-year-old Sultan Qaboos, besides being identified as the omnipotent monarch of the small sultanate, is a much loved leader despite short scale discontent in 2011, following the events in Egypt and Libya.
The reforms towards modernization that Oman has undergone during his reign are proven successful for both the quality of daily life of the citizens as well as for the popularity of Qaboos. One cannot fail to notice the constant reminders of the Sultan throughout Oman where there is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, the Sultan Qaboos University, the Sultan Qaboos Port and a Sultan Qaboos Road.
Furthermore, Qaboos is not only appointed as a Sultan, but also holds several other political positions. He is the Prime Minister of Oman, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense, chairman of the Central Bank, and chief of staff of the armed forces. After dethroning his father, Qaboos took control of Oman and ever since he has transformed the small Gulf country into a stable and thriving state which makes its wealth from oil and gas.
Omani political analyst Muhammed al Mukhaini said that for the majority of Oman’s young population—making up to 70% of the population—Qaboos is the only leader they have ever known and their relationship with monarchy is so much different to that of the older generation.
However, in 2011 during a wave of uprisings occurring across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, the Sultanate and Qaboos in particular had to face their own wave of unrest and insurgence within Oman. Mainly the younger population occupied the streets in sit-in demonstrations, demanding more job opportunities, lower living costs, salary increases, and political reforms. The events led Qaboos to order further reforms in a royal Decree, providing the local parliament with additional legislative and regulatory power and provisioning financial benefits to the public sector employees.
Nonetheless, the political scene of the Sultanate in a post-Qaboos era is still a hot potato for the Omanis, the rest of the Gulf States and the international community. There are four crucial factors of concern about the succession of the throne and the future of Oman.
The first factor is the question of legitimacy of the new Sultan, mainly due to the lack of experience of any other leader in Oman other than Qaboos. Secondly, the Qaboos monarchy is credited with being the only force which has managed to handle tribal tensions, but these might resurface under any new leadership. Tribal structures in Oman were alive and powerful as nowhere else in the Middle East when Qaboos took over.
Therefore, Sultan Qaboos had to unite all ancient tribes, put an end to the old feuds, persuade the leaders (the sheiks) of every single tribal group to hand over their powers to the Omani state, and, lastly, to make them actively cooperate in the making of the new country. The third factor of concern is the possibility that the sealed envelopes designate more than one name. Finally, a potentially destabilizing factor is the power rivalry that is likely to ensue between the royal family and the power-brokers.
In contrast to the smooth transition of power in Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the speculation over Oman’s path to succession appears to be far from smooth and easy. Given the close ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran as well as the United States, one can start enumerating the events that are about to unfold in this small Gulf country.
The Gulf Cooperation Council countries, known as the GCC, are worried about the regional security, according to Andreas Krieg—Assistant Professor at King's College London who also advises the Qatari Armed Forces. Krieg further argues that “the concern is mostly, again, from Saudi Arabia and other players within the GCC who fear that there could be an instability within Oman, politically and domestically which could create another center of instability on the Arabian Peninsula.”
Additionally, as Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates border the Strait of Hormuz that connects the Persian Gulf with the Oman Gulf, concerns arise because this is one of the world’s most strategic waterways with twenty percent of global petroleum products passing through it.
Especially after the secret talks between the United States and Iran on a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear program—hosted by Oman—the Sultanate has been turned into a diplomatic linchpin in the region.
Another interesting fact is Oman’s close relations with China. Chinese-Omani relations can be traced back in the era of the ancient Maritime Silk Road trade route that linked Asia to Africa and Europe. Oman recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1978, despite the moral, diplomatic, financial and military assistance China provided to the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) in Oman’s southern province in the 1960s. China allegedly trained Dhofari rebels in China, even going as far as to deploy military advisers to fight alongside the rebels in Oman, during a period of domestic unrest.
The DLF was a communist front which was established to create a separatist state in Dhofar, the southern province of Oman which shares a border with south Yemen. It was established by communist youth in Salalah in 1965, and, after its dissolution in 1968, it was succeeded by the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf. Its aim was to secure funding for the development of the area as well as to end the rule of the Sultan of Oman. The DLF managed to fight for a decade the Omani Armed Forces and the Sultan receiving support from south Yemen. However, the Omani army managed to suppress and remove the DLF and push its forces towards the Yemeni borders.
China’s close ties with the Sultanate mainly revolve around oil and natural gas imports and exports between the two countries. Nonetheless, contacts between China and the Sultanate have been extended beyond the energy sector, yielding notable developments on the diplomatic, military, and economic fronts.
As a matter of fact, Qaboos’s strategy of never breaking the diplomatic relations with its neighbors, allies and other regional powers has paved the way for Oman to be on the best terms with its neighbors as well as to maintain as secure as possible its strategic Middle East location.
The Sultan is engaged in promoting the peaceful resolution, acceptance of the differences, and encouragement of compromising. By being adherent to the directions of the international law, Qaboos chooses to distance himself and the Sultanate from other countries’ affairs.
Qaboos’s policies and approach have contributed to Oman’s prosperous economy and internal stability. The Sultanate of Oman is considered to be an integral nation in the Middle East mainly owing to its Ibadhi interpretation of Islam. Ibadhism emerged in Oman in the mid-eight century. Although it was initially suppressed by the Abbassid Dynasty, Ibadhism managed to survive in Oman with Ibadhis now comprising Oman’s religious majority. Ibadhism is known for its tolerance and conservatism and its general aversion to political violence. Ibadhis identify themselves as Muslims, but are neither Sunni nor Shia. Ibadhism began as an offshoot of the Kharijite sect, which opposed the succession to the Prophet Mohammad.
However, Ibadhis reject the Kharijites’ use of assassination and violence to remove the unjust and unvirtuous leaders. The Ibadhi heritage has facilitated the Sultan’s plan of avoiding violent means and keeping the country away from religious fanaticism and backwardness. Therefore, Ibadhism alongside forty-four years of absolute monarchy by Qaboos have helped situating Oman among the most stable, coherent and prosperous countries internationally.
Therefore, the regent of the small Gulf country might be confronted with multiple challenges in the domestic and foreign affairs, if the royal family and Qaboos do not manage to meet each other halfway on who will be the next Sultan. Qaboos will have to deal with the succession process more cautiously, since indicating several different names as his successors in the letters risks creating a chaotic atmosphere within the Sultanate
All links accessed on November 5, 2015
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