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An Impending Royal Death: What Next in Oman?

Professor Gulshan Dietl is an ICSSR Senior Fellow affiliated to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). Click here for more details.
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  • December 09, 2014

    18 November is the birthday of the Omani King Sultan Qaboos. Therefore, it is also the Omani National Day. This year Qaboos was not in Oman to celebrate the occasion. Instead, he chose to deliver a televised message from Germany, where he is undergoing medical treatment since July 2014. The country came to a sudden halt to see and hear him. There was relief that he was alive given persistent rumours that he could already be dead. But there was also grief that he would not celebrate the big occasion with them. There were spontaneous outpourings of support and prayers for his safe return home.

    Qaboos is not just the King: he is the prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister, finance minister and the commander-in-chief of the Omani armed forces. As the British were withdrawing from the East of Suez, they helped Qaboos come to power after overthrowing his father in 1970. Within a few years, he had successfully crushed the secessionist movement in the Dhofar region and firmly put the country on the path of modernisation. He has ruled for 44 years and has remained a popular leader – a remarkable achievement in an otherwise turbulent region. Today, Oman can be neatly sliced into the pre-Qaboos and Qaboos eras.

    A few interesting factoids illustrate his personality. He has been singularly successful in blending his unabashed Anglophilia into the traditional Omani milieu. A proud graduate of Sandhurst, Qaboos was made the Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George, and a Knight Justice of the Most Venerable Order in 1976. In May 1990, the World Federation of the Rose Societies at the Chelsea annual flower show named a rose after him – Rosa Meitixia Sultan Qaboos. Conferring titles is a British genius and Qaboos is obviously appreciative of it.

    B. K. Narayan, an ex-Colonel of the Indian Army, sees a natural halo around Qaboos and finds it fortunate that he was thrown up by history as a person to fulfil the aspirations of his people. This hagiography attains ever higher tenor as it proceeds at great length.

    Qaboos has been called the Cassandra of the Gulf and admired and resented for the same. Like Cassandra, his warnings have not always been popular with his fellow rulers. But like Cassandra, he has always proven right in the end. It must grate on the other rulers to constantly see that Oman has been more far sighted in recognising the dangers they all face.

    He has ruled wisely, even though sternly. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Oman and Qatar are the only two countries in the region – out of 39 in all – where terrorism has had no impact. Qaboos’ annual tour across the country has resulted in an uninterrupted direct contact between him and his people. The Majlis as-Shura (Consultative council) is the lower house of parliament that is elected by the citizens aged 21 and above. Women have the right to vote and to contest elections. The Majlis al-Dawla (State Council) is the upper house of parliament and is fully appointed by the Sultan.

    Qaboos’s foreign policy has served Oman well. Its central external linkage has been with the United States. The Treaty of Friendship and Navigation was signed between the two countries way back in 1833. Today, there is a close defence relationship between them in terms of weapon purchases, military exercises and basing rights. The US maintains three bases on Omani territory –Masira island, Thumrait and Seeb International Airport.

    In the neighbourhood, Oman is a cautious member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Its role within the GCC can aptly be described as the leader of the opposition, with Qatar joining ranks. Oman has declined to become a member of the proposed Gulf Union; in fact it has threatened to leave the GCC if such a union were to be attempted.

    Across the Gulf waters, Oman has extended a hand of friendship to Iran. Both share the Strait of Hormuz, have agreed to jointly develop the Hengam/Bukha gas fields and have recently concluded an agreement to build a $1 billion gas pipeline across the Gulf of Oman and provide Iranian gas to Oman for 25 years.

    A unique success of Qaboos lies in retaining the trust of the US and Iran in equal measure. American and Iranian officials secretly engaged in face-to-face talks in Oman for a year before these were revealed even to the rest of the negotiating partners in the nuclear talks. The historic Geneva Interim Agreement signed between the P5+1 and Iran on 24 November 2013 was a direct result of the contacts facilitated by Qaboos.

    If Qaboos passes away, it will not be a sudden departure. The Omani government has obviously been alert to the eventuality and preparing for the same for months. It has taken bold measures on domestic and external matters in his absence. Thus, sweeping spending cuts and tax raises were announced in November to meet the unprecedented fall in the world oil price. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met in Muscat for two days in the same month before going on to Vienna for the P5+1 meeting with Iran on the nuclear issue. That indicates that things are on course and will remain so after Qaboos.

    On the other hand, there are signs of discontent that may come to the surface in a drastically altered environment. At the height of the Arab Spring, there were widespread demonstrations, which were put down with a heavy hand as well as a few palliatives. The unemployment rate continues to hover at 15 per cent and half the population is under the age of 25. Put together, they foretell trouble.

    The sectarian and sub-national stirrings may also assert themselves. The Omani population is half Sunni and half Ibadi (an early sect of Islam), although the figures are never officially divulged. Qaboos is believed to be half Sunni and half Ibadi. The Ibadis have lived under their own religious dispensation in an earlier era and may aspire to some form of self-rule. The Dhofaris would remember their 13 years of socialist experiment not so long ago. A decade back, a few Ibadis were arrested for attempting to bring down the government and set up their own Imamate. More recently, a twitterer was tracked down and arrested for tweeting “I am a Dhofari”.

    Qaboos never married and has no siblings. The royal succession, therefore, has always remained at the forefront of curiosity and concern. The Omani Constitution lays down an elaborate procedure according to which the royal council should choose a new sultan within three days of the position falling vacant. If the royal council fails to agree on a consensus candidate, a letter written by Qaboos should be opened in the presence of a defence council of military and security personnel, Supreme Court chiefs, and heads of the two houses of parliament. The process is seen as a clever move by Qaboos to keep different groups compliant in anticipation, secure his own choice of successor without creating resentment among the groups that did not make it, and adhering to the Ibadi principle of electing/selecting a successor rather than gifting it to the heir-in-waiting.

    India and Oman

    “While other Gulf Arabs prefer to get on a camel and go west into the Arab desert, Omanis prefer to be on a boat and drift towards India,” Qaboos had once observed. Indo-Omani relations go back to the pre-Islamic times. There are 60,000 Indians living and working there and 12,000 Indians visiting as tourists every year. Omanis come to India for medical treatment and education. India is the second largest non-oil destination for Omani exports and the fourth largest source of its imports. Annual trade between the two countries stands at $4.5 billion at present. There are joint ventures in fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, energy and engineering. The India-based Sidhomal Group has been working on the South Asia Gas Enterprise (SAGE); an ambitious pipeline project that proposes to bring West Asian and Central Asian gas to India via a hub in Oman traversing a distance of 1300 kilometres at a depth of 3.4 kilometres. Oman was the first GCC country with which India signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation.

    Qaboos received part of his early education in Pune, where he was a student of Shankar Dayal Sharma who later became the President of India and visited Oman in that capacity. The personal touch of Qaboos would surely be missed in bilateral relations. And yet, the ties that go back millennia would continue to prosper for long years to come.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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