A portrait of Sultan Qaboos on the window of a vehicle. Picture by Jorgen Schwenkenbecher/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
With analysts and journalists paying attention to the future viability of the Saudi and Iranian regimes, the focus has been far away from the possible evolution of Oman once Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of the country for almost five decades, passes away.
Oman as a mediator
Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional powers and their impact on the stability of the Middle East is consequently greater. In fact, Oman is often mentioned in relation to these two countries. Two examples will suffice to show this. The first is the Omani mediation between the Houthis and Riyadh. The attempt to broker peace between these two parties, who have been fighting each other in Yemen for three years, ended up unsuccessfully.
The second example is Oman’s important role in the path to the signature of the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Sultan Qaboos was the host of different rounds of secret talks between the United States and Iran since 2012. Moreover, the role of Oman in the Qatar blockade crisis or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have also received some coverage.
Camille Lons, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes that “maybe it is time to pay attention to Oman”. She does so to conclude an article that deals with the external threats that Omani traditional neutrality is facing from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The importance of internal stability
Ultimately, nevertheless, Muscat’s Foreign Policy, as it is the case with any other state, depends enormously on internal stability. Failed states cannot be proactive in the international scene. This is not to say that chaos will ensue when Sultan Qaboos, an ill man, dies.
The protests that took place during the so-called Arab Spring in Oman called for reforms, not for the fall of the Sultan. This tells the Omani case apart from the popular discontent shown at around the same time in other Arab countries such as Yemen or Syria, where civil war has been raging on with the contribution of external powers.
Moreover, intra-Muslim tensions are not a major reason to worry in Oman, unlike most countries of the region. The majority of the population adheres to the Ibadist sect, a current of Islam practiced almost exclusively in Oman. At the same time, discrimination against Sunni and Shia Muslims, whose combined number is quite uncertain but below Ibadis, is forbidden by law.
Another factor that favors Omani stability is the limited influence that other countries from within and without the Gulf region exert over national sovereignty. Although the United States has long been provided access to three air bases in Oman, Muscat has also been able to maintain cordial relations with Iran.
Even though Oman controls considerable reserves of gas and oil, all of its neighbours but Yemen have vaster natural resources. Thus, the strategic importance of Oman arises from another aspect, its geographic location. In fact, one of the reasons why the Sultanate has enjoyed considerable indepence is its geopolitical relevance.
Oman’s northern shores control the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of world’s sea-borne oil passes. Regional and extra-regional powers are aware that in the case of instability spreading to Oman, it would be difficult for any country to emerge as a winner.
Why stability is not certain
At the same time, there are reasons to believe that Oman’s stability is far from secure. Much of these doubts have to do with the fact that Sultan Qaboos has no designated successor. Qaboos, who gained power after deposing his father in 1970 in a bloodless coup, has never had children.
The Omani Constitution stipulates that upon the Sultan’s death, a royal family council must be convened to appoint a heir. In case the council fails to provide a name after three days, and aware of the havoc this could produce, the Sultan has left two sealed envelopes in secret locations with the name of his preferred successor.
The uncertain succession of the Sultan, nevertheless, is not the only contentious issue lying in the future of Oman. Although Sultan Qaboos has been pursuing for decades an “Omanization” policy seeking to strengthen national unity, regional identities are still very strong.
The clearest case is that of Dhofar, the most southerly province of Oman. The region has traditionally been isolated from the rest of the country and has a distinct identity. Between 1963 and 1975 Dhofari insurgents opposed the central government and slogans such as “Dhofar for the Dhofaris” could be heard. While the situation is now contained, the transition process to a new ruler could be an opportunity for Dhofaris to voice their peripheral grievances.
Moreover, the reforms introduced by the Sultan after the 2011 protests had a very limited extent, and the Omani population does not have a say in the politics of the country. Sultan Qaboos still retains a certain charisma and prestige in the eyes of many Omanis, something that has masked the lack of democracy and the violations of human rights.
Do not take Omani stability for granted
It would be a mistake for the world to assume that Oman will continue to be a stable country in the future. Whereas there are strong forces that might anchor Omani stability, much will depend on the transition process once Sultan Qaboos passes away. If the royal council elects a successor in a short period of time, the new ruler will be seen as having broad support within the royal family and his position of power will be cemented.
The situation will be different in case the election process takes some time, specially if the envelopes prepared by Sultan Qaboos need to be opened. In such a context, those pushing forward peripheral or democratic demands will have more chances to contest the new Sultan. A combination of the two types of demands would constitute a more serious challenge.
The preference of regional and extra-regional power for a continuation of the status quo is evident, and if need be they will probably work in this direction. However, by now they do not seem to be aware that authoritarian stability in Oman cannot be taken for granted.