North Africa, West Asia

Patriotism from fragmentation: the personal nationhood of Oman

Oman’s modern nationalism is ultimately the result of personal rule dominating all aspects of public administration. Who could possibly be the successor to Qaboos?

Nicolai Due-Gundersen
5 June 2017
ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The Sultan of Oman, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said during the celebration of the Sultanate Of Oman's 40th Renaissance Anniversary, in Muscat, Oman on December 1, 2010. ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On 15 November 2015, three days before his birthday, Sultan Qaboos of Oman made a rare public appearance. As expected, he opened the annual session of parliament, yet his brief three-minute speech contrasted with reports that he “[...] appeared in good health.”

Only a few months before, Qaboos had returned from an almost year-long retreat to Germany for illness, prompting nationwide praise. “I haven’t felt this happy for a long time” tweeted one Omani. “Welcome back baba [father] Qaboos, you have given your nation hope and courage.” Another Omani went further to declare that “[...][s]eeing [His Majesty] Qaboos […] makes me [want to] cry, you don’t even understand unless you’re Omani.”

Public affection appears to be genuine rather than orchestrated. Nonetheless, underneath joy lurks anxiety. The Sultan’s absence for undisclosed health issues is a reminder of an uncertain post-Qaboos future.

Modern Oman was established by Sultan Qaboos in 1970, overthrowing the restrictive regime of his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur. Qaboos is credited with transforming an isolated Gulf state into a thriving cosmopolitan hub. However, his personal rule has created a paternal nationalism tied to himself. At the same time, Qaboos’ fear of his father’s fate and a desire to restrict political competitors encouraged him to create state structures that may have, in the words of journalist Amanda Fisher, “[...] sown the seeds of a power vacuum in the event of his death.”    

The ascension of Qaboos: unity through resistance

Under Said bin Taimur (1932-1970), Oman was an isolated state, with foreigners effectively banned from visiting the Sultanate while coastal inhabitants were forbidden from visiting the interior and vice-versa. Taimur’s isolation also extended to his son and future usurper, Qaboos bin Said Al Said.

After Qaboos’ Sandhurst graduation, he returned home and “[...] lived the life of a prisoner” in Taimur’s palace, all the while ignored by his father. With British patience for Taimur wearing thin, Qaboos had to act.  

While Qaboos’ Oman would forge an independent identity, Qaboos worked to ensure British support for his takeover. British officers knew of the plan and informed local commanders to support the plot. On 23 July 1970, Qaboos and his soldiers surrounded the palace, cutting communications. Armed with a pistol, the elder Taimur wounded only himself; in the final phase of his reign he shot himself in the foot, both literally and symbolically.

Qaboos’ foray into politics began favourably due to two factors. First, the overthrow of his father ended his restrictive policies and weakened hostility to Qaboos’ rule. This first victory allowed Qaboos to use the ongoing Dhofar Rebellion (1962-76) to his advantage. By 1970, resistance to Sultanate authority had morphed in the south into a proxy war funded by Communist Arab states. Qaboos first tackled remaining hostility by touring the nation, combined with a general amnesty to guerrillas. Hence, Qaboos’ visits were regarded as humanising for Omanis and their ruler. Both visits and amnesty delegitimised the Dhofar Rebellion while legitimising the Sultan. Qaboos then pursued the second factor in his favour; national unity through opposition to remaining rebels of the Dhofari uprising.

The Dhofar Rebellion acted as a catalyst for Qaboos to establish military strength independent of British support. In 1971, Qaboos created the Frontier Force to address combat challenges in Dhofar. Within a year, Qaboos had established five further distinct military units. Each division was consolidated under the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF). Deploying the SAF in Dhofar allowed it to crystallise. US Major Stephen A. Cheney explains that by war’s end in 1975, “[...] Oman’s armed force had matured into an efficient, combat hardened military organization” distinct from Taimur’s British-backed units.

Complementing the SAF’s military victories, Qaboos ensured the SAF established basic welfare services in the south. This ‘hearts and minds’ campaign humanised the SAF as a force for good in Dhofar and throughout Oman. Finally, Qaboos emphasised nationhood by changing Oman’s official name from Muscat and Oman to simply Oman. Qaboos’ nationalism took significant shape from 1970-75. Modern Oman was united as an Islamic Sultanate against the un-Islamic Dhofar rebels. At the same time, the granting of amnesty and lifting of Taimur’s restrictions ensured that the south could feel included under Qaboos’ Oman, symbolised by the nation’s name change.   

From military nationalism to personal rule

Of note has been the Sultan’s centralised rule. Qaboos expanded the SAF with a focus on personnel training as opposed to increased arms purchases. He oversaw military administration as head of the defence ministry but also became Oman’s prime minister, finance minister and foreign minister, positions held to this day. Such centralised personal rule would cement his role as father of the modern nation and the progenitor of Oman’s nationalism.

Oil production would allow Qaboos to continue his rule as the father of modern Oman. Although hydrocarbons were found under Taimur’s reign, Qaboos’ ascension preceding the 1970’s oil boom allowed him to take credit for modernising his nation. Profits bolstered expansion programs, which turned from military/political administration to civilian services. This campaign transformed Oman into a modern welfare state by establishing schools, hospitals and a national healthcare system. In time, oil-driven reforms would win Qaboos the love of his people. However, oil-wealth could not suppress Oman’s traditional powerbase overnight: the tribes and merchant class.  

Due to previous isolation and later oil discovery, Oman was the last Gulf state to restructure tribal politics under the borders of a modern state. Saudi incursions and civil war emphasised the dangers of national fragmentation and greater identity of Omanis with tribalism.

The solution from the 30 year-old Sultan: expropriate the structure of tribal politics on a national scale. Hence, as the eldest sheikh of each tribe negotiated agreements under a council (majlis), Qaboos replicated the majlis system while retaining his role as Oman’s head. The national majlis acted as a hierarchical political system, with Sultan Qaboos as sheikh and guarantor. Omanis bring concerns to their own tribal leaders, who then consult the Sultan with their peoples’ grievances. Qaboos addressed the divisiveness of tribalism by incorporating the majlis tradition into modern Oman’s political structure.

Traditional Oman also boasted a powerful merchant class. Due to international trade expertise, such merchants had transitioned into modern technocrats and were easily co-opted by Qaboos for vital administrative roles in government, alongside tribal leaders to bolster tribal allegiance to the new Oman and its father.     

From his ascension, it is clear that Qaboos was to be the father of the nation. In national governance, he was the most senior political administrator, dominating the SAF, foreign affairs, finances and even the majlis as an instrument to bridge tribalism with the nation state. Such absolute rule continues to penetrate Oman’s political and cultural aspects, defining nationalism as Qaboos. Post-Arab Spring, succession becomes precarious, for the aging Sultan heads a young populous that remembers no other father.

Succession: he’s not Qaboos 

Praise by Omanis for their Sultan hides the fear of uncertainty in a post-Qaboos Oman. Akin to the unenviable position of Jordan, Oman is squeezed between the borders of conservative and restless states: Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Oman requires stable rule, heretofore personified by the Sultan’s central authority. Oil-wealth saw Oman modernise at a comfortable pace and enjoy the illusion of certainty amid tumultuous periods in the Middle East. Childless, Qaboos has acknowledged naming his successor in a sealed envelope should Royal Council fail to appoint an heir upon his death. Here lies the Achilles’ heel of Qaboos’ success: there can be only one father.    

Qaboos’ successor will inherit regional instability, border unrest with Yemen and the rise of proximate Iran. He will not inherit the relationship of trust, loyalty and admiration that Qaboos gained over four decades. He may be unable to rely on oil-wealth amid crushed prices. Qaboos has created a precarious legacy. His absolute power and restructuring of military and security forces into an influential political class means the next Sultan will have to address the curse of an authoritarian predecessor.

Will Omanis accept that an untested administrator continues personal rule? Can a father pass the mantle to an unrelated and barely symbolic son? Further, can the ‘son’ match Qaboos’ recent creation of 50,000 jobs in the military and security class, ensuring the loyalty of the sector that pre-empts the first signs of revolution?   

Conclusion

Oman’s modern nationalism is ultimately the result of personal rule dominating all aspects of public administration. Pervasive portraits of the Sultan ensure that Omanis are reminded of their father daily, while Qaboos’ role as sheikh of the majlis system co-opts tribalism into a framework of nationalism united under one man. Throughout his rule, Qaboos has successfully contended with tribes and merchants as Oman’s political circle. The expansion of the SAF in response to Dhofar and later expansion of other security services created dominant elites loyal to His Majesty in return for privileges.

A successor may find that absolute rule is no longer a reality but that power will be shared among the most influential classes of tribe, merchants and military. Just as Egypt’s republics have been ruled through a presidential vassal by military pillars (with fatal consequences for those who shunned such masters, like Mubarak), Oman’s nationalism may yield to a class-based system of regime security.  

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