The late monarch’s shadow looms as Oman prepares to navigate the uncertainties of the post-Qaboos era.
For a monarch that ruled a modestly-sized Persian Gulf kingdom over five decades, Oman’s soft-spoken and diminutive Sultan Qaboos bin Said was regularly lauded to have punched above his weight.
With his passing at the age of 79 after a long battle with colon cancer, the Qaboos-era officially came to an end on January 10. Qaboos’ 65-year-old cousin, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, succeeded him in a swift transfer of power the following day.
As Omanis mourn the loss of the Arab world’s longest-serving ruler, the international community has responded with an equal measure of despondency.
Oman reached heights considered improbable when Qaboos took over in 1970. Under his reign, he shepherded the transformation of what was once an impoverished backwater in the Arabian Peninsula to that of a modern country. He stealthily manoeuvred regional geopolitics and avoided domestic sectarian divisions.
An endearing figure to 4.6 million Omanis and expatriates, it is almost impossible to escape Qaboos’ patriarchal gaze in the country. His regal visage adorns every conceivable public space from roads, schools, hospitals, airports, universities, to stadiums.
However, Qaboos’ legacy, widely considered unassailable, is somewhat mixed when the totality of his record is taken into account. Nevertheless, his colossal shadow will loom large over the ensuing ruling regime.
As the man inextricably linked with Oman’s nation-building project and the north star of its international relationships, Omanis will have to navigate economic and diplomatic challenges as they usher in an uncertain post-Qaboos era.
To apprehend Qaboos’ veneration and status as custodian of the nation, one must take stock of the socio-economic and political context that proceeded the sovereign’s tenure.
Scion of the Al Said dynasty that has ruled Oman since the mid-18th century, Qaboos was born in 1940 in the southern town of Salalah. His father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, tyrannically ran Oman like a personal plantation, as it languished with high malnutrition, illiteracy, and child mortality rates.
After graduating from Sandhurst military academy, a link with one of its alumni – Tim Landon, a British intelligence officer – would prove instrumental in assisting Qaboos to overthrow his father in a bloodless coup in 1970 (although his father did shoot himself in the foot during the fracas).
His ascent came during the height of an armed rebellion in Dhofar province, which raged from 1962-75. With the aid of British and Iranian military forces, the Sultan ultimately quashed the communist insurgency.
Tapping into the kingdom’s newfound oil wealth, Qaboos channelled revenues into grand development and infrastructure projects to tackle poverty and improve living standards. The 1973 oil shocks cemented its foundation as a petro-rentier state.
Under his leadership, Oman saw its GDP grow from $256 million to $80 billion, and life expectancy improve from 50 to 77 years.
Oman’s location across the Strait of Hormuz makes it a chokepoint for global oil supplies, and of immense geo-strategic importance. Furthermore, extending social peace in a region beset by sectarian strife meant that moulding a foreign policy centred on pragmatism would be essential for Qaboos to maintain Oman’s independence.
And so under his stewardship Oman deftly charted a path of neutrality over the decades while playing mediator in numerous conflicts, earning it praise as the “Switzerland” of the Middle East.
After all, managing a shrewd balance between a pro-western orientation while fostering cordial ties with Iran was no mean feat. This influence allowed it to play a key role in the landmark Iran nuclear agreement in 2015.
As one of the founding members of the GCC in 1981, Qaboos consistently sought to uphold its regional nonalignment. Most recently, it steered clear of taking sides in the Saudi and UAE-led blockade of Qatar, and out of the military intervention in Yemen.
Given the lack of an appointed heir (for which a byzantine succession plan had been put in place), institutionalised control would be necessary. He issued Oman’s first constitution in 1996 that established a constitutional assembly and granted universal suffrage to citizens over 21.
However, Qaboos still wielded absolute power: he was the nation’s head of state, prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister, finance minister and commander-in-chief, all rolled into one.
Political parties and public gatherings are banned, and any criticism of the government suppressed. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Omani authorities continue to block local independent print media, confiscate books, clamp down on free speech, and target pro-reform activists.
Scant progress has been made in removing gender-based discrimination from marriage and family-related law. Nor in undertaking significant reform of the notoriously exploitative kafala (visa sponsorship) system. It also remains the only GCC state not to provide labour law protections to domestic workers.
A fair assessment of Qaboos’ legacy would suggest that he was a beloved moderniser with an iron fist. As an absolute monarch, he forged a social contract with a politically fragile and divided population: a paternalistic bargain of political acquiescence in return for public services, subsidies, jobs, and no taxation.
Eulogising Qaboos as a peacemaker is one thing – he did steer clear of proxy wars that tore the region apart and was genuinely popular – but Oman will have to deal with the legacy of corrupt and authoritarian governance that he leaves behind.
There is also the need to question the historiographical accounts of a “medieval nation” that underwent a “modern renaissance” upon the ingenuity of an enlightened Sultan.
Take the socio-economic reforms undertaken after his accession – they were, in no small part, the result from pressure exerted by the Dhofar revolutionary movement.
An absolutist narrative has centred the Sultanic figure as the prime mover of the country’s development. Instead, focus should shift from the ruler to the Omani men and women who, through popular mobilisation, created history and facilitated the country’s transformation.
While revered for propelling Oman into modernity, Qaboos’ diversification efforts have fallen short and socio-economic fault lines surfaced in his latter years.
In 2011, popular discontent over joblessness and living standards saw thousands of Omanis demonstrate nationwide, triggered by the Arab Spring. Qaboos promised to create jobs and boost salaries; however, increased public spending left Oman vulnerable following the 2014 downturn in oil prices.
It has since seen its fiscal deficit swell, fuel subsidies slashed, infrastructure projects delayed, and austerity measures implemented. Stubbornly high youth unemployment resulted in protests early last year.
Heavy reliance on hydrocarbons exports for government revenue remains a principal economic and political risk. The government is now relying on its Vision 2040 programme to encourage a coherent development framework and propel the Sultanate towards a post-oil, knowledge-based economy.
The selection of Haitham, the Oxford-educated Culture Minister, who was in charge of implementing Vision 2040, indicates Qaboos’ intention to put the economy at the forefront.
It remains to be seen is how Riyadh and Abu Dhabi respond to the transition, and if they apply pressure on Sultan Haitham to nudge Muscat into closer alignment against Tehran and Doha. Chinese and Israeli footprints have also grown in recent years.
What is clear is that Oman’s diplomatic balancing acts will be indispensable in securing the necessary investment capital and trade deals for its diversification plans to succeed.
If there is one defining feature of the Gulf monarchies, it is the centrality of regime survival. But as the 2011 Arab Spring and the rekindling of regional anti-austerity protests in 2019 have shown, if the Sultanate fails to implement extensive reforms and begins to rely on the military, it will find it hard to contain public anger and divert democratic energy as it has in the past.
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