Oman government sits in limbo

10 March 2015

With Sultan Qaboos still receiving medical treatment in Germany, the political elite is hesitant to make important decisions

Oman’s future has never been more uncertain and fears over its absent ruler’s health are growing. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said has been in Germany receiving medical treatment since July 2014. Succession, while still a taboo topic for discussion, is at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the sultanate.

The majority of Omani nationals remember no ruler other than Sultan Qaboos.

In the absence of the sultan, the government is doing its best to keep business going as usual, but a lack of authority is causing decision-making to slow. The huge slump in oil prices since mid-2014 is also complicating the picture.

Ministers hesitant

Although the approval of a budget in the first days of 2015, and the tendering of megaprojects such as the national railway suggest the state is still functioning, even the most senior ministers are reluctant to take major decisions for fear of displeasing the absent ruler.

The political elite are afraid of making any important decisions that could backfire or displease the sultan

Marc Valeri, University of Exeter

A lack of communication surrounds the plight of the sultan, and the population trades rumours and awaits his rare public appearances.

One thing remains clear: despite the rumblings of dissent since 2011, and the back-room manoeuvring of pretenders to the throne, the political legitimacy of Sultan Qaboos as founder of the nation is untouchable. It is essential for the next ruler to inherit that mantle of legitimacy, but Sultan Qaboos’ unassailable position also prevents open discussion of, or campaigning for, his choice of successor.

“The political elite are afraid of making any important decisions that could backfire or displease the sultan if he returns,” says Marc Valeri, senior lecturer and director of the Centre for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK. “The next ruler will have to rely heavily on [Sultan] Qaboos’ legitimacy as the father of the nation to confront the serious political and economic challenges Oman faces.”

Continuity and uncertainty

Since taking the throne in 1970, Sultan Qaboos has built the infrastructure and institutions of a modern state, and yet has kept power highly concentrated in his person. Unlike other GCC rulers, he has not appointed a prime minister or crown prince, and has no obvious heir. He remains head of state and government, as well as supreme commander of the armed forces, prime minister and head of the central bank, while holding the ministerial portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and finance.

For political power, the sultan chose early in his reign to rely on the business elite while excluding members of his own family from important positions and affairs of state. In the past decade, members of the royal family have become active in business and built up important assets, but still hold only minor government positions. Big business, although losing influence, is allied with the sultan; keeping the status quo protects its interests. 

Nobody wants to visibly prepare for the future, as this would [imply] that the post-Qaboos period has started

Marc Valeri, University of Exeter

This strategy functioned well until 2011 to ensure stability and prevent other members of the royal family from challenging the leader’s authority. But while Sultan Qaboos receives medical treatment in Germany, it leaves Oman without a clear future path, or effective decision-makers.

Ministers and the royal family are taking a politically risk-averse line, which means Oman’s economic direction remains unchanged despite lower oil prices. The modern institutions the sultan created, while functioning on a day-to-day basis, are without political leadership and are uncomfortable acting autonomously.

“There is no clear leadership in the absence of the sultan, although Khalid bin Hilal al-Busaidi, the minister of the Royal Diwan Court and a distant relative of [Sultan Qaboos], is probably coordinating decisions,” says Valeri. “Nobody wants to visibly prepare for the future, as this would give the impression that the post-Qaboos period has started. Both the population and the government are in a wait-and-see state of mind.”

Foreign policy

Foreign policy has been less affected than other areas of government by Sultan Qaboos’ absence, as Foreign Minister Yousef Alawi has held his role for 30 years and is well-known in the region. Muscat continues to play a mediating role between the US and Iran on nuclear issues. Omani-Iranian political and economic ties remain strong as the Strait of Hormuz between the two countries is a vital international shipping route, and the Islamic Republic continues to invest heavily in the sultanate’s industry.

Key fact

Sultan Qaboos has been in Germany for medical treatment since July 2014

Source: MEED

Its mediation role allows Oman to take a back seat in the regional fight against the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and few, if any, citizens of the country are known to have joined the jihadist group abroad.

However, the recent breakdown of security, leading to a coup, in neighbouring Yemen poses a greater threat. Instability in Yemen could spread to the southern Omani region of Dhofar, which has a long-repressed separatist tendency, especially in the case of a protracted succession crisis.

No member of the Omani royal family has the stature or legitimacy that would make them an obvious successor. The next sultan will never by himself attain the legitimacy of the ruler who transformed Oman into a modern nation, but will need to be handed Sultan Qaboos’ mantle in order to govern effectively.

Three paternal cousins of the ruler are widely reported to be the strongest contenders: Assad bin Tariq al-Said, Haithem bin Tariq al-Said and Shihab bin Tariq al-Said, who are in their late 50s.

Lacking legitimacy

However, Sultan Qaboos’ policy of keeping the royal family removed from positions of power due to a healthy fear of coups, such as the one in which he overthrew his father 45 years ago, has left the cousins without the political experience that would qualify them for the role. They have little popular or political legitimacy other than by association with Sultan Qaboos. Only if he is widely seen to designate one of them as his successor can they hope to gain enough support to rule effectively.

Deputy Prime Minister Fahd bin Mahmood al-Said is a less likely choice. He is older than the brothers and his children could not inherit the throne as his wife is French. However, he has experience in government and appears in local newspapers daily as he takes on the sultan’s official duties.

Extensive experience in government and a clear designated successor were key elements of the successful Saudi transition earlier in 2015, when Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended to the throne following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. However, in Oman the mechanism for succession is untested.

The Ruling Family Council, a body not known ever to have been defined or convened, will have just three days to unanimously choose a new sultan. Otherwise, one of several envelopes sealed by Sultan Qaboos and containing the name of his designated heir will be opened by a committee consisting of high-standing military, security and political figures from outside the royal family.

It is a system vulnerable to disagreements within the royal family. Both foreign and local advisers have pressed the sultan to name a successor. The British, with longstanding ties to Oman, dispatched special envoy Alan Duncan to Muscat within weeks of the sultan’s departure to Germany, and the other GCC states are equally keen to ensure stability.

Demands for reform

A new generation of Omani nationals, better educated and connected to the outside world through social media, has been making unprecedented demands for reform since 2011. A recent Twitter campaign targets corruption and links between big business and the state, centred on a fugitive businessman who claims court officials demanded commercial favours while hearing his case for breach of trust in a land sale. Activists see corruption prosecutions currently under way as token and not addressing deeper issues.

While Twitter and other social media are seen as a place to gauge the public mood and test the waters for possible decisions, there are limits to what opinions can safely be expressed.

A Human Rights Watch report from December 2014, accusses the Omani authorities of routinely harassing and detaining bloggers and activists who call for political and social reforms.

Despite the calls for reform, Sultan Qaboos remains popular. Many in Oman have known no other ruler and are nervous about what may come after him.

“The population is anxious, so when the sultan appeared on television in November, it was a relief to many to know Oman has not yet entered the uncertain period post-Qaboos,” says Valeri. “There are very few voices calling for protests right now, partly because the repression is quite harsh. But the next sultan’s honeymoon period will be very short.”

Uncertain outlook

The dearth of information on the condition of the sultan’s health and his plans for the country and the crown mean speculation is rife, if unproductive. Oman remains in limbo, taking short-term decisions, although a Vision 2040 strategy has been worked on since December 2013.

The future ruler will have to tackle the symptoms of deep structural issues resulting from unemployment and overdependence on natural resource exports, which Sultan Qaboos was never capable fully of solving. These include an inflated public sector and high levels of national unemployment.

Due to the involved interests of regional and international powers, a violent collapse is not seriously expected in the sultanate. However, growing regional tensions and declining oil and gas revenues means the future will be challenging.

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