Key fact

Sultan Qaboos has been in power since 1970 and is both head of state and head of the government

Source: MEED

While the 2011 Arab uprisings have deposed two leaders in the Middle East and North Africa and left other nations battling violent insurrections, the impact in Oman has been much less dramatic.

For the traditionally conservative sultanate, the fact that any protests took place at all was a major shock for the ruling elite. The demonstrations in January, February and March were the first direct challenge to the successful 40-year rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said.

The sultan is hugely popular and as such, he has weathered the storm around him well, moving quickly to stem the protests by announcing significant reforms. Whether they will prove sufficient remains unknown.

“The protests were largely about economic issues rather than political,” says a diplomatic source in Muscat. “No one was calling for regime change and you can draw this distinction between Oman and the rest of the region, but they were definitely inspired [by North Africa].

Popular protests in Oman

Protesters took to the streets in early 2011 to demand higher wages, improved employment opportunities and an end to state corruption. Demonstrators staged a sit-in outside the Majlis al-Shura to demand that the representative body be given legislative powers. 

Much of the unrest was focused in Sohar, the centre of Oman’s industrial sector. For several days, hundreds of  protesters blocked the entrance to Sohar port, which exports 160,000 barrels a day of refined oil products, and the adjacent industrial area.

“In Sohar, [as a result of development of the port and industrial zone] a lot of people who relied on the sea for fishing have been displaced. There is resentment there as local people didn’t get the jobs,” the diplomatic source says. “The protests were bigger there and Sohar is on the main road between Muscat and UAE, so it was quite strategic to block the [Globe] roundabout. I think there was also an element of bored youth.”

No one was calling for regime change and you can draw this distinction between Oman and the rest of the region

Diplomatic source in Muscat

In response to the protests, Sultan Qaboos announced a series of political and economic reforms, including several cabinet reshuffles in which more than a dozen ministers were removed. National Economy Minister Ahmed Macki was not only dismissed, but his ministry was also dissolved. It had widely been blamed for not creating sufficient new jobs. Despite firm promises of reform, questions remain over how and when some of them will be implemented. While the reshuffle served to acknowledge and appease protesters’ demands, it failed to outline whether allegedly corrupt cabinet ministers would be brought to justice. Some analysts say this could be a potential trigger for further protests.

A royal decree grants legislative and regulatory powers to the Council of Oman, which had previously only been a consultative body. Pension reforms are also announced.

“In the short-term, the response was sufficient, but there are two main issues: first, will the promised jobs materialise and will the people be happy with them?” says the diplomatic source. “Second, people weren’t protesting against the sultan himself, but against people close to him, who they assume have been pulling the wool over his eyes. A lot of people, who are happy with the changes, are asking why people aren’t being prosecuted.”

Leadership concerns

Others agree. “I think the sultan’s responses were enough, but he needed to set out more clearly how the promises he made would be implemented,” says Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at the Institute of Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies at Durham University. “As it stands, many prosecutors and activists disbelieve that they can actually be carried out.”

In the context of Gulf monarchies, Qaboos is a reformer … the system cannot be an absolute monarchy forever

Diplomatic source in Muscat

The reshuffles have also created additional problems in the short term. There is now a glaring lack of experience among the leadership of many of Oman’s ministries. This has already impacted decision-making and caused some infrastructure projects to be delayed.

“[Only] five or seven of the new ministers have a degree, so there is a lack of experience and knowledge beyond Oman or their own tribes,” says the diplomatic source. “Also, the lower house [of parliament] should want more powers, but a lot of new members don’t want the additional responsibility – how will they reconcile that?”

One of the sultan’s major reforms was to announce the creation of a committee tasked with giving lawmaking powers to the Council of Oman. The Council of Oman comprises representatives elected from the Shura Council and from the State Council, whose members are appointed by the sultan himself. At present, only the sultan and his cabinet can legislate. This is particularly significant as parliamentary elections are planned for later this year. Held every four years, all nationals above 21 are eligible to vote and stand for election to the Majlis al-Shura. Given the heightened sense of tension in the country, the outcome of the election due to be held in October/November is now eagerly awaited.

“Non-traditional people threw their hats into the ring. It will be interesting to see how it ends. Will voters embrace the opportunity to vote or will they vote for the same people?” says the diplomat. “Traditionally, they are conservative, but then lots of people came out to protest.”

Qaboos’ successor

Expanding the role of the Council of Oman is one way that Sultan Qaboos can implement political reforms without significantly diluting his own authority. It could also ease concerns over his succession.

The recent political instability has increased concern over the lack of a named successor. Oman is an absolute monarchy and Sultan Qaboos has been in power since 1970. He is both head of state and head of the government. He is also prime minister and heads the ministries of defence, foreign affairs and finance. Little is known about his personal life, but he has no heirs.

Sultan Qaboos was expected to make a major political announcement on Oman’s National Day on 18 November 2010, also his birthday, and many observers anticipated it to be the appointment of a prime minister. In the event, no announcement was made.

But in light of protests, analysts are saying  that this year’s ceremony is likely to  include an announcement. “One political demand that developed is to appoint a prime minister,” says the diplomatic source. “With November coming up, maybe this time around he might announce a prime minister. Of course, the other demand that is doable is to announce a successor.”

There is a strategy in place should a successor not be named. In the event of Sultan Qaboos’ death, a council formed of male members of the royal family with two Omani parents will get together. They will have three days to choose the successor among them and the Head of the Royal Office will supervise proceedings. If they fail to come to a consensus, then the sultan will have left two envelopes with the same name or names in each. These envelopes are said to have already been sent to the Minister Responsible for Defence Affairs.

Analysts have long warned that the uncertainty surrounding a successor has the potential to undermine the country’s economic prosperity. And those fears have now resurfaced. “Foreign partners and investors are concerned that an unpredictable successor may not be able to carry on with the process of liberalising Oman’s economy,” Davidson says.

It is a clearly a question that needs addressing. But as the cabinet reshuffles show, change carries risks with it.

“In the context of Gulf monarchies, Qaboos is a reformer. He knows the system cannot be an absolute monarchy forever,” says a diplomatic source.

“He wants change but doesn’t want it to derail development. He is concerned that a change in the governmental structure will affect economic development and I think he is right about that.”

With protests breaking out again in Sohar on 8 July, the government must make good on its promises. Demonstrators have already gained concessions from the sultan and they will continue to push until they are implemented.

Restless youth

The days when Omanis were content to reflect on how much the country has progressed since 1970 are over. The young people today are comparing their standard of living and social and economic freedoms with the West, rather than with their grandparents’ lives.

“The older generation has seen the trajectory of how far the country has come whereas the young population have been brought up with [just] the benefit of that so their starting point is completely different,” the diplomatic source says.

Now, that the young people in Oman have found their voice, the precedent has been set for the future and it poses a tough challenge for the sultanate’s policymakers, not least for the sultan himself. With parliamentary elections just months away, the time for change has never been better.

Timeline of Sultan Qaboos’ reforms

17 January: About 200 protesters gather in Muscat to demand salary increases and lower costs of living

20 February: A crowd of 300 gathers in the capital to call for the government to raise the minimum wage, beginning a week of demonstrations that spread across the country

26 February: Sultan Qaboos reshuffles his cabinet in a bid to placate demonstrators

27 February: First deaths are reported as thousands demonstrate in Sohar. Sultan Qaboos pledges to create 50,000 government jobs, provide a monthly unemployment benefit and orders a committee to look at giving the Council of Oman legislative powers

1 March: About 50 protesters sit-in outside the Majlis al-Shura

7 March: A third cabinet reshuffle sees 12 ministers removed and the Ministry of National Economy abolished

13 March: A royal decree grants legislative and regulatory powers to the Council of Oman, which had previously only been a consultative body. Pension reforms are also announced.