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  • Ali Atia

Oman: Death of a sultan

Sultan Qaboos bin Said ruled Oman from 1970 until his death in January 2020 at age 79, to be succeeded by one of his cousins, Haitham bin Tariq. His extraordinary reign modernised the nation and made it a diplomatic hub in one of the world’s most unstable regions.

Oman’s transformation during those 50 years is difficult to overstate. In 1970, slavery had not yet been abolished. Its public services were lacking or non-existent. It had around six miles of paved road. Today Oman has around 20,000 miles of paved highway, is classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank, and boasts a 93% literacy rate alongside an average life expectancy of 73.

The nation’s development under Qaboos was not limited only to domestic improvements. His policy of neutrality in a region characterised by strife allowed him to maintain peaceful relations with often conflicting states. Qaboos did not participate in the boycott against Qatar led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain. He refused to intervene along with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and was one of the first Arab countries to open trade relations with Israel after the signing of the Camp David accords in 1979.

The reputation he cultivated led to Oman taking on a unique role with regards to Iran – which has long been a source of worry and tension to the West and neighbouring Arab states – as a mediator and deal-broker. In 2013, Muscat was home to secret meetings which eventually led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal between the UN Security Council’s permanent members, along with Germany and Iran; it was intended to prevent the latter from developing nuclear weapons.

Qaboos was a rare example of an effective benevolent dictator, combining absolutist leadership with good governance and a satisfied populace. It is this combination which his successor, Haitham, will likely find difficult to replicate.

This will not be his only challenge, for oil is another. For one thing, since the oil glut which began in 2015 and the accompanying fall in prices, Oman has increasingly struggled to pay for itself, with budgetary deficits skyrocketing in the years following. Its oil reserves also appear to be dwindling. 65 percent of Oman’s energy consumption is based on crude oil. If present trends continue, some estimates predict it may run out in the 2030s. A 1995 attempt by Qaboos to diversify the Omani economy, known as Vision 2020, was largely unsuccessful. It remains to be seen whether Haitham will be able to manage a renewed Vision 2040.

Other domestic issues, such as unemployment and resentment of autocracy, will also plague Haitham’s reign. Though Oman emerged relatively unscathed from the 2011 Arab Spring, it was the site of some protests, which Qaboos quelled by the introduction of 50,000 new public jobs, an increase in the minimum wage, and the expulsion of a third of his cabinet’s members. Whilst the Omani populace does not seem particularly interested in overthrowing its governments, a desire for change is clearly present. Yet the Omani government has cracked down on activists demanding greater political freedoms and increased government effort towards combating the nation’s high youth unemployment. Haitham will likely encounter greater unrest than his predecessor.

This is not to mention the nation’s foreign policy. Tensions around Iran have been on the rise since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, coming to a head with the recent American strike on Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force. In a speech after Qaboos’ death, Haitham vowed to “continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully", a sign that he intends to maintain the diplomatic legacy. Whether he will be able to withstand pressure from his neighbours – particularly Saudi Arabia – to take sides, is another question.

Sultan Qaboos is a monumental figure in Omani history. He revolutionised the nation and gained the trust of its people and the world. Qaboos’ shadow will be hard to escape, and his successor’s responses to the major challenges which face him will decide whether he will be looked on with a similar admiration in the coming years.

Image - Flickr (Tribes of the world)

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