Political change is sweeping through much of the Middle East. From Tunisia and Egypt to Jordan and Kuwait, the slow march toward democratization has been a difficult transition, especially for the Arab monarchies. Despite regional complications, even relatively stable states like Oman and Qatar (which has scheduled municipal elections for July 2013) are changing tactics, shifting from a decadeslong strategy of keeping their populations pacified through financial appeasement to the implementation of small-scale democratic reforms.
Oman was not entirely immune to the unrest that spread across the Arab world in 2011. But protests in Oman were peaceful and called for labor reform rather than overthrowing the government. Protesters also wanted greater citizen participation in the government, which has functioned as an enlightened absolute monarchy under Qaboos.
The nationwide municipal elections will not be Oman's first elections. In 1991, Muscat held elections for representatives to the Sultan's advisory body, the Majlis al Shura. The Majlis al Shura has neither legislative powers nor influence over national security or foreign policy. The body has the right to question ministers — a power used during workers' strikes in May and June. The Majlis al Shura helped end the strike by questioning ministers and leaders of Petroleum Development Oman and acting as a buffer against public anger and a mediator that let workers voice their demands.
The Dec. 22 elections will choose municipal councils that will serve a similar non-legislative advisory role on a more local level. Stability has been the hallmark of Qaboos' reign and the guiding principle in most of his major decisions, from foreign affairs to energy investments. The municipal elections adhere to this principle of stability by creating an avenue for the government to address social grievances with the aim of preempting future widespread unrest and greater foreign involvement.
Also with stability in mind, Muscat announced in August that over 10 years it would invest $100 billion (nearly 140 percent of 2011 gross domestic product) into the country's stalling energy sector. Oman's oil and natural gas reserves are among the smallest in the region, but the long-term stability of hydrocarbon revenues has formed the foundation for the stable Arab state Qaboos has built. By leading the Gulf in expensive enhanced oil and natural gas recovery techniques and at times importing natural gas from Qatar to maintain liquefied natural gas exports, Muscat has demonstrated that it will make difficult, costly decisions to ensure the stability of its economy in the long term.
Though the government's focus has been stability, Qaboos may be a major cause of instability in the future. In his 70s, the Sultan has not yet named an heir, and there are strong indications that one will not be named until after Qaboos' death. Without a period of public grooming and legitimization, Qaboos is relying on a complex system of public involvement in strong state institutions fueled by energy dollars to support his future successor.
The risks of instability are not Oman's alone. The critical energy shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz are fully within Omani territorial waters, a fact that Muscat has successfully leveraged with global naval powers (first the United Kingdom and now the United States) in return for security backing and help retaining its independence. Also, as an arena for competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Oman helps maintain the regional balance by keeping either power from gaining too much control over the strait.
An imminent or dramatic political shift in Oman is unlikely. Historically, reforms and economic revitalization campaigns have been able to forestall major political change for years. Oman's reaction to regional shifts will help it remain stable and therefore less susceptible to future interference by its larger, more powerful neighbors.