Oman and Middle Eastern Unrest

4 MINS READFeb 28, 2011 | 21:50 GMT
Protests continued for a third day in Oman on Feb. 28, which, though small, have taken place nationwide. Fearful of the unrest, especially given the wider regional context, Omani officials have opted for concessions rather than simply strong-arm tactics. While Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is in a position of strength, various factors in the small, wealthy country warrant close monitoring.
Protests continued for a third straight day in Oman on Feb. 28. While small — the largest numbered in the low thousands — the unrest appears to be taking place nationwide. The most intense demonstrations occurred in the northern industrial city of Sohar, which has seen arson and looting. Demonstrations also occurred in the capital, Muscat, and in the far south at Salalah. Oman has no political parties and protests are rare. No evidence suggests any formal civil society groups behind the unrest, and violence has been limited to Sohar, where rapid industrialization has created economic disparities and associated tensions. Clashes there between demonstrators and security forces have killed as many as a half a dozen people. Fearful that the crackdown could make matters worse, Omani authorities have opted for concessions and allowing peaceful protests. Such concessions are likely to continue, along with political reform. The first protests against corruption and rising prices were held in Muscat on Jan. 19. In the wake of the Feb. 11 ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Muscat raised the minimum wage for Omani nationals working in the private sector Feb. 16. But more peaceful protests followed Feb. 18. Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, announced 50,000 new jobs and a $390 monthly stipend for employment seekers Feb. 27, one day after he replaced six members of his Cabinet; he also increased the monthly stipend for university and vocational school students. Saudi, U.S. and even Pakistani military leaders recently have traveled to Muscat to discuss the regional situation. Oman is the second Persian Gulf Arab state to see protests after Bahrain. Since Sultan Qaboos took power in 1970 after ousting his father and quashed a rebellion in Dhofar province near the Yemeni border, Oman, which stands out from its neighbors in many ways, has experienced a great degree of stability facilitated by its small population and oil wealth. Since the mid-8th century, Oman has largely remained an independent entity with brief periods of occupation by Arab, Persian, and Turkic dynasties and the Portuguese. Some 65 percent of the country's 2,750,000 nationals follow the Ibadhi sect of Islam, which is distinct from both Sunni and Shiite Islam. Oman is also very diverse in ethno-linguistic terms with significant Balochi, East African and South Asian minorities; some 580,000 foreigners reside in the country. Modern Oman has known only one ruler, the current sultan, who has over the years made some nominal steps toward making the country a constitutional monarchy but has not faced significant opposition since early in his reign. Wider regional unrest has shined a spotlight on segments of Omani society that have not benefited from the overall prosperity. These elements remained quiet until the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents galvanized them. So far, their protests have been small, and the sultan has won the loyalties of many over the years. As a graduate of the military academy at Sandhurst who served in the British army, the sultan played a key role in the development of the country's military into a modern institution, giving him the armed forces' loyalty. These factors most likely will allow the sultanate to check the unrest. That said, various factors could create political problems for the sultan.
  • Oman is the only one of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states where citizens outnumber foreigners, creating a significant stratum of natives in which dissent can manifest. Countries like Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have more foreigners than nationals, making them easier to manage for the governments.
  • Sultan Qaboos is 71, and the country has known no other ruler for more than 40 years.
  • The sultan has no children and has not appointed a successor.
  • The royal family is large enough to support intrigue to succeed the sultan.
Even though the sultan is seen as the man who brought security, stability, prosperity and modernity to the country, the factors above and the wider regional unrest put Oman's future in play. Muscat will thus likely be forced to engage in political reforms to accompany the economic steps it has taken.

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