Oman's Challenges After Sultan Qaboos

10 MINS READJul 13, 2012 | 11:02 GMT
Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said

Oman's geography makes the country difficult to rule. Uniting the distinct population centers created by the country's mixture of mountains and desert has been a costly enterprise. An inability to keep up with global economic changes and centuries of weak internal rule resulted in long periods of strong foreign presence in the country, especially along the coast. Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said has strengthened his country and maintained a balance of internal and external interests while building functional government institutions as well as a cohesive national identity.

Sultan Qaboos' reluctance to name a successor despite his advanced age and health problems could have serious repercussions for Oman's future stability. Oman's strategic location and historically weak government, combined with diminishing profits from hydrocarbons, will recreate conditions for increased regional and international competition for influence in Oman after the sultan's death. 

Situated at the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, mainland Oman is not a littoral Persian Gulf state like its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members. Oman's position in the middle of the Indian Ocean and its relationship with other Indian Ocean communities have largely framed its history. The Musandam Peninsula, an exclave separated from the mainland by the United Arab Emirates, gives Oman control of the shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz. This proximity to the strait led pre-Islamic Persian empires to extend their control over much of present-day Oman and explains Tehran's strategy of maintaining friendly relations with Muscat.

Oman's two main population centers, Muscat and Salalah, occupy small coastal strips separated from the desert by mountain ranges. For centuries, the al-Said family has ruled the cosmopolitan trading hub of Muscat and other coastal communities. Territorial control expanded to Zanzibar, off the Tanzanian coast, and to Gwadar, Pakistan, in the 18th century after Oman recovered from Portuguese and Persian attempts at colonization.

071212 Map - Oman

The sultanate's location at the center of monsoon-based Indian Ocean trading routes allowed Muscat to earn considerable profits until steam power rendered Omani dhows obsolete. The abolition of the slave trade — Oman's second-largest economic activity — in the 19th century led to more than 100 years of economic and political decline in the country. Muscat lost territorial holdings and increasingly came under British influence. Before then, Oman had been a relatively powerful and independent state. Its strategic geographic position put Oman in the sights of many foreign powers but also enabled the country to develop a distinct identity. Indeed, the majority of Oman's population is Ibadi, an Islamic tradition separate from the mainstream Sunni and Shiite denominations.

The country's desert interior has long been home to the Ibadi Imamate that ruled from the Omani city of Nizwa. The Imamate comprised a separate authority in central Oman largely independent of Muscat. Nizwa vied with the sultans in Muscat for authority over the interior beginning in the 18th century until the 1950s, when oil discoveries sparked an imam-led rebellion against the coast-based sultan. Foreign military backing helped to suppress the rebellion and to exile the imams. The sultan took over Oman's oil and natural gas resources and established dominance over the interior.

Oman's current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, assumed control during a Western-backed palace coup against his father, former Sultan Said bin Taimur, in 1970 while the country was in the middle of yet another rebellion. Unlike the Imamate rebellions of the past, this conflict was a Yemeni-backed Marxist rebellion in the southwestern region of Dhofar. Sultan Qaboos suppressed the 15-year rebellion in 1976 with strong foreign backing — a necessity for Omani security even now.

When Sultan Qaboos took power, Oman was impoverished, internally fragmented along geographic and ideological lines and struggling to re-establish its national character after centuries of foreign control. After the Dhofar rebellion, Muscat made large investments in modernizing and rehabilitating the Omani state. Wielding almost dictatorial authority and possessing new wealth from oil and natural gas, Sultan Qaboos was able to build schools, roads, hospitals and functioning bureaucracies. This earned him the deep-rooted respect of his people despite the lack of open democratic institutions or a truly representative government. 

Oman's Current Challenges

Like most Gulf states, Oman depends on its hydrocarbon revenues to maintain living standards and social stability. Compared to its neighbors, Oman's oil and natural gas reserves are relatively small — 900 million cubic meters of natural gas and 5.5 billion barrels of oil. Between 2000 and 2007, oil production fell more than 25 percent to 715,000 barrels per day. Subsequent enhanced oil recovery techniques have helped Oman recoup nearly 50 percent of its lost production, but the increased difficulties and costs of production have forced Sultan Qaboos to sign deals with foreign investors that have lowered Muscat's average share of the profits. Oman makes less money from its hydrocarbon exports than neighboring Gulf states. Any large-scale expansion of its hydrocarbon sector is unlikely because of ongoing production difficulties. Enhanced oil recovery practices, growing domestic consumption and governmental liquefied natural gas requirements have led Oman to become a natural gas importer and liquefied natural gas exporter.

Faced with dwindling energy revenues, Sultan Qaboos has forged several strategic relationships to help guarantee the Omani state's future internal stability and territorial sovereignty. First, Oman was included as a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981, even though the Omani mainland is not on the Persian Gulf. Keen to curb Iran's influence, the council's member states (which depend on the Strait of Hormuz for their own energy exports) sought to include Oman despite its stronger historical and economic ties to the Indian Ocean.

Oman's inclusion in the Gulf Cooperation Council ended nearly two decades of (largely ineffective) Saudi support for the exiled Ibadi Imamate and helped Oman settle long-standing border disputes with the United Arab Emirates. Council membership also allowed Muscat to receive part of a $20 billion loan in 2011 to help bolster the government amid protests concerning rising costs of living and high unemployment during the "Arab Spring."

By using the region's two major powers, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran, to counter each other, Oman has avoided getting pulled too close to any of these players again. But Oman still needs a strong foreign backer — formerly the United Kingdom and now the United States — to act as guarantor of its security and sovereignty. Oman is one of the main proponents of a U.S. military presence in the region and hosts three U.S. military installations. The country also still holds regular training exercises with the British military.

Sultan Qaboos has had direct involvement in and oversight of nearly all of Oman's economic, security, foreign policy and modernization decisions. Given the arrangements Sultan Qaboos has made to ensure ongoing foreign investment, national unity and good relations with Oman's neighbors — and the credit Oman's population has given him as an individual for these developments — the lack of a recognized heir seems to be a major oversight.

With numerous internal factions to please and myriad foreign interests awaiting his decision, Sultan Qaboos probably is grooming his successor in secret to avoid the internal power struggles that plague many Gulf monarchies. The sultan is rumored to have selected an heir and delivered two sealed envelopes to community leaders in Muscat and Salalah containing his decision.

Sultan Qaboos has no children or brothers, so he likely will be followed by one of his cousins. The deputy prime minister and the heads of the defense and national security ministries are all Sultan Qaboos' cousins. Each is a likely candidate, but naming one publicly as successor could earn the ire of different factions of the ruling al-Said clan. Sultan Qaboos has succeeded at diffusing governmental authority among different factions of the al-Said clan, so a balance of power remains among the cousins, and none has a visible advantage regarding the succession issue.

Oman's succession law requires that the ruling family decide on an heir within three days of the current ruler's death. If the family members cannot reach a consensus, they are to defer to the sultan's choice. Oman's tribes, the military and foreign stakeholders probably will pressure Muscat to find a successor as soon as possible.

Oman After Sultan Qaboos

Riyadh, Tehran and Washington all have an interest in who takes over in Muscat after Sultan Qaboos, given the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz. The sultan's heir must not only balance external interests in Oman but also maintain the nuanced relationship between the sultanate and its various internal constituencies. The involvement of traditional tribal groups near Salalah, the religious Ibadi groups of Oman's interior and the economic elite of Muscat is necessary for a successful, unified Omani state. The current concentration of power in the position of the sultan, Oman's dependence on foreign backers and the absence of a publically designated heir have created a situation in which foreign powers will try to influence Omani political forces in order to accommodate their interests.

Saudi Arabia likely will present its interests to the tribal groups based in southwestern Oman that support a strong monarchy. These groups initially questioned the legitimacy of the Western-backed coup that put Sultan Qaboos on the throne, and Saudi Arabia has experience in working with Arab tribal dynamics. Saudi Arabia's strong Wahhabi tradition has put it at odds with the less radical Ibadi tradition prevalent in Oman, and it supported the exiled Ibadi Imamate during Riyadh's disputes with Muscat. Because of this, Oman's traditional tribal groups are wary of Saudi attempts to expand Gulf Arab hegemony over the peninsula. The lack of major industries in the region makes these tribal groups economically dependent on subsidies and cash payments from the central government. Saudi Arabia is particularly well positioned to boost the region's economy through investments in Salalah's popular tourism industry.

Iran's majority Shiite population, history and culture make it an outsider in the Gulf community, much like Oman. The sultanate is Iran's second-largest regional smuggling hub outside of Dubai; Muscat does not actively monitor these activities, as part of its informal accommodation of Iranian interests. Iranian investments in Oman and friendly relations between Muscat and Tehran have led to a good working rapport with government officials in Muscat, one of whom will likely be the next sultan. Both sides would like to see the status quo maintained, even though Salalah's tribal elements resent the history of Persian conquest and Ibadi religious leaders disagree with several elements of Iran's Twelver Shiite theology. Additionally, Oman must be wary of becoming so openly close to Iran that the relationship disrupts the balance with the other Gulf countries and the United States.

The U.S. strategy for Oman is to ensure that a friendly government replaces Sultan Qaboos in Muscat in order to maintain U.S. interests in the region, especially the unhindered continuation of energy exports through the Strait of Hormuz. Some members of Oman's elite want to strengthen Muscat's relationship with Washington, and Muscat could try strengthening its relationship with the United States as it faces greater pressure from its neighbors. However, the sultanate likely would be cautious in such a pursuit, in order to avoid the delegitimizing effect the foreign-backed military coup had during Sultan Qaboos' early reign. Both the tribes and the Ibadi religious leaders would disapprove of a new sultan who was seen as overly accommodating to the United States, and Muscat's economic elite would be wary of possible unrest affecting foreign investment.

There is a potential fourth regional player, with interests similar to Oman's, that could play a larger role in the sultanate's future. Like Sultan Qaboos, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his Saudi-backed father in a palace coup with Western support and has quickly transformed and modernized his country by using its vast natural gas reserves. Qatar is trying to increase its influence in the region, and supporting a future Omani regime would help it meet its regional ambitions.

Qatar is also geographically distant enough not to threaten Omani sovereignty, and Doha has no religious associations preventing it from a close working relationship with Oman's Ibadi population. As an Arab monarchy, Qatar should have few problems with Oman's tribes. Moreover, Qatar supplies Oman with the extra natural gas it needs to provide electricity to its people and meet its liquefied natural gas export commitments. Qatar could easily, and discreetly, increase piped natural gas exports to Oman, which would allow the sultanate to use its natural gas liquefaction capabilities to increase exports and help fill government coffers.

Given the careful rebuilding process Sultan Qaboos has implemented since 1970 and the meticulous balancing of foreign interests that has resulted in a relatively stable Gulf Arab society, Sultan Qaboos is unlikely to leave Oman's future to chance after his death. However, without a formal investiture of authority and public approval from Oman's tribal, religious and economic elite, Sultan Qaboos' heir — whoever he might be — probably will not be able to rule without foreign support. 

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