Qaboos’ philosophy key to Oman’s development
The passing of Sultan Qaboos has drawn concern that it has created a huge vacuum at a time of great tumult in the Middle East. Oman’s neutrality in a region torn apart by divisions has been heralded as the late sultan’s greatest legacy, propelling his small nation to global prominence as the most important interlocutor between the West and some of the region’s most troublesome powers. However, for the new Sultan Haitham, the real gem among the treasures he will inherit is Oman’s human capital.
It is dangerous and intellectually clumsy to see the history of the Gulf through British government archives but, while considering Oman’s story over the last four decades, one cannot fail to admire how far the nation has come. As rebellion gripped Oman in the early 1970s, a British Ministry of Defense missive noted “our aim is to see Qaboos form a stable regime and one which is respected by his Arab neighbors.” As world leaders this week raced to offer their condolences, the realization of this policy was all too clear. On the regional and international level, the country that began as the divided realm of Muscat and Oman is now a mature and greatly respected member of the global community.
In 2010, the UN ranked Oman first in advancement up the Human Development Index over the previous 40 years, ahead of China — a far cry from the country Sultan Qaboos found himself at the helm of in 1970. Back then, aside from the few Omanis working for the Royal Air Force, the American Oil Company or in the sultan’s service, many had no means of earning a reasonable livelihood in their country. Omanis often went abroad to oil-rich neighboring states as manual laborers instead — a far cry from the $60,000 average annual salary Omanis earn today.
Sultan Qaboos’ father reigned Oman through oppression. Muscat, nestled among rocky hills, was unrecognizable from the cosmopolitan oasis it is today. At dusk, the authorities would fire a cannon and close the city’s gates; anyone caught walking without a light thereafter was reportedly shot. Records describe Omanis not being able to buy a radio or a bicycle without the sultan’s permission, while at one school only 5 percent of Omanis were literate. The sultanate Qaboos took over was a divided one — British dispatches from the time warned that “the unity of Muscat and Oman must be maintained.”
The much-documented Dhofar Rebellion early in his reign took on a radical identity. Allied with the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf and supported by South Yemen, it risked drawing Oman into one of the region’s most intractable conflicts. Forcefully putting it down, Qaboos chose to bring together his nation with its new-found oil wealth. Building schools and roads, Oman, which previously only had six miles of roads connecting the airfield to the sultan’s palace, soon had a connected network of 18,000 miles. Literacy rocketed to 96 percent, while hospitals, stadiums, ports and other modern infrastructure across the country dramatically improved the lives of his people. Where regional leaders cultivated their image as benevolent fathers to their people to mask brutal repression, Qaboos genuinely worked to bring about Oman’s very own renaissance, or “nahda.” He truly became synonymous with Oman and its developmental success.
Succession in the Al-Said dynasty has always been a complicated affair. Peaceful transitions of power were rare and Qaboos, conscious of the precariousness of monarchical rule, did grow aloof. Often sat alone, he was every inch the sultan, issuing decrees from afar and assuming all the chief portfolios of state in a centralization rarely seen in the modern world. Leaving his choice of successor under lock and key, his Byzantine approach to his future and that of his country left many guessing as to how this, the most hyper-centralized of states, would continue in a post-Qaboos world.
Qaboos genuinely worked to bring about Oman’s very own renaissance, or ‘nahda’.
Zaid M. Belbagi
True to form, however, his choice was a wise one. Picking from a tribe of cousins, he left his realm to Haitham bin Tariq Al-Said, a sure and steady alternative to his more ambitious and indeed wealthy peers. At 65, the new sultan will not have the length of tenure his predecessor had to build a state in his own image. Oman, like many nations in the Arab world, faces the challenges of a burgeoning youth population, depressed hydrocarbon prices and an increasingly geopolitically unstable region.
Some 21 million barrels of oil pass through the strait upon which Oman sits every day — a tanker every 10 minutes. Sharing this narrow waterway with the regime in Tehran will continue to be a challenge. And, having recorded a budget deficit for each of the last 10 years, Oman urgently needs to build its services and logistics industries if it is to succeed in implementing the late sultan’s vision of being a prosperous regional hub.
Though Sultan Haitham cannot be expected to fully continue past policies, he would do well to keep in mind Qaboos’ pertinent pronunciation of his political philosophy: “We work for construction and development at home, and for friendship and peace, justice and harmony, coexistence and understanding, and positive, constructive dialogue abroad.”
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid