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Oman: a Social Contract under Strain

August 1st, 2016

By Lily van Egeraat – Research Assistant 

Situated in a region where its southern neighbour Yemen is torn by a sectarian war in which both its western neighbour Saudi-Arabia and its overseas neighbour Iran are involved, the Sultanate of Oman finds itself surrounded by tensions and turmoil. Add to this Oman’s alliance with the US whilst upholding a friendly relationship with Iran due to the shared interests in the Strait of Hormuz – one of the world’s major transit points for oil – and it is hard to deny Oman’s geopolitical importance. However, decade-long stability has obscured Oman’s salience on the international world stage. Under Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s forty yearlong reign, Oman has been able to maintain a neutral stature. This is reflected in its foreign policy of abstaining from involvement in both the Syrian and Yemeni civil war. Interference in the region is restricted to playing a mediating role, as demonstrated by the critical role Oman played by facilitating initial meetings that ultimately led to the Iran Nuclear Deal.[1]

Yet there are signs indicating that in the coming years, Oman will be exposed to domestic challenges of an unprecedented scale in its modern history. These challenges can weaken the extent to which Oman can retain its neutral and stable outlook internationally. Sultan Qaboos has been the source upon which the stability of Oman rests. However, the Sultan’s age, waning health and the absence of an heir warrants concern with regards to the future form of the Omani regime. When Qaboos deposed his father in 1970, no conception existed of an Omani state or nation. Therefore, imperative to the consolidation of his power was the creation of national unity and identity.[2] He centralised the authority to allocate the revenues from the sale of oil in the state and invested these revenues directly in social provisions such as infrastructure, health care and education. This served multiple purposes; it enabled Qaboos to create personal ties with the population, build a state apparatus and weaken sources of power from traditional groups while simultaneously establishing lines of dependency between these groups and the regime. Moreover, divisions in society were not institutionalised in government primarily due to the absence of political parties. Hence, rather than allowing majorities and minorities to vie for power, the Sultan ensured that the prime division in society was the one between the regime and the people. Domestic stability equally derives from his ability to stem sectarian tendencies. Along with a majority of the Omani population, Qaboos is a Muslim of the Ibadi denomination. It is a moderate strand of Islam which is neither Sunni nor Shia but holds tolerant views towards both.[3] In this spirit, he has neutralised extremism and religious fundamentalism through preaching Oman’s traditional values of moderation, dialogue and tolerance towards other views and religions.[4] In sum, the Sultan’s political power is underpinned by the consolidation of all political and economic power within a state that is personified by himself, and in which viable political and religious alternatives have so far been eliminated.

In Hobbesian tradition, the social contract in Oman is defined by the delivery of social services by the Leviathan in exchange for the peoples’ relinquishment of political rights.[5] Although the Arab Spring put to the test the sustainability of this social contract, it was the deep-rooted popularity of the Sultan which enabled the regime to overcome the pressures that young protesters exerted. Despite their early manifestations in January 2011, the protests in Oman received limited international attention. However, that did not remove their domestic significance as the uprisings were the most notable expressions of discontent the Sultan had faced during his reign. What distinguished these protests from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria is that the authority of Qaboos himself was never called into question as the protesters did not demand the ousting of the Sultan.[6] Instead, they pressed for economic and social reforms, to which the Sultan responded by addressing their grievances quickly and decisively, through engagement with the people, consulting with tribesmen and making the requisite concessions.[7] The absence of demands calling for Qaboos’s removal was a testimony of the legitimacy he had built up as – what Weber defines as – a traditional and charismatic ruler.[8] The transformation of Oman into a nation state proved sufficiently solidified to withstand uprisings to which other rulers in the region had succumbed.  

However, the social contract is once again increasingly subject to pressures. The decline in oil prices has weakened Oman’s predominantly rentier economy, which is the foundation of Qaboos’s ability to maintain ties and dependencies with the population. A large generation of young, increasingly educated people, who are more outward looking and less bounded by the traditional cores underlying Qaboos’s policy, feel increasingly disenfranchised. Due to his universal popularity, these concerns will not be dire for as long as Qaboos is in power. However, in a state in which its nation is bound around its sovereign, the loss of a leader without an assigned successor can send tremors that could potentially shake the very foundation on which the state was built. A struggle for power or a new leader with a weakened base of legitimacy would pose significant challenges to Oman’s institutions.

Yet, despite the vulnerability of Oman’s domestic status quo in terms of its reliance on one ruler, the case of Oman provides important considerations for regime stability and for the Western peacebuilding enterprise. Oman’s transformation under Qaboos’ rule has followed a trajectory in which democracy as we know it in the west was sacrificed for the strengthening of state- and nation building capacities. This has been in stark contrast to the majority of Western peacebuilding approaches, which centre on the immediate move towards a free market economy and democratic governance structures. However, bringing about sudden political and economic liberalisation has the potential to cause instability without functioning state institutions which usually facilitate these processes and address their negative impacts.[9] Oman epitomises stability which is brought about by prioritising state building processes and informal consultations with the population over the establishment of a formal democracy. After all, for the sake of stability and consolidation of state power, limited political rights frequently become the opportunity cost of this social contract.

Oman’s stability and its role in a region that is fraught with turmoil should be considered an asset. In all likelihood will Oman spend the next decade without its current leader. To preserve the positive influences Oman can exert in the region, international efforts should be invested in building upon that stability and facilitating the road towards a more democratic dispensation. This pathway should be specifically tailored to Oman in terms of pace and design rather than follow a template whose failures have been witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[1] Almajdoub, Sumaya. 2016. “Discrete Diplomacy: Oman the Iran Nuclear Deal.” 25 April. <http://www.e-ir.info/2016/04/25/discrete-diplomacy-oman-and-the-iran-nuclear-deal/> (17 July 2016).

[2] Valeri, Marc. 2009. Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State. London: Hurst & Company.

[3] Jones, Jeremy and Nicholas Ricour. 2012. Oman, Culture and Diplomacy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[4] Pappas Funsch, Linda. 2015. Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Mondernisation. International Relations and Development Collection.

[5] The Economist. 2014. “Oman’s Succession after the Sultan: Can a Peaceful and Prosperous Nation Stay that Way?” 6 December. <http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21635473-can-peaceful-and-prosperous-nation-stay-way-after-sultan> (17 July 2016).

[6] Worrall, James. 2012. “Oman: The “Forgotten” Corner of the Arab Spring.” Middle East Policy 19(3): 98-115.

[7] Pappas Funsch, Linda. 2015. Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernisation. International Relations and Development Collection.

[8] Weber, Max. 1919. “Politics as Vocation.” In: From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 1991. London: Routledge: 77-128.

[9] Paris, Roland. At War’s End; Building Peace after Civil Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About Lily van Egeraat

Lily van Egeraat is currently finalising her master’s studies in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of St Andrews. She previously graduated cum laude in International Relations at the University of Leiden. Her research interests include military interventions in the context of UN peacekeeping, peace enforcement and humanitarian intervention, as well as peacebuilding, (counter)insurgency and state / non-state actor relationships.