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In the Heart of Mysterious Oman

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Edward Grazda
Muttrah Corniche, Muscat, Oman, 2005; photograph by Edward Grazda

1.

The Pipeline

On March 12, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, together with his foreign minister, his oil minister, the head of Iran’s central bank, and other senior Iranian officials, took a short flight across the Gulf of Oman to Muscat, the capital of Oman. Occupying the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where the Persian Gulf meets the Arabian Sea, Oman belongs to a part of the Arab world known for its hostility to Iran’s Islamic Republic. Several of Oman’s closest neighbors, including Qatar, Kuwait, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have been fighting an increasingly brutal proxy war with Iran in Syria; Iran has at various times threatened to block tankers carrying Arabian oil from passing through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which separates it from Oman.

But the purpose of this extraordinary visit—the first by President Rouhani to Arabia—was to discuss economic ties with Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, who has been ruling Oman for more than four decades. Within twenty-four hours, the two countries had concluded an agreement to build a $1 billion gas pipeline across the Gulf of Oman and provide Iranian gas to Oman for twenty-five years.

The deal showed just how quickly Iran’s position in the world has evolved. When Rouhani was elected, in June 2013, Iran was suffering from years of economic sanctions and isolation by the United States, which had deep alliances with Iran’s enemies—the mostly Sunni monarchies on the other side of the Persian Gulf. Since then, Iran has reached an interim agreement with the US to negotiate a new nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has lost considerable influence in Washington, and the Saudi-led alliance—the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Oman is a charter member—is increasingly divided. In June, when Sunni extremists swept across the northern half of Iraq, there was even talk of Washington’s and Tehran’s growing shared interests in saving the country. Though little noted in the press, the leader largely responsible for this dramatic shift was Sultan Qaboos, a staunch US ally and, measured by years in office, the most senior of the Arabian monarchs.

Unlike his flamboyant peers in Qatar and the Emirates, Sultan Qaboos has long had an aversion to publicity. But over the past year, the seventy-three-year-old sultan has asserted his country’s interests in regional affairs with unusual vigor. In August 2013, he was the first foreign head of state to visit Rouhani in Tehran, where he also met the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei; this was followed by revelations that Oman had secretly been the host for bilateral talks between Iranian and US officials that produced the breakthrough interim agreement last fall.

Then, in December, Oman publicly denounced a plan by Saudi Arabia to turn the alliance of Gulf states into a political union—a plan that was widely viewed as an attempt by Sunni hereditary rulers to counter both Shiite Iran and the popular movements that have been spreading through the Arab world. By late spring of this year, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and even Saudi Arabia itself were instead making overtures to Tehran. On June 20, Oman’s top diplomat was invited to the White House for a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, who noted that the sultanate “has helped us to be able to do things that might otherwise have been difficult,” adding that the US was especially seeking Oman’s advice about Iraq.

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Omani Ministry of Transport and Communications/Mike King

While Western leaders have been praising Oman’s diplomatic achievements, however, Omanis themselves have been preoccupied by other matters. I arrived in the capital, Muscat, a coastal city encircled by rocky cliffs, in late February, a few weeks before Rouhani’s visit. On my first day there, an Omani court sentenced two former government officials to prison—the latest in a series of graft trials involving the state oil company, the finance, housing, and transport ministries, and several Omani businessmen. The lead story in the Times of Oman, meanwhile, was “100,000 Expats to Lose Jobs in Omanisation,” a report about the country’s latest effort to force companies to hire Omani nationals rather than foreigners. And al-Balad, an outspoken new online newspaper, was asking whether it was time for Oman to have a prime minister.

Most remarkably, these matters were being talked about publicly, in a country in which any debate of government policy, let alone reforms of the monarchy, has traditionally been taboo. In Muscat, Saleh Zakwani, a publisher of several independent Omani newspapers who has occasionally run afoul of the authorities, told me, “We are in a moment of great change. Sometimes the rules aren’t clear.”

With the Gulf region, and much of the greater Middle East, entangled in civil strife and sectarian divisions, Oman looks increasingly like an anomaly. Dominated by formidable mountains and huge tracts of uninhabited gravelly desert, the country has a population of four million people dispersed across a territory the size of Italy. It is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and the hinterlands of Yemen, in which al-Qaeda has much influence. And its government is one of the most absolutist in the world.

Yet Sultan Qaboos seems to enjoy more legitimacy than most of his Arabian peers, even among Omanis who are deeply critical of the government. The country does not have problems with Salafists or Islamists. The principal religion, the little-known Ibadi branch of Islam, is distinct from the Sunni and Shia traditions but at ease with both. Despite its membership in the Sunni-dominated Gulf alliance and its close military ties to the US, Oman has maintained contacts with the Islamic Republic since the 1980s, and sponsored cease-fire talks between Baghdad and Tehran during the Iran–Iraq war. Nor are there many overt signs of a security state. Where Saudi Arabia is known for its mutaween, or religious police, and its public beheadings, Oman has recently opened, in central Muscat, the first opera house in the Arabian Peninsula.

Unlike its neighbors, the sultanate has a highly diverse society, a legacy of its earlier history as a maritime empire. Oman had a long and lucrative involvement in the Indian Ocean slave trade, and for much of the nineteenth century the Omani sultan ruled from Zanzibar, more than two thousand miles from the Arabian mainland. Sultan Faisal bin Turki, the great-grandfather of the current ruler, spoke Gujarati and Swahili far better than he spoke Arabic.

Today there is a large and ethnically mixed Swahili-speaking community, including both people of Omani origin who returned after generations in Africa and those whose ancestors were slaves. Oman’s considerable population of Balochis, descended from the larger community in what is now southwest Pakistan, are Sunni and disproportionately represented in the armed forces. Numerous merchant families on the coast are of Indian origin, including both Hindus and Shia. The more austere and conservative interior of the country is the center of Ibadi Islam, while the southern Dhofar region is dominated by Sunni Arab tribes, including the Jabbalis, a mountain people who speak their own south Arabian language.

Holding all these groups together, as the political scientist Marc Valeri explains in Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State, is a vision of “Omanity,” or national identity, that has been carefully fostered by Sultan Qaboos. In Muscat, buildings are low-slung, white, and frequently adorned with crenellations, as if to defend against the glass-fronted skyscrapers so prominent in neighboring capitals. (Since the 1980s, when the sultan adopted the country’s historic mud-brick forts as a central part of the national heritage, fort-like architectural elements have turned up on everything from mosque façades to air-conditioner boxes.) In the south, the government has begun building a 180-mile security fence along the border with Yemen, to keep out unwanted Islamists. Although it is a major oil producer and has extensive military ties with the West, Oman does not belong to OPEC, and foreign NGOs are shunned. It is one of the only states in the world without a national office of the International Red Cross.

Nonetheless, Oman has not been impervious to change. Between January and May 2011, amid the Arab uprisings, the country experienced the first large-scale protests in decades. And while the protesters pledged support for the sultan, they also demanded significant reforms, including more jobs, an independent legislature, and an end to corruption. “It was a big surprise,” Mohammed Mahfoodh al-Ardhi, the chairman of the National Bank of Oman, told me in Muscat. “Omanis are very low-key. To see young people in the streets was a shock.”

No less than other countries in the region, the sultanate is touched by profound demographic and economic challenges. Half of Omani’s total population is under the age of twenty-five, a proportion that is probably even higher if nonnationals are excluded; while foreign workers, many from Asia, make up 1.75 million, or about 45 percent, of the population, there is persistent unemployment among young Omanis themselves. Like other Gulf monarchies, Oman has sought to deal with this discontent in part by offering vast handouts and tens of thousands of new public sector jobs. But Oman’s oil and gas reserves—which it relies on for more than 85 percent of its budget—are much smaller than those of Qatar or Saudi Arabia, and expenditures are soaring.

Above all is the question of Sultan Qaboos, and what happens when he leaves the scene. For forty-four years, and to a greater extent than any other Gulf ruler, he has personally run his country; he simultaneously holds the titles of defense minister, foreign minister, finance minister, prime minister, and commander of the armed forces. But the bachelor sultan has no offspring, and has not designated any heirs. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, moreover, the ruling dynasty is not large, and very few of its members have held senior positions in government.

According to the Basic Law, which the sultan promulgated in 1996, a successor must come from the royal family and be chosen by a family council within three days of the sultan’s death; if they fail to agree, a sealed letter from the sultan, in which a successor is designated, must be opened. The inherent uncertainty of this set-up has flummoxed Western leaders. F. Gregory Gause, III, a specialist on Arabian monarachies at Texas A&M University, told me, “It’s like something out of an Alexandre Dumas novel.”

2.

The Petition

On July 3, 2010, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of his coming to power, a petition was delivered to Sultan Qaboos. Signed by fifty Omani citizens, it began by praising his remarkable achievements. In 1970, at the age of twenty-nine, he had deposed his father, who left behind a deeply underdeveloped country divided by civil war. Now, according to the United Nations, Oman ranked first in the world in its “rate of progress” on education, health, and living standards. At the same time, the sultan had resisted the culture of intolerance that infected much of the peninsula. As the petitioners wrote, His Majesty had successfully “steered the country on a different path” and avoided the “terrible adventures” taken by other rulers in the region.

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Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP/Getty Images
Omani leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said (left) greeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on his arrival in Muscat, March 12, 2014

And yet the petitioners had grave concerns. The Renaissance (al-nahda), as the era of rapid development under Sultan Qaboos is officially known, had brought few political advances. Almost every act of state was still carried out by royal decree, and the ruling elite, including tribal leaders and a small group of economically powerful families, had changed hardly at all since the 1970s. To remedy this situation, the petitioners asked the sultan for a “contractual constitution,” one that would recognize him as the “spiritual and symbolic leader” of the country, but also guarantee basic rights and provide for a fully elected legislature.

“Participation in national decision-making…is what the citizens of Oman are calling for today,” they wrote. At the time, it was far from clear whether this was true. There are no political parties and hardly any institutions of civil society in Oman; even the suggestion of disagreement with Sultan Qaboos is categorically avoided. Despite the petition’s respectful tone, many progressive Omani intellectuals did not want to be associated with it.

Seven months later, however, all of that changed. In February 2011, as people across the Arab world were revolting against authoritarian rule, thousands of Omanis took to the streets of Sohar, an industrial town in the north, and Salalah, in the south, to protest lack of jobs and political freedoms. In the capital, people gathered in front of government buildings and students rallied in the halls of Sultan Qaboos University. Petitions were drafted demanding political reforms, and some seven thousand Omanis signed a proclamation calling for an investigation of official corruption. “All the things we mentioned in our arguments in 2010 were suddenly being demanded in the streets,” said Said al-Hashmi, an Omani writer and human rights activist who helped organize the 2010 petition.*

The leadership in Muscat was broadsided. “It awoke us,” said Sayyid Badr bin Hamad al-Busaidi, the secretary-general of Oman’s Foreign Ministry, who is a close adviser to the sultan. Several other people in the capital told me that the sultan was profoundly affected when a few citizens were killed in confrontations with police.

Responding with unusual swiftness, Sultan Qaboos reshuffled his cabinet, announced that his two advisory bodies—the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) and Majlis al-Dawla (State Council)—would get additional powers, promised 50,000 new public sector jobs, and gave special authority to a public prosecutor to investigate corruption. Shortly after, he decreed a new law controlling speech on the Internet, and in the spring of 2012, several dozen activists and bloggers were arrested. (Al-Hashmi himself was jailed for protesting the detention of other activists.)

In his annual speech to the State Council in the fall of 2011, the sultan said there would be “bigger attention and greater care to provide more opportunities to the [country’s] youth,” and noted that “expanded powers” had been given to the council “in the legislative and auditing fields.” But he also warned, in what appeared to be a direct address to the protesters and petitioners, that “keeping up with the times does not mean imposing one’s ideas on other people” and that “radicalism and immoderation should not be tolerated.”

3.

The Democrats

For all of Sultan Qaboos’s untrammeled power today, Oman could hardly be said to exist when the British helped him depose his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, in 1970. Said had pursued a policy of intentional underdevelopment to maintain what tenuous authority he had, denying the country schools, roads, eyeglasses, and even cement. In 1955, traveling with the sultan on the first automobile trip between Oman’s two major cities, Salalah and Muscat, the writer Jan Morris discovered “a truly mediaeval Islamic State, shuttered against all progress under the aegis of its traditionalist and autocratic ruler.”

By the late 1960s, a Communist insurgency in the country’s impoverished Dhofar region had become one of the largest military conflicts in the history of the Arabian Peninsula. In his new book Monsoon Revolution, Abdel Razzaq Takriti, a historian at the University of Sheffield, shows how radical this uprising was. In the “liberated areas” of the Dhofari highlands, he writes, the insurgency brought about

the creation of an entirely new civic space under a unified revolutionary authority; the abolition of slavery; the introduction—for the first time since the arrival of Islam—of new supra-tribal identities; the suppression of sheikhs; the rise of members from lower tribes and slave backgrounds into positions of leadership; the arrival of reading, writing, and contemporary medicine; the introduction of new crops; the spread of modern ideologies;…and, above all, the waging of a protracted armed struggle.

The threat these revolutionaries posed to British interests in the Middle East—the British had been expelled from neighboring Yemen in 1967—was one of the principal motives for the decision to replace Sultan Said with his Sandhurst-groomed son in a coup orchestrated by London. Even so, the rebellion was only put down in 1976, after huge military expenditures and a deployment of thousands of special forces from Britain and from the Shah’s Iran. (A major air base at Thumrait in southern Oman that is now used by US forces was built by the Iranians.) As Takriti concludes his suggestive account, the Dhofaris showed that “absolutism” was “only one of several paths that Oman could have taken.”

But Sultan Qaboos had unusual advantages. His mother was the daughter of an important Jabbali sheikh, giving him local legitimacy in the south. Oil had been discovered in the late 1960s, allowing him to spend extravagantly on economic development and extensive subsidies to the Dhofar region.

And then there was religion. “If you look at a map of the Arab Spring,” Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Salimi, Oman’s minister of religious affairs, told me when I met him at his office in Muscat, “it is mainly touching Sunni countries.” In Sunni Islam, he explained, the leaders of the Muslim community derive their authority from inherited power—as descendants from the tribes of Mecca—which had “led to tension” with the people. Oman, with its history of Ibadism, was another story.

Though little known today, Ibadism reaches back to the earliest years of Islam, as an offshoot of the puritanical Khawarij sect, which broke away from the caliphate in the mid-seventh century. Settling in the interior of Oman, Ibadis sought to “dissociate” themselves from other Muslims and created the so-called Imamate—a form of theocratic government that continued off and on for more than a thousand years. Significantly, the ruler of the Imamate was chosen not by pedigree but in a process of consultation with leading men of the community. For this reason, some Omani scholars claim that Ibadis were Islam’s “first democrats.”

Despite his status as a dynast with extraordinary powers, Sultan Qaboos has acknowledged this tradition in his own rule. Upon taking power in 1970, he sought the approval of the heads of the various tribes before assuming the title of sultan. And it appears to be owing partly to Ibadi custom that he has avoided naming an heir apparent. In 2007, General Ali bin Majid al-Ma’amari, at the time the highest officer in the Omani armed forces, told the American ambassador to Muscat that designating a successor would “contradict our ‘democratic’ Ibadhi tradition, violate the Sultan’s own principles and be rejected by Omanis.”

One day I drove across the Hajar Mountains to Nizwa, the historical seat of the Imamate and the principal town of the interior region. A large, sand-colored city surrounded by date palms, Nizwa was the site of a large rebellion against the previous sultan in the 1950s; and as recently as 2005, a group of its citizens were arrested for an alleged plot to bring back the theocratic state. But as the anthropologist Mandana Limbert has powerfully documented, the complaints in this part of the country tend to be more about decadent Western influences than missing Western freedoms. Unlike Muscat, where I encountered numerous women shopowners—many of them from Swahili-speaking families—there were very few women in the Nizwa market. Notably, during the political unrest in 2011, hardly any protests were recorded in Nizwa or other interior towns.

Only a minority of Omanis now live in the interior, however, and scholars estimate that Ibadis and Sunnis may be evenly split in the overall population. Ibadism’s special status as a third branch of Islam, then, has also provided a way for the Omani leadership to avoid the Islamist identity politics that have plagued much of the region. And yet during the Arab Spring, Oman witnessed the largest protests of any Gulf monarchy save for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, countries with deep-rooted sectarian grievances. When I asked Sheikh Abdullah to account for this, he said, “It was economic injustice that brought these people into the streets. We are working to address this.”

4.

The Strategy

One of the distinctive features of the Omani Spring is how starkly it exposed the generation gap between older Omanis, who remember the country’s severe poverty when Sultan Qaboos took power, and the youth, who have grown up with the expectation of plenty. Alongside a constitutional monarchy and an independent legislature, for example, the 2011 protesters also demanded lower utility bills and longer paid holidays. But this has made it easier for the government to neutralize pressure for reforms. “We lost a lot of supporters,” Said al-Hashmi, the human rights activist, told me. “It’s too hard to continue the struggle when you are offered a job and benefits.”

There is one sector where the protests’ effect on political culture has been profound. From the outset of his reign, Sultan Qaboos has relied on the steadfast support of a small number of leading merchant families, who have benefited disproportionately from the country’s rapid modernization. By the 2000s, it had become routine for major infrastructure contracts to go to the same four or five Omani companies, leading to charges of widespread corruption. Since 2011, the newly empowered prosecutor’s office has launched a series of high-profile graft investigations, including a case involving tens of millions of dollars stashed in a Swiss bank account.

“The public prosecutor answers directly to the sultan and can investigate anybody,” Saleh Shaibani, a financial journalist and columnist for an Omani paper, told me. “It wouldn’t have happened without the protests.” As in other Arabian monarchies, the Omani press has long been tightly restrained, particularly on matters related to the government. Yet almost daily during my visit to Oman this spring, the local papers were filled with stories about the corruption cases, and this seemed to be encouraging debate on other issues as well.

One of the more dramatic developments was the launch in 2012 of al-Balad, the online newspaper that has set out to engage in political debates others have traditionally avoided. Turki al-Baloushi, the paper’s twenty-seven-year-old editor, explained that the paper has managed to survive in part because it privileges information over opinion, avoids heated rhetoric, and seeks comment from the government. When I asked him whether al-Balad’s article this February about creating a prime minister was controversial, he said, “There is a view that having a prime minister who could be hired and fired would take pressure off the sultan, and there could be movement on this in a few years. These are issues we can talk about without any problem.”

For Sultan Qaboos, allowing this mild political opening has also been a way to promote reform, but on his own terms. While rejecting a political union with the other Gulf monarchies, Oman has given support to a security alliance that would, among other things, allow Gulf states to help each other in the event of domestic disturbances—as occurred in Bahrain in 2011, when Saudi troops were deployed to help prop up the regime. Meanwhile, the growing sectarian crisis in Iraq and, perversely, the windfall of higher oil prices it brings have, for the time being, reinforced a sense among many Omanis that things could be much worse.

Whether the sultanate can remain so resilient if oil prices decline is less clear. Economists estimate that 50,000 jobs must be created every year just to keep pace with population growth. Most worrisome, oil reserves are dwindling, and the cost of extraction soaring. (After several recent natural gas discoveries, gas production has grown significantly, though rising domestic demand could severely limit its export potential.) “It is estimated we have fifteen to twenty years,” Shawqi Sultan, a county surveyor from an old Omani family, told me—repeating a figure I heard from many other people. “Technology has helped us get more, but what happens when the oil dries up? I can’t see what we’re doing about it.”

With the Syrian war rapidly spreading to Iraq and Lebanon, and continued suspicions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, how far the Islamic Republic’s new accommodation with the West might go is much in doubt. Even if a more comprehensive nuclear deal is somehow reached between Iran and the “six-power group”—the United States, France, the UK, China, Russia, and Germany—it will still need to win support from a deeply skeptical US Congress.

Yet several other Gulf powers are already changing their approach to Tehran. In early June, the emir of Kuwait made his first-ever visit to Tehran, an event greeted by President Rouhani as a “decisive turning point” in the countries’ relations. This came a few days after the United Arab Emirates sent a senior trade delegation to Iran, breaking an eight-year absence. Even Saudi Arabia has said it hopes to bring the Iranian foreign minister to Riyadh, though those plans seem to be on hold.

If such steps lead to a broader rapprochement, Sultan Qaboos’s opening to Iran will have proven exceptionally foresighted. And yet it is unclear how much direct benefit Oman will get from a nuclear deal. Under the current sanctions against Iran, Oman has profited from a brisk commerce in contraband goods that originate in the United Arab Emirates and move through Oman’s Musandam peninsula, where they are ferried across the Strait of Hormuz to Iranian ports. If the sanctions end, this trade will abruptly decline. And with more Iranian oil on the world market, oil prices could drop, putting further pressure on the Omani budget.

However, if there is no nuclear agreement, it is unlikely the gas pipeline with Iran—a potential lifeline as Omani reserves dry up—will ever get built. Still, the sultan is raising capital for a second game: a $60 billion refinery, container port, dry dock, and transit hub for petrochemicals being built on a huge tract of empty coastline at Duqm, three hundred miles south of Muscat. Connected to the Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia by a planned rail network—and perhaps someday by pipelines—it could eventually give the Gulf states direct access to the Indian Ocean and a way to bypass the Persian Gulf entirely.

As usual, the sultan is hedging. His country’s future remains largely unknown. Its challenges—economic, demographic, political—are likely to grow. But since 2011 Sultan Qaboos has weathered the greatest storm of his long tenure and, for the moment, looks as secure as any monarch in the region. It is a record that few imagine can easily survive him.

July 10, 2014

Reporting for this article was supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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