The Omani experiment

The Oman of Sultan Qaboos represents a case study of modernization and political development initiated from the top. But unlike the case of Kemal’s Turkey, the changes have come incrementally and at a very slow pace.

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Conflict Background


By Artin H. Arslanian

The “Arab Spring” failed to nurture the seeds of populist democracy in the Middle East.  The popular uprisings which toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen were seen as harbingers of the dawn of democracy in the Middle East.  Free elections, however, resulted in governments dominated by religious parties which were exclusionary.  Once elected, these religious parties imposed their platforms on all with no concern or respect for the interests of constituencies which didn’t share their ideology.  Popular demonstrations against the exclusivist policies of these governments led to military rule in Egypt, breakdown of central government and rise of tribal rule in Libya, and resumption of civic strife in Yemen and Tunisia (where a recent agreement between religious and secular parties on a new constitution provides a ray of hope).

These events point to the current failure of attempts to graft Western democratic model of government in these countries. This is not to deny the significance of the “Arab Spring” as a possible watershed moment in future development of democratic institutions.  However, as of now, the Western modernization and political development theory doesn’t seem to find fertile ground in this region.  This failure is additionally underlined by the ongoing diminution of the authorities and weakening powers of popularly elected governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Turkey, still a model for many would-be reformers in the Muslim world, the increasingly authoritarian and exclusivist policies of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan are generating public demonstrations, riots as well as concerns regarding the future of the highly-touted Turkish democracy.  His recent reforms allowing female civil servants and members of parliament to wear headscarves, coupled with a modicum of concessions to the Kurds and Christians are seen as pre-election strategies. He has continued to use brutal force against public demonstrators, curtailed academic freedom and freedom of speech (hundreds of journalists are in jails) and refused to make concessions to Turkey’s Alevi minority.  Last year’s European Union’s annual review of Turkey’s efforts to prepare for membership points out the Turkish judiciaries’ infringement on fundamental freedoms and declares Turkey a democracy based “exclusively on Parliamentary majority” with an “uncompromising stance” against dissent.  It is becoming popular to refer to the Prime Minister as the “Turkish Putin”.

While there are growing indications that the general publics in the majority of Middle Eastern countries are averse to extreme ideologies and authoritarian rule, it might take a generation or two for the development of inclusive or democratic forms of governments.  The Western panacea of economic growth (modernization) accompanied by political development (democratization) has failed to yield quick results. However, we tend to forget that it took hundreds of years for Western nations to accomplish this goal.  Moreover, the appropriateness of this solution to the problems of most Middle Eastern countries is still an open question.  Kemal Ataturk imposed it from the top in a relatively short time.  However, his draconian laws creating a Western secular modern state could not eradicate the deeply-ingrained religious and conservative values of the citizenry. Kemal and his followers also failed to inculcate in Kurdish citizens any sense of inclusion (they were called “mountain Turks” and denied the recognition of their ethnic identity, language and culture).  The two-party system following Kemal’s death made elected official more susceptible to the wishes of the majority of electorate still wedded to traditional and religious values, and began fraying the edges of the secular European edifice he bequeathed.

A more cautious, slow but promising process is underway in the Sultanate of Oman under the rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id.  He came to power following a palace coup against his father, Sa’id bin Taymur, in 1970.  His father had kept Oman isolated.  The country was noted for its rudimentary infrastructure, high levels of illiteracy and a depleted treasury.  His primary goal was to strengthen the defenses of the country—other areas of government were starved for funds.  He managed, with British assistance, to keep the country united, earn the allegiance of tribal leaders and defeat attempts by Saudi Arabia to encroach on Omani territory.  Fearing the fervor of Arab Nationalism fanned by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Marxist-inspired revolutionary movements from South Yemen, he kept Oman isolated from the rest of the Arab world.  Even the discovery of oil in 1960s heightened his fears of new societal forces which, he believed, would weaken his control over Omani tribes and disturb the internal peace.

Sultan Qaboos, who studied at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and served with a British regiment in Germany, is an enlightened patrimonial ruler.  While he wields absolute authority on all aspects of the government, he is not a dictator: the well-being of his subjects and prosperity of his country are his primary objectives.  Early on he focused on the modernization of the country.  Thanks to capital generated from oil and natural gas exports, he built a sound and modern infrastructure to facilitate international communication, trade and development of new industries. High literacy rates, an intricate highway network, dozens of universities and colleges, malls, hospitals, a new multi-billion dollar airport under construction, the planned establishment of Omani Scientific City to compete with Sarjah’s and Doha’s Education City,  and even an impressive opera house now distinguish Oman.

This new wealth has also been deployed to raise the standard of living in the country. Education is a national priority with a goal to produce entrepreneurial citizens.  Omanis take pride in working—even as drivers and hotel attendants.  As about a third of the three million inhabitants of the Sultanate are expatriates, there is great emphasis in replacing these foreign workers by Omani citizens by providing training for the service sector as well as subsidizing new industries and corporations willing to hire locals.  Free education, including at the university level, national health care and subsidized housing are available for all qualified citizens.  Moreover, annually about 10,000 Omanis matriculate in foreign universities for graduate study (a significant portion on state scholarships).

Unique in the Gulf region, Omani women have equal rights.  They enjoy equal pay with men for doing the same jobs.  They have the same educational and employment opportunities, and outnumber males in higher education.  They run small businesses and serve in armed and police forces.  They receive six weeks of fully-paid maternity leave.  October 17 is designated by the Sultan as “Omani Women’s Day”—honoring all women not, as is the custom in the West, only mothers.  Women drive, vote, work and are appointed to political office, including ministerial and ambassadorial positions.

Political reforms have been enacted more slowly.  The goal is to educate the citizens in political participation and involve the interest of all segments of the community.  The Sultan makes himself accessible to the citizens by touring the country on annual basis, listening to popular concerns and demands, and responding earnestly to petitions presented to him. This also helps him to have his fingers on the pulse of the nation.

In 1991 Sultan Qaboos convened a Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) with elected representatives (including women) from all the governorships of the country in order to bridge the gap between the government and citizens.  This was a major step in political participation as the members of the Council had the right to question members of the Sultan’s cabinet.  In 1996 he promulgated the State Council (Majlis al-Dawlah), an appointed Upper House composed of Omani political, business, professional and tribal leaders to advise the government on public policy.  Later that year he introduced a “Basic Law”—a written constitution which provided a Bill of Rights guaranteeing individual rights, equality of gender, freedom of press and expression, and religious tolerance (there are a number of Christian churches and Hindu Temples in the capital city of Muscat and elsewhere throughout the vast country the size of the United Kingdom).  The Bill of Rights forms the potential foundation of constitutional rule in the country.

A major cornerstone in generating greater political participation and opening-up the political process was the creation of the Majlis al-Oman (Oman Council)—a joint meeting of the Consultative and State Councils.  The Oman Council was given the authority to question ministers, as well as amend, approve or reject legislation.

The Oman of Sultan Qaboos represents a case study of modernization and political development initiated from the top. But unlike the case of Kemal’s Turkey, the changes have come incrementally and at a very slow pace.  The primary reason for this pace has been the Sultan’s concern about the ability of his subjects to break away from their traditional and tribal norms and acclimatize themselves to these changes. Oman is a nation in training with the Sultan as its tutor.  This patient leadership and an aversion to jump into the fray of Arab and international conflicts have protected Oman both internally and in foreign affairs.

First he had to build a nation whose various factions trusted the ruler.  He accomplished this by listening to all and responding constructively, by giving a stake to all groups (tribes, corporations, businesses, professionals, women) for the well-being of the state. Sultan Qaboos has become the beloved father of the nation by focusing on the education and training of the citizenry, raising its standard of living, earning their trust as a ruler who has the interest of the nation as his primary concern.

Sultan Qaboos’ policies, however, do not enjoy universal approval.  There are legitimate grievances and criticisms of the lack of government transparency, the corruption of ministers and bureaucrats, nepotism in the government, the limited nature of the rights granted in the Bill of Rights, the quality of national educational system, the budgetary priorities of the government and the quality and standard of living of expatriate workers. The U.S. Government’s Human Rights Report for 2012 points out that the freedom of press is compromised by “self-censorship” and that the government monitors the internet and all telecommunications (something now familiar to us the United States).  Moreover, it concludes that in spite of equal-pay legislation and equal political rights, women have to struggle against economic and political discrimination or exclusion “based on cultural norms” and “conservative social constraints.” But it is exactly these “cultural norms” and “social constraints” that Sultan Qaboos is trying to change through legislation and education.

A looming concern for Oman–and a number of other Gulf States – in the horizon is the question of the Sultanate’s ability to maintain the standard of living of its citizens.  Oil and natural gas exports comprise about 85% of Oman’s GDP.  However, the Sultanate’s oil reserves are finite and production is beginning to decline. But the government, in response to popular unrest, is raising salaries, adding new jobs in the military and bureaucracy, and enhancing the benefits of the welfare state.  Unless new sources of revenues are developed, the long-term economic prospects are troubling.

The government is well-aware of these challenges and is making major investments to diversify the country’s economy.  The building of national railway network and new international airport is expected to enhance international trade and transportation.  The government, in addition to asking its citizens to conserve energy, is also encouraging new industries such as tourism, and redoubling its attempts to replace expatriate workers with citizens.  A multi-billion investment for a major port in the fishing village of Duqm attests to the serious concerns of the government to generate new sources of revenues.  Upon completion, this new port will rival Dubai as an international trading center.  Once linked with ground transportation with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, it will enable ships to by-pass the Straits of Hormuz and the intermittent threats to shipping safety from Iran.  An ambitious joint project with British BP will extract natural gas by the use of new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing from a depth of some 15,000 feet in Khazzan in the interior desert.  Upon completion, this project is expected to increase Oman’s gas production by some 35%.

It is too early at this point to assess the chances of success of these endeavors. Neither are such concerns the hot topics of the day as far as the general population is concerned.  The cost-of-living, wages, creation of well-paying jobs and bureaucratic corruption are the daily topics of conversation—not the prospects of the country’s economy a generation or two removed.

While the accomplishments of Sultan Qaboos might not appear to be exceptional or noteworthy by the standards of Western democracies, they represent an un-heard level of popular political participation and government accountability in comparison to other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council.  And while Oman was not totally spared from demonstrations and rioting generated by the “Arab Spring”, the focus of demonstrators was primarily on unemployment and wages rather than the policies of Sultan Qaboos or his rule. Immediate increase of minimum salaries and unemployment benefits, promises of thousands of new jobs, and royal pardons to the leaders of demonstrations, addressed the major concerns of the demonstrators.  Rather than experiencing an “Arab Spring”, Oman went through a short “February Thaw”.

Currently, a major concern of the citizenry, and particularly young professionals, is the question of succession as the ruler has no children or heirs. There is concern about the ability or willingness of the successor to follow the path established by Sultan Qaboos.  Most segments of the Omani society fear losing their stake in the government in case the successor moves away from the course charted by Sultan Qaboos.  There is palpable demonstration of trust in the Sultan and appreciation of his love of the nation.  This might explain why criticism, even in private, of the government and some aspects of its policies is inevitably prefaced with: “Let me make it clear that I love Sultan Qaboos….”  One seldom hears such statements in private by the subjects of other rulers of the Gulf States.

Artin H. Arslanian is a Professor of History and International Relations at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in History from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and his Ph.D. from the University of California in Los Angeles. He has published on the British intervention in the Russian Civil War, U.S. Middle East policy, the Armenian Genocide, the Lebanese Civil War and U.S. Higher Education.

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