In 2020, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lost two heads of state, Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id al-Sa’id. Owing to their prominent roles in regional diplomacy, the passing of these two leaders has been aptly described as the deaths of the Gulf’s “mediators-in-chief.”[i] The new edited volume Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman, 1970-2020 studies the legacy of the Omani leader in both national and foreign affairs.
Within this edited volume, the five-decade rule of Sultan Qaboos is examined from the viewpoint of different social science disciplines and humanities, ranging from law and political science to archaeology and literature. The general picture emerging from the book is that of a unique statesman who modernised Oman while preserving its cultural heritage and traditions. As Allen James Fromherz—editor of the volume together with Abdulrahman al-Salimi—notes, the concept of “Blessed Renaissance” espoused by Sultan Qaboos as his philosophy of rule was “one that would keep aspects of both the past and the future.”[ii]
When Sultan Qaboos ascended to the throne in 1970—following a soft coup that deposed his father, Sultan Said—the average life expectancy in Oman was fifty years.[iii] At the time of his death in 2020, it had raised to seventy-eight years, surpassing that of the United States.[iv] Today, Oman enjoys “near universal primary care,” fulfilling the promise to expand healthcare made by Sultan Qaboos in his 1975 Omani National Day speech.[v] This enabled the Sultanate to respond effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic.[vi] Major advances in healthcare have also been matched in the realm of education. In 1970, there were only three schools in Oman.[vii] Nowadays, literacy is almost universal and there are several universities where the country’s youth can pursue graduate studies.[viii] Oman’s capital city, Muscat, has embodied many of the changes undergone by the country; under Sultan Qaboos’ rule, Muscat has transformed from “a relatively small port city” to “a modern metropolis.”[ix]
Sultan Qaboos created the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) in 1991 as the first elected institution in the history of Oman; its members have been elected through universal suffrage since 2003. The Council was a key element in the Sultan’s strategy to introduce “mechanisms to gradually promote limited political participation among Omanis.”[x] The country did not have a constitution until 1996, when it was implemented without a referendum. Prior to this, the Sultanate had operated on the basis of “a collection of laws, decrees, Royal orders, regulations, and formalised tradition.”[xi]
The current constitution has been amended twice since its ratification. In 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring that saw moderate protests in Oman—those who took to the streets demanded significant changes but, unlike in other Arab countries, did not seek the fall of the regime—the Consultative Council’s limited powers were somewhat extended. Consequently, the Council was granted the right to participate in the “amendment and approval of draft laws.”[xii] However, “it became clear that the ruler, like his GCC counterparts, did not intend to go beyond what he fundamentally considers the red line: that is, the centre of political power […] remaining his personal prerogative.”[xiii] A decade after the Arab Spring, under the new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, the constitution was amended slightly to clarify the succession process.[xiv]
One of the defining features of Sultan Qaboos’ reign was the monarch’s ability to provide his country with long-term stability in a convulsing region. He achieved this not by withdrawing from the world, but through a balanced and active approach to global affairs. Sultan Qaboos was the first Gulf leader to receive an Israeli Prime Minister when Yitzhak Rabin visited the Sultanate in 1994.[xv] Almost two decades later, the Sultanate hosted talks between the United States and Iran that paved the way for the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).[xvi] The US-Iran talks benefited from Oman’s key advantage as a venue for diplomacy: its relative secrecy when compared to diplomatic hotspots such as Geneva or Vienna. This allowed talks to be “opened with the enemy without fear of losing face or looking desperate.”[xvii] Most recently, Muscat has been playing an active diplomatic role in relation to the ongoing war in Yemen: Oman has facilitated peace talks, negotiated the release of hostages, and the evacuation of US diplomats from Sana’a.[xviii] Oman’s policy of not taking sides in regional conflicts has not always been understood by its neighbours. A case-in-point was the 2017-2021 blockade of Qatar, during which the Sultanate received considerable pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to participate.[xix] This notwithstanding, by following a neutral policy Oman generally avoids “the risks of incurring dangerous enmities and accrues political capital on which it can call if trouble brews.”[xx]
A shortcoming of Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman is its limited attention to the situation in the country with regards to human rights. For example, the Sultanate lacks special legislation to combat domestic violence against women.[xxi] Additionally, although foreign workers experience better conditions in Oman than in other Gulf countries, [xxii] female domestic workers from low-income Asian and African countries are often subjected to abuse.[xxiii] Under the kafala sponsorship system, employers keep the passports of foreign workers, who can be jailed if they escape their abusers.[xxiv] Protests against the government have also resulted in detentions.[xxv] This was the case during the Arab Spring protests and in 2018/19 when recent graduates and unemployed youths mobilised against high unemployment rates and austerity measures.[xxvi] Freedom of expression online is also limited.[xxvii]
Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman is a collection of fine scholarship on Oman and the figure of Sultan Qaboos. Its comprehensiveness would have been enhanced by a more critical assessment of the country’s human rights situation, but analysts and scholars of the Sultanate will still benefit greatly from this recently published volume.
[i] Biano, Cinzia. “The deaths of the mediators-in-chief: Oman, Kuwait, and de-escalation in the Gulf.” European Council on Foreign Relations. 10 September 2020. https://ecfr.eu/article/commentary_the_deaths_of_the_mediators_in_chief_oman_kuwait_and_de_escalati/.
[ii] Fromherz, Allen James. “Introduction: Sultan Qaboos, Omani Society, and the ‘Blessed Renaissance’, 1979–2020,” in Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman, 1970-2020, edited by Allen James Fromherz and Abdulrahman al-Salimi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), p. 5.
[iii] The World Bank. “Life expectancy at birth, total (years) – Oman.” The World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?locations=OM.
[iv] The World Bank. “Life expectancy at birth, total (years) – Oman, United States.” The World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?locations=OM-US.
[v] Foley, Sean. “Public Health and the Omani Renaissance,” in Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman, 1970-2020, edited by Allen James Fromherz and Abdulrahman al-Salimi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), p. 320.
[vi] Sievers, Marc J. “Oman’s Handling of the Coronavirus.” Atlantic Council. 3 April 2020. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/omans-handling-of-the-coronavirus/.
[vii] Michalak-Pikulska, Barbara. “Literature in Oman during the Reign of Sultan Qaboos,” in Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman, 1970-2020, edited by Allen James Fromherz and Abdulrahman al-Salimi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), p. 283.Ű
[viii] The World Bank. “Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above) – Oman.” The World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS?locations=OM.
[ix] Guirado Alonso, Javier. “Muscat and Sultan Qaboos: The Omanization of Muscat and the Muscatization of Oman,” in Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman, 1970-2020, edited by Allen James Fromherz and Abdulrahman al-Salimi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), p. 359.
[x] Rabi, Uzi. “The Legacy of Sultan Qaboos: A Historiographical Note.” in Ibid., p. 35.
[xi] Al-Kharusi, Salim. “Constitutional Reforms During the Reign of Sultan Qaboos,” in Ibid., p. 233.
[xii] Wilson, Alice R. “Oman’s Consultative Council Elections: Shaking Up Tribal Hierarchies in Dhufar.” Middle East Report 281 (2016): 41.
[xiii] Valeri, Marc. Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State (London: Hurst and Co., 2017), p. 234.
[xiv] Al Talei, Rafiah. “What Oman’s Constitutional Change Means for Omanis.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 14 January 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/14/what-oman-s-constitutional-change-means-for-omanis-pub-83634.
[xv] Miller, Judith. “Oman’s Sultan Was a Valuable Friend to America.” The Wall Street Journal, 12 January 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/omans-sultan-was-a-valuable-friend-to-america-11578863413.
[xvi] Legg, Paul. “Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Obituary.” The Guardian. 12 January 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/12/obituary-sultan-qaboos-bin-said.
[xvii] Cole, Juan. “Omani Peacemaking and Middle East Crises in the 2010s: Sultan Qaboos’ Last Decade,” in Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman, 1970-2020, edited by Allen James Fromherz and Abdulrahman al-Salimi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), p. 416.
[xviii] Baabood, Abdullah, and Ahmed Baabood. “Omani and Qatari Roles in the Yemen Crisis,” in Global, Regional, and Local Dynamics in the Yemen Crisis, edited by Stephen W. Day, and Noel Brehony (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020), p. 170.
[xix] Partridge, Diana. “Why the Silence? Oman’s Uncertain Posture on the Qatar Blockade.” Inside Arabia. 24 September 2018. https://insidearabia.com/why-the-silence-omans-uncertain-posture-on-the-qatar-blockade/.
[xx] Owtram, Francis. “‘Friend to All, Enemy to None’: Oman’s Quiet Diplomacy since 1970,” in Sultan Qaboos and Modern Oman, 1970-2020, edited by Allen James Fromherz and Abdulrahman al-Salimi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), p. 448.
[xxi] Stiftung, Bertelsmann. “BTI 2022 Country Report – Oman.” Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) 2022 (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2022), p. 14. https://bti-project.org/en/reports/country-report/OMN.
[xxii] McLoughlin, Paul. “Handing out Gratitude in Oman.” The Christian Science Monitor, 24 July 2013. https://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/World/Middle-East/Olive-Press/2013/0724/Handing-out-gratitude-in-Oman.
[xxiii] McQue, Katie. “Alone in Oman: Covid Worsens Abuse for Trafficked Women.” The Guardian. 23 March 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/mar/23/alone-oman-covid-worsens-abuse-trafficked-women-africa.
[xxiv] McQue, Katie. “Oman ‘Failing to Stop Trafficking and Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers.’” The Guardian. 7 September 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/sep/07/oman-failing-to-stop-trafficking-and-abuse-of-migrant-domestic-workers.
[xxv] Arnoldy, Ben. “Why Oman Is Different than Other Middle East Autocracies in Turmoil.” The Christian Science Monitor. 1 March 2011. https://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/World/Global-News/2011/0301/Why-Oman-is-different-than-other-Middle-East-autocracies-in-turmoil.
[xxvi] Abouzzohour, Yasmina. “Oman, Ten Years After the Arab Spring: The Evolution of State-Society Relations” (Paris: Arab Reform Initiative, February 2021), p. 6. https://www.arab-reform.net/pdf/?pid=16912&plang=en.
[xxvii] The Gulf Centre for Human Rights. “Oman: Freedom of expression continues to be targeted.” The Gulf Centre for Human Rights. 6 June 2020. https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/2412.