The Only Sultan I’ve Ever Known

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the man who built modern, moderate Oman, may be on his deathbed. Omanis hope for the best and fear what could come next.

Photo by MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images

MUSCAT, Oman — Monther al-Futeisi, an engineering student, was taking an exam on electromagnetics last week when Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said suddenly appeared on television. Murmurs spread through his classroom at Sultan Qaboos University. Futeisi, 22, had been studying for the test for a week, but when he heard from his classmates that the sultan was speaking, he put down his exam paper and left the room to watch. This was more important than electromagnetics.

Work and school halted all across the sultanate of 4 million people. It was the first time since July, when the 73-year-old sultan traveled to Germany for medical treatment, that Omanis had heard their leader’s voice. Rumors had been festering that Qaboos was terminally ill or perhaps even dead. When he finally appeared on television, the sultan was alive but looked frail. And he had some distressing news: The overwhelmingly popular autocrat with no heir announced that he would not return for the country’s national day on Nov. 18.

"It pleases me to send greetings to all of you on this happy occasion … which coincides this year with my being outside of the dear nation," Qaboos said. Then he added, enigmatically: "For reasons that you know."

"I listened to the speech maybe 30 times," said Futeisi, who is a poet as well as an engineering student. He began to write: "I hope my day is before yours, our father/The land needs you more than the people."

In the following hours, the sultan’s phrase — "for reasons that you know" — echoed around the country. In fact, Omanis know little about his absence, which has stirred sadness and fear. Amid news reports that Qaboos has cancer, the royal court continues to issue statements that the sultan is in good health. His speech on Nov. 5 calmed nerves and dispelled rumors for a while. But many saw it as the sultan’s admission that he is, indeed, unwell.

"I think it was a farewell speech," said Ahmed al-Mukhaini, an Omani researcher of political development. "That moment, people suddenly moved from denial to recognition."

The night of the sultan’s speech, young Omanis took to the streets of Muscat, the capital, waving flags, honking horns, and dancing. It looked like joy, as citizens celebrated simply seeing the sultan’s face, but there was an uneasy undercurrent to the parade. "We were living in terror and fear," said 24-year-old onlooker Ahmed al-Harrasi. "We were afraid because we don’t know, if he goes, what will happen after him."

Before the speech, Omanis expected Qaboos to return soon, not only for the holiday but also for talks in Muscat that took place this week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Iran’s nuclear program. In the past, Qaboos — who enjoys good relations with both the United States and neighboring Iran — has played mediator between the two countries. In a region riven by competition and sectarianism, Oman is reliably neutral and a friend to Iran, the Arab Gulf countries, and the United States.

Now, by necessity, Omanis are pondering their future. When Qaboos ousted his father in 1970 in a British-backed coup, the country was a backwater. In a much-cited statistic, the entirety of Oman had two hospitals and six miles of paved road. Since then, the country has transformed into a modern oil-exporting state with highways, universities, and a per capita GDP of $22,181. Unsurprisingly, most Omanis separate their country’s history into two stages: before and after Qaboos.

Qaboos has ruled completely since he took power. He is prime minister, defense minister, and finance minister. While an elected parliament can approve and block legislation, "the whole system hinges on one person," Mukhaini said.

But the sultan, who has no children or brothers, never named a successor. Some Omanis fear that after he dies, royal infighting could destabilize the country. Others worry that old ethnic and tribal conflicts could resurface in the southern region of Dhofar or in the mountainous interior. Prior to 1970, the country’s diverse population shared little in the way of common identity. Only under Qaboos’s leadership has the state come together.

"I truly feel that the future is mysterious and foggy and impossible to predict," said Ahmed Marhoon, a 23-year-old Omani blogger who often writes on politics. "I liken the future of Oman to throwing dice." Such concerns stem from the unusual transition of power laid forth in the Omani constitution, which states that within three days of the throne falling vacant, a council of royal family members should choose the next sultan. If they cannot agree, they are to open a letter naming Qaboos’s recommendation — until now, a secret.

"Oman is a mysterious place," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science in the United Arab Emirates. "The biggest mystery of all is who is going to come after Qaboos. This very simple question — even today with all the problems that the sultan is going through, he is not making himself clear."

J.E. Peterson, an historian and analyst of the Persian Gulf, thinks the most likely candidates to follow Qaboos are the sons of his uncle Tariq: Assad, Shihab, and Haitham. Peterson could not predict which one, though. "I don’t even know whether the three brothers have agreed upon it themselves, which I think is a very worrying aspect," Peterson said.

All three have limited experience governing, partly because Qaboos kept it that way.

"He’s kept them on a leash, and while people know them because their pictures are in the paper … they don’t really know their capabilities," Peterson said.

The possibility that disagreements among branches of the royal family with competing interests could lead to a power struggle is not lost on Omanis. "It’s a tempting thing, strong power, absolute power in this country," Marhoon, the blogger, said. "There will be greed, of course, because we’re talking about humans, not angels."

Mukhaini, the researcher, said he thinks the transition will pass smoothly: "No one is going to rock the boat unless the benefit they will gain very much outweighs the loss."

A more common fear among Omanis is the possibility that Qaboos’s successor could be selfish or corrupt or could simply diverge from the path the sultan has set for the country — opening Oman to trade and tourism but maintaining a more moderate pace of development than neighbors like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates.

It is unlikely, though, that the next ruler will change Oman’s foreign policy, said James Worrall, a lecturer in international relations and Middle East studies at the University of Leeds. Oman is a bit like an aloof relative in a family prone to bitter feuds: friendly with all, close to none. Even as other Gulf countries railed against Iranian influence, Oman signed a 25-year deal to import Iranian natural gas in March. And though Oman belongs to the Gulf Cooperation Council, it has always been somewhat apart from the group, resisting proposals from Saudi Arabia for a closer union. It is likely to remain a dependable Western ally.

Internal affairs are a different matter. "It is clear that the new ruler will not have the level of legitimacy as Qaboos," Worrall said. "It would be impossible for that to be the case." When a new sultan comes to power, he will need to appease different branches of the ruling family, gain the support of influential merchants, and renegotiate alliances with other key players. "This sultan has been so dominant that anyone who wants some kind of change, this will now be the moment," said Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

After Qaboos took power, he spent five years quashing an insurgency in Dhofar, more than 500 miles from the capital. The region, which inhabited by about 10 percent of Oman’s population, waged a 13-year-long rebellion seeking independence. After defeating the left-wing secessionist movement, Qaboos successfully integrated Dhofaris into Omani society. Violence no longer emanates from Dhofar, but discussion of any differences between the culturally distinct region and the rest of Oman remains sensitive to the government. A Dhofari man was detained in October and held incommunicado without charge after writing a Facebook post titled "I am not Omani, I am Dhofari," according to human rights groups.

A more realistic possibility is that Ibadi Muslims in the interior could try to revive the independent religious government that they lived under periodically from the eighth century until the 1950s. Ibadism, a third sect of Islam after the Sunni and Shiite branches, predominates in Oman, though the government does not release any official statistics on sectarianism. Historically, the Ibadis have called for rule by an elected imam. "There have been other periods in history when the imamate has been suppressed and has come back," Katz said. "Anyone looking for an authentically Omani form of rule … that would be a possibility." (Most Omanis do not think that idea is viable.)

The biggest challenges for the next ruler are likely long-term ones: weaning the economy off oil revenue, which accounts for 75 percent of the government budget; reducing unemployment, which stands at about 15 percent among nationals; and absorbing a youth bulge. Like many countries in the Middle East, Oman struggles to employ its graduates.

Fostering political openness will also be crucial, Mukhaini said, suggesting that the next sultan could give more power to the parliament or even institute a prime minister. "That might provide a good message for the next generation and the next phase," he said. In 2011, when much of the Arab world exploded with pro-democracy protests, hundreds of young Omanis joined demonstrations in their country calling for political reforms and anti-corruption measures, while also expressing their loyalty to the sultan.

In a Nov. 9 interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman’s "minister responsible for foreign affairs" (technically, the sultan is the foreign minister), said there was no worry over the future. "The country’s citizens do not want to leave the path they have been on, and it is a clear path," he said.

Last week, watching the parade, Jamal al-Hosni, a 30-year-old physician’s assistant, was ambivalent. "God willing, things will be fine. We wish health for his majesty the sultan, that he return to us safely, and rule us for the rest of his life," he said. "But in the end, this is the world. One can accept anything in it."

Large public gatherings without a permit are prohibited in Oman — even parades celebrating an appearance by Sultan Qaboos on television. Police dispersed the gathering of young men after they spent a few hours partying their way through the wealthy Al Qurm neighborhood. Slowly, they began to wander home, their future unknown.

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