Oman’s Renaissance—and What Will Follow

Thanks to Qaboos’s legacy, Oman is better placed than many of its neighbors to confront the challenges that will continue to bedevil the Middle East.

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said sits during a meeting with the U.S. secretary of state at the Beit al-Baraka royal palace in Muscat, Oman, on Jan. 14, 2019.
Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said sits during a meeting with the U.S. secretary of state at the Beit al-Baraka royal palace in Muscat, Oman, on Jan. 14, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

For the most part, international news coverage of the Middle East suggests an endless cycle of instability, belligerence, and sectarianism. Incessant reports of war and crisis dominate headlines, with those pockets of relative tranquility mostly ignored. The most outstanding example of these is the Sultanate of Oman whose ruler, Qaboos bin Said, died on Jan. 10 at the age of 79 after a long illness.

Qaboos, the 14th generation of the ruling dynasty of Al Said, ascended to the throne on July 23, 1970, after overthrowing his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, whose restrictive and isolationist policies had rendered the country among the poorer and most restrictive in the world. The 29-year-old Qaboos, a recent graduate of the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England, soon embarked on daunting task: laying out a vision for Oman’s future development and progress. In pursuit of his goals, he combined charisma and political acumen, uniting disparate factions throughout the country in common cause.

During his long reign, Qaboos turned Oman into a modern, stable, and inclusive state.

During his long reign, ending only months short of what would have been a widely celebrated golden jubilee, Qaboos turned Oman into a modern, stable, and inclusive state where three Islamic traditions—Sunni, Shiite, and Ibadhi—peacefully coexist along with adherents of other faith traditions. In fact, the country’s constitution, the Basic Statute of the State, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. And in an Arab country where sectarian violence is virtually unknown, Muslims of all persuasions intermarry, work, and pray together. In the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report, meanwhile, the country was ranked as fully free of terrorism.

Fueled largely by revenues from oil exports which, though modest in comparison to those of its neighbors in the surrounding Gulf Cooperation Council countries, generate between 70 and 85 percent of government revenues, Qaboos’s economic development plan was ambitious. In 1970, Oman was isolated from much of the world, desperately poor, and almost totally devoid of modern infrastructure and amenities. When Qaboos ascended to the throne, life expectancy was around 50 years. There were just over six miles of paved road, three public schools (enrolling less than 1,000 boys), and minimal medical care. Today, bridges, roads and highways, dams and desalination plants, public utilities, high-speed internet, world-class sports and cultural centers, and hundreds of education and health care facilities, both public and private, attest to the success of his modernization program. Life expectancy exceeds 77 years, and literacy is estimated at 96 percent of the adult population.

Pledging to transform Oman into a modern state, Qaboos also pushed for the creation of a better institutional framework, including a national constitution, a bicameral parliament—consisting of both an upper, appointed, house and a lower, elected, consultative assembly—and a variety of ministries to manage the effective functioning of a modern state. And while, in the strictest sense, he served as absolute monarch, holding a number of portfolios (including chief of the armed forces, minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs, and chairman of the Central Bank), he also surrounded himself with trusted advisors and traveled throughout the land periodically on royal tours to meet with the public and help him frame priorities and respond to the people’s demands.

Such efforts helped endear Qaboos to Omanis across the spectrum, uniting an ethnically mixed and tribally diverse population into a nationally cohesive citizenry. He is revered as the father of the Omani renaissance (“al-Nahda”), which increased the sultanate’s profile on the world stage as a member of the United Nations, the League of Arab States, and a host of other international organizations and also ushered his country into the modern age.

During the 2011 Arab Spring, which toppled a succession of long-standing regimes, Oman was largely spared widespread dissent. Demonstrations in the sultanate were largely confined to two areas of the country, where citizen protests focused on corruption, salaries, and employment. In response, Qaboos shuffled his cabinet, dismissed ministers, increased wages, and promised to introduce 50,000 public sector jobs, effectively quelling protest—at least for the moment.

Throughout his tenure on the throne, Qaboos advocated greater gender equality by introducing universal suffrage in 2002, appointing women to positions of power, and creating employment opportunities for all, including “equal pay for equal work,” in both the private and public sectors. In 2004, he appointed the first Omani woman to a cabinet position, the minister of higher education. Others followed, not only in the cabinet, but also in the upper house of the Omani parliament, whose members are appointed by the head of state, and to a variety of ambassadorial posts abroad.

Beyond all this, Qaboos’s most enduring legacy will likely be his foreign policy, based on both principle and pragmatism. Independent since 1650 and mindful of its history and the realpolitik of its neighborhood, Oman has adopted a policy of moderation and dialogue in international affairs. The sultanate has doggedly pursued a path of independence and nonalignment—“friend to all, enemy to none,” the saying goes—even at the risk of reproach from its Arab brethren.

And so, in an area wracked by warfare and division, there are no Omani “boots on the ground” outside the borders of the sultanate.

And so, in an area wracked by warfare and division, there are no Omani “boots on the ground” outside the borders of the sultanate; not in Yemen, Syria, Libya, or elsewhere. In 1979, in the wake of the Camp David Accords, Oman was among the few members of the Arab League that did not sever diplomatic relations with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt. Following the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, the governments of Oman and Israel initially opened trade offices in Muscat and Tel Aviv. Oman has hosted Israeli Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Benjamin Netanyahu, while also maintaining friendly ties with the Palestinian Authority. Throughout the course of the ongoing war in Syria, Oman’s embassy in Damascus has remained open, unlike those of the majority of Arab states. And since 2017, Oman has pursued of path of neutrality in the boycott against neighboring Qatar, imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.

As an ally of the United States—with friendly relations beginning in the presidency of George Washington and Oman becoming the first Arab country to send a diplomatic envoy to the United States in 1840—the sultanate under Qaboos endeavored to preserve and strengthen that friendship. He traveled to the United States on two state visits, in 1974 and 1983. A facilities access agreement, signed in 1980 (and renewed periodically) has served as the foundation for ongoing military cooperation between the two countries. And on the economic front, the 2009 Free Trade Agreement with the United States, brokered by Oman’s representative in Washington—the first female Arab ambassador to the United States—has enhanced opportunities for bilateral economic cooperation.

At the same time, Oman under Qaboos has maintained cordial relations with its neighbor Iran. In doing so, Oman has been able to frequently serve as an interlocutor between the two adversaries, mediating the release of U.S. hostages from Iran, advocating for restraint during times of crisis, and hosting the secret discussions leading to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The journey begun by Qaboos bin Said almost 50 years ago is ongoing. His legacy will endure, yet challenges lie ahead. Successive leaders in the sultanate and, indeed, in the Gulf region beyond its borders are rapidly confronting large, young, and tech-savvy populations. The traditional Middle Eastern social contract, between a supposedly generous state and grateful citizenry, is being challenged. The aspirations of the next generation are clear: greater freedom of expression, a loosening of controls on media, robust political debate, meaningful participation in the legislative process, greater employment opportunities, and genuine economic reform.

Thanks to Qaboos, Oman is at least in a better position to address these challenges than many of its neighbors. He is the only leader the majority of Omanis have ever known. He catapulted their country from abject poverty and relative obscurity to being a consequential player on the world stage. The foundation of a modern state is firmly in place. The transition to power of Haitham bin Tariq, Qaboos’s first cousin and personal choice for succession, has been swift and smooth. The new sultan, with the support of his fellow Omanis, has a unique opportunity to continue on the path established by his predecessor toward peace, prosperity, and modernity.

Linda Pappas Funsch is a career specialist, educator, and lecturer in Middle Eastern studies. She is the author of Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization and the 2019 Fellow at the Omani government's Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.

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