Quiet Oman faces revolution

By Philippe Bannier, MEDEA Institute

We may almost forget that Oman still exists. Wedged between two giants that are Saudi Arabia and Iran, the country is rarely under the media spotlights. This ancient maritime power in the Indian Ocean is deemed not to make waves at the margin of the Arab world.

carte oman

© Eric Gaba. Oman is located at the margin of the Arab World. Influenced by the Arabic peninsula, it has been mostly shaped by Indian and African Worlds, when it used to be an imperial power.

Led by Sultan Qaboos bin Said since 1970, a genuine builder and guarantor of national unity, the country has been rocked by protests in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring. Rampant corruption in government and administration was particularly targeted by protesters. The latest decision to ease people’s minds and fight against this scourge, a Court of Justice of the Sultanate sentenced in March a businessman accused of corruption.

In the 1970s and1980s, the country has developed its social and economic sector, following the impact of the two oil crisis, although it represents only 0.3% of proven reserves in the world. There was not, however, a political liberalization. Parties are forbidden, trials are expeditious, and the Sultan concentrated all the powers in his hands. He is Sultan, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, and appoints the members of the government at the same time.

From February 2011, peaceful protesters demanded more political freedoms and greater openness of the elected Consultative Assembly (Majlis ash-Shura). Social claims did drive these revolts, such as the fight against corruption and unemployment (over 20% of the population), especially among young people. The answers given by the Sultan – 30% increase in wages, increase student grants, government reshuffle – have not put an end to the protest, which turned into clashes. Demonstrators were killed, while others were imprisoned and were tortured.

contestations oman

© Karim Sahib/AFP. In the context of the Arab Spring, a series of protests occurred in Oman from February 2011. Corruption, unemployment and arbitrary arrests were denounced by the protesters.

The situation is potentially explosive in a country with many ethnic groups and foreign population forming around 25% of the total population. However, the sultan continues to emerge as the undisputed leader and a sincere reformer. It is for this reason that the demonstrators have changed the traditional slogan of the revolutionaries of Tunisia and Egypt, “the people want the fall of the regime”, transforming it into “the people want the reform of the regime”.

To avoid contagion, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had created a fund of $20 billion in March 2011 to support the contested powers. Oman and Bahrain were the main recipients, but it had not helped to calm down popular discontent.

Gulf countries are not the only ones to have looked closely at the events taking place in the Sultanate. USA and Asian countries have paid particular attention to this usually stable country. Its strategic position gave it access to the Strait of Hormuz, through which 30% of global oil trade passes, and upon which 85% of Asian countries, including China, India, Japan and South Korea. A destabilized Oman could therefore disrupt global trade and create a new oil crisis that any developed or emerging country don’t want to see happen.

As a strategic crossroads Oman is able to play an important role in regional issues, always discreetly except when it comes to defend its own interests. It is categorically opposed to the Saudi project of tightening the links in the GCC, of which it is a member. Muscat had seen in this project an attempt of Saudi Arabia to strengthen its grip on the organization, and feared for its independence in international policy, particularly regarding Iran.

The origin of its good relations with Iran can be found in the 1970s, when the Shah had helped the Sultan to suppress militarily the Marxist-inspired rebellion in the province of Dhofar, in the south of the country. Since then, in spite of the few years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, political and economic relations between the two countries are good, as evidenced by the visit in March of Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Muscat. A contract of sale of Iranian gas was signed over 25 years, in addition to the construction of a pipeline along the Gulf.

oman rohani

© AP. In March 2014, Sultan Qaboos ibn Said welcomed the Iranian President Hassan Rohani. The good relations between Iran and Oman have placed Oman as a mediator between Tehran and Washington over the nuclear issue.

With its influence within the GCC, its good relations with Iran but also with the USA – it hosts a US military base since 1980 – Oman played a mediating role in regional conflicts, particularly on the Iranian nuclear program issue. Oman has hosted Iranian and US envoys in March 2013 to prepare the historic agreement signed in Geneva on 24th November of the same year.

Oman has clearly a strategy of independence as the Non-Aligned Movement had, in the “Cold War” that Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging to each other. It is also a way for the sultanate to distinguish itself religiously, because it is the only country in the world to have a majority of Ibadi Muslim, the third branch of Islam with the Sunni and the Shia. The political and religious moderation of the Sultanate is the opposite of some messianic accents and often violent words of the Sunni Saudi Arabia on one side and of the Shia Iran on the other side.

The question that remains crucial in the Sultanate, beyond political and social unrest in the country over the last three years, is that of the succession to the Sultan, who has no heir. Three names are circulating among his nephews, but the official successor has not been appointed, for fear that a rival emerge in his lifetime.

As written by Najma al-Zidjaly, a professor at Sultan Qaboos University, Muscate: “So what I and my fellow Omanis have learned from the protests is that we need to talk peacefully, respectfully and responsibly, about our past, present and future”. Through the sinuous paths of political reform, Oman advances, quietly.