ON AN average day a resident of Muscat, Oman’s seafront capital, is likely to drive down Sultan Qaboos road, pass Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and perhaps Sultan Qaboos port, too. He or she may be a graduate of Sultan Qaboos University and watch a football match at the Sultan Qaboos sports complex before heading home to a house in Medinat Sultan Qaboos, a neighbourhood of the city.
If one man dominates the country, that is because since 1970, when he overthrew his father, Qaboos bin Said al-Said has ruled the Gulf state as an absolute monarch, albeit a benevolent one who has both unified and modernised Oman.
His dominance has not concerned many until recently. But for almost six months the 74-year-old sultan has been under the care of doctors in Germany with what is said to be colon cancer. Unmarried, he has no heir or designated successor. Government media tried to spin an address he gave on state television earlier this month—the first time Omanis have seen their ruler since he left the country—as a positive sign. But the sultan looked indisputably frail. His enigmatic reference to his absence from the country “for reasons that you know” raised eyebrows, since no official announcement has been made about his illness. The business of state, slow at the best of times, has slowed further.
Jitters are now rising because economic conditions are worsening. Oman’s biggest challenge is to wean itself off over-dependence on hydrocarbons, state spending and public employment. So far the government is betting on infrastructure projects such as Duqm port, a big complex on the southern coast that is under construction. But the fall in the oil price to $70 a barrel is the subject of urgent debate, since it will almost certainly push Oman into deficit next year. Economic grievances and a lack of jobs were a factor behind Oman’s small version of the Arab spring protests in 2011. At some point Oman will need to tighten its belt as oil revenues fall; officials suggest cutting subsidies (perhaps on petrol) and taxing expatriates’ remittances.
And yet, as in other Gulf states, Oman’s social contract relies on the government’s generous provision for its population in return for citizens not asking for too many rights. Populist measures taken in response to discontent in 2011 now pose a problem: an already bloated public sector employed 50,000 more people. Although Oman comes 66th of 189 countries in the World Bank’s rankings for ease of doing business, most of the businessmen who mill around Muscat’s Grand Hyatt hotel complain of a lack of transparency.
Omani law stipulates an idiosyncratic procedure to find a successor. On the sultan’s death the scions of the ruling Al Bu Said family have three days to decide who will take his place. If they cannot agree they will open an envelope left by the sultan containing the name of his chosen successor. Word has it that his three cousins—Assad, Shihab and Haithem bin Tariq al-Said—are front-runners. Little is known about them. Few Omanis want to face up to their ruler’s mortality because “quite simply, his majesty’s shoes are too big to fill,” says Ahmed al-Mukhaini, an analyst. “That could be a good thing, as it means the next sultan will have to share power.”
Sultan Qaboos is seen as a visionary by Omanis and expatriates (including Western diplomats) alike. Over 44 years the sultan has used the oil money of his Gulf state of 4.1m people, of whom some 40% are expatriates, to transform Oman from a backwater with few miles of paved road into a prosperous state with generous social provision. He also unified it, quelling separatist agitation such as the rebellion in the Dhofar region between 1962 and 1976. Omanis note that their country is less rich than neighbouring Saudi Arabia, but their ruler has done much more with its wealth. The sultan has made friends with everyone, including arranging talks between the West and Iran, much to the consternation of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The country feels as much part of Asia as of the Arab world.
There is little agitation for political change. But any new ruler will not only lack the sultan’s popular touch but also face a population that was mostly born after 1970 and does not remember the country’s less comfortable past. Omanis have been heartened by high-profile corruption trials, including one involving Muhammad al-Khusaibi, a former commerce minister, who was sentenced to three years in jail in May. A good few are disappointed with the lack of political reform, and the fact that security services appear to have taken on a more prominent role since 2011. Even so, looking around, Omanis reckon that their country is in far better shape than most of the wrecks in the region.