Washington, DC (2007)
In February 2007, the Oman Daily Observer criticized an article about Oman that I had published back in 2004. The fact that this happened, I fear, bodes quite ill for the country. Not because the Observer criticized my article, but because it made any mention of it at all.
This requires some explaining.
Oman is located at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula; it borders Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Straits of Hormuz through which tankers carrying oil from the Gulf must pass. Since 1970, Oman has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos Bin Said (as the Daily Observer spells his name), who has overseen the country’s rapid economic development. Oman has also been a close ally of the United States.
However, while largely benevolent, the sultan’s rule has been autocratic. The government-controlled Omani media (including the Daily Observer) only refers to the sultan in laudatory terms. No criticism of the ruler ever appears in it. No opposition to him is tolerated either.
Western press coverage of Oman has been remarkably positive. Yet while Oman is certainly doing better than most countries in the region, it does have some serious problems. Not discussing them, in my view, does not mean they do not exist. So, in 2004, I published an article that did discuss them entitled, “Assessing the Political Stability of Oman.” It appeared in Middle East Review of International Affairs, (MERIA) – an online academic journal published in Israel.
The article noted that Oman is facing not only important economic problems (a growing population combined with shrinking petroleum reserves), but political ones as well, including the aging of Sultan Qaboos, an unclear succession (Qaboos has not produced an heir and refuses to name one), lack of administrative experience in other members of the royal family (since Qaboos has never allowed any of them to acquire it), sectarian differences, signs of resentment toward the sultan, a history of rebellion in the past, and sporadic opposition activity in recent years.
The Oman Daily Observer piece in which my article was mentioned (“Meet-the-People Tours,” February 24, 2007) did not discuss any of this. Instead, it noted the historical roots of Sultan Qaboos’ annual tours outside the capital to meet and talk with Omani citizens. In the last paragraph of this article, the author (Viju James) noted that my MERIA article described these tours as “tightly stage-managed events.” Referring to me, his next sentence stated, “He based his findings solely on the opinion of two people and made no effort to probe either history or records of the tours.” This point was backed up by two photos of individual Omanis speaking with Sultan Qaboos and another one of a large crowd of Omani men, apparently gathering to see him.
Again, it is not surprising that the Oman Daily Observer did not approve of my article. What is surprising, though, is that it printed my full name, the full title of the journal it appeared in, and the year it was published. Typing all three of these elements into Google will yield a link to the full text of the article, where the reader will then find much more serious criticisms of Sultan Qaboos’ rule than what Viju James referred to in the Oman Daily Observer.
Why would the Omani media, which simply does not criticize Sultan Qaboos, direct its readers’ attention to an article such as mine that does? Surely it would have been better to avoid any mention of my article at all. Readers who don’t know about it are far less likely to seek it out than those who do. Why the Oman Daily Observer referred to my article in sufficient detail to make it easy to find, then, is really quite puzzling.
I can only think of one plausible explanation: the Oman Daily Observer gave such a detailed reference to my article not because it wanted Omanis to go find it, but because my article is already so well known in Oman that referring to it does not serve to introduce it to many – perhaps not to any – new readers. Indeed, referring to it openly may have been judged by the Omani government as the best way to try to refute it.
If this explanation is indeed accurate, this is a bad sign for the Omani government. For if my little article is sufficiently well known inside Oman for the Omani government to take the trouble to try to discredit it, this suggests that the criticisms expressed in it are familiar to Omanis. I, of course, simply do not know how well my article is known inside Oman. I suspect, though, that the Omani government is far better informed about this.
Originally published by the Middle East Times (metimes.com), October 9, 2007.