Oman is a strategically important country. U.S. Government officials will invariably tell you so. Of course, U.S. Government officials have been known to describe a lot of other countries as being strategically important too. Indeed, I never heard them describe any country as being anything less than strategically important. But Oman really is.
The reason is simple. It has to do with oil. The West is highly dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf. Most of that oil is shipped by oil tankers. To get from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean and beyond, those oil tankers must pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. On the northern side of the Strait of Hormuz is Iran. Iran and the West haven’t hit it off since the downfall of the Shah in 1979. On the southern side of the Strait is Oman. Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qabus, does hit it off with the West.
Since there is a government unfriendly to the West in Iran, those who worry about these things consider it especially important for there to be a government friendly to the West in Oman to maintain free passage through the Strait. If both Iran and Oman were hostile to the West, together they might be able to jointly restrict or even block oil tanker passage through the Strait. The price of oil would then shoot up into the stratosphere, and the West could be economically crippled.
Clearly, we do not want what happened in Iran to happen in Oman. But is that likely? Unfortunately, that is a very difficult question to answer. For in addition to being strategically important, Oman is also extremely isolated. It is very difficult to obtain reliable information about what is going on there. This is mainly because the Omani government severely restricts foreign access to the country. But even Westerners living there usually cannot learn much about the political situation. The media in Oman is all government controlled. And it is not easy for a Westerner to penetrate Omani society.
During my three visits to Oman, I had several long conversations with different U.S. government officials living there. One was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy. The other was a public affairs officer who ran the U.S. Information Service office–which consisted mainly of a library. Each had been in the country for a significant period. But their observations about what was happening in Oman were so different from each other, it seemed as if they were describing two different countries altogether.
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The political officer told me about the dramatic progress Oman had made under the enlightened rule of Sultan Qabus. Before Qabus came to power, his father ruled the country in a harsh, arbitrary way. Even though oil had been discovered in 1964, the old Sultan refused to spend money on economic development. He apparently believed that if people began to acquire education, they would want political change. “Ignorance is bliss” was his philosophy.
Omanis were not allowed to leave the country. If they managed to get out illegally, he would not let them back in even if they acquired skills and education that the country needed. In 1965, Oman only had five cars, three primary schools (which the former Sultan shut down for fear they would breed communism), and one 12-bed hospital. In the same year, a rebellion broke out in the southern part of the country (Dhofar) which acquired a Marxist character and grew quite serious.
In 1970, though, Qabus overthrew his father with the help of the British. The new Sultan immediately began to spend Oman’s new oil wealth on economic development projects. Through a combination of military force and a generous amnesty program, the rebellion sputtered to an end in 1975. The new Sultan even appointed some of the former Marxist rebels to his cabinet.
Unlike his father, Sultan Qabus did not want to isolate himself from the Omani people. Soon after he first came to power, he journeyed overland into the interior to visit Omanis there. Sultan Qabus has made a similar journey, or progression, every year since then.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Kuwait, Oman does not possess vast oil reserves. Oman, however, has used its money wisely–it has not wasted it on useless projects as have so many other oil producing states.
In terms of political development, Oman remains an absolute monarchy. There is, however, no significant political opposition. This is because the government meets the population’s economic needs. In addition, there is nowhere in the Middle East a better government than the Sultan’s while there are many that are worse. The Sultan is an enlightened monarch. While Americans may not consider this to be as good as a democracy, there is no point in trying to push for democratization in a region which has virtually no experience with it. Too rapid modernization, after all, was what led to the downfall of the Shah of Iran in 1979.
We are fortunate that Sultan Qabus is ruling such a key country as Oman. His identification of Oman’s interests as being similar to those of the West has led him to cooperate with us in maintaining free passage through the Strait of Hormuz. His benevolent rule ensures that Oman will remain stable so long as he is in power–which could be for many more years since he was only born in 1940.
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The public affairs officer had a very different view. According to him, Oman has become an extremely repressive state. Internal security concerns dominate the sultanate’s decision-making process. The Omani government is concerned about external threats too. But the primary external threat which it sees is not Iran or Iraq, but the West. For the more contact that ordinary Omanis have with the West, the more Westernization, including democratization, they want for Oman (the prediction of the Sultan’s father has come true).
Although completely isolating Oman from the West is both impossible and undesirable, the government has taken two steps to limit the extent to which ordinary Omanis interact with and know about it. First, the government only allows young Omanis from what it believes are politically reliable families (those with an important stake in the preservation of the regime) to study abroad–even when the U.S. government provides their scholarship money. For while USIA chooses which students receive its scholarships in most countries, the Omani government insists on making the selection from among its nationals–a condition which higher authorities in Washington do not object to.
Second, the Omani government severely restricts the availability of Western publications inside the sultanate. Western newspapers and current affairs magazines are generally not available except to a limited extent in the main hotels. Every publication acquired by the library of the nation’s sole university (named after, like almost everything else in Oman, Sultan Qabus) must be approved first by the Ministry of Information. According to the public affairs officer, the ministry has not allowed the university to obtain any material discussing the role of the British in Oman (which even now is very important).
But the university does not possess the only library in Oman; USIA also maintains one. As in other countries, the USIA library in Oman is small but is well stocked with books, periodicals, and newspapers. In addition, the USIA library is open to everyone. Not surprisingly, Omani intellectuals (or aspiring ones) visit the USIA library frequently. And this the Omani government does not like.
The public affairs officer described the typical pattern he observed: A young man (almost never a woman) not connected with the government would come to the library and become enthusiastic about what was available there. He would return several times to borrow books, read periodicals which do not circulate outside the library, and talk about current affairs. But after several visits, the young man would telephone and state in a somewhat unnatural voice that his schedule no longer allowed him to visit the library. The books he had borrowed would later be brought back by the police. Sometimes, there would not even be a phone call; the police would just drop the books off.
But from his conversations with these young men when they did visit, as well as his other Omani contacts, the public affairs officer learned that there is considerable unhappiness about the political situation in Oman. Many complain that the Sultan has grown increasingly reclusive and aloof, just like his father. The annual progressions into the interior have become less an occasion for His Majesty to meet his subjects than to avoid them. His motorcade speeds through towns where the security forces have already preceded him to make sure that no one is outside or in any of the buildings along the route. The television scenes of happy Omanis cheering and serenading him at his desert “camp site” in the evening are all carefully chosen government employees. Outside of camera range are armed soldiers whose purpose is to ensure that everyone in this group of loyal supporters remains loyal. (Although the public information officer had not actually attended any of the Sultan’s annual progressions himself, I spoke to a senior Omani official who had; he confirmed the accuracy of this description.)
According to the public affairs officer, there have arisen three sources of discontent within Oman. First, opposition to the Sultan has revived in the southern province of Dhofar. Many of the complaints that the Dhofaris have now are similar to the ones they expressed before their rebellion acquired its Marxist character in the late 1960s. The Dhofaris object to what they see as arbitrary rule by northern officials sent to their province to rule over them, the inability of Dhofaris to control their own affairs, and the relative scarcity of economic development projects in Dhofar compared to the north–especially the capital area. Some Dhofaris want greater autonomy for their province while others want outright independence.
A more serious source of opposition is Westernized, educated young people. Many of these attended universities in the West or lived for a significant part of their lives there (such as the children of diplomats). These people want to see progress toward democratization. They are not satisfied with the deliberative bodies created by the Sultan (first the consultative council, now the majlis al-shura). These bodies have only been allowed to discuss economic development issues; they have no say over foreign affairs, defense, internal security, or other political issues.
Part of the problem is generational. After the Sultan first came to power and in the years of rising oil prices that followed, the government was able to hand out jobs easily to Omanis who did not have much education. Since then, a generation of younger Omanis has appeared which is better educated than the previous one. This younger generation, though, has found its job prospects to be far more limited. Often, well educated younger Omanis find themselves serving under poorly educated older ones, or worse, unable to find professional employment at all. All Omanis born after 1970 have only lived under the rule of Sultan Qabus. For them, the government’s propaganda about how life in Oman is so much better under Qabus than it was under his father rings increasingly hollow. For they can envision a better life still.
The third source of opposition is the one that the government apparently fears the most: conservative Muslims in the interior of northern Oman. Like conservative Muslims elsewhere in the region, those in Oman feel that there has been too much Western influence allowed into the country by the government. The conservatives (as well as others) are angry that the Sultan’s cronies have enriched themselves through directing government contracts to their own businesses and other means of corruption.
Partly because of these reasons, the Ibadis (a third branch of Islam, besides Sunnis and Shi’ites, who are found mainly in Oman) of the interior also do not recognize the Sultan in his claim to be their religious leader. In addition, this group used to have their own leader–an imam–who also exercised temporal power in interior Oman until Qabus’s father and British forces drove him out in the late 1950s. According to the public affairs officer, an imamate movement is experiencing a revival.
Qabus did much to bring positive change to Oman in the years after he ousted his father. But stagnation has now set in. Popular expectations are increasing, but are also increasingly unmet. Feelings of gratitude have diminished. The regime is becoming less popular, but the Sultan refuses to allow meaningful political reform. America and the West must be prepared for the possibility that the Sultan of Oman will be ousted just like so many other Middle Eastern monarchs have been before him.
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Both the political officer and the public affairs officer were well aware of each other’s views before I spoke to them. Indeed, each was able to give me a short summary of what the other’s argument was.
I asked the political officer to account for how the public affairs officer could maintain views about Oman so diametrically opposed to his own. The political officer replied, “I just don’t know who he is talking to.”
I later asked the public affairs officer to account for the political officer’s viewpoint. The public affairs officer answered, “The guys at the Embassy talk only to the people at the Palace. I only talk to people not at the Palace. It all comes down to which group you believe more.”
As in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, unrest broke out in Oman in 2011. Unlike these other countries, though, the Western press has not reported much about what is happening in Oman.