Posts Tagged ‘Oman’

Oman: Will the Imamate Return?

Some twenty years ago, I wrote up the following notes for myself after reading John C. Wilkinson’s The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge University Press, 1987):

While Omanis are virtually all Muslim, many (roughly half) belong neither to the Sunni nor the Shi’a sects, but to a smaller third sect called Ibadi.  Temporal and spiritual authority in Oman was traditionally exercised by an Ibadi Imam.  The Ibadi Imam was, at least in theory, elected by the faithful on the basis of his personal qualifications.  Many elections to the Imamate in the past, though, had not been regarded as legitimate, and this lack of legitimacy had been the cause of civil wars among the Ibadis.  Ibadi political theory allowed for an Imam to be deposed by the faithful if he became incapacitated or acted against the precepts of Islam, and some had indeed been deposed.  Ibadi political theory “rigorously excluded…any notion of a hereditary Imamate,” though it tended to be dominated by different families in different periods (pp. 169-76).

According to Wilkinson, the Imamate has experienced repeated historical cycles in which it has “always declined into dynastic power, but equally inevitably re-emerged as the national ideology reuniting the state” (p. 4). At times, Wilkinson records, the Imamate has disappeared altogether due to defeat by foreign or non-Imamate Omani forces, but its memory has always remained among the Omanis who have restored it whenever the opportunity arose.

From the 1850s until the 1950s, there existed two power centers in Oman:  the Imamate in the interior of the country and the Sultanate on the coast which was backed by the British.  There were several clashes between the two in which the Sultanate would have been defeated completely had it not been for the intervention of British forces.  In the mid-twentieth century, however, oil was discovered in interior Oman.  The Sultan’s British-backed forces overran the Imamate completely in 1955.  The Imamate leadership launched a rebellion in 1957 which it took the British two years to crush, and the Imamate then came to an end (pp. 299-328).

I cannot not help but wonder, though, whether it really did.  If the memory of the Imamate and the desire to restore it remained with the Omanis in other periods when it disappeared, is it possible that this is also true now?

This question has become more relevant than when I first wrote the above due to the  increasing uncertainty about the state of Sultan Qaboos’s health, about who will succeed him (no heir has been named and the process he set up for choosing his successor is untested), and about whether there will be a smooth transition or a power struggle.

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I recently attended another conference in the Gulf:  the inaugural Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which took place October 19-20, 2014 in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The Debate was sponsored by the Emirates Policy Council with the support of the UAE Foreign Ministry.  I do not intend to give a detailed summary of what occurred (especially since this information can be found at http://www.epc.ae/?q=epcevents/22/eventdetails ), but to discuss how the organization of the Debate reveals what is especially important at present to the UAE—a small, but enormously wealthy oil exporting nation located in a highly turbulent neighborhood.

The Debate began the morning of October 19 with a speech by Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Dr. Gargash set the tone for the conference, in my view, when he stated, “Over the past few years, the UAE has repeatedly warned about the growing threat that extremist actors and ideologies pose to our region.  While some of our allies thought that we were being too alarmist, the rise of Daesh [ISIS] confirms the magnitude of the threat.  Instead of becoming moderated through engagement, so-called ‘moderate Islamists’ are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups.  This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of ideological extremism.  Make no mistake:  many of these movements that are described as ‘moderate’ in some lexicons, provide the environment for greater radicalization and the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Therefore, countering the threat posed by these groups requires a clear-sighted and comprehensive strategy.”

The bulk of the conference consisted of nine debate panels in which different themes were discussed.  In the conference program, the “Premises of the Debate” stated that the UAE and other GCC states “are not recipients of regional and international powers’ impact only, but are regional and international actors as well.”  Despite this, the first three debate panels were devoted to a discussion of the policies toward the Gulf of the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia (the first session also included the Deputy Secretary General of NATO).  In much of the first session, though, the speakers from the West and from Russia argued about Ukraine—something that is of only secondary interest to the Gulf states.

Panel 4 focused on Iran (which most Gulf Arab states view quite negatively), Panel 5 on Turkey (whose “Islamist” foreign policy is viewed uneasily), Panel 6 on Egypt (where the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed the ouster of the elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military), Panel 7 on Iraq (where the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad is seen as being heavily influenced, if not completely controlled by, Iran), Panel 8 on Syria (where the need to oust the Alawite minority Assad regime as well as combat ISIS was emphasized), and Panel 9 on both Yemen and Libya (where America and the West are not seen as being sufficiently concerned about restoring order in these increasingly chaotic countries).

While the choice of subjects to discuss in the nine debate panels was a good indicator of what is currently of concern to the UAE, the choice of subjects not to discuss was also revealing.  Most noteworthy, there was no panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, this was barely mentioned by any of the speakers except by one each from Russia and China in Panel 2.  These two went on at length about the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.  Indeed, the Chinese speaker became quite emotional.  The Arab participants I spoke to during and after the panel, though, were not impressed.  They know full well that Russia and China both have strong ties to Israel, and that neither will do anything in support of the Palestinians that would risk their relations with the Jewish state.  What not having a panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at this conference suggested to me was that the rise of ISIS, the threat from Iran, the situation in Egypt, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are all far more important to the UAE.

Other subjects that were not discussed include unrest in Bahrain (where relations are tense between the Shi’a majority and the Sunni monarchy which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE), uncertainty in Oman (where the long-reigning monarch, Sultan Qaboos, is rumored to be seriously ill and where his successor has not been named), the situation in Saudi Arabia (regarding both succession to the throne and Shi’a restiveness in the Eastern Province—where much of Saudi oil is), and the foreign policy of Qatar (which, as a result of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and efforts to engage moderate—and even not so moderate—Islamists, is very much out of step with Saudi and UAE foreign policies in particular).

I surmise that there were no debate panels on these topics not because the UAE isn’t interested in them, but because they were deemed as being too sensitive to discuss openly.  I have no doubt, though, that they are all being discussed privately throughout the Gulf.  Hopefully, though, the realm of what can be discussed openly will increase in future Abu Dhabi Strategic Debates.  Indeed, if some of the problems that were not discussed this time get bad enough, they will need to be.

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Ignored Letter

On May 25, 1997, I sent a letter to the editor of Foreign Affairs in response to an article it had just published on Oman.  Foreign Affairs, though, did not publish my letter (or even acknowledge receiving it), and I did not publish it anywhere else.  I recently rediscovered it in my computer files, and decided to post it here on my blog now:

To the Editor:

Judith Miller’s commentary preceding her interview with Sultan Qaboos (“Creating Modern Oman,” May/June 1997) states that “he intends to move toward representative government and the rule of law.”  This process, however, has largely been a sham.  As a result, tensions are building up in this strategically located country which will have very negative consequences for the West if they boil over.

Those who argue that Oman is successfully democratizing point to its new parliament, the “majlis al-shura.”  But citizens are not allowed to elect its members directly.  In the first selection process held in 1991, citizens in each district could nominate three candidates to represent them, but final selection was made by the Sultan.  In 1994, they could nominate two candidates, but again the Sultan made the final selection.

In addition, the royal decree establishing the majlis only allows it to deal with nine specifically listed fields such as social and economic legislation, development plans, and the like.  It cannot consider issues relating to Oman’s foreign relations, defense policy, or broader political structure.

Furthermore, the majlis’s “internal regulations” forbid members from “leaking out any informations [sic] relating to the discussions at the majlis” or “allowing non-majlis members to peruse the minutes of meetings.”  But any member who wanted to leak information to the Omani press would not succeed anyway since it is all strictly controlled by the Ministry of Information.  Article 31 of the new Basic Law issued by the Sultan in November 1996 guarantees freedom of the press, but only “according to the terms and conditions specified by the Law.  Anything leading to discord…is prohibited.”

Oman may not seem any less democratic than the other Gulf monarchies.  Indeed, Oman allows a greater degree of popular participation in politics than neighboring Saudi Arabia does.  But this is not saying much.  And there is evidence that the Sultan faces growing internal opposition.

During 1994, an “Islamic conspiracy” against the Sultan’s regime was discovered.  Several hundred were arrested and many were detained for over a year.  Although “released” toward the end of 1995, the activities of most of the detainees have been closely restricted ever since, according to Omani sources.  What was especially noteworthy was that those detained included many prominent members of Omani society, including an ambassador, undersecretaries at two ministries, a commander of a naval vessel, members of the wealthy al-Ghazali family, and a member of the majlis.

Although widely covered in the Arab press and some Arab groups based in the West, these events went virtually unnoticed in the Western press.  What little coverage the country does receive in the West tends to be laudatory and uncritical of the Omani government, as was Judith Miller’s article.  (How does Miller know that things are going so well in Oman?  Why, the Sultan himself told her so!  She did not bother to cite any dissident Omanis.)

But Miller is hardly alone in portraying a glowing image of Oman.  At a symposium on Oman held by the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council in October 1995, speaker after speaker waxed eloquent on what a paradise Oman has become, thanks to the all-wise policies of the Sultan.  Yet, unlike previous seminars on Oman I have attended in Washington, there were signs at this one of growing concern within the foreign policy community over Oman’s internal stability.  In a conversation with a small group of us after the symposium, one of the speakers who had lauded the Sultan’s regime in his public comments predicted that it would be overthrown within the next ten years.

A young Omani present in the audience was a brother of one of those arrested in 1994.  Far from loving their Sultan, he told me that most Omanis consider sultanic rule to be illegitimate since it has relied on the British to protect it against the population for over a century now.  He reminded me that there were rebellions against sultanic rule in the mid-1950s and from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.  Omanis have a rebellious spirit, he noted, and this spirit may be about to burst forth again.

The downfall of the Sultan’s regime would cause serious problems for America and the West.  Oman occupies a strategic location at the southern end of the Straits of Hormuz; Iran is at the northern end.  All tanker traffic to and from the Persian Gulf must pass through these narrow straits.  If there were a hostile Oman as well as a hostile Iran on both sides of the Straits, Western access to Gulf oil could become less secure and oil prices could shoot up dramatically.  America and the West thus have a strong interest in preserving a friendly regime in Oman in order to avoid even the possibility of this scenario arising.

But we are unlikely to succeed in preserving a pro-Western regime in Oman if we refuse to acknowledge that there are some very serious problems in this country.  It seems highly doubtful that the sham democracy the Sultan has created will please the Omani people for long.  He has raised their expectations, but has not fulfilled them.

Simply to protect our own interests there, America and Britain should encourage the Sultan’s regime to undertake three steps.  First, the Sultan needs to get rid of many of his long-time ministers and advisers, and replace them with more educated and capable younger people.  In its generally laudatory report on political development in Oman issued in 1995, the International Republican Institute acknowledged that a “source of frustration in the country is the powerful position of some of the Sultan’s informal advisers.”

Second, the Sultan needs to end his reliance on his many highly paid British and American advisers and replace virtually all of these people with Omanis.  This may be the single most important source of tension in the country.  Even Omanis who will say nothing critical of the Sultan complain bitterly about the thousands of British and American advisers occupying positions they feel Omanis should have.

Third, and most importantly, the Sultan should be encouraged to institute real democratization, including complete freedom of the press.  Washington and London should urge him to do this sooner rather than later.  For if democratic change does not come about soon, the prospects for revolutionary change in Oman are likely to grow.

Mark N. Katz

George Mason University


Did Foreign Affairs do right to ignore my letter back in 1997? In that Sultan Qaboos is still in power, it would seem that Miller’s 1997 analysis was closer to the mark than my own.  Unrest, though, has continued sporadically in Oman since then–especially since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring”  in 2011.  However unwelcome discussing it might be to the Sultan’s government and its Western supporters, the possibility as well as the implications of further unrest in Oman should not be ignored.  Not discussing problems does not make them disappear.

For information about recent developments there, see the Oman section on the Jadaliyya website:  http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/Oman

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