The Sultanate of Oman, strategically situated across Iran, north of Yemen and to the east of Saudi Arabia, has remarkably been able to skirt large scale political disruptions witnessed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), despite being governed by an absolute monarch. Since ousting his father in 1970, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said al-Said has brought remarkable prosperity to his nation while modernizing the country's infrastructure. According to a 2010 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, examining overall progress made in 135 countries over the past 40 years, Oman ranks first in health, education and income followed by oil rich Saudi Arabia as number five.
Nonetheless, in late February, unrest erupted after hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in the northern port city of Sohar demanding jobs and an end to corruption. Qaboos swiftly responded by firing 12 cabinet ministers and raising government salaries while agreeing to boost unemployment benefits to 150 Oman rials (380 USD) a month. And shortly after the Sultan increased minimum wages by 40 percent, the unrest subsided almost as quickly as it had erupted.
Some analysts, however, quickly attributed the unrest in Sohar to the neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE). By playing up economic differences between wealthier tribe members residing on the UAE side of the border, in stark contrast to their poorer Omani "cousins," analysts argued that Abu Dhabi sought to send an unmistakable message to Muscat about its "friendly" relations with Tehran.
Since assuming power, the Sultan has played a delicate balancing game between his strategic alliance with Iran while aligning himself with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which comprises Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Oman is the only GCC country to carry out joint military exercises with Iran. Nonetheless, as a staunch American ally, former U.S. Vice President Dick Chaney visited the Sultanate three times during his years in office.
Tensions with UAE, ties with Israel and Iran
Meanwhile, on an extraordinary GCC ministerial meeting held in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on March 10, UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan pledged on behalf of the Gulf-alliance 20 billion USD in special assistance to Bahrain and to Oman as part of an effort to quell social unrest.
In another rift with Abu Dhabi, the 10 billion USD GCC pledge to Muscat seemed to arrive at the backdrop of Omani officials announcing the uncovering of a UAE spy ring allegedly seeking to overthrow Qaboos by means of a coup d'etat, only months earlier.
The historical mistrust between Qaboos and the UAE in particular stems from when the GCC failed to support the Sultan in his uprising against his father. While the Shah of Iran and King Hussain of Jordan were the only regional leaders to support the young British-educated prince in his quest for the throne, Qaboos apparently never forgot - and since formed a strategic alliance with Tehran. At the same time, as part of an effort to balance his relationship with Iran, the Sultan formed strong military ties with the United States and with Britain in particular. Oman also maintains diplomatic relations with Israel by chairing the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), a Muscat-based research center dedicated to share expertise on desalination technologies and clean fresh water supply with the people from the MENA region. MEDRC also facilitates multilateral track diplomacy between Israel and the GCC, under the auspicious of the highest levels of the Omani government.
Gender equality and democratic reform
Following tensions with the UAE, the GCC aid pledge has been allocated to create another 10,000 Omani government jobs, mostly to staff its military and police forces. Moreover, an unnamed Omani official recently told me that 125 women are currently undergoing training to join the country's foreign ministry as part of an effort to enhance gender equality across its diplomatic corps.
Meanwhile, as the first GCC state, the Sultan granted women right to vote and stand for elections in 1994. Today, Oman has three female cabinet ministers while the Sultan's ambassador to Washington and to the United Nations, are two sisters. Building on democratic reform, Oman was the second MENA country to hold parliamentary elections, after Tunisia, on October 15. According to the BBC, 1,133 candidates competed for 84 seats in the Majlis al-Shura, a consultative council established in 1991. Additionally, the Sultanate has an all-appointed Council of State, a 57-seat upper chamber, with the Majlis, makes up the Council of Oman.
Despite Qaboos' apparent popularity, observers have speculated whether the Sultanate could become the first constitutional monarchy in the Arab world. Since assuming the throne, Qaboos remains unmarried and unlike other GCC monarchs, he has not appointed any successor. Instead, a common guesstimate seems to be that a transition towards liberal and inclusive governance could take place after the Sultan's death. In the meantime, and over his tenure as monarch, Qabbos arguably began preparing for a "succession" by building institutions and strengthening the rule of law. And as a testimony to secure the overall stability of the Sultanate, Qaboos apparently had no choice but to fire the alleged corrupt ministers, I was repeatedly told.
At the same time, a Muscat-based analyst told me that the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Egypt has raised questions among Omanis on whether they indeed want radical change, as demanded in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the region.
Flexible foreign policy?
As part of an effort to restore ties with Abu Dhabi, Qaboos paid UAE ruler Sheikh Khalifa II bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan an official visit to Abu Dhabi on July 11. The visit was reciprocated when the Sheik attended the official opening of the Royal Opera House in Muscat on October 12. A short week later, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Sultan Qaboos conducted talks in Muscat on political reform and on Iran's controversial nuclear program. Following those talks, coincidentally or not, Oman withdrew from participating in a joint petrochemical construction complex with Iran. The official explanation given was that the two parties could not reach an agreement on the price of feedstock.
While in Muscat, Clinton presented evidence of the alleged Iranian terror plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Clinton also thanked the Sultan for having secured the release of the U.S. hikers from Iran's notorious Evin prison. Similarly, and as a testimony to what appears to be Muscat's quiet and balanced foreign policy, Omani diplomats helped secure the release of three French tourists abducted by Yemeni tribesmen. Apparently, Omani diplomats have Yemeni tribal leaders' cell phone numbers on "speed dial," I was recently told over coffee at a chique Muscat hotel.
Perhaps capturing Oman's foreign policy approach, I was repeatedly told during my Muscat stay: "We don't see Iran as an extremist Islamist regime, but as a continuation of the Persian empire. We have dealt with them for 3000 years. And for that reason, Oman has no alternative but to have a prudent relationship with Iran." At the same time, while frequently traveling to the Middle East and to the Gulf in particular, I often encounter regional officials and analysts openly questioning whether the Obama-administration is "fully committed" to their security. In the case of Oman, the analyst was quick to point out that the Bush-administration dispatched Vice President Dick Chaney three times to Muscat. In a sharp contrast to the previous administration, President Obama has so far only dispatched former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to its strategic ally in the Persian Gulf.