“Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization” by Linda Pappas Funsch
Within a region growing increasingly dangerous by the year, Oman stands out as a state that has successfully preserved its sovereignty and protected its domestic stability by actively maintaining a neutral position in an increasingly polarised regional contest.
While the premise of the book focuses on Oman’s transformation from an impoverished country into a modern state, Oman Reborn is also a personal account of how the author fell in love with the country during her first visit in 1974, and how she continued to follow its developments with “great interest” before returning in 2006, some 32-years later. Although the book is dedicated to the author’s husband, it is not a personal memoir but rather an account of how Oman has prospered during the tenure of Sultan Qaboos al Said, who has governed the country as an absolute monarch since 1970.
Pappas-Funsch delightfully provides the reader with an overarching introduction to the country’s rich cultural heritage which then sets the grounds for an eloquent explaination of Qaboos’s foreign policy: preserving his nation’s stability and securing economic growth over his 45-year tenure in power by ensuring that Oman remains “a friend to all and an enemy to none”. This policy has not only protected Oman from regional turmoil, but also allowed it to focus on its own economic development.
Over Qaboos’s tenure, the country’s economy has grown from being predominatly pre-industrial into a modern one. Omani authorities view protecting the country’s $80 billion economy and sustaining its hard-won growth as fundamental to political stability.
Qaboos and the role of Omani women
Rich on content, including explaining the dichotomy between the country’s conservative Islamic values, anchored in the tolerant Ibadi-tradition, and the role of the modern woman in Oman, Pappas-Funsch writes, “With the accession of Qaboos […] to the throne, girls were guaranteed universal access to education for the first time in modern Omani history.” On the role of women in society and in civic life in particular, the author cites Majlis al-Dawla (State Council) member Salma al-Lamki, who captures the essence of the modern Omani state; namely, that the appropriate balance between tradition and modernity is defined by the Sultan himself.
To that end, al-Lamki argues that the Sultan’s exhortations of women in public life “are entirely consistent with tradition” and “firmly rooted” in Islamic precedent. Appealing to the country’s conservative population, from whom Qaboos enjoys his legitimacy, the author details how the advancement of women has become at the heart of the sultan’s legacy as they are represented at the highest levels of government, including serving as cabinet members, legislators and within the diplomatic corps.
Oman’s foreign policy in context
Pappas-Funsch provides a detailed account into how Oman’s neutrality based foreign policy has enabled it to maintain respective ties with both Iran and Israel, while enjoying close diplomatic relationships with the United States and Great Britain, its principal ally.
For instance, the author narrates how Qaboos successfully facilitated secret talks between US and Iranian officials in Muscat in March 2013, which ultimately paved the way for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement.
The book details how Qaboos has used his discrete foreign policy to successfully defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran after the Iranian government arrested three Americans in different situations. Rather than ‘mediating’, Qaboos’s preferred role appears to be that of a go-between, in which he responds to requests to third parties to help defuse tensions rather than attempting to mediate between the opposing parties.
In the case of the American hikers who were kidnapped in 2011, Qaboos responded to a US request to help secure their release. Although the release of the hikers did not involve direct US-Iranian engagement, the Omani facilitation of that effort engendered an apparent optimism that this success could be built upon.
Similarly, at the request of the British government, Oman also successfully facilitated the release of 15 British navy personnel captured at gunpoint by Iranian forces in the Shatt al Arab in 2007. These incidents appear to follow a similar pattern: Rather than acting on his own initiative, each time Qaboos facilitated a diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and Western powers, it was at the request of the parties themselves.
This was also the case when Oman facilitated the secret talks between US and Iranian officials in 2013.
Oman for all readers
Beyond its vivid description of issues ranging from Oman’s unique national heritage to how Qaboos responded to the eruption of the Arab awakening in the northern city of Sohar in 2011, the book uniquely appeals to the layman and Middle East scholar alike.
By writing this very important book, Pappas-Funsch has indeed succeeded in reaching a larger audience about the uniqueness of Oman within the Arab world and how it truly stands out as one of the few ‘good news’ stories to emerge from the Middle East in the contemporary era, as she argues in the preface of her book.
Since this book is about the Sultan and his unique vision, a take-away from “Oman Reborn” is that the Middle East could have been a very different region had its other leaders, presidents or monarchs alike, embodied some of Qaboos’s qualities.