The double whammy of low oil prices and the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown in the Gulf Arab states has forced governments to deal with a changing labor market.
Most of the analysis considering Oman’s future following the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said has focused on Oman’s foreign policy and the probability that the sultanate will maintain the same degree of independence from regional rivalries. Internally, the change in leadership likely will also impact the balance among domestic power centers in the sultanate. Qaboos wielded an exceptional degree of autonomy and authority within the Omani power structure, grounded in his historic role as the unifier and builder of the modern Omani state. It is doubtful that the new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, will be able to monopolize power to the same degree, especially given Oman’s economic challenges, which will require buy-in and collaboration to be met successfully. Yet in constructing a viable governing coalition, there are several options at his disposal, all with differing implications for Oman’s economic and political direction.
A Ruling House in Transition
The rule of Qaboos was unique. In the rest of the Gulf monarchies, the establishment of the modern bureaucratic state was accompanied by the formation of dynastic rule, as members of the ruling house were integrated into the governing structure as ministers holding key portfolios. This power sharing didn’t happen in Oman, or not to the same extent. At the time of his passing, Qaboos not only ruled, but ran the government as prime minister, maintaining almost all of the sovereign portfolios – defense minister, foreign minister, and supreme commander of the armed forces – while also holding the reins of the economy as finance minister and head of the board of governors of the central bank. The main theorist of dynastic monarchy, Michael Herb, has stated: “While the Al Saud rule Saudi Arabia, and the Al Sabah Kuwait, Qabus rules Oman.”
The recent transition of power was expertly choreographed to preserve this unitary rule and envelop Qaboos’ chosen successor in the mantle of his authority. It is particularly noteworthy that the ruling family council declined to exercise its constitutional power to select the next ruler, instead deferring to the will of Qaboos as expressed in a letter opened before the public. This implies that the new sultan is not indebted to his family for his position. In his first speech, Sultan Haitham pledged to follow the path laid out by the late sultan in foreign policy. He has since issued a directive to preserve the portrait of Qaboos next to his own in official meetings and offices, symbolically conveying the continuance of Qaboos’ legacy.
Still, while the family council didn’t intervene in the succession, there are new dynamics that may bring the Al Said family more to the fore. Unlike Qaboos, who was childless and without a male sibling, Haitham has close male relatives. These include two half-brothers, Assad and Shihab bin Tariq, both once viewed as potential successors to Qaboos. Assad’s eldest son, Taimur, has been touted as a leading figure in the next generation of royals. And Haitham himself has two sons: The eldest, Theyazin – who studied at Oxford, joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2013, and has served at the Omani Embassy in London since 2018 – has returned to Muscat and has been attending key diplomatic functions since his father’s assumption.
The transition to Haitham was orchestrated to demonstrate an impressive unity within the royal house, including a gracious role for presumed rival Assad. In other Gulf ruling families, competition among family members has fueled the expansion of royal control over government, as family demands are accommodated through government sinecures. Even if this competitive dynamic does not take hold in Oman, the royal presence may be felt in other ways. In recent years members of the Al Said family, including the new sultan and his siblings, have been increasing their involvement in business. How this is managed – or not – will affect the critical issue of Oman’s economic growth.
The Business-Government Nexus
The lack of reliance on the Al Said family freed Qaboos to take a broader view of governing coalitions in pursuit of nation building. In addition to drawing upon the extended family of the Busaidi, Qaboos incorporated many minorities into the ruling structures, within a strong narrative of interfaith and interethnic tolerance. Yet one clearly favored group emerged from within the leadership: Oman’s merchant families.
This political reliance on merchants offered both advantages and risks. Bringing in this class offered a powerful constituency in support of the government and its extensive national development ambitions. But in times of economic downturn, it also left the government susceptible to accusations of conflicts of interests and self-dealing. This is indeed what played out in 2011 as protesters based in the industrial port of Sohar demanded reform of the government with complaints centered on corruption.
Qaboos weathered that domestic crisis through a forceful resolve against dissent but also a mix of concessions. He nearly doubled the private sector minimum wage and created 50,000 new government jobs, mostly in the security services. He also further developed Oman’s participatory institutions through the establishment of elected municipal councils and granting more powers to the elected Shura Council. A number of the most publicly criticized ministers were removed from office amid a broader campaign of corruption prosecutions that resulted in convictions of some government officials and businessmen over the next few years.
This response established a new reality for wrestling with the sultanate’s current economic predicament. In 2019, the Omani deficit rose to $50 billion contributing to a steep rise in public debt from below 5% of gross domestic product to nearly 50% in just four years. This limits the new sultan’s ability to curry more favor through a repetition of government spending and populist solutions. There is a desperate need to create more jobs for young Omanis. But there is also the need to create conditions favorable to business to attract Omani capital back into the country. Expectations are high for Haitham to act quickly and decisively after years in which decision-making on the economy has been methodically paced in a strategy of “slow and go”: pushing forward on large scale infrastructure development, particularly in ports and logistics, while approaching structural reforms with caution
Solutions that will create a path to greater prosperity while preserving Oman’s economic independence are not easy to reach. Haitham will need to balance competing interests and productively engage all parties with a degree of policy sophistication similar to that demonstrated by his predecessor. In generating buy-in from the Omani public, he may turn to Oman’s participatory institutions.
Oman has created a means of formal public input through elections for municipal councils and the lower house of Parliament, the Shura Council. While the role of the municipal councils is advisory, the Shura Council can propose and amend legislation drafted by the Council of Ministers and interpolate service ministers regarding violations of the law; this privilege does not extend to the ministers of defense and foreign affairs.
Yet in practice, these institutions have not demonstrated the ability to impose meaningful accountability. The questioning of ministers happens only rarely, and the Shura Council lacks mechanisms to enforce government responsiveness. There has been very little professionalization, which is apparent in the very low rates of incumbency; since 2011, the turnover in Parliament in each election has been more than two-thirds of members. Popular disinterest is a problem: Despite some successful efforts to engage youth, voting participation has been uneven and declining since the very high turnout of 76% in 2011.
Part of the challenge lies in creating a body that can represent the diverse and changing interests of Omani society as it deals with socioeconomic change. As was demonstrated yet again in the Shura Council elections of October 2019, voting and representation continues to reflect very traditional family and tribal ties that thrive on state patronage. Money in elections continues to be a problem so that those with either wealth or social capital are overly represented in the council.
It is a real question whether this representation will be adequate to address challenges facing industrializing areas like Sohar or the complexities of job creation. It is especially striking that turnout for elections is wildly uneven, with more traditional interior regions and Dhofar displaying high voter engagement, while participation from the population centers of Muscat and the north is quite low. Conversations with Omanis reinforced the sense that the political culture, absent civic education, has not yet developed in a way that can sustain effective political engagement, especially in urban areas that embody more social heterogeneity.
Status Quo or Change?
The passage of authority from Qaboos to Haitham emphasized the unity of the ruling house and continuity from the ruler to his successor. This projection of constancy was profoundly reassuring to Omanis. Yet the status quo – especially regarding the economy – is not sustainable and will press the new leadership to make immediate changes. How Haitham chooses to balance the involvement and interests of family, business elites, and the institutions representing the broader public will illustrate much about how he is likely to reign.
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