What is this country, which has borders with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Yemen and the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other side of the Strait of Hormuz?
‘Ah, you are from Belgium! Do you like football?’ An unusual way to be greeted at the immigration counters. ‘Yes, I support Anderlecht’, even that was no mystery to the official. ‘Mhmm… I prefer Chelsea… but we have some Belgian players: Hazard, Courtois… Welcome to the Sultanate of Oman! Enjoy your stay!’ We drove out of the airport into Muscat, on a big city motorway lined with imperial style street lamps. It gave the impression of being in a fairy tale, an old kingdom so far away from Europe, but imitating the monarchies in the little details.
The Sultanate of Oman, reined since 1970 by Sultan Qaboosibn Said Al Said, appears as the cultured little brother of the UAE, also tolerant but more polite and into classical music rather than the modern stuff – a classic character – although he did not inherit much family money and isn’t economically as successful as the others in the family. But then there still is Yemen, where European citizens face a high probability of being kidnapped and therefore some countries, such as Italy, have adopted a policy of asking Yemen to immediately send back its citizens before they even enter the country.
Oman is somewhere in the middle, and sitting on the fence, concentrated in its Eastern corner of the Arabian peninsula, modestly living on, transiting from an underdeveloped state to a more developed state, working on its young nationhood and all of that in relative discretion and cloistered away from the international community; Oman is not clearly defined – that is the red thread of this report. In a first part, the report will expose areas of particular interest and ambiguity, trying to highlight the countries situation and to motivate a critical view. The second part will be published in the next edition, addressing the ambiguities and explaining the status quo, as well as a view into the future – illustrated by exclusive interviews with Dr. Leon Goldsmith from the College of Political Sciences at the Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat and the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Sultanate of Oman, Hans-Christian von Reibnitz.
The political system of the Sultanate appears democratic, but is it not actually opaque or even perhaps just for show? The Parliament (Majlis Asshura) was created in 1991, the country received a constitution in 1996 and an upper house (Majlis Adawala) in 1997. In 2011 the Sultan decreed that the Parliament should have legislative and control powers. General elections identify the people’s representatives in the Majlis Asshura and the Sultan appoints the members of the Majlis Adawala, but what is their function really? It appears that eventually they are still only an advisory body to the Sultan and his decision-making. Nonetheless it sheds light on the decision-making process and may have a certain extent of control on the Sultan’s final say, given that no ruler likes to contradict his people. It can also be seen as being part of a process of sensitisation aiming to shift from an absolute monarchy towards a state in which citizens take up responsibility. Is that merely the Sultan’s response to the fear of losing stability and control in the face of the ‘Arab spring’ phenomenon: the Omani version of ‘panem et circenses’? Critics could say that; on the other hand, it could indeed be the process towards a state, which justifies itself through the people it governs by giving them the power to decide. Looking back at the Sultan’s way of ruling, which is generally seen as thoughtful and directed towards good government (some could even dare to say ‘wise’), it could well be a continuation of this modernisation. In the 1970s, he managed to make out of a peasant country with merely one primary school and no hospitals, risking to fall apart and torn apart between uprisings of different clans, one nation, united behind one ruler and engaged on a modernisation process, which brought the country prosperity, education, health and infrastructure. The continuation of the emancipation of Oman would be to give the power to its people. Considering that he has no heir-apparent, it may be a strategic choice as well, to make his population his heir.
Many people have never experienced any other ruler than Sultan Qaboos and generally have a positive experience – in Oman carefulness und well thought decisions are preferred to rushing through with uncertainties. This is because the economic challenge, which the country faces, is not an easy one: oil resources are said to be running out by the 2030s and so the country needs to reorient its economy towards a ‘real’ non-resources based economy, to be able to continue the development of the country’s modernisation. International relations and foreign investments need to be attracted, but also immigration puts a strain on the country: near to 40% of the country’s population is immigrant, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh … more on these issues in the next edition.
Although the concept of an absolutist (or nearly absolutist) ruler is of ill repute in the Western world, the Sultan is regarded as an idol in the country. Companies base their marketing campaigns around his figure – proof for his popularity – something, which in the EU is unimaginable, or would French car constructors choose President Hollande as part of their branding: Peugeot, Citroen: a normal car! Even before his popularity plummeted down, so right at the beginning of his term, they probably would not have done so. Not even the German ones would use Chancellor Merkel, not enough popular admiration is attached to either, and any European leader. The Sultan came to power through a coup in 1970, dethroning his father who kept the country poor and uneducated. It was at a similar time as the creation of the UAE, so it essentially was left open to the tribal lords, which state they would want to join – which explains some bits and pieces of Omani territory speckled across the UAE. Over the past four decades, helped by the income from oil sources, the Sultan upgraded the country bit by bit: schools, hospitals, infrastructure and even universities were created and improved. The people of Oman see him as their moderniser and as a fair ruler. He is a believer and follower of the Prophet and has set himself a landmark, at disposal of his people and to the honour of Allah: the Sultan Qaboos mosque in Muscat, which contains the second-largest hand-woven carpet in the world. The Sultan allowed his people to feel proud, not by having the highest tower in the world or the best luxury hotels, but by having a good ruler who aims to create something like a Norway of the Gulf. The process of modernisation was very slow but steady.
Another such symbol of pride is the Opera House is a symbol for various things. Not only for the tolerant and open culture, which the Sultan wishes to cultivate, based on values and not on bling-bling as its neighbours in the Emirates, but also for the internal struggle in Oman, between firm believers and statesmen. In the phase preceding the construction, the establishment of such an institution was debated – would it conform to the Muslim way of life? Would it not bring in tendencies, foreign and unwanted in the country? The Sultan listened to these voices, but with his absolute grasp on power pushed through his pet project and with hindsight most people previously opposed tried it out and saw it to be a pleasant and nice experience …
Certainly also religion plays a major role. In Oman the majority of Muslims are neither Sunni nor Shia. They are Ibadis, sitting on the fence. This branch of Islam could be characterised by tolerance and moderation, not only of other views (for instance back in the day, Portuguese traders were allowed to open their trade posts and practice their own religion without the locals complaining), but also in their presentation: most Omanis wear the traditional white gowns, the Dishdasha. This eliminates much of the potential to show off – something which in Ibadism is only tolerated in the architecture of mosques. The moderation and tolerance of Ibadis does not mean any line can be crossed. There are some rules, that need to be respected by foreigners: it may be coincidence, at least I dearly hope so, that a few days before the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a former foreign ministry official told me across the table and before sipping on his beer: ‘One of the lines not to cross is to make caricatures of our Prophet, such as the Danes and French did some years ago…’ Freedom of the press is a relative thing in the Sultanate, but apparently the Sultan’s secret service keeps a very close eye on any extremist tendencies, up to the point of proof-reading every single sermon.
Concerning tolerance, the Majlis Asshura (the elected Parliament) has voted in favour of a ban on alcohol on the 9th of January 2015. It is the manifestation of a public discourse, on-going in most of the Muslim world: How tolerant or intolerant should the state be? It is the conflict between fundamentalist and tolerant Islam, depicted on a global stage with the presence of DAESH, which has repercussions in all layers of society and in all shades of intensity. It is a motivating force for people to think about what they want for their respective societies, such as the question about alcohol. It is not only an issue about whether it is economically viable for the country to lose those people coming to Oman to have a drink or simply on holidays and wishing to have a cool beer in the evening. It is also the question of where society is heading – whether Oman does want to continue being a tolerant and rather liberal country, or whether it prefers to align itself with Saudi Arabia. In the end the ban will first be discussed by the cabinet (appointed by the Sultan) and the final decision lies with Sultan Qaboos. But perhaps DAESH is not only an opportunity for the international cooperation to work together in military matters, bringing closer for instance Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to name but a few, but also for democracy and self-determination by allowing a discourse on such issues.
Of course diplomacy and international relations have an important impact on the country; Oman lies between two regional powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia – opposed to each other out of ideological reasons, one being Shi’ite, the other Sunni. For Oman this is the possibility to maintain its longed for modest role on the international stage, but also its autonomy and independence. Oman does not like to lose its sovereignty, which is why they probably do not understand how countries in the EU can surrender powers to a centralised authority partly out of their control. Being in between both powers allows Oman to lead talks in the region as a non-aligned power. But the question is whether this may change with the public discourse, should it tend towards one form or another. Perhaps an absolute monarchy and democratic inspirations for show are necessary to keep the country on the ‘right’ track, to maintain the act of diplomatic balance… ?
Besides such an interesting political, economic, cultural and societal situation, the country also possesses great natural beauty, thankfully not yet saturated by tourists – though the stability and security is bait, which tourist organisations will not ignore for long. The Salma plateau between Muscat and Sur, in the Eastern Hajar mountain range is an untouched, uncharted piece of land, where the country retains an original touch of the past and is but one example of the backwardness of parts of the Sultanate and the long way to go until becoming a ‘Norway of the gulf’, but also displays its diversity, which makes its beauty and originality. The mysterious and fascinating sound of the muezzins’voices resonating above the city before prayer time is another facet of the beauty of the country – unless perhaps you want to make a nap in silence …
‘Beautiful henna on your hands’, my partner was complimented at the emigration counters. ‘By the way, to make it last longer, just wrap it with a bandage over night and in the morning put some almond oil on it’. With yet another friendly advice from an Omani official we left the country and hope for a return in the near future.
by Dorian KRONENWERTH, Special Reporter for The Maghreb and Orient Courier