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J.E. Peterson

Dr. Peterson is a historian and political scientist specializing in the

Arabian Peninsula and Gulf, based in Tucson, Arizona. He has been, most
recently, Sir William Luce Fellow at the University of Durham. His website

n July 23, 1970, supporters of Britain even though it has drawn close to
Qabus bin Said Al Said stormed the United States in security matters and
al-Hisn, the sultan’s seaside was relatively quick in the 1980s to em-
palace in Salalah, and forced brace diplomatic relations with China and
his father the sultan to abdicate and accept the Soviet Union despite the protests of
exile. Two weeks later, the new 30-year- London and Washington. Its foreign policy
old sultan made his first appearance in the is remarkably even-handed and flexible.
capital Muscat and a new era began. For Correct relations at a minimum were
the next few years, nearly any Omani, maintained with Egypt after the Egyptian-
when asked what he or she thought of the Israeli treaty in 1979, with Iran through and
new ruler, would almost inevitably reply, after the Iranian revolution, with Iraq
“Before him, there was nothing. Now, through the Kuwait war and the sanctions
there is everything.” Over the next decade regime, and even with Israel before and
or more, the sultanate made enormous during the Palestinian intifadas.
strides in developing its potential and In terms of political and economic
raising the standard of living of its people.1 development, generally speaking, Oman
Oman is a seeming anomaly in the has accomplished as much or more than its
Arab world. It rarely features in Western fellow Gulf monarchies, despite starting
media and civil strife has been virtually from scratch considerably later, having less
unknown for several decades. It is neither oil income to utilize, dealing with a larger
a member of OPEC nor OAPEC, and its and more rugged geography, and resolving
oil income is modest. Oman and Bahrain a bitter civil war along the way. Of course,
are the poor cousins of the Gulf Coopera- Oman’s progress in the past 30-plus years
tion Council, but Oman proudly keeps an has not been without problems and mis-
independent direction and maintains a steps, but the balance is squarely on the
conciliatory stance within GCC ranks. It positive side of the ledger.
retains close political and economic ties to The job is still not finished, however; in


some respects, it is only beginning. By Almost predictably, strains appeared

2003, more than 80 percent of all Omanis between him and Sultan Qabus. They had
either were not yet born in 1970 or were never met before and they had experi-
too young to remember the hardships of enced radically different lives that had
the earlier years. Younger Omanis are shaped widely divergent political philoso-
hardly interested in the contrast between phies. Qabus was disposed to rule as a
the pre-1970 and post-1970 situations. benevolent monarch, while Tariq sought to
Their concerns are focused instead on introduce a constitutional monarchy. In
rising levels of unemployment, dwindling addition, they were surrounded by separate
natural resources – most significantly, and often competing advisers and cronies
water – Oman’s future after oil, and what who stoked suspicions of each other’s
will happen when the heirless Sultan Qabus intentions and motives. By the end of
passes from the scene. 1971, Tariq felt compelled to resign; he
spent many of his remaining years abroad.
THE 1970s: STARTING FROM In the meantime, the first uncertain
SCRATCH steps were being taken to create an
The obstacles facing the new sultan appropriate government almost entirely
and his advisers in 1970 were enormous. from scratch. The first ministries were
There were few Omanis with any educa- established, with a decidedly uneven record
tion, as a result of the country’s poverty of appointments of ministers and under-
and the previous sultan’s deliberate policy secretaries. An early point of friction was
against formal learning, and most of the over the appropriate role of the ruling Al
educated were working outside the coun- Said family in governing. Elsewhere in the
try. The existing government was minimal Gulf, the ruling families hold considerable
and ill-suited to development. The country power and influence vis-à-vis the ruler.
lacked nearly all infrastructure, including a The Al Said, however, were small in
modern port, roads, schools, electricity number and had been clearly subordinate
outside the capital area, and even office to Sultan Said bin Taymur and even to his
space for the government. predecessors. Qabus’s word was final on
Immediately upon the coup, an Interim all matters, but he could be lobbied. When
Council composed largely of expatriates Tariq’s replacement as acting prime
was established in Muscat to oversee the minister – a highly capable medical doctor
transition. Sultan Said’s two principal but from outside the ruling family and a
Omani officials, both members of his family, Shia as well – met with antipathy from the
retired or left the country. In the following family, his interim rank quickly disappeared,
months, a nucleus of capable Omanis took and the sultan assumed the role of prime
up new positions in the new government, minister, effectively terminating the office.
and most existing expatriate advisers were Senior members of the ruling family
replaced by better qualified ones. began to take over senior positions in the
Sayyid Tariq bin Taymur, the new government. A cousin, Sayyid Thuwayni
sultan’s uncle, returned from years of exile bin Shihab, assumed his father’s role under
in Cyprus and Germany to assume the the rubric of the sultan’s representative, a
newly created position of prime minister. rather nondescript title that existed largely


to indicate he was in charge when the seconded British officers commanded the
sultan was out of the country and was armed forces, the individual services and
responsible for chairing cabinet meetings regiments. Petroleum Development Oman
during the sultan’s absence. Another (PDO) was a private company, owned
uncle, Sayyid Fahr bin Taymur, returned principally and operated by Royal Dutch
from exile to become deputy minister of Shell. It is not completely nationalized
defense. A cousin, Sayyid Fahd bin today. It proved to be a valuable source of
Mahmud, also returned from exile to talent for the new government as well.
become first minister of state for foreign While Oman’s new-found oil produc-
affairs and then of information. As the tion was a godsend for the fledgling
hierarchical structure evolved, the rank of government, income remained limited in the
deputy prime minister was eventually first several years relative to the enormous
bestowed on these three, along with a need, with government revenues (over-
fourth non-family member. Another whelmingly derived from oil) only slightly
cousin, Sayyid Faysal bin Ali, associated more than 50 million Omani riyals in 1970,
with the old 1971 and 1972.
imamate move- It was not until
ment in years Defense was virtually the only 1973-74 that the
past, took stints capably organized and run oil-price revolu-
as minister of
government department on the eve tion boosted
minister of of the coup. It was nearly the only revenues to
education, and major employer in the country. 211.6 million
ambassador to riyals in 1974.
the United This bonanza
States, before appointment as minister of permitted the government to bring expendi-
national heritage and culture. tures (roughly half of which were on
Defense was virtually the only capably development) back into line with revenues
organized and run government department in 1974.2
on the eve of the coup. Because of the A first priority was to create incipient
war in Dhufar in the south, Oman’s armed ministries for social services, such as
forces had already been absorbing the education, health and public works. These
lion’s share of sultanate revenues. It was were staffed in the early days by Omanis
nearly the only major employer in the returning from abroad, as well as expatri-
country. Over the succeeding 30 years, a ates, with so-called “Zanzibaris” prominent
disproportionate number of ministers and among their numbers.3 More “traditional”
senior advisers were drawn from its ranks. areas of government fared better, as most of
The sultan, because of his Sandhurst the walis (the sultan’s representatives in the
background and obvious concern with the towns and villages) remained in situ under
Dhufar War, assumed the position of the aegis of the ministry of the interior. The
minister of defense, although a newly same held true for the qadis (judges) under
arrived Briton was left in charge of what the ministry of awqaf and Islamic affairs.
was to become the ministry of defense, and While the new sultan and his govern-


ment indisputably were committed to full come. Under the Interim Council and the
and rapid economic development, serious initial Council of Ministers, rudimentary
questions arose of how to go about it. procedures were put in place to assess the
Sultan Said bin Taymur had initiated the highest priorities and to award contracts
first modest development schemes in the for pressing needs. A tender board was
two short years he had been in receipt of quickly established to oversee the process,
oil revenues. These essentially amounted although it was often difficult to judge how
to a couple of schools and office buildings, much of a role personal and business
a few roads, a new seaport and a “Greater contacts played in many contracts. Al-
Matrah” plan, in addition to the barely though some British firms benefited from
functioning health dispensaries and agricul- an inside track, companies from Germany,
tural farms he had been forced to establish Sweden, Cyprus, Lebanon and the United
as a condition of British subsidies in the States were able to establish successful
1950s and 1960s. beachheads.
The new port in Matrah was well It took a number of years to create a
under way at the time of the coup, and development planning infrastructure and
plans were hurriedly redrawn to accelerate hire competent advisers to supervise it.
its construction and expand it. It opened a The process was accompanied by confu-
few years later under the name Port sion in how tasks were to be divided
Qabus and remains the country’s principal among government departments: the
seaport. Plans were set in motion to build a Ministry of Trade and Development was
new international airport at nearby al-Sib to replaced by the Center for Economic
replace the cramped Bayt al-Falaj airfield Planning, which was replaced by the
behind Matrah. Contracts were soon made Ministry of Development, which in turn
to finish the coastal road to Suhar and to was replaced by the Supreme Planning
build a badly needed road through the Council.
Samail Gap to the interior. Demand soon Sultan Said had held steadfast to his
outstripped the “Greater Matrah” plan, and policy of isolation until his abdication. He
a haphazard complex of offices, shops, was content to accept British military and
warehouses, homes, and apartment build- financial assistance when necessary while
ings completely transformed the small striving to hold Whitehall’s demands for
village of Ruwi behind Matrah. Emphasis liberalization and development at bay. He
was also laid on creating suitable housing had accepted an Indian consul in Muscat
for the various government offices, which but no other diplomatic missions. His only
had been scattered about Muscat in old representation abroad was an honorary
buildings, cramped quarters and comman- consul in London, Charles Kendall, who
deered schools. also served as his purchasing agent there.
It was recognized from the beginning Despite British entreaties, his only conces-
that proper economic and development sion to relations with Gulf neighbors after
planning was an absolute necessity. Not his permanent retreat to Salalah in 1958
only were oil revenues limited and de- was a British-prodded meeting with
mands on them high, but the war in Dhufar Shaykh Zayid of Abu Dhabi in 1968 – but
was draining nearly half of all state in- this produced few practical results. Even


when Oman finally joined the ranks of oil nized the sultanate soon after. This,
producers, Sultan Said had no interest in combined with the success of the goodwill
joining either OPEC or OAPEC. His sole mission, paved the way for Oman’s admis-
concession to membership in international sion to the Arab League and then the
bodies was a successful application to United Nations. Membership in various
WHO. He had faced too much hostility international bodies followed soon after.
from Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria, Britain, in connection with its official
Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Yemen, to withdrawal from east of the Suez, upgraded
consider even a preliminary démarche. its consul-general in Muscat to ambassador
The new regime was acutely con- in 1971. The United States, which had had
scious of the necessity of international continuous diplomatic relations with Muscat
recognition and assistance. The smaller since 1833, belatedly established an em-
Gulf states were only too happy to see bassy in old Muscat across the street from
Qabus ascend the throne. The first few the British embassy in 1973.
months after his accession saw a parade of The most serious challenge to the new
Gulf leaders coming to Qabus to express regime was the war in Dhufar. Hostilities
their friendship. South Yemen, heavily had begun in a small way in 1962 with a
involved in backing the Popular Front for single disgruntled tribesman raising a few
the Liberation of Oman in Dhufar, did its followers and using small arms acquired in
best to blackball Oman from membership Saudi Arabia to attack irrigation systems
in the Arab League. The Arab bloc at the and American oil-company vehicles. Within
United Nations cautioned Muscat from a few years, the rebellion had acquired a
seeking membership there until the Arab Dhufari nationalist character, fueled by
League matter had been settled. King money and support from Dhufaris working
Faysal of Saudi Arabia remained aloof, elsewhere in the Gulf. South Yemeni
partly because of longstanding Saudi independence in late 1967 led to additional
backing of the “Imamate of Oman” against support from Aden, China and the Soviet
the sultanate (he even played host to Imam Union, as well as a stronghold across the
Ghalib), although the “Oman Revolutionary Yemeni border. Within a few months,
Army” had long since decamped to Iraq. Marxist leaders had secured control of the
To overcome these prejudices, an Omani front. Sultan Said was forced to spend
“goodwill mission” was dispatched to increasing amounts on expanding his armed
various Arab capitals to explain the dra- forces, accompanied by small-scale British
matically changed situation in Muscat. assistance. By early 1970, most of Dhufar
Eventually, a carefully prepared visit lay in the front’s hands.
was arranged for Sultan Qabus to Riyadh The July 1970 coup d’état, secured
in late 1971. To the relief of everyone, he with British approval, was soon followed
and Faysal got along well; the sultan even by an increase in British military assis-
agreed to meet Imam Ghalib face-to-face. tance, including the dispatch of a full
The latter’s refusal to recognize the sultan squadron of the Special Air Service,
and his attendant rudeness was the final disguised under the euphemism British
straw. King Faysal gave the sultan his Army Training Team. The sultan’s interna-
blessing, and the kingdom officially recog- tional initiatives resulted in fruitful meetings


with the shah of Iran and King Hussein of of South Yemeni regular troops to resist the
Jordan during the 1971 Persepolis celebra- sultanate’s strategy of cutting their supply
tions. Jordanian assistance subsequently lines and areas of operation. By December
appeared in the form of the temporary loan 1975, a final push allowed the sultan to
of a Special Forces Brigade and the declare the war finished, although occa-
longer-term attachment of combat engi- sional skirmishes occurred for several
neers and staff officers. The shah, eager more years.
for a chance to thwart perceived commu- The end to the war permitted full-scale
nist expansion and an opportunity to development to take place in Dhufar. The
provide his troops with combat experience heretofore isolated mountains were soon
– encouraged by the United States as part crisscrossed by a road network linking new
of its “twin pillars” policy of working settlements with schools, dispensaries,
through surrogates mosques and local
in the Gulf region – militia facilities. The
readily supplied Most Dhufaris were won allegiance of the
army brigades, jabbalis (mountain
over by a combination of the
helicopters and air people) was secured
transport, and naval obvious commitment of the in addition by their
cover. Saudi Arabia new regime to development personal loyalty to
and Abu Dhabi also and a better life, and Sultan Qabus, whose
provided minor mother was also
mistakes by the front’s jabbaliyah. A
But as the hardline leadership in its concerted effort was
sultan’s armed sometimes brutal suppression made to integrate
forces geared up to of Islam and tribalism. Dhufar with northern
meet the growing Oman, and a number
challenge, so did the of Dhufaris were
front’s capabilities. In the end, the sultan- made ministers, some of them former rebels.
ate victory appeared to result from a While anti-government activities were
successful “hearts and minds” campaign as concentrated in Dhufar, an offshoot of the
much, or more, than military superiority. Popular Front was operating in the north.
Most Dhufaris were won over by a Its members were derived largely from
combination of the obvious commitment of disaffected “urban” Omanis who had
the new regime to development and a studied and worked abroad, together with
better life, and mistakes by the front’s some remnants from the old Oman Revolu-
hardline leadership in its sometimes brutal tionary Movement. But the membership
suppression of Islam and tribalism. Gradu- was never very large, its appeal was
ally, the front’s fighters defected to the limited, and its real threat was minimal,
sultanate side and were regrouped in tribal particularly after sultanate security ser-
militias to defend their tribal territories vices caught wind of a Christmas 1972 plot
against their erstwhile comrades. The and rounded up most of the instigators. A
front was forced to rely on increasingly shoot-out between a truck full of front
desperate guerrilla tactics and the insertion members and an army checkpoint near al-


Rustaq in mid-1974 turned out to be the remained the development of Muscat as

swan song of the movement. the center of government, the largest (and
In retrospect, it is rather remarkable rapidly growing) urban center in the
that there was not more unrest and disaf- country, and the site of the principal sea
fection, considering the confusion swirling and airports. Simultaneously, Dhufar
around a new and inexperienced govern- received considerable attention, as the
ment and inevitable disappointment over government sought to eliminate any
the slow progress in development. Still, the potential grievances that might lead the
only public expression of dissatisfaction region’s population to renew opposition.
appeared in the 1971 demonstrations While there was some grumbling about
against low wages and the influx of foreign the attention paid to Muscat and the south,
labor. These were provoked by several and thus the capital’s perceived indiffer-
well-intentioned but inappropriate royal ence towards the coast and interior, steady
decrees aimed at curbing inflation and advances in the expansion of road building,
price-gouging. A rescinding of the decrees, health care, schools and other services
along with timely quick and reasonable blunted the impatience.
action by the nascent police, brought the Unfortunately, the oil bubble burst in
episode to a quick end. 1986, leaving the new third five-year plan in
tatters. The building of Muscat was nearly
THE 1980s: GROWTH AND complete, with an urban road system in
DEVELOPMENT place, the groundwork laid for a quilt of
With many of the essential foundations modern suburbs, a shining new row of
of the political and economic infrastructure government ministries along the main road
successfully laid during the 1970s, the to the airport, the armed forces transferred
second decade of the Qabus era saw a to a new headquarters and central base,
more systematic approach to the expansion and plans for the country’s first university
of government capabilities and develop- well underway. But the effort to develop
ment efforts. the coast and the interior, as envisaged in
The oil-price revolution in the first half the new plan, inevitably suffered, and the
of the 1970s and the termination of the grumbling grew more sustained.
Dhufar War in the second resulted in The 1980s were also notable for
greater financial resources being available Oman’s growing confidence in the conduct
for development requirements. Govern- of its foreign affairs. Its tentative ap-
ment departments filled out, and more proach to outreach in the 1970s was
Omanis occupied senior positions, enabling illustrated by the rather Draconian ob-
an increasingly competent and satisfactory stacles placed in the way of visas for every
approach to the provision of social ser- nationality. In the following years, visa
vices. The haphazard path to development requirements were gradually relaxed as the
experienced during the first decade gave country perceived itself less as a belea-
way to more rational and better prioritized guered hermit kingdom under threat and
planning. The first five-year development more as a full-fledged member of the Arab,
plan had begun in 1976, with emphasis on Islamic and global communities. The
infrastructural expansion. A central focus sultanate pursued negotiations on mutual


recognition and boundaries with South same time, Oman surprised the United
Yemen, a neighbor with which Oman had States and the world by agreeing to
come close to outright war only a few diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
years previously. Relations with other These developments laid the basis for what
neighbors in the Gulf were regularized and was to become the essence of Omani
cemented by Oman’s participation in the foreign policy: moderation, balance be-
foundation of the Gulf Cooperation Council tween opposing viewpoints, and a rejection
(GCC) in 1981. of breaking ties to anyone.
Diplomatic relations were established
in 1976 with Iraq, a country that had THE 1990s: MATURATION
supported and even hosted Omani opposi- The 1990s can be seen as a period of
tion groups as late as the early 1970s. maturation. After many years of hard and
Oman maintained correct relations with the patient work, Oman’s development efforts
new Islamic Republic of Iran, and the few were realizing benefits. Most social
remaining Iranian troops departed Dhufar services had been extended to the remotest
in 1979. The sultanate displayed com- areas. Regional centers such as Nizwa,
mendable caution and considerable re- Suhar and Sur were prospering. The
straint when, during the latter stages of the introduction of municipalities turned over
Iran-Iraq War, Iranian naval and revolu- increasing responsibility to the towns and
tionary guard vessels attacked Gulf-bound villages for their basic functions. In
shipping in Omani territorial waters. proportional terms, Oman continued to
Displaying its neutrality, Muscat forced have the largest armed forces in the GCC,
Iraqi combat aircraft to turn back from an although not the best equipped. The
attempted mission to attack Iran after sultanate justified its continued high expen-
passing through Omani airspace. ditures on the security services by their
Warm personal relations between utility in providing employment, as well as
Sultan Qabus and President Anwar Sadat education and training, for many Omanis
of Egypt may have helped convince the who would have otherwise been on the
sultanate to maintain relations with Cairo open job market, and by the country’s
following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. unique security needs resulting from its
Several Omani army officers were inad- extremely long seacoast and remote inland
vertently killed during the subsequent borders.
assassination of Sadat. Increasing attention was placed on
From the beginning of security debates transforming the centralized, government-
within the GCC, Oman maintained that controlled economy into a vibrant private-
Gulf security was dependent on Western sector economy. The Rusayl industrial
protection and made no bones about its estate outside of Muscat led the way with
dependence on British military personnel to a number of small factories focusing on
modernize its armed forces. A facilities- import-substitution niches. Gradually more
access agreement was signed with the of these sorts of establishments sprang up
United States in 1980, although the sultan- along al-Batinah and in the interior. Oil
ate insisted on stiffer terms upon its income remained the engine of the
renewal five years later. At nearly the economy but the government sought to


diversify by pouring long-term investment members. But some liberalization was

into the development of natural gas and gradually introduced.5
built a terminal near Sur for liquefied In his 1990 National Day speech,
natural gas (LNG) exports. New ports Sultan Qabus announced the formation of a
were developed at Salalah and Suhar to Majlis al-Shura (consultative council) to
serve container transshipment opportunities replace the State Consultative Council.
and the country’s second oil refinery The government would not be represented,
respectively. At the same time, tourism and members would be selected from each
was identified as an income-earning and of the sultanate’s 59 wilayahs (districts).
labor-intensive sector, with a high level of An element of popular input into member-
private-sector involvement. ship was introduced for the first time:
Oman’s investment in education also selected citizens in each wilayah would
began paying dividends. In 2002-2003, elect three candidates from whom the
there were 108,000 elementary school government would appoint one member. In
students and 125,000 secondary school a significant innovation, the social-service
students. From a handful of PhDs in the
ministers appeared before the council to
mid-1980s, returning report on their
doctorate-holders ministries’ activities
mushroomed in the In 1996, Sultan Qabus and answer ques-
following decade. issued a royal decree setting tions; these appear-
Not only did this ances were televised
allow many univer- out the Basic Law of the live. In 1994, the
sity faculty positions state, . . . the first written council was ex-
to be Omanized; the expression of constitutional panded to 80 mem-
quality of senior- bers. Women in
law in the country’s history.
level positions was Muscat Governorate
upgraded throughout were allowed to take
the government. part in the election process, and the sultan
These accomplishments in socioeco- appointed two women members. The third
nomic development were accompanied by Majlis in 1997 saw the electorate expanded
a series of measures introducing political to 51,000, with women across the country
participation and then constitutional re- permitted to both nominate and stand as
forms. The State Consultative Council (al- candidates. In the end, 10 percent of the
majlis al-istishari lil-dawlah) was electors were women and 27 women were
established in 1981 to provide advice to the among the 736 candidates: the same two
government on selected issues. It origi- women appointed earlier won election. For
nally consisted of 43 appointed members, the first time, all 83 candidates were
of whom 11 were under-secretaries from approved for membership.
the social-service ministries, although the The electorate for the 2000 Majlis was
membership was expanded in subsequent extended to 115,000, with 30 percent said
years. The council operated under a highly to be women; again two women were
restrictive format at first, its functions elected. In 2003, all citizens over 20 were
hampered by the required rapid turnover of allowed to vote but only 262,000 registered.


Despite the liberalization of the Majlis al- religion and expression, declared the
Shura, it remains far from being a repre- independence of the judiciary, and provided
sentative legislative body. Its purview for the Council of Oman and a Defense
remains limited to social and economic Council (discussed below).6
matters, and it can only review government In a subsequent interview, the sultan
policies and not initiate legislation. disclosed that he had long thought about
In addition, as the sultanate expanded changing the way in which the country was
participation in the Majlis al-Shura, it governed and, as his silver jubilee ap-
incorporated the body in a larger Council of proached, felt that the time was right.
Oman (majlis uman), established in 1997,
which also included a new Council of State So I got together four of my most
(majlis al-dawlah). The latter consisted trusted people - all Omanis. I sat with
initially of 41 members, all appointed by the them and told them exactly what I had
government and including a number of in mind. I gave them a year to formu-
late it in a legal document. Then we
former ministers and military officers, as
had a second review, and then a final
well as two women. The new council session. I announced it on my annual
seemed intended to serve as an upper- “Meet the People” tour while en-
house counterpart to the elected Majlis al- camped in the desert in the heart of
Shura, akin to Britain’s House of Lords. Oman. Then I waited for the reaction,
Like the older council, its function re- which was very good. Now the Basic
mained restricted to providing advice on Law is being implemented through
social and economic affairs, and many of laws and regulations. I had hoped that
its members were appointed as a result of this could be done within two years,
their being relieved of positions elsewhere but that period may have to be
extended for an additional year. We’ll
in the government. In 2000, the council
see. By the year 2000, I want it
was expanded to 48 members, including implemented.7
five women. In conjunction with the 2003
Majlis al-Shura elections, Sultan Qabus Dissidence appeared to have become a
expanded membership in the Council of thing of the past in Oman by the beginning
State to 57 and appointed eight women. of the 1980s. But a wave of arrests in
In 1996, Sultan Qabus issued a royal 1994 shook public confidence. Some 300
decree setting out the Basic Law of the or 400 people were arrested on charges of
state. This was the first written expression subversion and hundreds more questioned.
of constitutional law in the country’s A state security court was convened in
history. The Basic Law enshrined leader- November. It sentenced about 135 individu-
ship in the sultan, limited succession to the als to prison terms; the few death sen-
male descendants of Sayyid Turki bin Said tences were commuted by the sultan to life
bin Sultan (ruled 1871-1888), provided for imprisonment. All prisoners were freed as
the appointment of a prime minister, part of the sultan’s Silver Jubilee amnesty
endorsed the principle of consultation, in November 1995. While the sultan, in his
stipulated a free economy, declared all 1994 national day speech, accused those
citizens equal before the law, guaranteed arrested of being Islamic extremists, little
personal freedoms including freedom of evidence was offered for this assertion, and


many in Oman continued to entertain declared off-limits to expatriates and shops

doubts. Still, the fear of Islamist unrest were required to have Omani employees.
continued to bubble in the sultanate, with a The banking sector was one of the first
few Shia arrested in 1997 and an alleged targets. By the late 1990s, it was heavily
al-Qaeda cell broken up in 2002.8 Omanized and included a high proportion of
female Omani employees.
THE 21ST CENTURY: AFTER Another serious problem arose from
QABUS AND OIL the perennially scarce water resources.
Unfortunately, Oman’s fundamental Oman’s population growth, from less than
problems continued to press into the a million in 1970 to an estimated 2.5 million
twenty-first century. Foremost among in 2002, placed continual strain on water
these was population growth, thought to be supplies, particularly as per capita con-
as high as 4 percent per annum and beyond sumption increased and industry became
during the 1980s and 1990s, although the established. The answer applied else-
World Bank estimated it at 2.4 percent for where in the Gulf was desalination; indeed,
2002.9 While minor efforts had been taken the great majority of the capital region’s
to stem the growth – most notably in one water is supplied in that manner. But
of the sultan’s national day speeches, when desalination is not viable for the broad
he somewhat ambiguously stated how expanse of rural populations, and its high
many members should constitute the ideal cost can be borne only when there is
family – few practical steps were taken. sufficient oil income to pay for it.
In part, the desire for large families re- Oil production averaged about 300,000
flected traditional pride in having many barrels per day (b/d) from 1970 through the
children, but it also reflected a common end of the decade but began to climb
feeling that Oman was a large country with through the 1980s to 641,000 b/d in 1989.
a small population and that it was desirable Growth continued through the 1990s,
to produce more Omanis to fill up the vast peaking at 904,000 b/d in 1997 and 1999.10
empty spaces. But by 2000, the government admitted that
A direct consequence of a growing it could not increase production for “techni-
population was the emergence of serious cal reasons.” Decreasing output at
unemployment problems. Unlike the existing fields was balanced by bringing
example elsewhere in the Arab world, new – but smaller and more expensive –
Oman had been relatively careful not to fields into production. Still, after peaking at
swell government ranks with disguised 956,000 b/d in 2001, production declined to
unemployment. But as the educational 897,000 b/d in 2002.11 By 2004, total oil
system matured and the pipeline of stu- production in the sultanate had slipped
dents from elementary to secondary school below 800,000 b/d. A fortunate rise in
swelled to its full size, the country faced petroleum prices in the decade blunted the
the dilemma of what to do with the addition impact on oil income.12
of well over 40,000 secondary-school Still, it had become increasingly
graduates and drop-outs every year. A obvious that oil income, barely enough to
major response was a gradual program of finance growth and development in the
Omanization: certain occupations were best of situations, would not continue


indefinitely to be adequate. As a conse- [i.e. the sultan]); the inspector-general of

quence, Oman turned to natural gas. After police and customs; the chief of staff of the
investing heavily and borrowing internation- sultan’s armed forces; the commanders of
ally to bring an expensive LNG terminal the air force, the navy, and the army; the
into operation, the sultanate began LNG commander of the royal guard; and the
exports in 2000. A second production train head of the internal-security apparatus.13
was brought into operation shortly after- In the event of the Ruling Family
wards, and plans for a third were an- Council being unable to agree on a succes-
nounced in 2002. By 2003, LNG exports sor – which could very well happen – it is
accounted for 15 percent of total oil and mind-boggling to envision the Defense
gas income and a 50-percent expansion of Council acting rather like a presenter at the
the Sur plant was planned. Academy Awards, opening the envelope
At the same time, Oman began to pin and reading out the name of the deceased
hopes on the tourism industry. Once an sultan’s choice of successor. For one
extremely difficult country to which to gain thing, there is no guarantee that the council
entry, the sultanate gradually relaxed its will announce the name as written and not
visa rules, initially by issuing group visas to simply advance its own candidate. This
European tourists. Eventually, multiple- possibility obviously has occurred to Sultan
entry tourist visas and visas-on-demand at Qabus as well, who disclosed, “I have
the airport and borders were introduced. A already written down two names, in
growing number of hotels of all classes descending order, and put them in sealed
have opened in the capital area, and Dhufar envelopes in two different regions.”14
has become a popular summer destination There is much thought in Oman and
for GCC citizens. By 1998, Oman played among observers outside the country that
host to a half-million tourists; the numbers Qabus bin Said may be the last of the
have grown in subsequent years. sultans and, indeed, that he has been
Another concern both inside and preparing the country for this event.
outside the country is this: what will happen Certainly, there are few viable candidates
when Sultan Qabus leaves the scene? The for succession within the family, and there
rules of succession were laid out in Article is virtually no possibility of anyone outside
6 of the 1996 Basic Law: “The Ruling the family commanding the authority and
Family’s Council, within three days of the legitimacy to rule as sultan.15 It is not
throne falling vacant, shall determine the inconceivable that Oman may find itself a
successor. If the Ruling Family’s Council republic in the near future.
does not nominate a successor, the De- Although formidable challenges await
fence Council shall appoint the nominee of Oman after oil and after Qabus, it cannot
the sultan, who will select a successor vide be said that the prognosis is dire. Certainly,
a written order.” Another royal decree mistakes have been made and goals have
soon after established the Defense Council not been fully achieved. The Oman of a
and defined its membership as the sultan decade or two hence might be a less
(chairman); the minister of the palace office prosperous place, but it would be unfair to
(who was also head of the Office of the underestimate the Omanis’ capacity for
Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces resilience and adaptability.


Works on post-1970 Oman are very uneven. An early account by an economic adviser to the sultan is John
Townsend, Oman: The Making of a Modern State ( Croom Helm; St. Martin’s Press, 1977). A short
introduction is Calvin H. Allen, Jr., Oman: The Modernization of the Sultanate ( Westview Press; Croom
Helm, 1987). A recent study is Calvin H. Allen and W. Lynn Rigsbee, II, Oman Under Qaboos: From Coup to
Constitution,1970-1996 (Frank Cass, 2000). Oman’s foreign relations have been explored in Joseph A.
Kechichian, Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy (Santa Monica, CA:
Rand Corporation, 1995). Studies on Omani society include Unni Wikan, Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women
in Oman (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982) Fredrik Barth, Sohar: Culture and Society in an Omani
Town (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Christine Eickelman, Women and Community in Oman
(New York University Press, 1984); Jorg Janzen, Nomads in the Sultanate of Oman: Tradition and Develop-
ment in Dhofar (Westview Press, 1986); Dawn Chatty, Mobile Pastoralists: Development Planning and
Social Change in Oman (Columbia University Press, 1996); and Corien Hoek, Shifting Sands: Social-
economic Development in al-Sharqiyah Region, Oman (Nijmegen University Press, 1998). Collected works
include B.R. Pridham, ed., Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Developments (Croom Helm, for the
University of Exeter Centre for Arab Gulf Studies, 1987); and Marc Lavergne and Brigitte Dumortier, eds.,
L’Oman contemporain: État, territoire, identité (Éditions Karthala, 2002).
Sultanate of Oman, Ministry of Development, National Statistical Department, Development in Oman,
1970-1974 (Muscat, n.d.), p. 65, citing the Department of Finance as source.
Because of Oman’s long connection with the East African littoral, especially but not exclusively the island of
Zanzibar, thousands of Omanis had been born in and/or lived in East Africa. Many of them fled Zanzibar
after the revolution in 1964, and others returned to Oman only after 1970. They were welcomed because of
their education and knowledge of English.
Sultanate of Oman, Ministry of National Economy, Statistical Yearbook 2003 (Muscat, August 2003), online
The SCC is discussed in Dale F. Eickelman, “Kings and People: Oman’s State Consultative Council,” Middle
East Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter 1984, pp. 51-84; J.E. Peterson, The Arab Gulf States: Steps Toward
Political Participation (New York: Praeger, 1988; published with the Center for Strategic and International
Studies; Washington Papers, No. 131); Abdullah Juma al-Haj, “The Politics of Participation in the Gulf
Cooperation Council States: The Omani Consultative Council,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 50, No. 4, Autumn
1996, pp. 559-571; and Abdullah Juma Alhaj, “The Political Elite and the Introduction of Political Participa-
tion in Oman,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 7, No. 3, June 2000, pp. 97-110.
The Basic Law was contained in royal decree 101/98, as published in the Oman Observer, November 7,
Interviewed by Judith Miller in “Creating Modern Oman: An Interview with Sultan Qabus,” Foreign
Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 3, May-June 1997, p. 16.
For the former, information acquired in Oman. For the latter, Arab News (Jiddah), August 26, 2002.
World Bank, World Development Indicators, August 2003, online at
Sultanate of Oman, Ministry of National Economy, Statistical Yearbook 1999 (Muscat, August 2000),
p. 168.
Sultanate of Oman, Ministry of National Economy, Statistical Yearbook 2003.
The over-estimation in early 2004 by Royal Dutch-Shell of worldwide reserves directly concerns Oman, as
Shell is both a partner in PDO and holds its management contract. PDO’s attempts to extend the producing
life of mature oilfields by advanced techniques, particularly horizontal drilling, has been watched closely by
other companies that will face similar problems in the future. The disappointing results of horizontal drilling
have raised alarm. See the report in The New York Times, April 8, 2004.
Royal decree 105/96 of December 28, 1996, as published in the Oman Observer, December 29, 1996.
Miller, “Creating Modern Oman,” p. 17.
I have discussed succession in Oman in “The Nature of Succession in the Gulf,” Middle East Journal, Vol.
55, No. 4, Autumn 2001, pp. 580-601.