One of the Middle East’s longest serving and best loved leaders is in failing health, leading to much speculation that, at the very least, Sultan Qaboos is preparing to relinquish some of his extensive responsibilities.
As Saudi Arabia transitions, so far with few political tremors, to a new ruler following the death of King Abdullah, another Gulf monarchy, Oman, an ancient trading empire whose maritime power extended to China and East Africa, faces an uncertain future as the health of its long-time leader, Sultan Qaboos, 74, deteriorates.
Indeed, other hereditary monarchies in the energy-rich Gulf, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, are also facing possible succession crises amid the unparalleled political and religious turmoil convulsing the Middle East, and strategic shifts that herald a new geopolitical paradigm in the region.
Like Qaboos, both Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, 85, of Kuwait, and the UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan aged 67, are reported to have undergone surgery in the last year, raising questions about who will succeed them and the risk of power struggles. However, the evolving situation in Oman, sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and unruly Yemen, is the most unpredictable.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, an absolute but enlightened ruler who has reigned for 44 years, has been out of sight since 10 July 2014 when he was flown to Germany for treatment for an unspecified medical condition. That is an unprecedented absence which has given rise to a growing belief the sultan, the Arab world’s longest-serving ruler, may be terminally ill or, at the very least, too sick to assume the full responsibilities of leadership.
Since the bachelor sultan has no sons and no brothers (just three sisters) and has not publicly named a successor, there are growing concerns that if he dies, Oman, which under the sultan has been one of the most stable countries in the Arab world, will be plunged into a succession crisis that amid the growing hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran could add to the turbulence gripping the region.
On top of that, the sultanate’s modest oil and gas reserves – 5.5bn barrels of oil – are expected to be exhausted within 30 years or so, posing a major economic challenge for whoever succeeds Qaboos. Plunging oil prices have worsened the looming economic crisis.
“Concerns over Qaboos’ health, coupled with the lack of a clearly defined succession plan, place doubts over Oman’s continued stability after the sultan’s death,” observed the US global security consultancy Stratfor. “The sultanate is in the midst of gradual but deliberate social and political reforms as a response to Omani citizens’ demands for greater government accountability…
“The sultanate under Qaboos became a quiet but deliberate and independent foreign policy actor in the region, often mediating between Western powers and Iran or between Riyadh and Tehran,” Stratfor noted.
“Qaboos’ death probably will not trigger a rapid deterioration of the Omani state, but it will mark the end of an era of careful management and widespread respect of government institutions by its citizens, and of Qaboos’ strong institutional stewardship of Omani independence.”
“Oman’s neighbours will be mindful of potential opportunities to shape the country’s future. Saudi Arabia will seek to strengthen its regional position by bringing Muscat closer into its sphere of influence, relying on its oil and gas wealth as a bulwark against potential future unrest…
“More important, Riyadh hopes to limit Iran’s opportunities for regional coordination, a scenario made all the more important given the Kingdom’s recent tensions with Qatar and concerns over unrest in Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen,” the consultancy said.
The Muscat government has said little about the sultan’s illness, beyond that he’s undergone unspecified surgery. Diplomatic sources say he has colon cancer. Omani authorities have not commented on that, beyond such anodine bulletins as the one issued on 3 October to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha that said: “The sultan is in good health and continuing to follow the medical treatment he has been prescribed, which, with the help of God, will produce the required results.”
“Obviously, the longer he’s gone, the more suspicions will be stoked that his health conditions are very serious,” observed Giorgio Cafiero, Washington-based co-founder of the Gulf States Analytics consultancy. “While it’s possible that the succession process will happen smoothly, there are grave political risks that are on the minds of many people in Oman right now,” he told Voice of America. “If the royal family can’t agree on a successor who is viewed as legitimate by the economic elite, the military and the general public, Oman will be at risk of a prolonged power struggle.”
Suspicion that all is not well deepened on 5 November, Qaboos’ 74th birthday and the only time Omanis have seen him since he was whisked off to Germany. In a taped television address, Qaboos looked frail and visibly weak. He announced “good results” from his treatment, without specifying the condition it’s intended to cure. Far from reassuring his four million subjects (half of them foreigners), the video heightened concerns. Qaboos said he could not attend the military parade marking Oman’s 44th National Day on 18 November as he always has and, so far, 2015 has brought nothing in the way of good news regarding the sultan’s health.
November 18th is also the anniversary of the bloodless palace coup in 1970, in which he usurped his medieval-minded father, Sultan Said, who kept his British-educated son, an alumni of the elitist Harrow School and Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, under house arrest for four years.
Qaboos, then aged 29, overthrew his father with the help of the colonial power, Britain, fed up with Said’s refusal to adapt to the 20th century – in particular, exploit the oil reserves in the little-known country.
Qaboos, single-handedly, transformed Oman (below and right) from a remote backwater, essentially locked in a medieval time warp. His father Said refused to allow schools or build tarmac roads but under Qaboos, Oman was transformed into one of the most industrious and stable modern states in the region.
From a land wracked by tribal, religious and even Marxist insurgencies, some of which were instigated by Saudi Arabia or the now-vanished People’s Republic of South Yemen to weaken the sultanate, Qaboos welded a nation and gave it an identity for the first time.
He built diplomatic links with Iran and the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council alliance, and that paid off when he mediated the talks between the US and Iran that led to a landmark interim agreement involving the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany in November 2013 and may well produce another such deal, or possibly even a more lasting agreement aimed at ending the 35-year-old conflict between the US and the Islamic Republic.
Qaboos created state institutions to develop and manage Oman’s transition into the modern world. Political parties are not allowed. In 2003, to assuage demands for political reform, he created a Majlis al-Shura, or advisory council, whose members are elected by Omanis over the age of 21. But it’s little more than a rubber-stamp assembly.
Qaboos has a firm grip on all the reins of power. He is prime minister, holds the portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and finance, and is also chairman of the central bank. This concentration of power is rare, even in the monarchies of the Gulf where ruling families divide political power among their various branches. But it also means that there are few people with any appreciable experience of high office to succeed Qaboos – and this could be a problem. Oman’s line of succession is unclear. There’s a history of contested succession and coups, such as Qaboos overthrowing his own father, who had replaced his father in what may have been a forced abdication.
The ruling dynasty includes 50-60 male members who could be eligible to become sultan. The most likely candidates if Qaboos dies – or abdicates due to ill health – are three of his cousins, the sons of his uncle Prince Sayyid Majid bin Taimur al-Said, a former prime minister who died in 1980.
J.E. Peterson, the former official historian of Oman’s armed forces, recently observed: “There will likely be agreement within the family, if for no other reason than self-preservation…
“I think most Omanis are agreed that there can be no effective political leadership from outside the al-Said and therefore any attempt to put someone else on the throne, or even some sort of military putsch, should not be expected.”