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The case of the sealed envelope: Oman’s path to succession

Amid persistent health rumours, uncertainty prevails in Oman as to who may succeed Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said
Sultan Qaboos took control of Oman from his father in a bloodless coup in 1970 (AFP)

It could all come down to a sealed envelope with a mystery name penned inside. But what if more than one name is revealed?

This intrigue doesn’t relate to a Hollywood-style awards ceremony, but the rather more grave matter of the fate of a nation: Oman.

The end of the 44-year reign of the small Gulf country’s benevolent dictator, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, may be in sight amid health concerns. The 74-year-old has been out of Oman since last July seeking medical treatment in Germany for rumoured colon cancer.

The trouble is the country is in the dark about its own future should their omnipotent leader pass away. Sultan Qaboos is a brotherless, childless divorcee who wrenched control of the country from his own father in a bloodless coup in 1970. He has never publicly identified an heir, leaving the only trace of his wishes in a sealed envelope to be opened in the event a council of royal family members cannot reach an agreement on the rightful successor within three days of his death.

Many analysts have suggested Sultan Qaboos would alleviate any hand-wringing by publicly announcing his preferred candidate. But Omani political analyst Ahmed Al Mukhaini says there is a perfectly sound reason he has not.

“His Majesty has been very much concerned about competitors, and that’s why he has not named a successor, because that information could be used by local or foreign interests,” Al Mukhaini tells Middle East Eye. The Sultan did not want a case of “history repeating itself”.

Programme of modernisation

In fact, so successful has Sultan Qaboos been at eliminating any pretenders to the throne he has sown the seeds of a power vacuum in the event of his death, Al Mukhaini says.

This could be potentially catastrophic if fears that he has written down more than one name prove true, according to Gulf State Analytics co-founder Giorgio Cafiero.

“Qaboos is said to have written numerous letters, which perhaps name different successors to the throne. If the Al Said family fails to reach a consensus and multiple letters are opened with different names, a succession crisis could develop.”

The Sultan himself told Foreign Affairs magazine in 1997: “I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions.”

This could complicate the difficult task for even a clearly chosen successor to assert himself as Oman’s head of state, such is the cult of Sultan Qaboos.

One cannot move in Oman without constant reminders of the much-loved leader; there is Sultan Qaboos University, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, Port Sultan Qaboos, Sultan Qaboos Road – the list goes on.

This is not sheer vanity alone. It reflects the very successful programme of modernisation that the ruler embarked on upon assuming the reigns. Qaboos, who is also the prime minister, minister of defence, minister of foreign affairs, chief of staff of the armed forces, and chairman of the Central Bank, oversaw the transformation of a desert backwater with only a few kilometres of paved roads into a thriving, stable economy realising the wealth from its gas and oil reserves.

For a majority of the country’s decidedly young population, Sultan Qaboos is the only leader they have ever known.

“People who are born after 1980 make up 70 percent of the population. These people, their relationship to the monarchy is different to the older generation,” Al Mukhaini says.

Qaboos is thought to have written numerous letters, naming possible successors to the throne (AFP)

On the cusp of change

Ambitions for change exist. In 2011, during the wave of Middle Eastern revolutions that came to be known as the Arab Spring, Oman had its own – modest – version.

Fuelled chiefly by young people, protests took place over several months, leaving several dead and dozens wounded. This led the Sultan to grant reforms giving legislative power to parliament, financial benefits to various sectors and promise the creation of 50,000 more government jobs.

Al Mukhaini, a leading proponent for a stronger civil society in Oman, says in his view the country is on the cusp of change. “This period when His Majesty has been out of the country, it provided really a pilot period for the people and the institutions to start thinking of how they can operate without His Majesty…it’s been good for [them].”

While he concedes the government has so far been slow to act “they were slow because they were trying to find their way around”.

While the monarch failed to return to the country for its national day and his own birthday in November, instead appearing in a frail condition on television enigmatically citing “reasons you know” for his absence, Al Mukhaini says he believes Sultan Qaboos is far from death’s door.

“His meeting with John Kerry [on January 10] revives hopes he’s coming back to the country,” he says. “People are very optimistic about his health, of course they love him and they miss him dearly. There are lots of campaigns for prayers and posting of pictures of him.”

Anxious about the future

The public affection is obvious. Social media has become a virtual shrine in recent months, recognising the measured and calm decades of steady leadership.

Twitter user @aasirosman1 recently wrote: “No other leader like him. Praying he gets well soon and returns to Oman! One of a kind. #SultanQaboos #Oman”.

Al Mukhaini says if the Sultan comes back to Oman, the first step will be to appoint an independent prime minister and move towards a constitutional monarchy with increased power vested in the country’s parliament. He also sees a way for more public participation in the affairs of state through the use of social media in an era of increased “power-sharing”.

“What really matters is not who will succeed the Sultan, what matters is the evolution that happens after his death,” he says, adding this is the view of most Omanis.

“The average Mr Jones on the street is not terribly bothered about who will be next because they believe there are institutions [in place]. The people who are worried are people who are very close…their influence is their proximity to the patriarch. With a new patriarch they have to start all over again.”

The view from outside the country is not quite so sunny, and Cafiero – based in Washington – says many Omanis are justifiably anxious about what might happen in a post-Qaboos era, due to four factors.

Questions of legitimacy about any new leader could easily arise given the lack of leadership experience outside of Sultan Qaboos’s hands; secondly, the reigning monarch is credited as the unifying force which overcame historical tribal fractures that may reignite under new leadership; thirdly, an internal power struggle could ensue amongst the royal family or other powerbrokers; and the final point is the possibility of more than one name inside the sealed envelopes.

Cafiero says the main contenders for the top job, given the enshrined stipulations of bloodline, are three of Sultan Qaboos’s little-known cousins – though a diplomatic source has indicated Sayyid Haithem bin Tariq Al Said, the current minister of heritage and culture, is likely to get the nod.

He also doubts the Kerry meeting was any indication of a return to health, which would be much to the disappointment of America as well as Oman, given their role in patching up US-Iran relations.

“In 2012 and 2013, Qaboos hosted secret talks in Muscat between Kerry and officials from Tehran. These talks led to the interim nuclear deal that Iran and the…“P5+1” [the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany] signed in November 2013.”

Oman hosted key discussions between Iran and the US on Iran's nuclear programme (AFP)

‘They have to make it work’

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Jaafar Altaie, the UAE-based founder and managing director of Manaar Energy Consulting, says it is difficult to imagine Oman will unravel as a result of Sultan Qaboos’s death – “though I don’t for one second think it’s going to be without its problems”.

Altaie says trade is yet to be affected and Oman remains a “very attractive business centre” for outsiders looking to invest in the region.

“One of their strengths is stability. They’re trying to wean themselves off of oil dependence – the only way you can even consider doing that is by having an investor-friendly environment.”

In many ways, he says, the country doesn’t have a choice but to remain cohesive if it wants to continue to set itself apart from its insurgency-riddled neighbour Yemen, which it shares tribal roots with, and against the backdrop of a region facing a growing destabilising influence from the Islamic State (IS) group.

“They have to make it work and if they don’t make it work, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Investor jitters would be natural with a new leader at the helm but Oman is just par for the course at this stage, he says. “It’s the same as anywhere in the world going through change. You’ll definitely get cold feet [from investors].”

Of more immediate concern is quelling the threat of IS in Syria and Iraq, he says, and Oman stands to gain if this can be done effectively.

Other challenges ahead for the country are placating a young generation looking for more political sway and the country’s unemployed – officially about 10 to 15 percent, though Altaie estimates the figure to be at somewhere above 20 percent.

Indelible change is on the horizon for Oman. And as this quiet country moves closer to upheaval of a magnitude that hasn’t happened in almost half a century, the drama is sure to unfold on the world’s stage.

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