Sulaiman Al-Farsi's motivation for writing this book may have been "the need for the Omani people to realize an effective political model… best suited to the Sultanate in the era of the post-rentier state" (p. 11), but he provides valuable pointers for other Middle Eastern states seeking to develop accountable, stable and inclusive political systems. The contemporary political process in Oman has co-opted the Gulf state's various religious, social and tribal constituencies to a remarkable degree over the past 40 years. It has been gradual, working with the sociocultural grain of Omani society to avoid "cultural shocks" and allowing people to "adapt themselves to the emerging forms of participation" (p. 67).
Oman's first oil exports flowed out of the country by pipeline in 1967, providing Sultan Qaboos with the revenue to engineer a new social contract with his people when he assumed power in 1970. This bargain conformed to the rentier-state model: political quiescence in return for public services, subsidies, public-sector jobs and light or no taxation. The sultan transformed a country riven by tribal rivalries, conflicts and centralized power and adeptly loosened the influence of the tribes, the foundation of the social fabric, while, crucially, including their leaders in the process. Key to development was (and is) education, to lessen tribal fanaticism and cultivate alternative civil frameworks. The government then began to slowly decentralize power by allowing some political participation, contingent upon the pace and depth of social transformation. There remain concerns today about the influence of the tribes; this has been the argument for opening the door to mass political participation slowly. However, in recent years an increasingly urbanized population has left the government struggling to maintain control of the social contract.
This book identifies three types of democratization in contemporary Oman: the traditional process, led by religious institutions; a government-led, top-down process; and a bottom-up process emerging among the younger generation. Present in all three and running as uniting threads through Omani politics and society are Ibadi Islam and the concept of shura (consultation). The Ibadi tradition has been central to Omani religious and cultural relations for the past 10 centuries. Al-Farsi argues that this form of Islam, typically more tolerant towards other religions and cultures, offers fertile ground for a democratization process. The exceptional and unique nature of Omani culture and politics is a theme revisited throughout the book and mentioned by many of those Al-Farsi interviews. The case for Omani exceptionalism that Al-Farsi builds is, by and large, strong. While it shares with other Arab states vertical social divisions based on ethnicity, tribalism and sectarianism — in addition to religious and economic characteristics — Oman is, according to Al-Farsi, "the only one which believes that shura in Islam is a practical principle which can incorporate a traditional participatory ruling system; other sects believe that it is only a consultative principle and cannot go beyond that remit" (p. 71).
The Council of Oman comprises a Consultation Council (Majlis al-Shura) numbering 84 democratically elected members and an upper house, the State Council (Majlis al-Dawla), members of which are appointed by the sultan. In 2011, the Council of Oman was granted new legislative and regulatory powers to draft legislation and to propose new laws and revisions to existing ones. The changes came in the wake of the protests calling for more jobs, an increase in the minimum wage and action against the corruption Oman experienced during the wave of unrest in the Arab world in early 2011. The growth of urban centers had reduced tribal and ethnic authority but created a new set of needs that the government was now called upon to address. The response was swift and smart — employing a minimum of force — to announce measures to tackle corruption, support employment and education, sack unpopular ministers, and make changes to the Council. The quick response, coupled with deliverable results, was consistent with the sultan's personal brand of "direct democracy," of which his Annual Royal Tour is the most famous example. This kind of accessibility and visibility is a vital part of maintaining an affectionate relationship with his people.
Oman has mostly experienced prosperity and stability under the current system, but the 2011 protests were a symptom of frustration with the dominant rentier-state model. While instrumental in drawing the sting of tribal fanaticism, it is now under pressure from a growing, young (some 50 percent of the population is under 50), increasingly urbanized population. Despite the acknowledgment that political stability is heavily dependent on economic prosperity, the book is thin on relevant statistics and facts and does not devote much space to how Oman might adapt its economy to prepare for the post-oil era. One of his respondents rather worryingly cites Jordan and its acceptance of subsidies as an economic model for the future. Simply moving from oil rents to subsidies is not an economic strategy worthy of the name. It would have been good to hear Al-Farsi's views, as presumably he can see the folly, but he just relays what his respondent said rather than engaging with it.
It is hard to imagine how a book addressing democracy and youth, Islam, tribalism and the rentier state in the Middle East, published in 2013, can ignore the seismic changes that have swept through the region since 2011, but Al-Farsi largely does so. When he writes about the views of the younger generation, the emphasis is on their faith in the Shura's continuing evolution, a desire for continuity and a reluctance to initiate a bottom-up political process that could challenge the current system. He apparently discounts the members of the younger generation who took to the streets and called for reform in 2011. He does concede a degree of dissatisfaction among his younger respondents but argues that their calls for reform are limited because of a vaguely defined democratic political will present among the Omani leadership since the 1970s.
Part of the possible explanation for this one-dimensional view — and it is a problem, obscuring a full picture of the views of modern Oman — is his Young Generation Respondents interview sample. It is, to begin with, very small: only 10 people. Among them are a member of the State Council, a former ambassador, a former "informational attaché" in Washington and a former employee of the U.S. embassy in Muscat. While these respondents provide insightful analysis, they are essentially "insiders." It would have been helpful to hear the opinions of some of the young who are unemployed (some estimates put youth unemployment at 23 percent) and at the margins of society. The latest date of an interview is April 2009, two years before the events of 2011 hastened political and economic reforms. The book would have benefitted from a wider interview sample and from hearing their thoughts on the post-2011 reform process. For a book published in mid-2013, this should have been achievable. Given the paucity of his own interview sample, Al-Farsi could also have drawn on other works available to him for insights into Muslim and Arab thinking on political issues. While published in 2007, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think was the result of a six-year Gallup research study based on thousands of interviews with residents of more than 35 states that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations. One of its key findings, consistent with the thrust of Al-Farsi's book, is that Muslims generally want neither theocratic nor secular democratic government, but would opt for a third model combining traditional religious principles and democratic values.
A potential reason that Al-Farsi did not seek the views of the unemployed and less well-educated may have been the perception, present in his book and mentioned above, that involvement in the political process should be dependent upon a certain level of education. A "reliance on educated classes to improve the democratic culture" (p. 174) appeared among Al-Farsi's religious, government and young-respondents' interviews; and there was a desire expressed among young people for more members of the Council of Ministers to be from the technocratic class rather than the tribal leadership. However, Al-Farsi's interviews record that, among his admittedly limited sample, there is reluctance on the part of educated people and the younger generation to be involved in elections due to perceived negative tribal interference and the limited powers possessed by the Council. Again, however, they do not blame the government for not giving greater power to the Council: "Because of the quality of the council's members... they show some understanding of the top-down model" (p. 199). Those pursuing successful careers in the private sector were also reluctant to put their careers on hold for a four-year term or to volunteer in civil-society institutions.
Al-Farsi discusses at length the compatibility of Islam and democracy in the wider Arab world before focusing on the Omani context. That sovereignty in Islam is ultimately derived from Allah, not from the people, and that communal interest supersedes individual need in Islamic societies are, he acknowledges, the reverse of the prevalent Western ethos. Yet Al-Farsi argues that it would be wrong to judge Omani elections and the Majlis Al-Shura as false expressions of democratization without understanding the local identity of the state: "Democracy is not necessarily antithetical to the Islamic world, but how it is practiced and indeed developed cannot simply simulate Western concepts of democracy, where religion is divorced from the state" (p. 36).
The example he focuses on to prove his point, however, is rather bizarre. He argues that "the electoral gains and participation of Islamic groups in the Middle East throughout 2011 and 2012 can be cited as an example to back up claims that Islam cannot be described as being in inevitable opposition to democracy" (p. 45). It is quite a stretch to say that, because Islamist parties take part in elections, they are sympathetic to democratic ideals. Many of their actions in government have belied this notion. In Egypt, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi granted himself almost unlimited powers, sacked the head of the judiciary and formulated a constitution that failed to protect freedom of expression and religion or guarantee the security of minorities, notably Coptic Christians. The fate of Iraq's democratic experiment is also grim; ethnic and sectarian divisions have hardened against a background of escalating violence. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Al-Farsi's respondents, while open to a "parliamentary type of democratization process," are anxious to avoid the failed democratic experiments of other Middle Eastern states.
Another slightly baffling argument is made with regard to the sultanate's foreign policy: "The fact that there is little Omani aggression against other states means that the need to discuss military issues in the parliament is less pressing. There are few issues regarding foreign policy and national security that are worthy of discussion by the Majlis Al-Shura" (pp. 67-8). Oman has, since the 1970s, pursued an outward-looking foreign policy marked by its independence and pragmatism. It has maintained a constructive relationship with Iran and resisted Saudi attempts to bring the GCC states into closer economic and political union. Why that should be off-limits for discussion is not at all clear.
Al-Farsi briefly refers to Steven Heydemann's thesis on "authoritarian upgrading," whereby Arab regimes have not just relied upon coercion to defer calls for change but re-organized their strategies of governance "to adjust to new global, regional, and domestic circumstances."1 The five key characteristics are these: appropriating and containing civil-society organizations; managing political contestation; capturing the benefits of selective economic reforms; controlling telecommunications technologies; and increasing international linkages among regimes. Elements of the Omani process of political reform fit Heydemann's description of authoritarian upgrading. There are elections in the country, but political parties are banned, criticism of the sultan is forbidden, campaigning is restricted and civil-society organizations have to operate under government scrutiny.
Al-Farsi states that there is no one definition of democracy. While factually correct, this reluctance to provide a definition of democracy, however broad, is problematic. For a book on democracy and youth in the Middle East, it would have been helpful to have one. Take as an example the following statement: "If democracy does not ruin any of the Islamic values, it is certainly welcomed" (p. 146). Al-Farsi has not said what democracy is, so it is difficult to judge whether it ruins Islamic values or not. While accepting that there are different forms of democracy, it seems unnecessary to shoehorn Oman's political process into fitting that description. If the system provides stable, accountable responsive government and safeguards against the dominance of one sect or tribe over another, then it can be judged successful, arguably more important than whether it is democratic. Charles O. Cecil puts it well: "A look at more than three decades of evolution in the political institutions of Oman suggests that the steady growth of participatory government, guided by a farsighted leader, may offer a solidly grounded foundation for establishing the institutions, practices and attitudes needed for representative government, with little if any reference to Western models."2
Al-Farsi is Omani, and his deep affection for his country permeates every page. His rendering of Omani politics and society as intelligently governed and correspondingly stable is convincing, but his thesis would have benefitted from some dissenting voices — though they may have been hard to find — some more recent interviews and greater analysis of the responses he received.
In his introduction, Al-Farsi doesn't just promise to "examine" but "explore" and "speculate." This being his stated aim, more space could have been devoted to addressing the future challenges that Oman faces. It is concerning that Al-Farsi does not point out the necessity of a long-term economic-growth strategy and the development of domestic industry. Newly discovered oil reserves and improvements in technology for their extraction have boosted prospects for the sector. However, at approximately $104 per barrel, Oman's fiscal break-even price for oil is high, and 86 percent of government revenues come from the hydrocarbons sector. The government was able to buy off the protesters in 2011 with public-sector jobs and increases in wages, but that solution may not be available forever.
The old rentier-state social contract is financially unsustainable in the long term, and demands for political reform and freedom of speech and association are likely only to intensify as internet and media penetration of the country increase. The loyalty to and affection for Sultan Qaboos at all levels of society are genuine, and evidence suggests people largely trust the government to overcome political and economic problems. But his succession is uncertain, and if his successor cannot elicit the same personal loyalty and affection, he may face challenges sooner rather than later.
Al-Farsi gets embroiled in discussions about whether Oman's political system is democratic, when what matters is what works: providing stability and accountability. The current structure has seen the modernization of the country to an extraordinary degree, considering its starting point, and has guarded against the ascendancy of any one tribal element. It is important to point out also that there is no finish line in this process. It is not a race to a certain brand of political participatory system.
Oman, for its independence and uniqueness, is one of the most interesting and least-examined states in the Middle East. Writing on the sultanate is scant, particularly by Omanis, and this makes Al-Farsi's contribution significant. This is his first published work, and I look forward to future, perhaps bolder, contributions.
1 Steven Heydemann, "Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World," Analysis Paper Number 13, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, October 2007.
2 Charles O. Cecil, "Oman's Progress toward Participatory Government," Middle East Policy 13, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 60.