Amb. Schmierer is a former U.S. ambassador to Oman and the current chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
A History of Modern Oman, by Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout. Cambridge University Press, 2015. 271 pages. $29.99, paperback.
Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization, by Linda Pappas Funsch, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. 189 pages. $105.00, hardcover.
U.S. engagement with Iran in connection with the recent nuclear deal was facilitated by the Sultanate of Oman, bringing that Gulf nation a prominence out of character with its traditional (and preferred) low profile. In a timely coincidence, two new studies have been published that provide excellent background on the history and recent development of this unique country. In A History of Modern Oman, British scholars Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout present a thorough overview of the significant elements in the Omani narrative over the past few centuries, providing context for understanding modern Oman and helping explain how it has come to play the role it does. For her part, American academic Linda Pappas Funsch, in Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization, focuses more on Oman's very recent history. Her historical overview is intended primarily as context for the country's trajectory in recent years, especially since the accession of Sultan Qaboos bin Said in 1970.
Both books provide excellent overviews and have been meticulously researched, with ample documentation and footnotes, as well as extensive indexes. Both are stylistically appealing and present unapologetically positive accounts of the country and its current ruler.
Jones/Ridout open with a helpful "Introduction" summarizing the key characteristics of the country: Arab, but with significant South Asian and East African elements; Islamic, but with a plurality of Ibadhis, a sect that is neither Shia nor Sunni; and divided between a more secular and outward-looking coastal population and a more religious, conservative and tribally based population inland.
Their treatment of Oman's "political geography" captures the two key elements of Oman's location: it controls the navigable sea lanes of the economically vital Strait of Hormuz, but its landmass lies outside it: "... an advantage that Oman has always enjoyed — all of its ports have direct access to the open ocean" (p. 4). The body of Jones/Ridout continues in two parts: a three-chapter account of the country's "foundations" and a five-chapter treatment of Oman's "modern history," from 1932 to the present day.
The reader learns in rather significant detail of Oman's illustrious past as a one-time Indian Ocean maritime power, the lasting demographic (and resultant attitudinal) impact of this history, the decline of Omani power in the nineteenth century (especially with the onset of British influence in the region and the demise of the slave trade), and the emergence of a fully modern Oman in the last decades of the twentieth century.
Funsch delves much more deeply into the recent period, examining in detail the various elements of the efforts by Sultan Qaboos to bring his country into the modern era. After a brief introduction, the first two chapters provide a basic description of Oman's geographic, historical, cultural, religious and social background; and its pre-1970 history. The remaining five chapters are devoted exclusively to the period since the accession of Sultan Qaboos in 1970. Funsch's thematic divisions in these chapters are well-chosen: Sultan Qaboos, civil society, the economy, foreign relations and the country's current challenges and opportunities. Between the two books one also learns of the association of the territory of present-day Oman with such legendary and historical figures as Sinbad the Sailor, the Magi, the Queen of Sheba and Marco Polo.
Jones/Ridout provide a rather original analysis of the Omani role in international slavery during the nineteenth century, making a distinction between the slave trade and slave labor. Certainly the Arabs (and especially the Omanis) were participants in the enslavement of Africans. However, for the Arabs, slavery was, at least initially, largely a system of household labor. Many of their slaves were female and usually received humane treatment (at least by the standards of the time) — reasonable living conditions and, generally, even property ownership and family life. This system fundamentally changed with the introduction of a European and American slave trade, with the brutality and harsh exploitation of plantation-labor conditions. The Arabs did provide the slaves, but the Europeans and Americans transformed slavery into the abusive labor system it became.
Funsch presents a new take on the rule of Sultan Qaboos's father, Sultan Said, whose reign is generally negatively treated in historical accounts. She does note the well-documented fact that Sultan Said inherited a country deeply in debt and was concerned that this debt severely compromised its sovereignty. Thus, he set as his priority retiring the country's debt, but at a high price: the lack of even the most rudimentary modernization. However, she takes the analysis further, citing a personal interview with an Omani familiar with the situation at the time of Sultan Said's rule. According to this source, in the final years of his rule Sultan Said was concerned with the impact of the developments he was observing in Oman's newly rich Gulf neighbors. Their oil economies were launched a decade or more before Oman's. Witnessing the pressure that their new wealth was placing on the traditional values and mores in those societies seems to have had a strong impact on Sultan Said. One can claim that he overreacted in the extent to which he imposed draconian measures on his country, but he did set the stage for the thoughtful, controlled approach towards development of his son, Qaboos. While the period of Sultan Said's rule is largely seen as a period of backwardness (the "hermit kingdom," as Jones/Ridout note), I am confident of at least one person in Oman who would temper his criticism of Sultan Said's reign: Sultan Qaboos.
The two books take a somewhat different approach to the issue of Sultan Qaboos's accession to power. Jones/Ridout use the term "coup," while Funsch avoids this term. Technically, the father abdicated in favor of his son, but he did so under duress. Assessing the extent to which a coup had taken place must be colored by the fact that there was no effort by "loyalists" to counter the removal of Sultan Said from office. In addition, Sultan Said's own behavior seems to suggest that, after an initial resistance, he acquiesced, perhaps aware of the unsuccessful final years of his reign. In any case, Sultan Qaboos can rightly see himself as having come to power through the abdication of his father. More important, perhaps, than the technical aspects of Sultan Qaboos's accession is the fact of Sultan Said's untimely death just two years afterward. A process of reconciliation between the two was still underway at the time of Sultan Said's death, and the lack of sufficient time to complete the reconciliation must have been a disappointment to Sultan Qaboos.
One issue treated sparingly by Jones/Ridout but in depth by Funsch is the personal biography of Sultan Qaboos. The formative elements of his upbringing were key to his approach to guiding Oman into the modern age: his education at the British military academy at Sandhurst; his service in the British Army of the Rhine; a year with a British family in a small town in the UK, where he learned about local administration; an around-the-world trip following his residence in the UK (including a visit to the United States); and several years of "confinement" at the palace in Salalah, immersing himself in the study of Islam and Middle Eastern history.
This background led Sultan Qaboos to emerge as a polymath, with expertise not only in governance, administration and military affairs, but also in such fields as history, music and architecture. His determination to "modernize" Oman without "Westernizing" it — a point underscored in both books — has led to Oman's unique development path, including the preservation of its traditional social mores and even its appearance. Not only has Oman retained its traditional architecture; anyone who has had the good fortune to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House Muscat or any of the Sultan's palaces comes to appreciate the "good taste" Sultan Qaboos has brought to Oman's transition.
In her treatment of biographical details, Funsch discusses Qaboos's mother, who was from the Jabali community in the southern Dhofar region. She was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman with whom Qaboos was quite close. Her strength of character certainly infused in him a recognition of the importance of including Omani women in the country's development, a point both books stress as a hallmark of Qaboos's rule. In this respect, Qaboos was somewhat out in front of public sentiment, especially its more conservative elements.
Both Jones/Ridout and Funsch cover well the early years of Sultan Qaboos's efforts to pacify and unify the country and launch its overdue effort towards modernization. To put down the Dofar Rebellion, he used a combination of military power against the insurgents (with assistance from the UK, Jordan and Iran) and outreach to entice opponents to switch sides (many did, and some continue to serve the government to this day). Sultan Qaboos's early international efforts included resolving the many border disputes he inherited — as he himself has noted, if a country has recognized and peaceful borders it, in effect, has no borders at all — and launching a foreign policy described as "friend to all; enemy to none." One important historical influence on Oman's approach to the region, also noted in both books, is the frequent tension between the Ibadhis of Oman and the Wahhabis of the central Arabian Peninsula. This history, and Iran's assistance during the Dhofar Rebellion, are important for understanding Oman's current regional policies.
Concerning Oman's very recent history, two anecdotes in Funsch's account deserve mention:
• the impact of the 2010 UN Development Programme report designating Oman as the country that had achieved the greatest progress in the preceding 40 years; and
• Sultan Qaboos's decision to select several new ministers from among the elected members of the country's parliamentary body, the Majlis al-Shura, during the shakeup of his cabinet in 2011. The move reinvigorated the attitude of the Omani people towards the Majlis; when the 2012 elections took place, the number of candidates skyrocketed and the level of active "campaigning" was unprecedented.
As laudatory as both books are concerning Sultan Qaboos, to some extent they may understate his achievements. As he himself told this journal in an interview in 1995: "I have borne in mind the need to preserve a careful balance between these two paramount factors — the acceptance of modernity and the retention of old established values" (Middle East Policy 3, no. 4, April 1995, p. 1).
He did this, moreover, while allying his country with the West, a step that brought with it another challenge. As an absolute monarchy, Oman has had to anticipate potential criticism by Western governments and the international rights community, with both wishing to see more political power and personal freedoms granted to Omanis. As he has steered his country through a fast-paced modernization, Sultan Qaboos has had to continually assess the mood and mores of his people. In fact, he has quite successfully straddled the conflicting values, goals and demands of the Omani people, on the one hand, and the "outside world," on the other. "Too much" democracy, too soon, would have threatened Oman's stability, but when circumstances warranted it — as at the time of the Arab Spring — Sultan Qaboos was ready. As both Jones/Ridout and Funsch note, he responded with several measures to further empower the Omani people, including granting new authorities to the Majlis al-Shura and introducing municipal elections.
Sultan Qaboos's success in handling the economy is, likewise, easily underappreciated. As Funsch notes, over the course of his reign, Oman's per capita GDP grew from $371 in 1970 to $21,929 in 2013. Over this period, the country's industrial production and infrastructure have also gone from largely nonexistent to extensive and modern.
Inevitably, in a country with such rapid development as Oman, and with Oman's level of government revenue derived from oil and gas, one issue raised by both Jones/Ridout and Funsch is corruption. Both note that this was an important issue in the protests during Oman's Arab Spring. In fact, as both books state, corruption in Oman appears to be relatively low. Where it has been found, it has been punished, and quite publicly, even against high-level officials. In responding to the sentiments of some of the Arab Spring protesters, Sultan Qaboos did introduce several new institutional and procedural changes to address and deter what corruption might have been taking place. Perhaps the most important of these measures was giving autonomous legal status to the State Auditing Institution.
He also removed some long-serving ministers who had attracted criticism from the protesters. I had the good fortune to work with these ministers before they stepped down and was impressed by their resolve and commitment on behalf of their country. One, I recall, defended Oman's equities in the Free Trade Agreement with such tenacity (and "creativity") that I could not help but admire his dedication to Omani interests, even as my own government was pressuring me to get the Omanis to fully implement the accord. Another of these ministers with whom I dealt vigorously pushed on behalf of Omani interests as I tried to assist an American company in competing for a major government tender. As it happened, these individuals, after decades of service to their country, departed office in the Omani way — with quiet dignity — when circumstances compelled them to do so.
But more than corruption per se, the issue Oman needed to address at the time of its Arab Spring was that of conflict of interest. When Qaboos came to power, he was fully aware of the massive development needs of his country. Thus, one of his top priorities was to lure back the Omani talent and resources that had fled the country under the previous regime. To do so, he was able to draw upon the strong patriotic sentiments of Omanis to enlist the support and involvement of Oman's best and brightest in the daunting task of modernizing the country. But a country starting at the rudimentary level of economic development in 1970 needed to provide incentives to those asked to contribute. Thus, conflict of interest considerations had to take a back seat to attracting Oman's best talent to work for the "new" country. As a result, senior officials who discharged their public responsibilities selflessly on behalf of their countrymen were, in many cases, also involved in successful private business ventures. This approach by Sultan Qaboos, together with his ensuring a lack of domination by members of the royal family in the economy (and in government positions as well), was key to jump-starting the country's economy. However, by the time of the Arab Spring, Oman had reached a stage of development that enabled Sultan Qaboos to reassess the ethical rules associated with government service, and he introduced several measures to restrict government officials from engaging in private business.
The issues of corruption and conflict of interest intersect importantly in Oman with the issue of government capacity. Here, as honest and well-meaning as officials might be, shortcomings in staff capability, expertise and experience, and their reliance on foreign consultants have affected efficiency and transparency in the operation of the government. As I observed, honest and very capable senior officials have often found themselves frustrated by poor advice or support from those under them charged with handling tenders and contract awards and their implementation.
Another aspect of the Omani economy that came to the fore during the Arab Spring involved Oman's approach to free enterprise. As the country set about its accelerated course of modernization, in order to attract the investment and financial commitment needed to achieve the country's development goals, businesspeople needed incentives. One way to create such incentives was to "regulate" economic participation through sponsorship and concession arrangements (what Jones/Ridout call "the agency system"). This helped make investments profitable but also limited competition. By the time of the Arab Spring, such economic behavior came to be widely criticized (it was, by then, outmoded), and Sultan Qaboos took steps to address it.
With less bountiful oil and gas resources than its Gulf neighbors, Oman has led the region in privatizing utilities and monetizing state subsidies. In addition, Sultan Qaboos has over time leveraged certain external tools in his economic modernization efforts — such as Oman's accession to the World Trade Organization and a free-trade agreement with the United States — as vehicles to "impose" economic modernization on an, at times, resistant merchant community.
I had the good fortune to engage regularly with Sultan Qaboos during the three years of my ambassadorship, and came to appreciate the genius and benevolence behind his rule, attributes well-documented by both Jones/Ridout and Funsch. I recall his animation in describing initiatives for new educational facilities and athletic programs for Omani boys and girls in the wake of the Arab Spring, and his patience and understanding in the face of sometimes self-centered demands by young Omani protestors. While often (correctly) described as having no children, in fact it is clear to those who have come to know him that, ever since his accession, Sultan Qaboos has viewed Oman's youth as his "children."
As noted above, Sultan Qaboos has been out in front of the bulk of his countrymen in his vision and efforts to introduce suitable modernization to the country; but he has clearly been quite cognizant of not getting too far out in front. His decision at the outset of his reign to gender-integrate elementary education in the early grades is a good example of his wisdom and courage in this regard. It challenged the views of the more conservative elements of the country, but it has had the beneficial result of making Oman a "normal" country in terms of how the sexes relate to each other. That some of the protestors of the Arab Spring called for the resegregation of the sexes in education demonstrates that strongly conservative views still exist among segments of Omani society, and Sultan Qaboos must remain sensitive to them.
For a person seeking to understand the dynamics of present-day Oman and the road ahead, Funsch's final chapter presents an excellent overview of the challenges currently facing the country. She repeatedly refers to the need for "managing expectations" when discussing the attitudes of Oman's large youth cohort, who never experienced the pre-modern Oman of just a few decades ago. Funsch also notes, on several occasions, the oft-cited adage that "Oman has only 18 years of oil reserves remaining"; she does so, moreover, while noting that the country's reported level of reserves has been at 18 years since the early 1970s. Funsch attributes this phenomenon to improved technology, allowing for the recovery of more oil. Probably as likely an explanation, and the one usually given when I served there, is that this figure has been intended to convince each succeeding generation of Omanis that they should not count on oil revenues to ensure the continuation of the country's standard of living, but rather prepare themselves for an economy in which Omanis would have to support their lifestyle through ingenuity and hard work.
Funsch also notes that Oman's education system is not adequately preparing Omani youth for the job market they will face, citing "a seismic disconnect between education and productive skills" (182). That fact, and the significant exodus from private-sector to public-sector employment when new public-sector jobs were announced in connection with Oman's Arab Spring, raise concerns about long-term prospects for the employment of Omanis. That one of the demands of the Arab Spring protestors was a call for cancelling their private debt — to support current consumption, many Omanis have engaged in irresponsible borrowing — also raises issues of personal expectations and accountability.
These current challenges notwithstanding, as both Jones/Ridout and Funsch amply document, one certainly should admire what Sultan Qaboos and the Omani people have accomplished over the past several decades. But, as an American, I am also grateful for the wise counsel Sultan Qaboos and other Omani leaders have provided to U.S officials as the region has become more and more inflamed in sectarian strife in recent years. As I write this, Sunni-Shia tension in the region is as high as it has been in anyone's memory. In the United States, unreconstructed interventionists and political opportunists repeatedly call for the United States to take charge of resolving the issues in the region, whether through wholesale military invasion and occupation, bombing the region until "the sand glows in the dark," or otherwise demonstrating American "toughness" in the face of the region's challenges. As a former United States diplomat with decades of experience in the region, including in post-Saddam Iraq, I am more aware than most of the pitfalls of such policies. And I am certainly glad that more reasoned voices are actually prevailing in U.S. policy circles. When I hear President Obama explain the measured approach he is taking to the region's conflicts and tensions, and underscore that the United States will not allow itself to become ensnared in the region's sectarianism, I hear him echoing the wisdom of Sultan Qaboos.
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.