Marc Valeri received his doctorate from Sciences-Po Paris in 2005 and has held positions at the European University Institute of Florence (Italy) and the University of La Rochelle (France); he is now a research fellow at the University of Exeter. Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State is based on his doctoral dissertation and deals with nation building and political legitimacy in the Sultanate of Oman since 1970. A comprehensive book divided into eight detailed chapters, it examines, inter alia, the foundations of the modern state, the question of legitimacy, founding conflicts of the modern national identity, legitimization by the welfare state, the alleged “reinvention of political tradition,” the laborious renewal of the basis of the regime, and various challenges to the sultanate’s national identity. While Valeri has produced a helpful study, based on extensive local research and many interviews that regrettably are all of the anonymous variety, most of the book is descriptive. This is entirely understandable at the dissertation stage, with most of the materials presented here already available in print, although his best chapter is the last, assessing various challenges.
The book follows an established pattern of recent studies on Sultan Qaboos and the sultanate that find little merit in either the monarch or the country. For nearly four decades, the sultanate has forged ahead, though dozens of books treated the career of Qaboos “as a case study revealing the social and political mechanisms of authoritarianism in postcolonial states.” Several intended to illustrate how this monarch built his power base and constantly renewed it to meet internal as well as external challenges that threatened its perceived stability. Among these are John Beasant, Oman: The True-Life Drama and Intrigue of an Arab State (2002), and Ian Skeet, Oman: Politics and Development (1992). Valeri’s Oman fits into this pattern, raising important issues, including how best to meet challenges, while giving little credit for obvious progress. Valeri is not negligent in touching on important topics. Certainly, several concerns deserve careful investigation, including a young population’s expectations now that privileges enjoyed by their parents are no longer guaranteed, though he wonders what will happen when Muscat can no longer provide for every part of the welfare-state model, and whether Qaboos as well as his successor will overcome projected rebellions.
Chapter One opens with a thorough description of the foundations of the modern state, with a useful primer on the political role of Ibadism and how the sultanate became the spiritual centre of that creed. Valeri assesses various tribal confederations, including the critical Ghaffiri and Hinawi groups that ruled Oman for centuries; this is also a useful summary of internal hierarchy for readers unfamiliar with it. Oman’s seafaring accomplishments receive good coverage, especially the expansion towards Africa to establish the critical Zanzibari Empire, and the links to Balouchistan that permitted Omanis to have strongholds on the Pakistani coast and throughout the Persian Gulf region. In fact, these links were so important that European intruders offered their various “protections,” which Oman and the entire Arabian Peninsula could easily have done without. Nevertheless, foreigners imposed their treaties, meticulously reported here by heavily relying on published scholarly works.
Chapter Two, covering the sultanate’s “Two Legitimacies and No State,” opens with an argument over the “break with the principle of the sultan as primus inter pares,” to illustrate the supremacy of the sultan within his tribal confederation, the Al Bu Said. At one point in history, this distinction was unimportant, though the argument gained value after the sultan and the imam competed for authority in the twentieth century. As the sultanate adopted a new economic order, with foreign merchants gaining influence, two competing sources of authority sought to affirm their positions. Valeri is highly critical of the imamate as the embodiment of “traditional democracy” (pp. 44-48), but nothing in this section proves the contrary. The authority on this subject is Hussein Ghubash, whose Oman: The Islamic Democratic Tradition (2006) brilliantly illustrated the singularity of Omani democratization. Although Valeri relies on John C. Wilkinson’s seminal work The Imamate Tradition of Oman (1987), he is skeptical of its findings without presenting new evidence to the contrary. He overlooks the valuable contribution made by Uzi Rabi in his The Emergence of States in a Tribal Society: Oman under Said bin Taymur, 1932-1970 (2006), when discussing the critical role played by Qaboos’s father in nation building. He is on firmer ground when he looks at oil as the factor that broke the political balance, especially concerning how the British imposed their will on Sayyid Said, a turnaround that “confirmed his lack of political freedom and increased the contempt he aroused among the most determined actors of the Imamate” (p. 50). Still, these efforts essentially meant that Oman had embarked on dramatic shifts before 1970 that naturally led to the changes that occurred that year.
Nevertheless, because Valeri understands that the final years of the imamate (1955-59) included the failed Ghalib al-Hinai challenge, he opens Chapter Three, “The Founding Conflicts of the Modern National Identity,” with a solid summary of the Dhuffar War (1965-70), a breeding ground for revolutionaries with mixed allegiances toward the imamate and opportunistic associations fueled by anti-monarchic forces. We have a useful analysis of the role played by Qaboos to bring the conflict to a close, although Valeri insists that the actual fighting continued for several years and “would [only] cease between 1983 and 1985” (p. 63). For Valeri, the 1960s were the decade of remoteness. This is somewhat odd because this was the period when Sultan Said bin Taymur made critical decisions on the future of his sultanate, brilliantly analyzed by Rabi. While one does not expect every available source on a given subject to be included, it is customary for solid research to canvass key books and articles.
Starting with Chapter Four, “Legitimization by the Welfare State,” Valeri broaches economic issues, focusing on oil as the fuel that propelled the development war. A variety of topics are introduced in this part of the book, including demographic and geographic boundaries, new diplomacy towards Arab countries, and how planning allowed the state to spread its influence throughout the land. Valeri laments that “by its sudden and practical breaking into Omanis’ daily life, by building asphalted roads, creating borders and delivering required building permits, the state has succeeded in undermining over time the Omanis’ traditional definitions of inside/outside and, with them, the definition of authority” (p. 84). Since this is precisely what a state is supposed to do, and since Valeri then acknowledges that “the state has brought services unknown before and has thus given proof of its efficacy” (p. 84), one wonders about the utility of this critical observation. One is never sure in the text whether the state should be a driving force in economic development, whether bureaucratization is a good thing, or whether the rentier state has positive or negative consequences. Valeri insists, for example, that “the ruler refused to establish a state budget” apparently because he concluded that it was “only a technical issue about which all of our subjects know nothing.” Allegedly, “no Omani but he, not even Tariq bin Taimur, was then supposed to know what was in the agreement with PDO [Petroleum Development Oman] or the British; in the latter case, the ruler declared: ‘I will not publish it or transmit it to my cabinet and my prime minister…. Such an issue comes within the Sultan’s competence alone” (p. 92). Valeri does not elaborate on why Qaboos took these positions in his 1971 Le Monde interview or where these quotations originated. Was it out of spite for his uncle? Or perhaps because the sultan was either under British influence or trying to assert his authority? Did he conclude that his mostly illiterate population (under 20 percent) in the early 1970s could not handle the overwhelming changes?
Of course, uncle and nephew had different views about the need for a constitution as well as a parliament, but Valeri faults Qaboos’s monarchical rule for being authoritarian to the hilt. The author’s discussion of the ruling family, perhaps one of the weakest sections of the book, is limited, as he gives an undue amount of attention to business leaders’ role in determining Al Said and Al Bu Said destinies. He repeats a stale anecdote that “some top Omani civil servants even believe that a few businessmen were awarded [by Qaboos] fixed percentages of oil revenue in 1970 in order to give them a direct stake in the new regime’s stability” (p. 102). There is no evidence for such tales, and Valeri provides none. To be sure, there is a powerful merchant class in the sultanate and, of course, some are related to the ruling family through marriage. Valeri has a hard time accepting the notion that Qaboos inherited his position; “The Omani ruler could not allow himself to rely only on the destruction of the former political order, the one combining the Imamate, tribes, and merchant towns….It was crucial for Qaboos to build his own legitimacy at the same time, to overcome the alternative political and social allegiances offered to his subjects. To do that, he has endeavored to promote an original Omani national identity for which his own person has constituted the keystone” (p. 117).
An entire chapter is devoted to “National Identity Building,” focusing on culture (schools, family structures, census), some of which borders on the silly. For example, Valeri writes that the main goal of the 2003 census “was not really to count people; it was part of a movement aimed at enhancing the state’s symbolic authority as the driving force for social organization and development. … [Muscat apparently wanted to evaluate the] progress achieved by the country over thirty years, in a kind of national impulse of self-congratulation” (p. 124). Why is it so hard for foreigners to accept that a census is just that?
Valeri is on even shakier ground when he discusses the “promotion of a ‘generic’ and consensual Islam” (pp. 127-130), disappointed that the “Muslim character of the state and its leader is constantly emphasized.” He affirms that “Qaboos has never failed to display his observance of Islamic precepts, by appearing regularly accomplishing [sic] his ritual obligations or taking part in Friday prayers on special occasions” (p. 128). Why shouldn’t he? Is he not a devout Muslim leading a Muslim country? Valeri is on firmer ground when he observes that Muscat inaugurated “the first faculty of Islamic Law and Sharia” in 1997, “three years after the 1994 arrests among Islamic circles and the year after promulgation of the first Basic Law” (p. 129). Although the linkage is valuable, it does not shed much light on ulterior motives, which presumably state officials harbored, for introducing genuine reforms when they came under duress.
Valeri’s fury against the Ministry of Information is amply documented because, among other shortcomings, it sponsored the publication of Oman in History (1995), a 560-page book that “skips directly from the Seeb agreement  to Qaboos’ accession to the throne , as if these events were separated by several years only.” Sarcastically, he opines that “the new ruler’s coming to power appears as the year 0 of the new nation” (p. 131). Ministry of Information minions may well have engaged in rewriting history, but this is overzealousness rather than mischievousness, for even the authors of Oman in History could not reinvent history. Though this may be hard to accept, Omanis, like Europeans and many others, are allowed to have a renaissance of their own, although it is incorrect to conclude that the “Omani national identity is basically built on the negation of the country’s pre-1970 history” (p. 133). There are taboos, of course, as in many nation-states, and while the Omani versions may seem exaggerated to foreign tastes, many remember the dire socioeconomic conditions before Qaboos acceded to rulership.
Valeri also derides the Ministry of National Heritage and its current office holder, Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq, because they allegedly push a “historiography [that] portrays … the result of social and political arbitrations fulfilling contemporary political requirements” (p. 140). On the contrary, this ministry fulfills a key role in preserving the country’s traditions, supporting significant research to meet indigenous needs. Neither the ministry nor its principals had to reinvent the persona of the sultan; Qaboos is genuinely liked by a vast majority of Omanis.
Chapter Five, the first original section in the book, is highly critical of Qaboos, who allegedly wishes to monopolize public life through a personality cult. It also makes a false claim that Omanis rely on heritage to stifle creativity. Chapter Six, “Reinvented Political Tradition,” claims the state usurped the country’s tribal system (pp. 156-159). Valeri examines recent political institutions like the Council of Oman (Majlis Uman) but believes that the institution’s “dependence upon royal goodwill is total” (p. 171). Valeri then ventures into a problematic topic, the “Sultanistic Regime” (pp. 171-181), basing his theoretical framework on the work of Chehabi and Linz and their Sultanistic Regimes, a 1998-edited volume of few insights. Regrettably, Chehabi and Linz analyze the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Iran and the Philippines, but fail to focus on Oman. Moreover, the sultan of Oman does not even make their index. Naturally, Valeri is entitled to extrapolate from other academic works, but it is a bit of a stretch to conclude that “[such a regime] is based on a personal rulership, [where] loyalty to the ruler is motivated not by his embodying or articulating an ideology […] but by a mixture of fear and rewards to his collaborators” (p. 172). If Valeri believes that the Omani ruler relies on a “combination of arbitrariness and tradition, [which] breeds a feeling of distance from and fear of the Sultan, both of which are prerequisites for obedience” (p. 175), then he must be talking about someone other than Qaboos.
Chapter Seven assesses the “Laborious Renewal of the Basis of the Regime” with an unequivocal opening sentence: “Behind the image the authorities have so far succeeded in maintaining, the grace period in the Sultanate that has lasted since 1970 is coming to an end” (p. 183). He goes even further, quoting an interviewee: “There are intellectuals in Oman, but they do not speak….They fought for revolution, they had strong ideas, but now they totally depend on their position. They know that they are trapped” (p. 198). Apparently, Valeri’s Omani interlocutor revealed an even more significant insight: “How can we talk about democracy here? There is no press, no journalists, people believe that Majlis al-Shura universal suffrage means democracy, but it is not true.… Anyway, this situation suits everyone because the Americans know well that if we have democracy in Oman, the Islamists will win and the new policy will be hostile to them” (pp. 198-199).
The discussion then focuses on the “Nationalisation of Employment,” as Oman moves from an oil-based economy to a natural-gas economy to a no-gas economy. The chapter is a long list of supposedly bad economic choices made by individuals who are allegedly corrupt, practice nepotism, and whose ideas for Omanization are all failures. The vast majority of economic projects that have been attempted or are in the pipeline are flops, Valeri maintains, and tourism is no panacea.
In the final chapter, the author raises the ultimate question: Will the Omani “National Identity [Be] Challenged?” Again, his opening sentence is revelatory: “Social and demographic changes in Oman for the last decade have not led the regime to give the impression of being ready to concede even a piece of political power” (p. 225). Of course, monarchies are not, by definition, parliamentary democracies, where bargaining and concessions are the norm. The author’s provocative declarations, including his question about whether opposition figures “are a threat to the Omani national identity built up by Qaboos” (p. 226), are puzzling. Qaboos is a threat to Oman and Omanis?
The book closes with a few ruminations on the sultanate’s unification of the North and the Dhuffar, as well as the emergence of a modern asabiyyah (tribal identity), all to prove that both the regime and the nation are threatened. Valeri’s pessimism overwhelms the reader, even though there is little evidence to assume that Oman will join the ranks of failed states. On the contrary, despite the gloom and doom amply described by several writers during the past four decades, the sultanate has managed to protect itself from regional confrontations, established long-term security alliances with neighboring and international allies, embarked on a diversification program to encourage the private sector, and relied on itself to assume nation-building responsibilities. Will Oman make it without Qaboos and without oil? The author seems to doubt it, but the sultanate may thrive because of what Qaboos reinstituted, preparing Omanis for the day when they will have to rely on their skills, not on oil.