Oman: Future of leadership

Who next after Sultan Qaboos?

For all of his life, Ali has only known Oman’s monarch. In power since 1970, the 73-year-old Sultan Qaboos Bin Said has ruled this country of four million residents for more than four decades. 

Like Ali, more than half of the population who are under the age of 25 have never known any other ruler besides Sultan Qaboos. “Baba Qaboos has cared for us and has led the country ever since I was born,” says Ali. “He is the leader of Oman and he has always focused on and taken care of our needs to develop the nation. We hope that Baba Qaboos will always be here for us. We wish him a long life and good health.”

The state of Sultan Qaboos’ health has been a common topic of conversation recently. The monarch, who also holds the position of Prime Minister and chairs all meetings of the Council of Ministers, has been absent for three months after traveling to Germany in July to receive medical treatment. The Royal Diwan never disclosed the nature of his condition or treatment – diplomatic sources suggest the disease is colon cancer. However, with no public successor and the Sultan both childless and brother-less, questions surrounding the successor’s identity have intensified recently.

“Obviously, the longer he is gone, the more suspicions will be stoked that his health conditions are very serious,” research organization Gulf State Analytics co-founder, Giorgio Cafiero, told Voice of America recently. “While it is 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.”

Unlike the rest of the Gulf, where the succession is decided and announced beforehand, the Omani constitution notes that the royal family should choose a new sultan within three days of the position being vacant. The constitution was amended recently by Sultan Qaboos himself, giving the Omani people’s elected representatives a say in who becomes the next monarch.

If the Ruling Family Council cannot agree on the successor, the Defense Council, together with the heads of the State Council, the Shura Council and the Supreme Court will confirm the appointment of a person designated by the Sultan in a letter penned by the monarch himself and addressed to the Ruling Family Council.

However, concerns remain that any disagreement between the various parties may not only affect the Sultanate, but the wider region as well. “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,” adds Cafiero.

Straddling the southern portion of the Strait of Hormuz and with a coastline that stretches from the Arabian Gulf in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east, Oman’s peripheral geography belies its role in the region. Sultan Qaboos has managed to balance the interests of powerful neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, whilst remaining a friend to the West – both Britain and the United States have bases in the country. The Sultan made job creation for the country’s youth a priority following unrest in and around Sohar during 2011.

Thanks in part to the government’s economic stimulus, the country’s economy has been growing rapidly. The Sultanate’s gross domestic product (GDP) at current prices grew by 4.6 percent in the first quarter of 2014, when compared with the same period last year, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is projecting a growth of 3.4 percent for Oman’s economy until 2019. The state is investing tens of billions of dollars in turnkey projects, including a new port and infrastructure at Duqm, petrochemical projects in Salalah and Sohar, a solar thermal hybrid power plant in Haima and an expansion plan for the Khazzan-Makarem gas fields. The country’s focus on diversifying its economy away from hydrocarbons has spurred interest, both at home and abroad.

“The relative ease and benefits of  doing business have spurred foreign investments. This is evidenced by direct FDI tripling in volume during the latter half of the past decade.  We must give our government due credit for meeting both public and private sector demands and aiding them to grow their capacity for achieving our country’s short- and long-term goals,” wrote Mohammed Al Ardhi, the Chairman of the National Bank of Oman, in his monthly column in September.

For Al Ardhi and his colleagues, the goal of diversifying Oman’s economy away from its dependence on oil and gas is still a work in progress.

The Sultanate needs to revise some investor laws, such as the foreign investment law, labor law, protection and tax exemption laws, land utilization law, the legal percentage of foreign investors’ ownership, pollution law, as well as the banking system.

The hope among Omanis is that the Sultan will return home fully recovered to take up the mantle of spearheading the country’s development. This Eid, the country’s nationals were offering prayers for the Sultan’s health, in the hope that the monarch, who has sat on the throne for 44 years, will renew a sense of continuity and sureness among both the local population and foreign investors.