Marc Valeri is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy of the Middle East, Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. An expert on the Sultanate that was a key actor in the historical agreement established between Iran and the five UN Security Council state members plus Germany (P5+1), he is the author of the acclaimed book Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State. This was a telephone interview for an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO. (Read more…)
Let us begin with the Iran negotiations [that led to an historical deal, on July 14, 2015] and the role that was played by Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Was he the man who helped break the ice between two enemies?
Well, he became involved in the 2013 negotiations, but it’s a bit going too far to say that he unfrozen the talks. I think the role of Oman was of mediation, of a facilitator, more than anything else.
But the Sultan was the initiator, wasn’t he?
Yah, I think so, but not later on, because the Sultan became very ill. He is no longer in the capacity to play an active role, but in 2013 Oman was important, because is considered by Iran and the U.S. as, let’s say, as a reliable actor. Both countries trust Oman, as a very good player, a very good actor to pass messages.
It was already the case in the 80’s for instance, after the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostages crisis, and also during the 1980-188 Iran-Iraq war, so it’s not a new role for Oman. Back then Oman was already passing messages to Iran from the U.S. or vice-versa. In 2013, Oman played again the same role of facilitator by hosting some rounds of talks between John Kerry and Iranian envoys.
What does Oman get in return?
I think that they get a lot in return. Oman needs to be sure that there is no danger coming from Iran. It is very important to be sure that Iran will never invade or will ever try to destabilize Oman. It is also very important because Oman needs gas and economic support.
For instance, Oman signed contracts that will allow the country to import gas from Iran at very interesting price. With the U.S., it’s a bit of the same: in terms of security, Oman has always been very dependent on the United Kingdom and America.
By playing the facilitator role, Oman tries to reassure the partnership with the U.S., and to safeguard its protection by the US.
Saudi Arabia, competing with Iran for regional hegemony, is not happy…
The relationship between Oman and Saudi Arabia is very interesting, because Oman has always been very careful with Saudi influence and Saudi hegemony in the region, because of Wahhabism. That is something not new.
For instance, during the fifties, in the war between the Sultanate and the Imamate of Oman, in the interior of the country, the Saudis were supporting the Imam against the Sultan. Since then, and even before that, the Saudis have always tried to spread their religious doctrine political influence in Oman and in others smaller Gulf countries.
This is one of the reasons why Oman has always been very careful. The Sultan was ready to give a large, a quite important strip of Omani land to the Saudis in exchange for a definitive border demarcation. By doing that, he thought that he settled the conflict, but Saudi Arabia never gave up trying to spread Wahhabism in Oman.
In 2011, during protests in Salalah [South] and in Sohar [North] and in several other towns, the Omani authorities accused the protesters of being supported by ‘foreigners’, naming explicitly the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
In fact, there are very few elements supporting that, but it demonstrated the permanent fears of a vulnerable Oman regarding the Saudi influence or hegemony. So Oman will never consider Saudi Arabia a reliable partner.
That’s something that many Omanis will say, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Muscat will always say that very clearly.
For the Omanis, Saudis are part of the GCC, they are “friends, and brothers”, but are not considered a reliable partner in many other ways. This is something very important to keep in mind.
Sultan Qaboos, always eager to maintain an independent foreign policy, recently expressed fiery opposition to Riyadh’s attempts to transform the Gulf Cooperation Council in a kind of European Union. It looks like the “poor brothers in the Gulf” (how the Saudis used to treat the Omanis in the past) have built enough confidence to confront the House of Saud…
I think that they had the courage to say ‘no’ because they know that other smaller countries, except Bahrain [to where Saudi Arabia sent troops to quell the Shia majority of the population oppressed by the Sunni rulers], don’t want this kind of union as well.
I am sure that all other actors, including the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, are very happy to have Oman saying ‘no’ because they cannot say it. The UAE surely don’t want a union, because there is a competition for leadership in the Arabia Peninsula between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
This competition has been quite silent after or since the Arab Spring but before it was very intense. For instance, when the time came to decide who would host the GCC Central Bank, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, there was a very big clash between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The border agreements between the UAE and Saudi Arabia are always coming back to the forefront of the media. So, for the time being, the UAE are quite happy to be close to Saudi Arabia, in the context of the post Arab Spring, but it’s not a long-term partnership. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have a lot of disagreements – it’s the same with Qatar and even with Kuwait.
Kuwait is in a very difficult position because of the Saudi influence in Kuwait politics and, on the other side, its proximity to Bahrain and to Iran, due to a very important Shia minority. So, Kuwait has to balance all these elements at the same time and they are not interested, at all, in a Gulf Union either.
This is another reason why Oman had the courage to say ‘no’. Oman is probably the country closest to the United Kingdom in the region. The partnership between the Foreign Office in London and Oman is very robust.
Sultan Qaboos is a very strong anglophile, closer to the UK than to the US, as other regional leaders. This partnership is very important for Oman.
So, in my view, the independence of Oman in the original arena is explained also by this closeness to other international actors, the UK in particular.
Oman can assume a regional position opposed to Saudi Arabia interests because it is a country that depends on and it is backed by the UK.
At what extent are relations with the U.S. and the UK, and Oman’s “goodwill gestures” towards Israel fuelling popular resentment?
This is something that is not well accepted, of course, not by the whole but by a certain part of the population resentful of Qaboos being too close to the UK and to the US.
We have witnessed that in 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, there were small protests in Oman with very strong slogans against Washington and London.
There was also he criticism against the decision of Omani government to accept bases British and American military bases on their territory, from where planes would bomb Iraq.
In 2012, during the Arab Spring, there were also many of protests, some personally attacking the Sultan as “a lackey of the British”. The links with foreign powers are not well accepted in Oman but the regime is very strong, and it’s still very difficult for many Omanis to criticise the Sultan directly about that subject.
Are protests religion-motivated? According to your book, there are at least three different estimates of the number of Ibadis and Sunnis in Oman. But Oman has always been defined as “the world’s only Ibadi-majority country”, and the “most successful of the Gulf states in overcoming sectarian tension”…
The official figures by the CIA, for instance, say that there is 75% of Ibadis but, in fact, this is not true. The Omani government doesn’t want to give official figures on purpose, because they don’t want to divide the country, at least on religious bases, but what’s most probable is that the number of Ibadis and the number of Sunnis is almost equal, around 50% each.
There is also a very small minority of Shia population, maybe 2%. These 2% are very important, because they are based in Muscat and are historically and economically, merchants and a trading community, quite rich and very well established in the political system.
Are Omani Sunnis susceptible to adopt the Wahhabi Saudi doctrine?
I would say yes. Officially there is no difference in the Islam practiced in Oman. Institutionally, there is only one mufti [expert in Islamic law] and there is only one Minister of Religious Affairs and only one Minister of Awqaf [plural of ‘wafq’, or Islamic charitable associations].
But the mufti of Oman has always been an Ibadi, since 1970 [when Qaboos ascended to the throne after deposing his father, Said bin Taimour], and the vast majority of the people in the ministries of Interior and Religious Affairs are also Ibadi.
So, while not clearly assumed, the Ibadi identity of Oman is very important for the current regime. The Sultan and his government have always been very tolerant towards Ibadism and even towards Ibadi Islamism. Many Sunnis really feel bad about this favoritism.
When we look at the map of Oman, we basically find the Sunnis in the North, close to the border of the UAE, in Buraimi along the coast from Muscat to the Emirates. We find as well the Sunnis in the South, in Dhofar, close to Yemen. The Ibadis are in the center of the country, in the interior of the country, around Nizwa and other historical cities.
So, when we look at the map of the protests in 2011, we notice that there were no demonstrations in the interior of the country, in the Ibadi cities. Most of them happened in Salalah, in the South, and in Dhofar, in the North, where there is a large minority of Sunnis.
The slogans and claims of the protesters did not contain any religious demands, centred on Sunni particularities, but it was visible a very strong presence of Muslim Brotherhood militants, and also members of Salafi networks.
This is used by the regime when it says ‘look, the protesters are influenced by foreign agents’ of the UAE, Saudi Arabia or other countries. I don’t think that it was the case.
At the same time, we could see that the Salafi and the Muslim Brotherhood were very powerful among the protesters. There is no doubt that the Salafi influence is growing among the Sunni in Oman.
What about the non-islamist opposition forces?
The Omani regime has been very efficient in destroying all the opposition since 1970. They have been very good at killing any embryo of protest. After the Dhofar Rebellion [a conflict involving local tribes, supported by an Iman in exile, against the Sultan in Muscat, 1962-1976] there were very few opposition movements.
In 1994 and 1995, there were waves of arrests, in particular people supposedly close to the Muslim Brotherhood. There were new and forceful arrests, in 2005, among Ibadi networks that were accused of attempts to overthrow the Sultan, and again in 2011 – these latter protests being quite important.
Since the 1970’s the repression of potential opposition movements has been so harsh that it made impossible to create a civil society independent from the regime.
This was a very big problem for many of the activists in 2011, since they had no tradition or experience of organizing protests. It was very striking for me to see the difference, for instance, between Bahrain and Oman. In Bahrain there is a history of opposition with roots to labor movements, trade unions and so on.
In Oman, this has been completely destroyed by the regime after the 70’s. So the young generation of activists in 2011 had no reference to rely on or to discuss with, in order to organize the protest movement. It was very easy for the government to destroy the opposition. Interesting though that during the protests, at the very beginning, in January 2011, nobody was attacking the Sultan.
They were not against him. On the contrary, they were advising the Sultan to get rid of the corrupt people in the circles of power, in the belief that the ruler was not aware of this abnormal situation. It was more like a call or a cry for help to the Sultan, more than anything else.
Everything changed after the invasion of Bahrain by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the 14th of February. In all GCC countries the protesters were crushed – including in Oman. A tow like Sohar was fortified and the army was put on alert in order to avoid more protests.
The protesters were taken to jail and tortured. This had a lot of impact on the young protesters, who had a lot of illusions regarding Qaboos. Their original position was like: ‘The Sultan seems to ignore the actual situation of the country and we will let him know”.
After the arrests and the repression in the summer and autumn of 2011, there was a great disillusionment amid the youngsters. The regime mistreated them as vandals and terrorists, and they begin to reason: “Maybe the problem is the Sultan himself and not only his advisers.”
This is quite interesting because in 2012 there were new protests and these were very different, much more organized. Now, the young activists were saying ‘We want a constitutional monarchy; we want this and we want that’. The regime said ‘No way’. The protesters were once more strongly repressed, some accused of “insulting the Sultan”, a serious offense.
One thing that seems paradoxical from outside, but that I don´t see it as a paradox, is this: we had many young activists disillusioned with the system, with no hope and with no answers to their calls, but the same people were very happy when the Qaboos came back from Germany last Spring after a long period of medical treatments. Why, I think that it seems paradoxical but it´s not: many people are anxious about what Oman will be after this Sultan.
He is everywhere in so many dimensions, social and political, that only few people imagine Oman without him. Most Omanis are afraid of what will be the future without Qaboos.
The Sultan, with no children and no heir prince, was advised to appoint, as soon as possible, a prime minister. [The last one was his uncle Sayyid Tarik bin Taimour Al Said, exiled by his own brother, Qaboos’ father. Tarik’s mandate was brief. He resigned because he did not accept “an excessive intrusive British influence in shaping his country’s future. Following his resignation, and signal that his influence was feared by his nephew, all known to have been closed to him in the Army and in the Royal Oman Police were summarily dismissed from their posts.” Quoted from the book “Oman: The true-life drama & intrigue of an Arab State”, authored by John Beasant].
The problem is that Qaboos refuses to designate a crown prince or a Prime Minister, giving the impression that he doesn´t care about the nation’s future.
He’s afraid that any potential successor might try to impose changes as long as he is around, or that he might take over the throne. It looks paradoxical, but it is a logical and mixed feeling.
Qaboos is said to have written letters containing a name or names of his personal choice for the throne. We don’t know if there’s a consensus within the royal family. What are the internal and external challenges of not having a designated heir? How do you assess the Sultan’s legacy?
About the legacy, the most important was the building of an Omani identity that did not really exist before 1979.
There were, of course, a number of people felling as Omani, but it was about a reference more mythological than real history.
Qaboos managed to build a very strong Omani national identity, and I believe that all Omanis have this genuine feeling – except maybe the Dhofaris. Apart from Dhofar, nobody really wants to be part of the UAE, Saudi Arabia or any another country.
The Omani national identity is very strong, and this is a very important legacy of Qaboos. The problem is that this legacy has been built around him only. He is the center of the identity and plenty of problems remain unsolved, the most crucial being the economy, which faces a very difficult situation. Oman is not as rich as the other Gulf countries, and there is not yet a diversification or alternative to oil.
The employment among young people is very high, especially outside Muscat. Some people need more than two jobs in order to.
The Salalah protests were mainly about social and economic issues. Another Qaboos’ legacy that his successor will not easily overcome is a political one: the entire system is built around the Sultan – he is the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finance, governor of the Central Bank, supreme commander of the Army.
He has all the keys in his hands, and this will not be admissible to next Sultan, because he will not have the legitimacy of Qaboos.
The next Sultan will face, necessarily, the need to change the political system, to make reforms and end the absolute and autocratic regime, because he will not benefit of popular support.
The French formula “après moi le deluge” [attributed to King Louis XV] is something that can be applied in Oman in many ways. I don’t want to make any forecasts, but I wouldn’t like to be the next Sultan because he will have so many challenges – social, economic, political – but not the same charisma or intimacy as Qaboos. I’m pretty sure that new protests will take place as soon as the throne will be vacated.
The initial protests in Syria were demanding political reforms, not regime change. The civil war broke out after Bashar al-Assad unleashed his war machine against the opposition. Does Oman face such a risk after Qaboos? Will the country be prey to its neighbours’ ambitions? Could Oman’s fate be that of Yemen?
If we look at the religious, social and economic factors of Yemen and Oman, we see that especially before the 70´s there were many, many similarities.
There are several elements that can be compared: the existence, for instance, in both countries of trade ports, which were historically very important because they connected them to the outside world, like Aden, in Yemen, and Dhofar, Salalah or Muscat in Oman.
We have the same traditional Imamate in the mountains, in the center of the country. We have religious divisions. We have two countries situated in very strategically places that generated waves of migrations.
There are plenty of similarities but also a big difference: Oman has oil and Yemen not. I don’t think that we will see a repetition in Oman of the current events in Yemen.
I do not see the northern part of Oman wanting to join the UAE. I don’t see the Dhofar province joining Yemen. Oman is a kind of mosaic.
For the time being, all Omanis want a piece of the cake. They are fighting for the same cake, they don’t want to destroy the country, because they identify as Omani.
There is not, in my opinion, a possibility that Oman will explode soon, but I am sure that Oman will be even more dependent in the future on external support, from the U.S. and the UK. I am sure about that.
We already saw that when Qaboos went to Germany in July  for treatment. Less than two weeks later, in the beginning of August, the British government appointed a special envoy to Oman, in addition to the ambassador in Muscat.
This special envoy was appointed to, basically, make sure that the succession among the potential successors in the royal family would be smoothly and organised as the British want. They could not know whether the Sultan would stay in Germany and die there or not.
They absolutely wanted to control the situation and make sure that there would be no internal divisions within the royal family.
At the moment, the British have been a little bit more careful about this, but since the 2012 protests they put a strong pressure on the Sultan to appoint a Prime Minister. They said: “You need to appoint a Prime Minister it’s in your interest because, now, people are no longer complaining about people around you but complaining about you, more and more. If you don’t have a Prime Minister, you will be the focus of all criticism.”
The Sultan was pissed of about this British advice and did not appointed anyone. I am sure that he will appoint a Prime Minister or a successor only at his very last minute. This is something that he doesn’t want, because he still feels capable of running the country. For him, an heir is always a challenger to his own rule.
After all, he was the one who removed his father from power in 1970…
… Exactly. The 1970 trauma is a repetition of other cases in the history of Arabia where sons depose fathers or brothers depose brothers…
One of Qaboos’s main achievements was the creation of “an Omani State and an Omani Nation”, you said. But there is a perception that his recent policies will undermine the country’s unity…
Yah… I have to agree. It seems very strange, paradoxical. I’m sure that he will designate a Prime Minister only if he cannot avoid it.
Parts of this interview, edited for clarification, were included in an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on July 25, 2015