Neither heir nor spare
Back in November, the national flag was everywhere. From posters and T-shirts to the icing on cakes, there were very few objects in the Sultanate of Oman that were not emblazoned with the national colours – red, white and green. Everywhere young men were competing to outdo one another with their car decorations, while the capital Muscat was ablaze with thousands of lights: Oman was celebrating the 45th jubilee of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said.
Even after over four decades in power, the monarch still enjoys a great deal of respect among his people. "The Sultan is a wonderful person," says Mansoor Al-Shabibi. The curly-bearded librarian's face lights up when he talks about the absolute ruler under whose guidance the sultanate has emerged from the Middle Ages and into modernity. "He loves this country," says Mansoor. "He loves the people. He really is one of a kind."
When Mansoor was born, Oman was still one of the Arab world's most backward countries. Back then in the 1960s, there were very few schools in the sultanate and electricity and running water were practically unknown. The few kilometres of asphalted roads were restricted to the capital Muscat. "We very rarely saw cars," Mansoor recalls. "It was really quiet, especially at night."
Mansoor's father was a farmer; the ten children helped out with the crops of dates and mangoes. There was no school to go to, but a local teacher taught the Koran to Mansoor and his brothers and sisters. "He also taught us the alphabet," explains Mansoor. "We collected coal in the forest to write with and scratched out the letters on camel bones."
The onerous conditions of daily life at that time led many to leave Oman to search for work in the wealthier neighbouring countries. Some oil production was underway in Oman by the 1960s, but in those early days it brought very little benefit to the ordinary people. Sultan Said bin Taimur, who came to power in 1938 feared progress, reputedly even going so far as to ban sunglasses and radios. Son Qaboos hated the country's backwardness and in 1970, with the help of the British, the 29-year-old overthrew his father.
Progress has been Sultan Qaboos′ priority right from the beginning. Oil revenues have been used to develop the country, without sacrificing tradition. In contrast to the situation in the United Arab Emirates, for example, Oman has no skyscrapers and large areas of its 1,700 kilometres of coastline are freely accessible.
New roads, schools and hospitals have also been constructed, while water and electricity now extend to the farthest corners of the country. The UN development report lists Oman as one of the countries that has made the greatest progress over the past four decades.
With the privations and hardships he experienced as a child still etched on his memory, sixty-seven-year-old Murtadha Hassan Ali is someone well able to appreciate this progress. Nevertheless, he feels it is wrong to talk about the reign of Sultan Qaboos only in terms of what has been achieved. "The real challenges are only now becoming evident," he explains. "Our economy is still based on oil, but the reserves are not going to last forever."
Though income from oil production still accounts for almost 80 percent of state revenues, Oman's oil resources are modest compared to those of neighbouring emirates Abu Dhabi and Qatar. For decades, the government has been able to provide lots of jobs in ministries or state-run institutions. Murtadha believes this system has now had its day: "The public administrative sector has grown so much that it cannot absorb any more people."
Every year thousands of young Omanis join the labour market, many of them with university degrees, yet there are not enough jobs to go round. Unemployment is high – no more so than among the young people. "Due to the weaknesses in our education system, the graduates we are producing are not suited to the needs of the labour market," Murtadha claims. "The vacancies are there, but it is foreigners who are filling them."
In the IT and finance sectors in particular, but in other sectors of the country's economy too Omanis are in the minority. At present, foreigners from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan account for substantially more than a third of the country's total population of almost 4 million.
In 2010, when the Arab Spring brought mass demonstrations against governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, many Omanis also took to the streets. They were demanding better living conditions and an end to the widespread corruption in the country.
Unlike other Arab rulers, the Sultan responded quickly to the situation. He promised the equivalent of 300 euros a month for the country's job-seekers, provided additional scholarships for students and announced the creation of 50,000 new jobs. People were satisfied, things calmed down. But the measures also succeeded in putting even more pressure on an already cash-strapped state budget.
Jurgen Werner, Arabist and vice rector of the German University in Oman, believes the Sultan's gesture sent out the wrong signal. "He could have said: 'Well, look, this is just the way it is. We are facing hard times.' But he chose to do it differently. And now, with the genie out of the bottle, it is very difficult to go back."
The steep decline in oil prices has exacerbated the situation, with oil revenues remaining well below expectations. And although the government attempted some time ago to lessen the country's dependency on geo-resources by developing its tourism industry, there is evidently going to be no quick fix solution to plug the hole in the state budget from that particular source. Tourism makes up just six percent of Oman's GDP.
For many young Omanis, most of whom have known no other leadership than that of Sultan Qaboos, the country is progressing too slowly. They want to take their future into their own hands and have a say in what that future should be like. Opportunities in the sultanate are however limited.
Search for a successor
Although all Omanis aged 21 or over have the right to vote for members of the Majlis al-Shura, the consultative council which advises the Sultan and his government, according to Murtadha Hassan Ali Murtadha Hassan Ali, himself a member of the lower chamber for a number of years, its influence remains limited. "The question is whether the members of the Majlis al-Shura actually fulfil the function they are supposed to fulfil," the businessman says. "Most of the members are perceived as part of the problem, rather than as part of any solution."
Many voters tend to remain loyal to their family or to tribal affiliations and vote accordingly, irrespective of any considerations relating to candidate ability. The most recent elections to the Majlis al-Shura, in October, saw a turnout of only 57 percent, considerably lower than the 75 percent turnout four years ago. According to a survey conducted by the online newspaper "Al-Balad Oman", very few Omanis believe that their government listens to the resolutions of its consultative council.
Many office holders in the government are personally chosen by Sultan Qaboos. The man himself, however, is only rarely glimpsed in public nowadays. He celebrated his 75th birthday on 18 November. The identity of a possible successor, someone willing to take on the many challenges facing the country, remains a mystery. Perhaps, as some believe, this is intentional so as to protect the monarch from any unnecessary danger.
It is rumoured that Sultan Qaboos has already written down the name of a successor in a secret letter – should his family fail to agree on a candidate within the stipulated three-day period following his death. Mansoor Al-Shabibi admits that he is not quite sure how the process will work, but is confident of the right outcome. "I am sure the Sultan will not let us down. He has something prepared. Maybe it is a secret arrangement between himself and someone or other, but I am certain the Sultan has got it all very, very well planned."
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by Ron Walker