Oman, a Land Apart
Oman’s uniqueness in the Arab world is due in part to its dominant Ibadi faith, a form of Islam distinct from the Sunni and Shia denominations. Only about a quarter of Oman’s population are Sunni or Shia Muslims, and small groups of Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians round out the population. Most of Oman’s non-Ibadis are migrant workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, and the Philippines, living in the country’s urban centers of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah. The Ibadi faith has deep historical roots in Oman. The sect is thought by most scholars to be an off-shoot of Khawarij Islam, which emerged when some of the followers of Ali (Mohammad’s son-in-law, and founder of Shiism) rejected his authority, as they thought that he was not following Islam properly; Ibadis, however, tend to deny this connection with the Kharijites of old.
At any rate, Oman became an Ibadi state before the end of the 7th century CE. During Islam’s early years, Oman has played a prominent role in propagating the faith through extensive trading and seafaring activities in East Africa. Periodically parts of East Africa came under direct rule from Oman, although more often individual Omani families ruled East African city-states. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Sa’id ibn Sultan consolidated Omani rule over the Swahili Coast, and in 1830s he moved his capital to Zanzibar—at the time the main slave market of the East African littoral—where he built impressive palaces and gardens. From that time on, Zanzibar became an important center of Islamic scholarship, attracting scholars from Oman as well as from other parts of East Africa. Sayyid Barghash ibn Said, who ruled Zanzibar from 1870 to 1888, was well-read and deeply interested in world affairs; he also established a printing press to promote Ibadi scholarship. To this day, Zanzibar maintains its status of a center of the Ibadi faith with close ties to Oman.
Except for its connections with other Ibadi communities, Oman long remained an isolationistic country. In Ibadi Islam, non-Ibadi Muslims are viewed as kuffar ni‘ma—that is, “monotheists who are ungrateful for the blessings that God has bestowed upon them”. A true Ibadi should practice “dissociation” (bara’a) toward them, which implies “withholding friendship” rather than outright hostility. According to Nur al-Din al-Salimi (1869-1914),
“although the mushrik [an unbeliever] is farther [from the truth] than the corrupt monotheist, both are cursed. Nonetheless, the Law allows certain things with the corrupt monotheist that it does not allow with the polytheist, such as intermarriage, eating their slaughtered animals, inheritance, giving the greeting of peace, saying “God bless you” if he sneezes, praying behind him, praying over him if he dies, accepting his testimony, and interacting with him in all worldly matters just as one would interact with Muslims with whom one has wilaya [friendship].”
Although Ibadis are considered by some observers to be tolerant and non-sectarian, as they openly associate with people of all faiths, they have historically remained apart from other Muslims. Until the reign of the current sultan—Qaboos bin Said Al Said—Oman was largely cut off from the modern world. The father of the present sultan, Said bin Taimur, who ruled Oman from 1932 to 1970, was a staunch conservative who resisted Westernization to the point of not allowing Omanis to own cars; there were no paved roads in Oman until 1968. Sultan Said’s distrust of banks and investments led to rumors that he kept all his gold under his bed. Reportedly, even wearing eyeglasses was discouraged.
Nonetheless, Sultan Said sent his son, the present sultan Qaboos, to London to study at Sandhurst Military Academy. After graduating from Sandhurst, Qaboos served in the British Army and studied the workings of the British government. Upon his return to Oman, Qaboos was kept under virtual house arrest at the Royal Palace of Salalah for nearly six years. In July 1970, fed-up Qaboos staged a bloodless coup, exiled his father to the United Kingdom, and set about modernizing Oman at a rapid pace. An Ibadi Muslim himself, Sultan Qaboos is characterized as a religious liberal. He has financed the construction or maintenance of a number of mosques, notably the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Among his Western-inspired passions is classical music; his 120-member orchestra, consisting entirely of young Omanis, has a high reputation in the Middle East.
Since he acceded to the throne, Sultan Qaboos has broadened Oman’s international relations, allowed newspapers, established high schools, a university and numerous hospitals, built highways, and opened hotels and shopping malls. He has also spent a substantial portion of his country’s dwindling oil revenues on health care and education, which are both provided for free. So far Oman has managed to avoid thoughtless Westernization and as a result it has seen little Islamic reactionism. Islam remains an important part of life, but in a generally non-politicized way. The government supports the publication and dissemination of Ibadi scholarship, but the rhetoric of Ibadism is noticeably absent from its public pronouncements. While most earlier Ibadi scholars insisted that regardless of how kind, pious, and good non-Ibadi Muslims may be, they are inevitably destined for hell, the present Grand Mufti of Oman, Shaykh Ahmad ibn Hamad al-Khalili, believes that the differences between Sunni and Ibadi Muslims are subsidiary issues that are of little eternal consequence and in no way impede Muslim unity.
In nearly forty-two years of his absolute reign, Sultan Qaboos has united feuding tribes, reconciled sectarian differences, overcome a rebellion in the south, and built a modern state with a major oil-export industry and modern infrastructure. But many Omanis, as well as Western analysts and diplomats, are concerned about the future of the country because of the succession uncertainties. According to Omani law, the sultan holds all power: the present sultan is also the country’s prime minister and holds other key government positions including those of foreign affairs and defense. There is no division of labor with other members of the royal family, unlike in Saudi Arabia, and no checks-and-balances from a parliament or judiciary. In the early 1990s, Sultan Qaboos instituted an elected council, to which he gave some legislative powers in 2011. However, the council’s legislative authority is limited to questioning ministers, proposing laws, and suggesting changes to government regulations. There are no legal political parties, and the traditional, system of tribal authority is still heavily used. Political stability in Oman—and therefore the succession issue—are particularly important because of the country’s position at the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of the global oil trade passes, with Iran on the other side. So far, Sultan Qaboos has been successful at balancing the interests of neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia with those of Western countries, offering the U.S. and the UK military facilities. But the situation may change in a blink of an eye.
At 71, Sultan Qaboos is apparently in good health, but he has no brothers or children, having divorced after a brief marriage. He is widely rumored on the internet to be gay. While questioning the royal family’s right to rule is taboo, some 50 to 60 eligible family members are lined up to become the next sultan. However, none of them has emerged as a clear candidate and no formal discussion of the succession issue has taken place. According to the country’s Basic Law, should the current sultan die or become otherwise incapacitated, the royal family must choose a new sultan within three days. If they fail to agree, a letter containing the successor’s name penned by Sultan Qaboos should be opened. This procedure is designed as an elaborate means for the current sultan to “secur[e] his choice for successor without stirring the pot by making it public during his lifetime”, according to some analysts. In actuality, however, the system causes much buzz, raising hopes of last-chance succession in some quarters and fears of infighting and chaos in others.
The sultan’s three first cousins—Assad, Shihab and Haitham bin Tariq al-Said—are said to stand the best chance of assuming power. Assad, who is 62 years old, is seen as the frontrunner by some experts, partly because he may have the support of the military. Like the present sultan, he graduated from Sandhurst. For many years he commanded the Omani armed forces and now serves as the sultan’s personal representative. Shihab, who is 57, is a retired navy commander, while 55-year-old Haitham is a veteran minister of national heritage and culture who worked previously in the foreign ministry. But all three have business interests, ranging from real estate to tourism, which is seen as not very regal. Such qualms may work in favor of another candidate, 66‑year old Fahd bin Mahmood al-Said, a deputy prime minister since 1983 who attended Sorbonne university and is married to a Frenchwoman. Other observers point to younger members of the royal family, such as Assad’s son Taimur, born in 1980.
If neither of these candidates manages to establish firm rule, alternative scenarios include the reestablishment of the Ibadi Imamate by tribal leaders in the interior of the country. A revival of the Imanate, however, would threaten to split the country into the interior region, historically known as Oman, and the narrow coastal strip dominated by the capital, Muscat. The division between coastal and interior regions is not just political, but also cultural and even linguistic. The official language in Oman, as in much of the Arab world, is Modern Standard Arabic, but people speak a number of distinct local varieties of Arabic, as well as several other languages. In the coastal areas, spoken varieties of Arabic—Omani, Gulf, Shihhi Spoken Arabic—predominate, co-existing with Iranian languages: Southern Balochi, Western Farsi, Kumzari, and Luwati. In the interior region, in contrast, Arabic co-exists with five languages from the South Arabian family: Mehri, Shehri, Harsusi, Bathari, and Hobyót. The term “Arabian” in the family name refers to the Arabian Peninsula; several of the South Arabian languages are spoken in Yemen as well, and the sixth member of the family—Soqotri—is largely limited to Yemen’s island of Socotra. South Arabian languages are not closely related to Arabic, which together with Hebrew belongs to a different branch of the Semitic language family (see chart). South Arabian languages are more closely related to languages spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea, such as Geez, Tigré, Tigrinia, Amharic, and Harari.
In addition to political and linguistic tensions, economic issues—to be discussed in the following GeoCurrents post—may also contribute to tearing Oman apart if no clear succession occurs.