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“Qaboos can make mistakes like anybody else"-- The Sultan of Oman De-sacralized

[Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman attends the 23rd session of the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Doha, Qatar, Dec. 21, 2002. Image by Kevork Djansezian/AP Photo.] [Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman attends the 23rd session of the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Doha, Qatar, Dec. 21, 2002. Image by Kevork Djansezian/AP Photo.]

The summer of 2012 in Oman was punctuated by a litany of reports announcing arrests and convictions of bloggers and human rights activists. This new crackdown on civil society started in May, when two human rights activists and a lawyer were arrested while they tried to interview striking oil workers in two of the main Omani fields. At the beginning of June, eight additional bloggers and writers documenting the strikes and the lack of substantial reforms since 2011 were detained as well. While several of them were kept in solitary confinement and their families and lawyers were denied any information as to their whereabouts, thirty Omanis protesting peacefully for their release were arrested on 11 June. Since the beginning of July 2012, more than forty university students, writers, journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers—a number of whom were subjected to physical and psychological practices of mistreatment amounting to torture—have been sentenced to at least one year in prison and heavy fines on various charges allegedly related to incitement to “cause riot” and “public disorder,” “violation of information crimes law,” and “defamation of the Sultan.” 

Spring 2011 brought the most widespread popular protests the Sultanate of Oman had experienced since the end of the Dhofar war in the 1970s. However, most observers were quick to declare that the ruler was not the target of the protesters, that he “showed himself responsive of public concern,” and that his management of events supposedly explained why “the unrest subsided almost as quickly as it had erupted.” These conclusions–premature, to say the least, in light of the events of 2012–partly misread the “Omani Spring” and missed what has been its main output. The protests have obviously not developed in the same intensity and in the small scale as have other uprisings in the Arab world. However, the “Omani Spring” has produced a result of no less critical significance for the future of Omani politics: the de-sacralization of Sultan Qaboos.

 An Unheeded Plea for Help          

Regional dynamics have had an obvious impact on the events that have been shaking the Sultanate since 2011, a country where political associations are banned and prior government approval is required for all public gatherings. Far from being the image of a supposed “sleepy Sultanate,” commonly presented as an island of peaceful development under the “visionary leadership” of the “father of the nation” Qaboos bin Sa‘id, an increasingly vocal civil society has been highlighting for years the economic and political flaws in the system. The limited results of the Omanization policies and the slowness of the process of diversifying sources of revenue are illustrated by dramatic social inequalities, endemic unemployment, and poverty resulting from deregulation and privatization policies. The Omanization rate in the private sector plummeted from 18.8 percent at the end of 2005 to 12.2 percent in August 2012. Estimates show a persistent twenty percent unemployment level among nationals–and certainly above twenty-five percent among eighteen to twenty-four year-olds. These figures leave unacknowledged what is probably a considerable rate of underemployment, particularly in rural areas. When the protests started in January 2011, the proportion of Omanis employed in the private sector and earning less than the official monthly minimum wage (two hundred Omani Rials [OR]) was seventy percent. Cost of living has risen simultaneously, and it is now impossible to find a two-bedroom flat to rent for less than four hundred OR per month in the Muscat agglomeration and for less than one hundred fifty OR in ‘Ibri or Sur.

Moreover, it is now common to hear Omanis complaining that government members and economic elite close to the ruler have been given too much decision-making latitude, allowing them to take advantage of the situation to pursue their personal interests. The personal involvement of most decision-making elite and cabinet members in business has fuelled the widespread perception of a corrupted elite, busy safeguarding its privileges while silencing questions about the conflict of interest between the nation’s general interests that they are supposed to promote—such as Omanization policies—and the particular interests they defend as businessmen.

Political grievances have also developed in fertile ground. In 2005, waves of arrests involving senior military and civil officials led to the sentencing of more than seventy people. The latter were accused of being members of a secret organization attempting to overthrow the regime. Since 2005, new Internet forums have emerged where most of the participants use their real names and actively aim to promote new social and political debates in Omani society. Despite systematic harassment and arrests of journalists and online activists—such as freelance reporter ‘Ali al-Zuwaidi who was arrested for criticizing the government and providing evidence of corruption by cabinet members in 2009—online accounts of fraudulent practices by key figures of the regime (the ruler excepted) have become commonplace. In Summer 2010, intellectuals and human rights activists seized the opportunity of the fortieth anniversary of Qaboos’s accession to the throne to submit an online petition to the ruler. In it, they called for wide reaching reforms such as the promulgation of a “new constitution” leading to a parliamentary monarchy and measures against corruption among top political incumbents.

Since the 1970s, Sultan Qaboos’s legitimacy has relied on the double assimilation of all Oman to “the state” which remains master craftsman of economic and social development, and then of “the state” to the person of Qaboos himself. With the remarkable achievements in technical, economic, and social development since the 1970s, there has been a rewriting of frames of reference around the person of Qaboos, standing in the new historiography as the bodily incarnation of Oman. The pre-1970 history is evoked only as an antonym to the glorious national awakening of 23 July 1970—the date of Qaboos’s accession to the throne, later renamed Renaissance Day [‘id al-nahda]. This political work on history is aimed at “naturalizing” his rule. Until now, the Sultan has been “the source of all laws” [masdar al-qawanin] and there has been no possibility of appeal against the ruler’s decisions. Article 41 of the 1996 Basic Law explicitly states that his person is inviolable, that respecting him is a duty, and that his orders must be obeyed. The extreme personalization of Oman’s political system since 1970 has accustomed many Omanis to the idea that the fate of all his subjects depends on Qaboos’s goodwill.

In this context, the various expressions of political awareness prior to 2011 were cries for help, addressed to the Sultan by a population worried about the future and increasingly unable to meet daily life requirements. These pleas should have been interpreted by the authorities as such and taken seriously as repeated alarm bells. However, the first protests in Muscat in January 2011 and the general climate of frustration that sparked the fire in Sohar in February caught the regime by surprise, against all expectations. Not only has the regime proven unable to anticipate these demonstrations, but it also failed to understand that such acts of protest represented another distress call–as illustrated by the the list of demands displayed on the Sohar roundabout during the first days of the protests and addressed to Qaboos in person. Hence, key demands of the strikes and demonstrations revolved around job opportunities and pro-active measures to curb rising prices and inequalities, but they also requested the Sultan to personally intervene to fight corruption among top officials.

These repeated calls for help to the ruler remain unheeded and have not resulted in any substantial reform. In 1994 and 2005, the regime took the initiative by launching harsh preventive crackdowns among intellectuals and civil society activists. The goal was to reaffirm that the expression of any opinion outside the official rhetoric remained forbidden and that the response would be without mercy. In 2011, though, the regime continued to lag behind protesters’ demands. The regime imagined that it could use the same old recipes, i.e. the long-proven combination of relentless crackdowns and cosmetic reforms, to buy off social peace. A number of political strategies were employed to counter the mobilizations in 2011—the manipulation of local identities and tribal issues to channel claims and demands as a divide-and-rule technique to prevent the spread of mobilizations; the co-optation of alternative voices; the ruler’s arbitrary gestures of goodwill (such as the increase of the minimum salary by forty-three per cent in mid-February 2011, the announcement to establish a monthly allowance for individuals registered as job seekers, and to create fifty thousand new public sector jobs in late February); the allegations that independent voices or critics are under foreign influence, so as to discredit them in the name of the requirement of national unity behind the ruler; the firing of dignitaries to create scapegoats and hold them responsible for the system’s failings—but all met with failure. Decisions intended to publicly reaffirm the Sultan’s centrality to the maintenance of national unity and the struggle against corruption and to enhance his legitimacy by emphasizing his attentiveness to people’s aspirations, did little to dull the protesters’ resoluteness.

As Saudi Arabian and UAE forces entered Bahrain on 14 March 2011, Qaboos issued a royal decree announcing his intention to grant the Council of Oman greater legislative and regulatory powers. It became clear that the Sultan, as well as his GCC counterparts, did not intend to go beyond what he fundamentally considers the red line, i.e. keeping the center of political power (encompassing the executive and the legislative power) as his personal prerogative, closed off from contestation. In the past two years, Oman has witnessed the restrictive cyber crime law issued by royal decree in February 2011; the considerable reinforcement of the Public Prosecution’s latitude of action undertaking the powers and prerogatives of the Inspector General of Police and Customs by royal decree in March 2011; and the tightening of article no. 137 of the Penal Law, amended by royal decree in October 2011, which states that “anyone participating in a gathering of at least ten persons, with an intent to affect the public system, can be punished with a jail term of one month to one year”: all confirm the securitarian answer.

From Expectations to Disillusionment

The regime’s repressive response to the popular demands plunged many Omanis into deep bewilderment.[1] Hitherto, Omanis had not been used to seeing public criticism of ongoing policies erupt onto the street. Instead, they had been told for forty years to rely on the reassuring paternal figure of “Baba Qaboos” to arbitrate and resolve all public matters. Particularly disturbing for many Omanis was the repeated labelling of the protesters as “delinquents” and “vandals” by senior officials and the sentencing of more than one hundred individuals across the country to jail terms on fabricated charges of “possessing material with the intention of making explosives to spread terror.” These individuals were, after all, relatives, neighbours, or members of the wider community simply asking for better living conditions. Also incomprehensible was Qaboos’s lack of public appearance and his failure to meet with protesters in 2011. His decision to entrench himself in his palace in Manah further illustrated his unwillingness to either challenge his image as arbiter above mundane problems or to take the risk of denting his prestige by having to face overt popular criticism.

This reluctance to break the taboo on key issues has done nothing but fuel the widespread anxiety concerning the perceived lack of a long-term economic and political vision. The Sultan’s refusal to appoint a prime minister or to lay down the foundations for governance of a post-Qaboos Oman only exacerbated popular anxiety. Direct criticism of the Sultan progressively became more common in the protests. In Salalah, demonstrators openly questioned the ruler’s responsibility in economic mismanagement (“If you didn’t know [the malpractices], it is a disaster; but if you did know, it is an even bigger disaster.”) or threatening him in veiled terms by referring to the Dhofar war. (“The one who forgets the 1970s should think of the grand-children of the free men.”) Activists who were convinced of the ruler’s belief in reform before February 2011 now expressed their deep disillusionment with the regime’s response to the society’s call for help. One teacher explains:

Qaboos is an old man, he is a man who is alone and who does not understand his country anymore. He does not trust anybody, only a close circle of individuals who are the only ones to report to him on the situation in the country […] I am afraid he may squander all he has built and the popular recognition he has accumulated for forty years. I am supporting the nomination of a prime minister or a crown prince as soon as possible, in order for Qaboos to keep his image of "Son of God on Earth" that he has built for himself.[2]

The ruler, who in 2011 fired high profile ministers who had served for so long as political fodder, no longer has anyone to blame in order to pacify protesters and their discontent. He is now in the line of fire, as the jokes about him that currently thrive on Facebook testify. Accounts of harassment by security forces, violations of basic human rights, and denunciations of the existence of a security and police state [dawla al-amn wa-l-bulis] have mushroomed on the Internet and Twitter. Online writers and protesters who openly criticized the ruler’s practices–namely, his proximity to British and US interests and his management of oil rent–were quickly arrested and condemned to jail for lèse-majesté. The regime’s successful, decades long legitimation mechanism, based on the identification of contemporary Oman as a whole to Qaboos, also began to falter and is openly challenged by activists and bloggers who now make a clear distinction between the current regime and the Omani nation. Their criticism of the ruler and his power practices are explicitly made in the name of Oman and their concerns for the future of the country. An activist is not far from considering that the ruler has become the problem more than the solution:

In 2011, we wanted to understand what the cause of our country’s disease is. We wanted to remove the corrupted elite [around the sultan] from the political system and see if this could sort out the problem. We managed to make these elites go… but we have quickly understood that the body was still deeply infected.[3]

Moreover, graffiti calling for the overthrow of the Sultan have appeared on Sohar walls. The Prosecutor General, appointed by the Sultan’s decree in 2004, has become the most hated dignitary in the regime. His repeated statements in June 2012, worthy of a bygone age, saying that he would take “all appropriate legal actions” against writers and sit-in participants who are said to act “against values and morals of the Omani society” and to “prejudice the national security and public interests,” only confirm the disarray of the authorities in the face of a development that they had failed to anticipate: the ongoing breakdown of the myth of Qaboos’s embodiment of contemporary Oman.

As a consequence of the unwillingness to answer the multiple calls for help from his subjects, Sultan Qaboos has fallen from his symbolic pedestal. The official narrative stressing Omanis’ duty of loyalty towards Baba Qaboos in the name of the nahda ideology is like a broken record that has proved inaudible in a country where eighty-four percent of the population was born after 1970 and seventy percent after 1980. This young Omani civil society is composed of educated males and females who no longer agree to abdicate their right to take part in the political and economic decisions the country is facing, as their parents had done in the name of social welfare or for the requirement of national unity behind the ruler. Many Omanis are now aware that the Sultan will be held accountable for decisions that will impact the post-Qaboos Omani for generations. As one of the Sohar activists summarizes, “Qaboos has become somebody like anybody else, he can make mistakes like anybody else…”[4]

It goes without saying that Qaboos remained, until now, the only candidate for power. However, if anything, the “Omani Spring” has marked the de-sacralization of Sultan Qaboos. This dramatic change in the relationship between the society and its leadership confronts the Qaboos-State with unprecedented questioning and forces the sultan to re-evaluate his legitimation strategies as a whole. This brutal collision with reality for the “Son of God on Earth” definitely marks the beginning of a new chapter in Oman’s history and Oman’s legitimation of authoritarian rule.

[1] I am indebted to Claire Beaudevin for the conceptualisation I am employing here (of protests leaving many Omanis distraught).

[2] Personal interview, Muscat, 16 October 2011.

[3] Personal interview, Muscat, 11 October 2011.

[4] Personal interview, Muscat, 12 October 2011.

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