Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
Oman works. Despite its perilous location adjacent to desperately beleaguered Yemen and between bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is among the few Arab majority nations that are stable and not riven by conflict. Its relations with its several mutually antagonistic neighbours and their troubled allies are harmonious, as are its relations with the world’s great powers.
Oman offers two lessons for the Arab world – that even-handed rule produces peaceful internal relations, leading to the absence of strife and steady economic growth; that embracing modernity rather than fundamentalism produces a tolerant, cohesive, society.
Oman is not without its contemporary problems, with formal unemployment growing to more than 17 per cent, a big youth bulge exhibiting unemployment in the 50-per-cent range, and economic growth rates that fell from 5.4 per cent in 2016 to an anemic 0.7 per cent in 2017. But 2018 promises to be better, with growth predicted to be about 2.5 per cent thanks to higher world prices for petroleum and the coming on stream of a large natural gas deposit. The country also exports iron ore, chromium and copper. It also profits from its positive trading relations with Qatar following Saudi and United Arab Emirates boycotts of that nation. Oman’s largest trading partner, however, is China.
Diplomatically, Oman tries, first, to make no enemies, and to avoid taking sides in the calamitous Saudi/UAE war with Yemen, or between bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Second, last month Oman welcomed a cordial visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a first in this decade for Arab countries beyond Egypt and Jordan. Third, Oman laboriously facilitated secret negotiations between Iran and the United States that led to former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry’s breakthrough agreement to denuclearize Iran (now revoked by President Trump).
Astute, albeit authoritarian, leadership is at least partly responsible for Oman’s remarkable emergence since 1970 as an Arab nation of five million people that works. Compared especially to the other monarchies and autocracies of the Middle East, British-trained Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has run a tolerant, modernizing administration ever since overthrowing his much more traditional, autarkic father in 1970. Under Mr. Qaboos’ direction, Omanis have become (especially for the region) well educated and literate. Universities and technical colleges have been established, and numerous Omanis sent overseas to pursue higher studies.
In 1970, Oman had few paved roads. Now, with a network of well-maintained expressways and highways, journeys within the country that once took three weeks by camel now take three hours by automobile. Domestic commerce has flourished on the back of such arterial improvements. So has (mostly) high-end tourism from Europe, and from China and Japan.
Omanis claim that they are by nature a non-contentious people. Religiously, Omanis assert that their Ibadi version of Islam (which Oman shares with parts of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia) takes a much more moderate approach to scripture, history and infidels than the more dominant Sunni and Shia belief systems. Indeed, Wahhabism, the Sunni sect that joins the Saudi family to control Saudi Arabia, declares that Ibadis are apostates, not true Muslims. In Oman, Sunni and Shia mosques serve their own local constituents alongside their much less-adorned Ibadi houses of worship. Ibadis, 80 per cent of the Muslims in Oman, refer to themselves as “the people of straightness.” Their movement resulted from a seventh century schism within early Islam.
Enlightened leadership, a tolerant and inclusive version of Islam, a merchant mentality that long made Oman a commercial crossroads between India, Pakistan and Africa (Oman ruled Zanzibar and parts of Somalia for four centuries), and its seafaring and thus outward-looking tradition makes Oman unique, and much more forward-looking than its neighbours.