Death of a sultan

Sultan Qaboos bin Said, absolute ruler of Oman, died on Friday at the age of 79, just a few months short of fifty years since he took the throne by overthrowing his father (with the assistance of the British military).

A glance at the map will be enough to suggest that ruling Oman is a tricky job. It commands one side of the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, with Iran on the other side; its other neighbors are Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even at its best it’s a zone of regular tension.

But Qaboos handled it well. Oman has steered a middle course between Iran on one hand and the Saudi-dominated Sunni bloc on the other, remaining on reasonable terms with both. It has also had good relations with the United States, often acting as an intermediary between it and Iran.

Domestically, Qaboos brought Oman into the modern era. He abolished slavery, granted freedom of religion, built schools, roads and hospitals, and used oil revenues to diversify the economy.

But his modernisation did not extend to political reform. Although there is a democratically elected Consultative Assembly, its powers are only advisory; the sultan retained full control. Political dissent was outlawed, and opponents of the regime face torture and imprisonment.

It’s a common enough problem, although Oman poses it with peculiar clarity: why would an intelligent and successful ruler be so afraid of public opinion? How could someone with the ability to do the things that Qaboos did fail to realise that absolutism puts his own achievements in peril?

It’s sometimes said that enlightened despotism doesn’t work because most despots turn out not to be enlightened. That’s true, but it’s only part of the problem. Even a genuinely enlightened despot – and Qaboos was as good an example as we’re likely to get – finds that the suppression of dissent also suppresses vital sources of information, and alienates potential supporters that the regime may one day need.

Qaboos was skillful, or lucky, enough to keep it all together for his lifetime. His successor – his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq – will face the task at a particularly dangerous time in the region, and without Qaboos’s wealth of experience and political capital. For his own sake, he should try to give Oman’s citizens a real share of power.

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