Of all the Gulf states Oman is the most individualistic
. Set outside the Straits of Hormuz, the country looks over the Indian Ocean to east Africa and beyond. Unlike its peers, the sultanate is not a member of the Opec oil cartel and has said explicitly that it will not join a single Gulf currency.
Nor does the sultanate have the same hydrocarbon reserves as its neighbours.
With a population of 3.1m, 1.5m of them expatriates, Oman’s reserves stand at only 5.5bn barrels, according to US Energy Information Administration. This is a fraction of the oil available to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Next month, the sultanate celebrates its 40th national day. The date marks the assumption of power of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who unseated his father in 1970.
With Qaboos now in his 70th year, thoughts are turning to who will eventually take his place. Here, too, the sultanate is following its own idiosyncratic path.
According to Article 5 of The White Book, Oman’s basic law, Qaboos’ successor must be a male descendant of Turki bin Said Sultan, sultan of Muscat and Oman from 1871-88. But it is unclear exactly who this will be.
In 1996, Qaboos, who has no children and is in good health, amended the constitution so that his Albusaidy family should choose a successor when he dies.
In the event of a family dispute, Qaboos has left a letter that names his preferred choice. One copy is lodged in Muscat, the capital, and a second rests in Salalah in Dhofar in the south.
“The succession is one of the great unknown questions of the day,” says a partner at an international law firm with offices in Muscat.
“There are stories that there is a name in the envelope. Whatever happens, there’s a vacuum – and questions about how smooth the transition will be.”
Qaboos, who in addition to being prime minister holds the portfolios of foreign affairs, defence and finance and is governor of the central bank, has deliberately obfuscated the succession issue and has little interest in showing his hand at this stage, court-watchers believe.
He is known to hate speculation about the succession on the grounds that he is in good health.
Michael Field, an author and Gulf specialist, says: “The trouble is that foreigners don’t know enough about the country, so they obsess about the succession. Locals are far less worried.”
Nonetheless, speculation focuses on the sons of Prince Tarik bin Taimur Al-Said, an uncle of Qaboos and a former prime minister who died in 1980.
JE Peterson, a US academic, identifies three of Tarik bin Taimur’s sons as the most likely candidates: Asa’ad, 56, Shihab, 55, and Haitham, 54. Asa’ad is the Sultan’s personal representative, while Shihab, a personal adviser, was head of the navy until 2004. Haitham is minister of heritage and culture.
Although no one in Muscat speaks about the family’s business affairs, Haitham bin Tarik’s involvement in the stalled Blue City project
may be unfavourably perceived.
According to the project’s website, he owns 50 per cent of Cyclone LLC, the local partner in the botched $15bn real estate scheme.
Mr Peterson doubts this will ultimately mean very much. “I don’t think it does irreparable harm to his standing, which is based on his lineage and position more than commerce.
“His chances really depend, I think, on his relations with his brothers.”
There is, though, a fourth candidate. Fahd bin Mahmood, believed to be 66, is currently Oman’s deputy prime minister and is in effect number two in Oman’s existing power structure.
“Fahd bin Mahmood is very much a dark horse,” Mr Peterson says.
Joseph Kéchichian, fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, identifies the same four names as likely successors. “These four [cousins of Qaboos] are valid options [over] the next decade. With time, Fahd’s putative candidacy diminishes, as a consequence of age,” he says.
Then, Mr Kéchichian says, Qaboos may contemplate the next generation, led by Taimur bin Asa’ad bin Tarik, born in the 1980s, who married into a family from Dhofar, from where Qaboos’ mother came. (Note from Nadia: he married Salma, daughter of Sheikh Mustahil Al Mashani, the Sultan's Uncle on his mother's side - from Salalah)
The issue of Dhofar is sensitive, because it was the scene of a separatist uprising in the 1960s and 1970s and was also the target of a sustained campaign of communist agitprop and incursion from neighbouring Yemen.
For four years, Qaboos himself was kept under house arrest in Salalah by his own father.
Much of the disaffection of Dhofaris, which the communists were able to exploit, was attributed to severe neglect of the region by Qaboos’ father.
Since Qaboos took power the government has been acutely conscious of the need to provide education and healthcare for all.
“There were two kilometres of metalled roads when he (Qaboos) came to power,” says the manager of an Omani-European joint venture. “Omanis don’t benchmark themselves against other GCC states. They are independent-minded and very sovereign,” he says.