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Oman among democratization, reforms and duel with Iran
   
 
 
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Oman among democratization, reforms and duel with Iran

 
Friday, 26 October 2012 14:00
 
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by Nicolamaria Coppola (EPOS)
EPOS Insights

 

Oman is located along the Arabian Sea, on the southern approaches to the Strait of Hormuz, across from Iran. Except for a brief period of Persian rule, Omanis have remained independent since expelling the Portuguese in 1650. The Al Said monarchy began in 1744, extending Omani influence into Zanzibar and other parts of East Africa until 1861. A long-term rebellion led by the Imam of Oman, leader of the Ibadhi sect (neither Sunni or Shiite and widely considered "moderate conservative") ended in 1959; today Oman’s population is 75% Ibadhi. Qaboos bin Sa’id Al Said, born in November 1940, became Sultan in July 1970 when, with British support, he forced his father to abdicate. Oman is an absolute monarchy in which decision-making still is largely concentrated with Sultan Qaboos, even though he has a reputation for benevolence and has been considered highly popular.

The stability of Oman is fundamental to the equilibrium of the whole Gulf region: it is crucial for commerce among Middle East, East Africa and Indian Ocean, and it behaves like a guard who watches over the Strait of Hormuz threatened by Iran. The sultanate has not yet been immune to the political upheaval of the last year, and it has been the first country of the Gulf area to be "infected" by the Arab Spring. In fact, in February and March 2011, after the revolts in Tunisia, Libya and  Egypt, some peaceful demonstrations were held in the capital Muscat and in other cities like Sohar. Several hundred demonstrators gathered there demanding better pay, higher wages, more job opportunities and political reforms. Although most protesters said their demonstrations were motivated by economic factors, some say they wanted the powers of the Majles (the Consultative Assembly) expanded to approximate those of a Western legislature. By the end of March, Qaboos appeared to have calmed much of the unrest through some measures: he announced a series of reforms, such as a minimum wage for workers in the private sector, the monthly unemployment benefit increased by 40%, the composition of a special agency to moderate the rise in food prices, the creation of 50.000 new jobs and the increase in scholarships for university students. Despite the concessions, in recent months new protests took place to demand better economic conditions and deep reforms against corruption.

Oman is certainly not a poor country compared to the other States of the Gulf region: rich in oil, according to the latest survey completed by the World Bank in 2011, production is estimated at 816,000 barrels per day, and the GDP, the Gross Domestic Product per capita is at 21.000 dollars. The alarming fact is about unemployment: over 15% of Omanis did not work, and if we consider that half of the population is under twenty, it is easy to understand why the social and financial malaise is being extended.

To defuse the anger of the young unemployed, Sultan Qaboos has invested enormous sums in education and training, and it could be considered an example of great foresight that seems to inspire all his work. Qaboos has understood that the stability of his Sultanate can no longer hold on the social contract and he is trying to stike a new balance between social and economic reforms and maintenance of a highly centralized power: he is simultaneously the Head of State, Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Foreign Affairs, Chief in charge of the Armed Forces and Chair of Omani Central Bank.

Sultan Qaboos has sometimes pursued foreign policies outside an Arab or Gulf consensus, although Oman is an integral part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Some of Oman’s stances, such as its consistent engagement with Iran, have appeared at odds with both GCC and U.S. policy. Other of its positions, such as on the Arab-Israeli dispute, have been highly supportive of U.S. policy, sometimes to the point of alienating other Arab leaders. Oman has generally been a skeptic of some GCC plans for greater economic and political coordination; it balked at a Gulf state plan to form a monetary union and, as discussed below, opposes a Saudi plan for GCC political unity.

Since the Sultan has begun the reform, relations with Iran have cracked: Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf regimes have acclaimed Oman's process of democratization believing that the supremacy of Teheran in the Arabic Peninsula could be once for all blocked. The United States of America have also shown to keep the stability of Oman, considered a critical link in the chain to contain Teheran's expansionism. In the meanwhile, Sultan Qaboos is working very hard to release his country from the role of guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. He is working on a project that involves the construction of a railway line that will connect the most important seaports of Oman with the borders of the United Arab Emirates. In this way, arabic oil would be diverted from the Strait of Hormuz, removing the Iranian threat. The project also has a strong geopolitical importance: the railway line would alter the regional balance in favor of Oman, which will become an inevitable layover in the output of oil from  the Persian Gulf.

Taken into consideration the above issue, what will be the future relations between Oman and Iran? What will be the next steps of Teheran and their consequences on the stability of the Arabic Peninsula? The die is cast!


Last modified on Thursday, 04 July 2013 10:15
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