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Something Stirring under the Still Waters of Oman

Tightening the Grip or Revitalizing the Monarchy?
Remous sous les eaux calmes d’Oman. Reprise en main ou revitalisation de la monarchie ?
Marc Valeri
p. 105‑116


Alors que le sultanat d’Oman recherche des alternatives à un modèle économique fondé sur la seule rente pétrolière (nationalisation des emplois, diversification des ressources économiques, etc.), les réponses apportées par le pouvoir aux timides voix discordantes entendues depuis 2005, ainsi qu’aux pressions exercées par les États‑Unis sur les régimes de la région dans le cadre de la “guerre contre le terrorisme”, témoignent d’une évolution de la pratique de gouvernement. En cherchant à consolider sa légitimité personnelle et le lien direct qu’il entretient avec la population, le sultan Qabous souhaite effacer les doutes émis en Oman et à l’étranger sur son éventuelle prise de distance avec les affaires politiques.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Jones & Ridout, 2005, p. 379.
  • 2 Ibid.

1At the beginning of 2005, an unexpected wave of political arrests hit Omani society, an event which had not occurred in the country for more than ten years. This was all the more surprising considering that Oman was not regarded as a potential target for Islamists. Prominent Western observers on Oman analysed this episode within the larger framework of what they perceived as the slow shaping of a “distinctively Omani democracy.”1 The way the Sultanate authorities settled the whole affair would derive from “the Omani social and political micro‑climate,” the most important aspect of which would be “the pervasiveness of tolerance as a social, moral and religious value.”2 In a different perspective, this paper argues instead that this episode represented a turning point in the Omani political practices, signalling the coming back of Sultan Qaboos to the foreground of the political arena.

  • 3 See Valeri, 2005.
  • 4 Gulf News (Dubai), May 26, 2006; see also Gulf News, June 28, 2006.

2After three decades of absolute personal power, which had allowed for tremendous economic and social development of the country, the ruler seemed to have imperceptibly stepped out of the decision‑making arena. For several years, the whole strata of society had been affected by growing anxiety, which became clear in the renewal of community prejudices and the increasing demands of a large part of the youth. With more than half of the national population below the age of 15, a new generation is entering the job market. They are not prepared to endure sacrifices from which their parents had been exempted. The Omani authorities’ efforts to diversify their sources of revenue by investing in tourist industry, gas exploitation, and other industrial sectors bore witness to the fact that the regime had woken up to new challenges. Nevertheless these macroeconomic policies — omanisation of jobs, diversification of economic resources, etc. — gave an impression of instability, and social tensions became more acute.3 At the same time, some observers started talking about the strain of power on Sultan Qaboos, who appeared less and less frequently in the media. It was not unusual to hear Omani people complaining that the government members were given too much decision‑making latitude, so that they could take advantage of the situation to pursue their personal interests, disregarding those of the nation as a whole and hiding the real social and economic condition of the state from the ruler. Moreover, while the Sultanate seemed to be heading quietly towards its second open elections on the occasion of the October 2007 renewal of Majlis al‑Shūrā, it experienced unusual public protests against the institutional status quo. For instance, the two women who had contested the last elections in 2003 openly questioned the authorities’ actual desire to promote the importance of the scrutiny and the role of the Majlis al‑Shūrā among citizens, arguing that no “progress has been made from last time,”4 regarding the lack of opportunities for female candidates.

3Moreover, in January 2007, a new Internet discussion forum, called “farrq”, was opened by local human rights activists with the declared aim of promoting new social and political debates in the Omani society. Contrarily to what happen usually on such Omani forums, most of the participants have chosen to appear openly in the discussions, with their real name, instead of pseudonym, even when tackling sensitive issues.

  • 5 In his study on non‑democratic transitions, Oliver Schlumberger makes a distinction between “system (...)
  • 6 Droz‑Vincent, 2004, p. 197.
  • 7  Schlumberger, forthcoming, p. 5.

4In this perspective, during 2005 and 2006 Sultan Qaboos’s endeavoured to recover full authority. In the domestic area, where the Sultan repeatedly reaffirmed his power, as well as towards the international community, indeed he wished to show them that, despite the tricky regional context, he perfectly well controlled the country, while negotiating a bilateral Free‑Trade Agreement with the United States. By studying several apparently disconnected political and economic events which have troubled Oman since 2005, we intend to show that these events can express the evolution of the Omani regime. This “adjustment”5 consisted in revitalizing Qaboos’s rule, by alternating attempts at opening up the political spectrum, arbitrary gestures of benevolence and relentless crackdowns of any discordant voice. This recalls Jordan’s “paradoxical liberalization” studied by Philippe Droz‑Vincent.6 Sultan Qaboos thus wished to tighten his personal grip on the country since 2005, to show all the other local actors that he was more than ever the only decisional political authority, while strengthening his personal legitimacy abroad on the same occasion. The ruler has left no doubt that “the centers of political power [like] in all Arab countries remained firmly closed off from contestation”.7

Waves of political arrests in 2005

  • 8 Al‑Ḥayāt (London), January 26, 2005.

5In January 2005, rumors about arrests in Muscat and the inner country spread on Omani web forums. Among them, some teachers and students from Sultan Qaboos University were named. Some weeks later, the Al‑Ḥayāt daily newspaper correspondent in Oman revealed that about three hundred people were being detained for questioning, after a cargo of arms was discovered in a truck involved in a road accident near the Yemeni border. According to this newspaper, these individuals intended to plan “explosions targeting the Muscat Festival, which was boycotted by Islamists who deem it against the precepts of Islam”; it was also rumoured that explosions took place on the first days of the īd al‑aḍḥā against shopping malls and an oil complex. The alert was perceived as being so credible by the Omani authorities that Sultan Qaboos did not attend — for the first time since 1970 — the ‘īd prayer in the city of al‑Rustāq, in which he had been supposed to participate this year, on the occasion of his annual tour.8 Soon thereafter, the Information Minister, Ḥamād al‑Rashdī, acknowledged these arrests in the name of the government, at the same time minimizing their extent and refusing to give details about the number and identity of the detainees:

  • 9 ʻUmān (Muscat), January 31, 2005.

We don’t want to talk on this matter as it is an internal issue. We are not accustomed to defaming our citizens by publishing their photos in the media and highlighting their crimes publicly to justify the government’s actions […] But I can say that these detentions stemmed from an attempt by those involved to form an organisation to endanger the national order, which is a red line that requires to be dealt with sternly. When it comes to the national security, experiments or leniency have no place […] [The question of political detainees in the Sultanate] is a much‑hackneyed claim that has long been overused. Tampering with security has nothing to do with political or intellectual opinion. There is not a single prisoner of intellectual opinion in Oman, thank God.”9

6The trial began on April 18th under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court, chaired by Sayyid Hilāl bin Ḥamad al‑Būsa‘īdī, former Minister of Justice in the seventies and eighties. Among the thirty‑one individuals accused, teachers and students of the Education and Islamic Studies colleges of Sultan Qaboos University were included, as well as the chief of the Omani delegation to the pilgrimage in 2005 and son‑in‑law of the Mufti, Kaḥlān al‑Kharūsī, and the controller of the mosques at the Sultan palace office, Ṣāliḥ al‑Ribkhī. All the individuals arrested belong to the Ibadi school (madhhab).

  • 10 The Times of Oman (Muscat), May 3, 2005.
  • 11 Al‑Ḥayāt, April 19, 2005.
  • 12 Besides, in March 2005, the regime arrested more than forty individuals who belonged to the armed f (...)

7The verdict was delivered on May the 2nd; six defendants, convicted as occupying leading positions in the organisation, were sentenced to twenty years of prison, twelve to ten‑years term, twelve others were sentenced to seven years emprisonment and one was jailed for one year. They could not appeal the verdict, but only ask for the Sultan’s pardon. The public prosecution accused them of having belonged to a banned secret organisation, which was first formed in 1982 and was settled in all the wilayats of the north of Oman; there might have been a public body which organized youth summer camps, and an underground wing that attempted to overthrow the current regime by force in order to establish an Ibadi imamate.10 The defence denied the political dimension of the organisation, and focused on their religious will to “defend the Ibadi doctrine.”11 No evidence of international networks was revealed during the trial.12

Ibadism as a new political standard

8Together with Sunnism and Shiism, Ibadism, which derives from Kharidjism, is the third major doctrinal division in Islam. Ibadi communities are found mainly in Oman and also in Djerba (Tunisia), in Algeria’s Mzab and in Libya’s Jabal Nafūsa. Omani populations adopted Ibadism as far back as the eighth century, when the initial followers of this sect in Basra, who were of Omani origin, came back to their native land. They soon organized themselves politically into an independent Imamate, based in Inner Oman around the towns of Nizwa and Rustāq. In 1920, the British Political Agent in Muscat and the major tribal sheikhs signed the Seeb Agreement, which ratified a political informal division of the Omani territory: the Northern coastal shore remained under the authority of the al‑Būsa‘īd Sultan of Muscat, while the interior would be ruled by the Ibadi Imamate. In the 1950s, while oil companies had already started exploring the Saudi‑Oman border, the Sultan succeeded in taking over the interior with the help of the British government, during the Jabal Akhḍar war (1955–1959), and achieved the Omani reunification.13 As John Peterson points out,14

“by the end of the [1950s], the Sultanate […] was in firm control of the interior of Oman and the Imamate seemingly was consigned to the dustbin of history”.

9Thus, for the first time in half a century, Ibadism arose in 2005 as a rallying force for a political mobilisation. This marks the beginning of a new phase in the Sultanate’s quest for political legitimacy. Protest in the name of the Ibadi Imamate could lead to demanding the coming of an Islamic government, which would threaten the nation-state built by Sultan Qaboos since 1970.

10Not surprisingly therefore, the regime reacted strongly. Nevertheless, several questions regarding the authorities’ behaviour in this affair remain unanswered. First of all, why did they decide to arrest them only in 2005, while they assert that they had been watching over them for more than twenty years, during which time they were given complete freedom to spread their ideas, especially within the sharia institutes that several of the accused were the head of? And why did the Sultan decide to pardon them only one month after the verdict, if these individuals were as dangerous for the country’s stability as the official propaganda asserted? The whole affair was not built from nothing by the government, but one cannot ignore that the government is the main beneficiary: not because the Omani regime strengthens the links with a society in search of landmarks, but also reflects its firmness and magnanimity with the opposition.

  • 15 Owtram, 2004, chapter 6.
  • 16 The Times (London), November 18, 1974.
  • 17 More than 100,000 Pakistani have been deported by Oman to Karachi and Gwadar in the past three year (...)

11Moreover, at the international level, the United States, in the name of the “war on terror”, chose to put further pressure on the regimes of the area since September 11th. Even if Oman had been one of the most reliable allies of Washington policies in the region, not only against Communism in the 1970s and 1980s, but also during 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars,15 the “oldest friend of Great Britain in the Arabian Peninsula”16 was forced to give further proofs of his determination to cooperate in this “global war”, demonstrating that he perfectly controlled the situation on territory. The Sultan aimed at reassuring his Western partners, showing that he was able to maintain the stability of Oman and dismantle every so-called terrorist group. Since 2004, the tracking of illegal immigrants coming from the Indian subcontinent was also inscribed in this policy, centred on national security.17

12The reference to communism has long been used for disqualifying any people questioning the current political model. Nowadays it is the “fight against Islamism” that is called up by the regime in order to blame without distinction every opposition as a “breach in national security”, and then to legitimate the use of force and present it as necessary measures. Obviously, neither in 1994,18 on the occasion of the last major political arrests, nor in 2005, the Omani government had to face a religion-based movement comparable to what has been happening in Yemen, after the rebellion of the “Believing Youth” movement behind the Zaydi cleric sheikh al-Ḥūthī.19 Indeed, since the Dhofar war, Qaboos had never had to cope with a wide-scale insurgency relying on a regional or tribal support; he has never been forced to make use of military forces to crash presumed opponents, police operations were more than enough.

13Moreover the very ideas the government charged the accused with — most of whom were holders of graduate and postgraduate university diplomas20 — were not widespread. Nevertheless a large fringe of the Omani youth, especially among the Ibadi population, felt sympathy towards them. On the eve of the verdict, several hundreds of demonstrators marched in Muscat demanding their release, with shouting “our shaykhs are innocent.”21 More protestors, maybe thousands of them, gathered after the verdict to demonstrate against the heavy jail sentences, leading to light clashes with the police and new arrests. Islamist ideas, even if their holders are not yet politically organised, are constantly spreading in the society and polarizing the discontent linked to the rise of unemployment and the deterioration of living conditions. Thus the message of the authorities was clear: they were not ready to accept criticism of the system, and a fortiori from outsiders in the political game. As a human rights activist noted, the regime has proceeded to a “pre-emptive strike”22, in order to remind everyone that there were boundaries not to cross.

A political liberalization agenda?

14Nevertheless it is worth noting that the authorities have been forced to take into consideration the heightened international sensitivities towards violence against political competitors or challengers, and to give justifications for the repression. Contrary to what happened in 1994, the regime had to insure transparency and to justify its actions: the Minister of Information has been required to express himself on the events, whereas the government denied everything. Moreover, for the first time, the defendants were allowed to be defended by lawyers, while a local press journalist, along with defendants’ family members and representatives of the two parliamentary Councils (Majlis al-Shūrā and State Council) were allowed to attend the trial.

  • 23 Interview of Sa‘īd al‑Riyāmī, economic expert at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Oman Econom (...)
  • 24 The Times of Oman, July 2, 2006.
  • 25 The Times of Oman, May 7, 2006 and ʻUmān, May 11, 2006.
  • 26 ʻUmān, November 1st, 2006.

15This concession stood within the larger frame of a seduction strategy toward the international community, in order to promote tourism and foreign investments in Oman. The most important efforts, dealing with labour laws and the rights of workers, have been carried out in the light of the Free-Trade bilateral agreement (FTA) with the United States, which was signed in Washington in January 2006 and expected to come into force in July 2007.23 Thus, in May 2005, the government appointed a Main Representative Committee, chaired by Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aẓīm ‘Abbās, a prominent Shi‘a personality from the capital and the brother of the president of Muscat Municipality, in order to supervise the company-level workers representative committees, elected since 2004 by the national and foreign workers of the private sector only. At the beginning of July 2006, they were 43 and represented almost 15% of employees of the private sector.24 The Ministry of Manpower decides for every committee registration and requires prior notification and agendas for committee meetings. Further, several royal decrees were passed in May 2006 to amend the labour law and to improve legislation dealing with foreign workers’ insurance cover, labour inspections and work of minors.25 In the middle of July, only two weeks before the United States House of Representatives ratified the FTA, Sultan Qaboos made a step forward, as Bahrain did in 2005 before the US Congress had approved a trade pact with this country: in order to comply with the International Labour Organisation standards required by the Congress, the Omani ruler issued a decree (royal decree n°74/2006) granting the private-sector workers the right to form independent trade unions. In November 2006, a ministerial decision based on the new labour law outlined provisions for collective bargaining in the private sector but also stated, for the first time in Oman, of the right peaceful strike for private-sector workers for the purpose of improving work conditions and circumstances. The labour union at the establishment was to notify the employer about this strike, which would be calculated as leave without salary, at least three weeks prior to the fixed date. The strike was to be stopped immediately at the start of the procedures to settle the collective labour dispute. Besides, this ministerial decision noted that the employer had the right to partially, or completely, close down the establishment to defend his interests.26

  • 27 See Al‑Khalīj (Dubai), October 12, 2005 and Gulf News, September 12, 2006.

16Other measures of political opening were endorsed, especially in the media sector. As soon as the end of 2004, a royal decree allowed the setting up of private radio and television companies. In September 2005, the Ministry of Information approved licenses for two major companies (Sabco, founded in 1983 and chaired by Sayyid Ḥamād bin Ḥamūd al-Būsa‛idī, the former Minister in charge of the Diwān in the seventies and eighties, and a personal adviser to the Sultan since 1986; and OHI) to set up one new television and three radio stations.27 In September 2006, the Ministry planned to allocate FM frequencies so that two private radio stations could be broadcasting in 2007. At the same time, the first Omani Journalist Association, inaugurated officially in March 2006, was established.

17However, no political liberalization was effectively on the agenda. During the launching of the second public TV channel in November 2006, which targeted the youth, a contract of exclusive sponsorship was signed with two members of the most powerful Omani business groups well introduced into the central power: Mrs Rīm al‑Zawāwī, chairperson of Oman International Bank, and Mr Sa‘ad Bahwān, chairman of Oman Trading Establishment. Moreover, the opening up of the media to the private sector was not to going disrupt the sector, as the own words of the chairman of OHI testify:

  • 28 The Oman Daily Observer (Muscat), October 29, 2005.

The Sultanate, under the wise leadership of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, has given me a lot and I owe a great deal to the country. I consider my involvement with the media as a service to the country.”28

  • 29 40,000 Omani rials for a radio station and 80,000 OR for a television (1 OR=2.6 USD); sources: The (...)

18After the capital legally required to launch a new publication was raised to 500,000 USD in August 2004, this decision was confirmed by the announcement of the price of private radio and television licenses29. The emergence of alternative means of expression became all the more difficult.

19Clearly, the Omani authorities are still not ready to grant or at least tolerate the appearance of discordant voices, campaigning for political freedoms or criticizing the real impact of the reform, and a fortiori, the emergence of an autonomous civil society or of political outsiders. In the summer of 2004, two intellectuals, Muḥammad al‑Ḥarthī and ‘Abd Allāh al‑Riyāmī, were declared persona non grata by the regime on the whole Omani media, after casting doubt on government commitment to political reform on the Iranian channel al‑‛Alām.30 Afterwards, ‘Abd Allāh al‑Riyāmī, who was active in exposing via the Internet arrests and detentions that happened during the spring of 2005, publicized by the same means in June the arrest and prosecution of a former Majlis al‑Shūrā member, Ṭayba al‑Ma‘awwalī, who represented the Muscat suburb wilaya of Ṣīb between 1994 and 2000. She participated as observer to the thirty‑one individuals’ trial and was charged with slandering officials via telephone and the Internet, and criticized the Omani political liberalization in the foreign media. The court sentenced her on July 13 to one year and a half prison, which was reduced to six months three weeks later by the court of appeal. Her refusal to acknowledge her misdeed officially seems to have prevented her from benefiting from a royal pardon. During the last fall, several letters from her, which described her conditions of detention, have been published on Internet forums.31 Moreover, two days before the court issued the verdict against Ṭayba al‑Ma‘awwalī, ‘Abd Allāh al‑Riyāmī was asked to present himself to the police for interrogation. During his one‑week detention, he was asked about his comments on the political events and warned that there was an “open file” on him.32 He was then summoned to either stop criticizing the authorities or leave the country. Similarly, the former Majlis al‑Shūrā member Ṭayba al‑Ma‘awwalī seized the opportunity of one of the rare appearances of the Oman issue on the US foreign‑policy agenda in May 2006 to talk in a foreign media about the harassment she had been submitted to by the authorities since the end of her last term in the Majlis al‑Shūrā in 2000.33

20At the end of November 2006, the main Internet discussion forum Omania was shut down by the Omani authorities and its founder, Sa‘īd al‑Rashdī, arrested. While the Web forum was allowed to reopen some days later with a new name (Omania2), Sa‘īd al‑Rashdī, who was released soon, was prosecuted at the end of March 2007 before the court of first instance, together with three other managers of the website and a dozen of individuals who posted messages; they were charged with spreading wrong information about the economic activities of some members of the government. The managers of the website were acquitted, but several of the other defendants, who participated in the discussion on‑line, were sentenced to 300 to 400 OR fines, and one of them was given one month of prison.34 Once again, as the verdict shows, the goal here was above all to intimidate those who could be tempted to cross the boundaries and to remind everyone that sensitive political and economic topics were still excluded from the public debate.

Sultan Qaboos back on the limelight

  • 35 Hibou, 2004, chapter 6.
  • 36 Bayart, Ellis & Hibou, 1997.

21The years 2005 and 2006 have been devoted by the Sultan to attempting to regain the full control on the Omani social and economic situation. The ruler wished to reaffirm publicly that he was more than ever the “symbol of the national unity and its protector”. First of all, many people questioned openly his involvement in the nation’s affairs. As a result, one of the ambitions of the central power was to reaffirm the Omani people that nobody was above the law, and that the national interest embodied by Sultan Qaboos surpassed all other private interests and considerations. The Sultan endeavoured to show that he guaranteed the application of legal norms in the economic practices and the struggle against corruption, especially when the latter involved members of the political and economical elite. But a much more extensive effect was pursued, beyond the desire to reinforce his personal legitimacy and his direct link with the population, through the National Day’s royal grants. The meaning of several economic scandals’ disclosure, while wide‑scale privatization policies have been implemented since 2000, could be found in the central power’s will to “make clear that at any moment it could break other powerful actors”35, by imposing its arbitrary conditions in the economic playground whenever it decides — a strategy which has been practised since long in other regimes in the Arab world and elsewhere.36

  • 37 The Times of Oman, July 17, 2005.

22In July 2005, an inspection team of the Capital Market Authority and the Ministry of Finance unveiled smuggling operations of sale of subsidized gas at the National Gas Co., a joint stock company engaged in the operation of liquefied petroleum gas filling plants. Several top officials of the company were involved, pumping gas to neighbouring countries since 2001.37 An undersecretary and the son of a minister belonged to the board of directors of the company when the scandal emerged, by a strange coincidence just a few days after Ṭayba al‑Ma‘awwalī was sent to prison.

  • 38 ʻUmān, October 27, 2005.

23An even more important affair is known as the “electricity fraud case”, and was made public in October 2005, at the end of a trial started in June after irregularities were found in the accounts of Oman National Electric Co. (ONEC), whose top shareholder belonged to a prominent family and owned one of the main holdings in Oman. Thirty‑one individuals, including a former Omani ambassador to the UK, a State Council member, the son of a minister and top officials of the ministry of Housing, Electricity and Water were convicted for misappropriation, bribery, abuse of position and forgery and sentenced to various jail terms. Among them there was the Electricity undersecretary, ‘Abd Allāh bin ‘Alī bin Dāwūd, who was found guilty of accepting bribes, misusing job status and cancelling 2.5 million fine against ONEC; he was finally sentenced to 14 years of prison.38 All the accused were granted a pardon by the Sultan at the beginning of July 2006, although most of the population disapproved this decision.

  • 39 The Times of Oman, March 18, 2007.

24If the ruler has proved that he was strong against elite members who benefited from the privileges and who infringed the rules, he has not missed the occasion to prove his magnanimity toward minor black sheep or other weak people. In 2005, the benevolence and royal clemency reached an extent unequalled since the beginning of the nineties. In February, the first annual “meeting the people” tour of Sultan Qaboos since the death of Shaykh Zā’id took place in the north‑west of the country, in the wilayas bordering the Emirates. This visit was the opportunity to announce ambitious new development projects, in the fields of housing, road infrastructures and social services. The Sultan was worried about the fact that he could lose the allegiance of these regions historically turned towards the “Trucial Coast” emirates and Saudi Arabia, thus wishing to remind everyone of their full belonging to the Sultanate. In February 2007, Sultan Qaboos chose to tour the Dakhlīyya, Wusṭā and Sharqīyya regions and announced the implementation of local development projects worth OR 83 million,39 i.e. almost 8% of the whole country’s investment expenditures.

  • 40 ʻUmān, November 1st, 2005.
  • 41 ʻUmān, December 20, 2006.

25Moreover, 2005 and 2006 National Day (Renaissance Day) celebrations were the occasion to stage the “continued personal concern of the Sultan for his subjects and their happiness”. In November 2005 for instance, the Sultan announced his decision to put up social security allowances for the destitute families, to distribute 16,000 land plots to social security‑dependent families, and to grant royal amnesty to more than eight hundred prisoners. The festivities themselves lasted for four full days, with fireworks and parades in all the major towns of the country. During the Muscat Military Parade, a tableau formed a map of Oman, with, the words “Allāh, al‑Waṭan, al‑Sulṭān” (Allah, the Homeland, the Sultan) on it, while another took the shape of the figure “35”, with a portrait of the Sultan in the centre. Besides, Sultan Qaboos granted civil employees of the first and second grades one month’s basic salary and grade‑three employees two months’ basic salary as a bonus.40 More than one hundred public projects worth OR 615 million were unveiled on the same occasion. This prodigality of the “nation’s father”41 went on in 2006, when the ruler decided to raise not only all the civil service employees’ basic salary by 15% from 1st of January 2007, but also the minimum monthly wage for Omani nationals working in the private sector, by ministerial decision, from OR 120 to 140 in February.

26The fall of the Omani oil production since 2000 and the simultaneous rise of unemployment and inflation, an economic phenomenon which was unknown in the Sultanate before 2004, have made crucial the issues of job omanisation and economic diversification. As a consequence, Sultan Qaboos has decided to set up the year 2005 as the one of his coming back to the limelight, implementing since then a strategy in order to strengthen the basis of his power. On the international level, the ruler wished to show the United States and the European Union that he was more than ever one of their most reliable allies in the area. The significant progress the Sultanate made in labour concerns in July 2006 must be understood, first and foremost, not as an emanation of domestic aspirations, but as a result of the pressure of the United States on the Gulf monarchies, during the negotiations of respective bilateral Free‑Trade agreements, to show greater commitment to workers’ rights. In the same move, the US‑Oman FTA also required that the Sultanate would not participate in any Arab League’s call for boycott on trade with Israel.

  • 42 Camau, 2005.

27At home, the purpose was to erase all suspicions, commonly evoked for several years, regarding his possible weariness, not to say his distanciation from the control lever. Sultan Qaboos is not ready to step down or to be balanced by any challenger or successor: he is well‑decided to remain in the lead, the only one able to federate the nation around his authority, above all the clans and the private interests. The public expression of any opinion aside from the official rhetoric or what has been decided at the top of the State is still forbidden. If the strategy “coopt them or exclude them”, which is traditionally used in Oman since 1970, fails to bring back the critics and the dissonant voices to their senses, the open repression clearly remains an employable last resort. On the contrary, the use of royal pardon and benevolence in a purely discretionary way strengthens the links between the ruler and every beneficiary of this paternalistic magnanimity. In a deliberate move to consolidate42 the authoritarian rule by revitalizing it, it is the personal legitimacy and prestige of Sultan Qaboos which is supposed to come out enhanced both at home and abroad.

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Bayart J.‑Fr. ; Ellis St. & Hibou B., La criminalisation de l’État en Afrique, Bruxelles, Complexe, 1997.

Burgat Fr., « Le Yémen après le 11 septembre 2001. Entre construction de l’Etat et rétrécissement du champ politique », Critique internationale, 32, jll.–sept. 2006.

Camau M., « Remarques sur la consolidation autoritaire et ses limites », in Assia Boutaleb, Jean‑Noël Ferrié et Benjamin Rey (eds.), L’autoritarisme dans le monde arabe, Cairo, CEDEJ, 2005.

Droz‑Vincent Ph., Moyen‑Orient. Pouvoirs autoritaires, sociétés bloquées, Paris, PUF, 197, 2004.

Eickelman D. F., “From Theocracy to Monarchy. Authority and Legitimacy in Inner Oman, 1935–1957”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 17, n° 1, Feb. 1985.

Hibou B., “Fiscal Trajectories in Morocco and Tunisia”, in Steven Heydemann (ed.), Networks of Privilege. Rethinking the Politics of Economic Reform in the Middle East, New York, Palgrave McMillan, 2004.

Jones J. & Ridout N., “Democratic Development in Oman”, Middle East Journal, vol. 59, n° 3 (Summer), 2005.

Owtram Fr., A Modern History of Oman. Formation of the State since 1920, London, I.B. Tauris, 2004.

Peterson J. E., “Oman. Omanis, Ibadis and Islamism”, The Tharwa Project, Feb. 2005.

Phillips S., “Cracks in the Yemeni System”, Middle East Report Online, 28 July 2005.

Schlumberger Ol., Transitions in the Arab World. Guidelines for Comparison, Florence, European University Institute/Robert Schuman Center, EUI Working Papers, RSC n°2002/22.

Schlumberger Ol., “Arab Authoritarianism. Debating the Dynamics and Durability of Nondemocratic Regimes”, in Oliver Schlumberger (ed.), Debating Arab Authoritarianism. Dynamics and Durability in Non‑Democratic Regimes, Stanford, Stanford University Press, forthcoming.

Valéri M., « Le sultanat d’Oman en quête d’un second souffle », Études du CERI, 122, déc. 2005.

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1 Jones & Ridout, 2005, p. 379.

2 Ibid.

3 See Valeri, 2005.

4 Gulf News (Dubai), May 26, 2006; see also Gulf News, June 28, 2006.

5 In his study on non‑democratic transitions, Oliver Schlumberger makes a distinction between “systemic non‑democratic transitions from one form of non‑democracies to other, also non‑democratic political systems”, and “evolutionary adjustment of authoritarian polities to changed […] environments.” See Schlumberger, 2002.

6 Droz‑Vincent, 2004, p. 197.

7  Schlumberger, forthcoming, p. 5.

8 Al‑Ḥayāt (London), January 26, 2005.

9 ʻUmān (Muscat), January 31, 2005.

10 The Times of Oman (Muscat), May 3, 2005.

11 Al‑Ḥayāt, April 19, 2005.

12 Besides, in March 2005, the regime arrested more than forty individuals who belonged to the armed forces. Even if reliable information on this event are particularly scarce, it appeared that, among them, at least 18 top officers were included, as well as the head of the Royal Flight. They were accused of involvement in a conspiracy to overthrow the government. They received prison sentences ranging from three to 25 years following a trial before a military court in June. All would have been released after royal pardon a few weeks later (Sources: Interviews, Muscat, September 2007; Amnesty International, Report 2007).

13 Eickelman, 1985.

14 Peterson, 2005 (available on:

15 Owtram, 2004, chapter 6.

16 The Times (London), November 18, 1974.

17 More than 100,000 Pakistani have been deported by Oman to Karachi and Gwadar in the past three years, while the Omani government expelled 15,000 Indians without working visa in 2006 (The Times of Oman, January 30, 2007).

18 In May 1994 the Omani police arrested 200 presumed Islamic militants accused of preparing a plot to overthrow the government. Even if many details of this affair have remained blurred, it was the first sign of public dissatisfaction openly recognized by the regime since the Dhofar war. 140 to 160 individuals were tried and condemned to punishments between three and twenty years of jail. Three of them were sentenced to death but all the penalties were later commuted to prison for life by sultan decree.

19 Burgat, 2006 ; Phillips, 2005 (available on :

20 Al‑Ḥayāt, April 21, 2005.

21 (May 1, 2005)

22 (checked on April 19, 2005).

23 Interview of Sa‘īd al‑Riyāmī, economic expert at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Oman Economic Review (Muscat), April 2007.

24 The Times of Oman, July 2, 2006.

25 The Times of Oman, May 7, 2006 and ʻUmān, May 11, 2006.

26 ʻUmān, November 1st, 2006.

27 See Al‑Khalīj (Dubai), October 12, 2005 and Gulf News, September 12, 2006.

28 The Oman Daily Observer (Muscat), October 29, 2005.

29 40,000 Omani rials for a radio station and 80,000 OR for a television (1 OR=2.6 USD); sources: The Times of Oman, June 25, 2005.

30 (checked on November 25, 2004).

31 Ṭayba al‑Ma‘awwalī was freed from the women’s prison of Muscat on 30th of January 2006.

32 See (checked on July 19, 2005) and Reuters, July 19, 2005.

33 Agence France‑Presse, May 26, 2006.

34 (checked on April 10, 2007).

35 Hibou, 2004, chapter 6.

36 Bayart, Ellis & Hibou, 1997.

37 The Times of Oman, July 17, 2005.

38 ʻUmān, October 27, 2005.

39 The Times of Oman, March 18, 2007.

40 ʻUmān, November 1st, 2005.

41 ʻUmān, December 20, 2006.

42 Camau, 2005.

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Marc Valeri, « Something Stirring under the Still Waters of Oman »Chroniques Yéménites, 14 | 2007, 105‑116.

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Marc Valeri, « Something Stirring under the Still Waters of Oman »Chroniques Yéménites [En ligne], 14 | 2007, mis en ligne le 18 mars 2009, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marc Valeri

Lecturer in political science, University of La Rochelle (France)

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