Water, in the Leader’s Vision
by Bill Hartley
There is something reassuring about absolute monarchy. For one thing, the English language newspaper Muscat Daily is free of the usual political discourse. Coming from a Brexit obsessed Britain, this is no bad thing. Instead, a headline may announce the latest edicts about to be signed into law by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, ruler of Oman. The Sultan’s authority is inviolable and he expects absolute subjugation to his will. Beneath him, so to speak, is a consultative assembly and its proceedings are broadcast on the state television channel. It resembles a sales conference with elderly delegates. That apart, the channel also dedicates itself to promoting Oman. And under the Sultan’s rule, dating back to 1970, when he deposed his father (with British help), there is much to be proud of. A country which then had scarcely moved beyond the Middle Ages now has multi lane highways, sophisticated healthcare (ranked a few years ago at number eight by the World Health Organisation) and fresh water for all. Indeed, the latter was recently the subject of a short piece, delightfully entitled ‘Water in the Leader’s Vision’.
Considering what is currently going on in neighbouring Yemen and other parts of the Middle East, the country is an oasis of stability. The Sultan, 87, one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs, is childless and hasn’t named a successor. There is said to be a sealed envelope in the palace containing the name of his heir, which to an outsider sounds like a risky move. In the meantime, Oman is a clean, prosperous and fairly relaxed part of the Middle East. Architecturally speaking, the Sultan decided not to go in the same direction as the neighbouring Gulf States such as Qatar. Unlike other capitals in the region, Muscat is a low to medium rise city with all the buildings in a white or near white colour, which fits in effectively amongst the jagged peaks around which settlement has spread. The original Muscat, a series of villages close to the port, has fused to create an attractive capital city.
Tourism is growing in Oman but at present it is largely of the cruise ship variety. Passengers disembark and are then ferried out to sites of interest in mini buses. Apart from the old Portuguese forts which dominate the harbour, there is the Grand Mosque, uninteresting from the outside but the interior reveals some glorious Islamic architecture, and the Sultan’s palace situated in the government quarter. The souk in Port Muscat is lively but mostly geared up for the tourist trade. Perhaps the most unexpected sight in Muscat is the opera house. I never met an Omani who has actually seen a performance but they were all uniformly proud of the place; a wonderful piece of architecture lavishly adorned with marble and sandalwood. Next door, for those in search of something other than culture, are a very smart restaurant and a high end shopping mall. Not perhaps what the visitor might expect to find in the Persian Gulf.
Since the newspapers lack the political stories so common in Europe they tend to present a uniformly positive outlook laden with statistics. For example, the Ministry of Housing allocated 36,733 residential plots across the country in 2018, an increase of 18.5% over 2017 and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry inspected 985 precious stones compared to 987 samples in the previous year. Crime news of the domestic variety is entirely absent. On television, generous amounts of time are given over to intense discussions of the supernatural by Muslim clerics. Occasionally the absence of sub titles can be a good thing. Should the viewer tire of the serious stuff then alternatives include gloriously awful Bollywood soaps dubbed into Arabic. There are domestic alternatives and suffice to say no-one does distraught quite like Arab actresses.
Before Sultan Qaboos ascended the throne there was little in the way of infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals. Little wonder that the state television channel is fond of showcasing such achievements. Inevitably perhaps in a country with an oil based economy there are lots of foreign workers, brought in to do the jobs that most Omani’s aren’t interested in. Oman’s population is four million which includes 1.76 million expatriates. There are Filipinos, Pakistanis and Indians working in retail, construction and hospitality. Conversations with migrant workers suggest that they get a better deal than those employed in some other Gulf States. Indeed, Oman and Israel are considered to be the two best locations for Filipino migrant workers in the Middle East. There was no sense of them being viewed as second class and this in a country which was the last place to abolish slavery in 1970.
Oman isn’t without dissent, some of which was prompted by the so-called Arab Spring. However, online criticism of the Sultan can attract prison sentences. A few years ago, six people received sentences of between six and eighteen months. One dissident, a poet, said something rude about the Sultan and was imprisoned for twelve days without trial. Considering the fate likely to be suffered by anyone insulting some Middle Eastern rulers, this equates to a slapped wrist. Even so, it is alleged that torture is used in Omani jails. But with a population of four million, Oman only holds around 1300 prisoners, the second lowest in the Middle East.
Whilst an absolute monarchy is an anachronism in the 21stcentury, under the Sultan’s rule, Oman is doing better than many states in the Middle East. Indeed, in some respects, this strategically important country with its close ties to Britain is one of the best places to live in the region. Autocratic certainly, intolerant of dissent definitely but the Sultan is the only monarch in the Islamic world who has built churches which emphasise his tolerance. He is an old man and reputedly not in the best of health. It is going to take a strong individual to replace Sultan Qaboos. Hopefully he has the right person in mind.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service