Opinion

Opinion | Stephen Kinzer

The joy of benevolent dictatorship

Omani leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said in 2011.
MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images
Omani leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said in 2011.

On a summer morning in 1970, British commandos stormed the royal palace in Oman, captured the sultan, forced him to abdicate, and placed his son on the throne. Violent interventions like this one, aimed at securing the imperial goals of distant hegemons, often have disastrous consequences. The opposite happened in Oman. In the 47 years since Britain intervened to install a new sultan, this country has broken out of feudal isolation and, as I learned on a recent visit, become the geopolitical gem of the Middle East.

Oman is the only country in this benighted region that exports security rather than insecurity. It has consistently supported Arab-Israeli peace initiatives, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to Oman in 1994 was a landmark in Middle East politics. More recently, Oman brokered behind-the-scenes talks between the United States and Iran that led to the breakthrough 2016 nuclear accord. It has refused to join the devastating war that its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is waging in Yemen. During the final days of the Obama administration, Oman agreed to accept 10 inmates from the Guantanamo prison who had been cleared of all charges but could not find a country to take them. No Omani has ever been convicted of a terrorist crime. None is known to have joined ISIS or any other radical militia.

Oman has achieved this under an absolute monarchy that blends consensus with dictatorship. Its success shows that no single political system suits all countries in all circumstances. Americans choose democracy because it brings us security, prosperity, and other good things. Other societies seek those same things, but find other ways to achieve them.

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An ominous cloud, however, hangs over Oman. By all accounts Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has held the throne since the British helped him win it in 1970, is both the architect and guarantor of Oman’s success. He is 76 years old and unwell. No one knows what will happen when he is gone.

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Oman shares a border with impoverished and war-devastated Yemen. To the west lies Saudi Arabia, which resents Oman’s stubborn neutrality. The failed states of Somalia and Eritrea are nearby. It is in the world’s interest, and the interest of the United States, that Oman remain a vibrantly independent force in the Middle East after the royal transition that lies ahead. If the United States or other powers force it to begin taking sides in regional disputes, we will lose a valuable peacemaker.

Oman, about the size of Italy with 4.5 million inhabitants, overlooks the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Its early seafarers mastered astronavigation and became renowned traders. Oman dominated Zanzibar, maintained enclaves in East Africa, and established thriving commerce with the United States, sending cloves and ivory to Salem, Mass., in exchange for cotton fabrics. An 1840 portrait of the first Omani envoy to the United States, resplendent in an embroidered robe and multicolored turban, hangs today in Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.

Like much of the Middle East, Oman fell under British influence in the 19th century. As late as the 1960s, it was undeveloped and isolated. It maintained no foreign embassies. There were seven miles of paved road. Everything that smacked of modernity, from eyeglasses to bicycles, was forbidden. That suited the British until a communist-backed rebellion broke out. They decided that the immobile sultan was too weak to crush it, and that his British-educated son would be better suited to the job.

Qaboos proceeded to defeat the insurgency, stabilize Oman, and consolidate absolute rule. Besides serving as monarch, he is prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, finance minister, and central bank president. Under his rule, women’s rights are promoted and all religions are protected. Every citizen is entitled to free health care, free education through college — including tuition for study abroad — and even a plot of land on which to build a home. Oman’s infrastructure is impressive, capped by a dazzling cultural center that reflects the interest of a sultan who composes music, plays the lute, and sponsors a classical orchestra made up entirely of Omani musicians. The economy is stable, anchored by oil and gas reserves that are small by Persian Gulf standards but enough to place Oman among the world’s top two dozen producers. Average income is more than 50 times what it was in 1970.

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Most Omanis recognize Qaboos as the father of their country. Their reverence for him seems deeply sincere. His word is law. Dissent is unwelcome. Omanis are taught from childhood that politics is not a suitable topic of interest or discussion.

The long rule of Qaboos has brought Oman into a golden age. Yet the ailing sultan has no wife, no brothers, and no children. He has decreed that when he dies, a family council should convene to pick a successor, and if it fails to agree, it should open an envelope into which he has sealed the name of his favored candidate. This is hardly a system that inspires confidence — especially since none of the apparent candidates displays the visionary wisdom that has allowed Qaboos to build such a successful a nation in such unpromising circumstances.

One of the British commandos who led the 1970 palace raid that brought Qaboos to power wrote afterward that it had cost one dead, five wounded, and about $120 worth of ammunition. That was a highly successful investment. If not protected, it may be in danger.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.