For the first time since he took power more than four decades ago, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said will not attend the country’s national day celebrations.
Known as Sultan Qaboos, the Omani leader has been receiving medical treatment in Germany for an unconfirmed illness since summer. In August, a diplomatic source in Oman told the AFP news agency that Qaboos was suffering from colon cancer.
Omani national day – celebrated annually on November 18, which is also the sultan’s birthday – “coincides with the time when we are abroad – for the reasons you know”, Qaboos said in a televised address on November 5. “Praise be to the Almighty, for He has realised for us good results that require us to proceed with the medical programme in the forthcoming period,” he said.
Speaking to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Khalid Bin Hilal Bin Nassir Al-Mu’awali, the chairman of Oman’s Shura Council, parliament’s upper house, said the sultan’s appearance “was a great source of relief for the people of Oman, despite this being the first time the Sultan celebrates this occasion of national day abroad”.
But despite these assurances, rumours abound concerning the sultan’s health, while the question of life after Qaboos remains an overwhelming elephant in the room in the small Gulf state.
Sultan Qaboos has led Oman since he took over from his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. After seizing power, Qaboos appointed himself prime minister, defence minister, finance minister and foreign affairs minister, and commander of the armed forces.
Qaboos is credited with modernising the country’s economy, and instituting cultural and educational reforms. Under Qaboos, Oman was transformed into a modest, yet important, regional player capable of bridging major diplomatic divides, as seen in its role as mediator in nuclear talks between Iran and the United States.
In the capital Muscat, a major street, the port and university are named after Qaboos, and his photo can be seen affixed to major landmarks and in hotels, shop windows and restaurants around the city.
and modernisation, I think the most important achievement of the sultan has been to create a very strong Omani national identity.”]
“More than the technical [advances] and modernisation, I think the most important achievement of the sultan has been to create a very strong Omani national identity,” explained Marc Valeri, professor of political economy of the Middle East at the University of Exeter, and an expert on Oman.
He explained that without a charismatic leader like Qaboos leading the country, already-existing problems – from high unemployment and economic woes to Oman’s delicate role in regional affairs – could serve as major stumbling blocks. “All these things will be tremendous for the next Sultan.”
Another issue is one of legitimacy. “Obviously the new ruler will not have the same legitimacy as Sultan Qaboos. All the country, symbolically, is built around the figure of the sultan,” Valeri told Al Jazeera.
Without any children, and no clear successor within the royal family, the question of who will step in to replace Qaboos remains very much up for debate.
“Having accomplished so much almost singlehandedly, it’s unclear whether anyone could take his place”, wrote Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council. Saab said the maintained presence of key Qaboos advisers, including Yusuf bin Alawi, the foreign affairs minister, is a positive sign for future stability.
“Ultimately, it is Qaboos’ task to continue his decades-long record of responsible leadership by being transparent about what lies in store in the immediate future.”
Attempts to contact Oman-based analysts were not answered in time for publication.
Under the country’s Basic Law, passed in 1996, the ruling family council is tasked with appointing a successor to the Sultanate within three days of the position becoming open. If a decision cannot be made, the Defence Council – along with the heads of the State Council, Shura Council, and the Supreme Court – will “instate the person designated by His Majesty the Sultan” in a sealed letter.
“The power is concentrated in one individual and it’s not a hereditary monarchy, unlike what we see in other countries in that area,” explained Jeffrey Lefebvre, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut who has written extensively about Oman.
Lefebvre told Al Jazeera that the “best-case scenario” would be a shift towards a constitutional monarchy, where a figurehead would lead the state but all the power would rest in parliament. “That’s the big if that nobody’s really sure [about],” he said.
“When you look at Oman’s geographic location, the impact of Ibadism, and then also the need to prepare for a post-oil economy, those are factors that I think are going to have a moderating [effect] and shape the policies of any future government.”