How conservative are Omanis

middle EastThe Sultanate of Oman and its good-natured dictator

The plane has landed, the red carpet rolled out. Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said carefully walks down the steep stairs. A little insecure, but without any help. He is back home in the Sultanate of Oman. Fully recovered, as it is said.

The 74-year-old had received medical treatment in Germany for nine months. He had not even returned to his homeland for the national holiday. Instead, the Sultan addressed his people in a video message in November 2014 - noticeably weakened.

Some had feared that Sultan Qaboos would not return to Oman. But when the state television broadcaster Oman TV showed the arrival of the monarch in the capital Muscat in March 2015, the joy was all the greater.

Many Omanis celebrate on the streets, wave their red-white-green flag and drive loudly through the city honking their horns. Oman without Sultan Qaboos? For many Omanis this is hard to imagine.

"We wish His Majesty health. He does so much for our country. Oman has become a safe country and we live in peace."

"He's a great person. (...) He loves the country. He loves the people. And he's unique."

Unmarried and childless: Qaboos bin Said Al-Said is an exception in the Arab world. He has headed his state for 45 years - longer than any other ruler in the Middle East. The monarch catapulted the easternmost country of the Arabian Peninsula from the Middle Ages into the modern age - and gained respect at home and abroad. He celebrates his 75th birthday on November 18th. But who will succeed the Sultan one day is still unknown. The ongoing crisis in the Arab world is also causing uncertainty in Oman - and the low oil price is putting the economic basis of the Gulf state to the test.

Flowering in the 17th and 18th centuries

In ancient times Oman was famous for its frankincense, later for the trade in copper. The sultanate flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries: It ruled large parts of the East African coast and temporarily resided in Zanzibar. As a sea power in the Indian Ocean, Oman could even compete with the British. But this phase ended with the age of imperialism.

When Sultan Said bin Taimur, the father of Sultan Qaboos, took power in 1938, Oman had lost almost all of its political and economic importance. Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar developed rapidly from the middle of the 20th century, but Oman soon became one of the most backward countries in the Arab world. There were only a handful of schools in the entire sultanate; Electricity and running water were rare. In the capital Muscat alone, there were a few kilometers of paved roads.

View of the old town of the Omani capital Muscat with the sultan's palace Al Alam (center), taken in 2001. (picture alliance / dpa / Angela Merker)

"We rarely saw a car. It was very quiet, especially at night. After sunset it was so quiet that you could hear every sound, every voice; every word that was spoken. There was also no light . We used candles, candles that we first had to make ourselves. "

Recalls Mansoor Al-Shabibi. The librarian with the curly beard and friendly smile is around 47 years old. He doesn't know his exact age. Mansoor grew up in Mussanah, on the coast of the Gulf of Oman, about 100 kilometers from Muscat. His father ran a farm and the ten children helped grow dates and mangoes. There was no school, but a teacher from the neighborhood taught Mansoor and his siblings the Koran.

"He also taught us the alphabet. We wrote the letters on camel bones. Camels have a big bone in their back, flat, a bit like a blackboard, and every child used one of those bones to write. In the woods we have black ones Collected coal, that was our pen. "

The arduous everyday life caused many Omanis to leave their country and look for work in the richer neighboring countries. It is true that oil production began in Oman in the 1960s. But at first the population felt little of this. Sultan Said bin Taimur, it is said, feared progress. He is even said to have banned the possession of radios and sunglasses. His son Qaboos abhorred this backwardness. In 1970 the 29-year-old overthrew his father from the throne.

1970: Qaboos overturns his father

Like many Oriental princes, Qaboos had been trained at the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. The British were also the ones who helped Qaboos to depose their own father. The young sultan, who had spent most of his childhood and youth in a palace in the south-Roman city of Salalah, had to get to know his own country.

In the early 1970s, numerous tribes in Oman were fighting for influence. In addition, there was an uprising in the southern region of Dhofar, which was supported by the then communist South Yemen. Oman had become the frontline state in the Cold War. The rebels threatened the Omani monarchy - one reason Sultan Qaboos got help from British, Jordanian and Iranian troops to put down the uprising. That was the last military conflict in the country - until today.

From the beginning, Sultan Qaboos endeavored to maintain good relations with all neighboring countries and trading partners. The majority of Omani Muslims are Ibadis, so they do not count themselves either as Sunnis or Shiites - one reason why the Sultan consistently keeps his country out of the sectarian conflicts in the region.

Monarch shows himself to be close to the people

He is much more likely to take on the role of mediator - also in his own country. In this way he succeeded in largely settling the tensions between the cosmopolitan coastal region and the isolated hinterland - and in uniting the notoriously divided tribes in the country. Unlike other Arab heads of state, the monarch was close to the people: every year he traveled through the country to speak directly to his subjects.

Sultan Qaboos is now living in seclusion in his palaces. The monarch with the well-groomed, white beard is almost invisible in public. Like his subjects, he usually wears a long, white robe on official occasions - the Dischdascha - and the traditional Omani headgear, which is reminiscent of a turban. Jürgen Werner is one of the few people who have been allowed to shake hands with the Sultan in recent years. The doctor of Arab studies is the prorector of the German University in Muscat. His Omani colleagues envy him meeting Sultan Qaboos.

"He has an aura. You have to say that very clearly. Although you don't know, of course, that is the aura that opens up because he is such an influential, powerful and, yes, incredibly highly esteemed man, or is it really his personal aura "It's really hard to say. It is certainly a great leader in this country, for its people and ultimately, as a good-natured dictator, probably the best that can happen to this country."

Sunrise over the rocks and the Mutrah old town of Muscat in the Gulf of Oman (picture-alliance / ZB)

From the beginning of his rule, Sultan Qaboos focused on progress. With the income from oil production, he developed the country, but also kept tradition in mind. In contrast to the United Arab Emirates, there are no high-rise buildings in Oman; large parts of the 1,700-kilometer coastline are freely accessible. New roads, schools and hospitals were built for this, and soon there was a water and electricity supply that connected even remote villages with the rest of the world.

According to the United Nations World Development Report, Oman is one of the countries that has made the most progress in the past four decades. The fact that everyone can go to school and to the doctor for free, that there are museums and, for some years now, there has even been an opera - the Omanis owe that primarily to their sultan, says Vice Rector Werner:

"He has certainly managed to distribute the wealth that has come over the country as well as possible. So he always made sure that somehow everyone got something more or less from it. Of course, you have to say, that there are super-rich here, especially the sultan himself, these people are almost inestimably rich, but real poverty is very, very rare in this country. "

Murtadha Hassan Ali appreciates this development. The 67-year-old can still remember the hard life he led as a child. Nevertheless, the entrepreneur from Muscat believes it is wrong to only talk about progress with a view to the past decades.

Lots of structural problems

"We are only facing the real challenges today - and we are not well prepared for them. Our economy is still based on oil, but the reserves will not last forever."

Compared to the neighboring emirates of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, Oman has only modest oil reserves. Nevertheless, the income from oil production still accounts for almost 80 percent of the state's income. For decades, the government was able to provide many citizens with positions in ministries or in state institutions. But now, says the entrepreneur Murtadha Hassan Ali, there is hardly any leeway for this.

Venerated all over the country: Sultan Qaboos (deutschlandradio.de / Anne Allmeling)

"The public administration has grown so much that it can no longer accept any more people. And the current oil crisis makes it even more impossible for the government."

Since the oil price fell sharply, revenues have remained well below expectations. In order to make Oman more independent of georesources, the government in Muscat is increasingly focusing on the development of tourism.

Oman as a popular holiday destination

In the small souk of Mattrah, traders try to sell their goods. Frankincense from the south of the country, traditional scarves from Salalah, jewelry from East Africa - the sellers are primarily targeting tourists with their range of products. For some years now, the prices at most of the stands have been excellent, and there is seldom trading here.

Oman has become a popular holiday destination in recent years. Cruise ships regularly dock in the port of Muscat. The combination of traditional culture and exclusive luxury hotels ensures increasing numbers of tourists. Desert tours and diving vacations are particularly popular. Muscat Airport is currently being expanded, with more hotels to follow. But tourism cannot fill the gap in the national budget so quickly either. So far it has not even contributed six percent to the gross domestic product. So the state has to run into debt - or spend less money, says entrepreneur Murtadha Hassan Ali.

"These are structural problems and we need appropriate solutions. But the majority of the population is wondering why they should pay the price for something for which they are not responsible - even though they have benefited from it for a long time."

Tens of thousands of young Omanis flock to the job market every year, many of them with university degrees. But not all graduates find a job, unemployment is high - especially among young people.

"Because our education system has weaknesses, they are not suitable for the job market. There are certainly vacancies, but they are filled with foreigners."

A disproportionately large number of non-Omanis work primarily in the IT and finance sectors, but also in other areas of the Omani economy. Most are from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They make up well over a third of the total population of just under four million people.

2011 protests

When people in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria demonstrated against their government in the course of the Arab Spring in 2011, numerous Omanis took to the streets. They protested against the widespread corruption and called for better living conditions.

Unlike other Arab rulers, the sultan reacted immediately. He promised everyone looking for a job the equivalent of almost 300 euros a month, made additional scholarships available for students and announced that he would create 50,000 new jobs. This enabled Sultan Qaboos to calm the situation down again - but the state budget has been burdened even more since then. Jürgen Werner from the German University in Oman is critical of the Sultan's measures:

"The 2011 protests - he could have responded and had to say: Yes, folks, that's the way it is. Times are getting tougher. But he reacted differently. He said: Okay, okay. He has the scholarships introduced, he introduced higher minimum wages, those were the wrong signals. And it is very difficult to reduce something like that. "

Although Sultan Qaboos holds many government offices personally, the allegations were never directed against him personally. Criticism of the head of state is taboo. But for many young Omanis, who have never experienced a ruler other than Sultan Qaboos, the country is no longer developing quickly enough. They exchange ideas on Twitter and Facebook, criticize the grievances in the country. They want to have a say and take their future into their own hands - but their options in the sultanate are limited. All Omanis older than 21 are allowed to vote for the members of the lower house. But the influence of the Majlis Al-Shura, who advises the Sultan and his government, is not particularly great, says Murtadha Hassan Ali. The entrepreneur from Muscat himself sat for several years as a member of the lower house.

"The question is whether the members of Majlis Al-Shura are actually playing the role they should be. Most MPs are being accused of being part of the problem rather than the solution."

Voters feel obliged to their family or their tribe - and therefore choose their respective representatives, regardless of their competence. In the election for Majlis Al-Shura in October, the turnout of 57 percent was significantly lower than four years ago, when 75 percent took part in the election. The competences of the lower house were expanded slightly after the protests in 2011: Since then, the MPs have been able to propose or review laws. However, according to a survey by the online newspaper "Al-Balad Oman", few Omanis believe that the lower house is owned by the government. The connection between tradition and modernity is often still a challenge in society - for Sabra, for example. The 22-year-old student from Muscat is considering completing a master’s degree after completing her bachelor’s degree in geology. But she already knows: it won't be easy.

"A challenge for women is still the question of whether they will marry or continue to work. Many families, including mine, expect you to get married at a certain age - before you are 30 in any case. That still is for us a problem."

Schoolboys in the Sultanate of Oman (deutschlandradio.de / Anne Allmeling)

Sabra definitely wants to start a family - just as she knows from her parents and grandparents. Nevertheless, she really wants to work later. Sabra appreciates that she - unlike her mother - has this opportunity. Mansoor is also grateful for the decades under Sultan Qaboos. The librarian does not mind that no one knows who will succeed the monarch to this day. In a secret letter, the Sultan is said to have noted who will be the successor - in case the ruling family cannot agree on a candidate within three days of his death. In this matter too, Mansoor trusts the Sultan:

"I'm not entirely sure [how it works], but I'm sure the Sultan won't let us down after doing so much for the country. He's prepared something. Maybe it's a secret between." him and whoever, but I'm sure he has a very, very good plan for that too. "