Oman’s 73-year-old monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said has been out of sight for more than three months receiving medical treatment in Germany. Some analysts fear a looming succession crisis could destabilize one of the Middle East’s most peaceful countries. Other analysts say Oman’s unsustainable economy is more worrying than the immediate future of its monarchy.
During the recent Muslim holiday, this video prayer for Sultan Qaboos was posted by someone on Twitter. “God give him good heath and extend his age,” said the woman in the video.
A few days earlier the same user tweeted: “I miss you Papa #Qaboos.”
Gulf State Analytics co-founder Giorgio Cafiero said the sultan’s fans are not the only ones concerned for his health. After decades of peace and prosperity, some Omanis and their neighbors are worried, if the sultan's health fails, a succession crisis could potentially throw the country into chaos.
“He left for Germany three months ago on July 10 and he has not returned to Oman. Obviously, the longer he is gone, the more suspicions will be stoked that his health conditions are very serious,” said Cafiero.
The Omani government says Sultan Qaboos is “in good health and continuing to follow the medical treatment he has been prescribed” but if this ceases to be true, no one knows who will be in charge, said Cafiero.
“While it is possible that the succession process will happen smoothly, there are grave political risks that are on the minds of many people in Oman right now,” said Cafiero.
If the royal family can’t agree on a successor who is viewed as legitimate by the economic elite, the military and the general public, Oman will be at risk of a prolonged power struggle, he said.
And the instability that would ensue would not just affect Oman, he added. "The sultan has long had a hand in regional politics in the Arabian Peninsula and worldwide."
“One of the key pillars of Oman’s foreign policy under Sultan Qaboos has been basically ‘be a friend of almost everyone.’ In the region, and also everyone in the world,” said Cafiero.
These ‘friendships’ include rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said, and Oman also is a key peacekeeper between Iran and the West.
Omani foreign policy is not likely to make a large shift under a new leader, but a political crisis could shake the country’s ability to maintain this delicate balance.
Additionally, said Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor from King's College London who also advises the Qatari Armed Forces, Gulf Cooperation Council countries, known as ‘the GCC,’ are worried about regionally security.
“The concern is mostly, again, from Saudi Arabia and other players within the GCC who fear that there could be an instability within Oman, politically and domestically which could create another center of instability on the Arabian Peninsula,” said Krieg.
Of particular concern to GCC countries is that Omani waters share the Strait of Hormuz with Iran. The strait is one of the world’s most strategic waterways with 20 percent of global petroleum products passing through it.
Krieg said it is not time to panic, though, since it is believed the sultan has named an unknown successor in the event his family cannot come to a consensus.
“Generally [the sultan] himself is very widely respected. Even among those who are critical of his social and economic policies, they still respect him as a monarch, and I think they would respect any one he chooses to be his successor,” said Krieg.
The state of the sultan’s health is “just speculation,” Krieg also cautioned, saying the real danger for Oman's future is economic instability. Whoever is in charge, he said, now has an uphill battle to develop a sustainable economy that can create jobs for its rapidly growing population amid diminishing oil returns.
Simply put, Krieg said the sultan’s government has raised the standard of living by hiring large numbers of civil servants in Oman, and now the money is running out.