Potential Hot Spots: Oman and the Sultan's Secret Envelope

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Potential for Destabilization. Oman, a large nation of about three million people strategically located on the souteastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, with coasts on both the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, has been a very strong ally of the US for decades, and a committed partner in the war on Islamist extremism; American and Coalition forces have operated out of Oman in support of military and naval operations the region since 2001, and Omani special forces are believed to have engaged in combat missions in Afghanistan.

Sultan Qabus ibn Said ibn Taimur Al Said, 65, who has ruled Oman since 1970, as both sovereign and prime minister, is one of the most enlightened national leaders in the Arab-world. Though many never bother to exercise it, under the "Basic Statute," a constitution granted by the Sultan on November 6, 1996, almost all adult Omanis, including women, have the vote; the only notable exceptions are persons employed by the government and armed forces. Relations between men and women are based on sharia law, but women have more rights than in most Moslem countries, as the pro-women aspects of the Koran and sharia are enforced, and there are relatively few restrictions on women. Women serve in the cabinet and parliament, girls have the same access to education as boys, and more women then men annually graduate from the national university (though this is because many male students study abroad). Various agencies that monitor human rights, report that while there are some restrictions on the press, there have been no reports of human rights violations in many years.

There is no significant political unrest in the country, nor has there been the end of a foreign-supported insurgency in the western Dhofar region, which collapsed with the demise of the former radical regime in Yemen over a decade ago. Nor is the current wave of Islamic extremism likely to be a problem; about 75-perecnt of Omanis are Ibadhi Moslems, with the balance population being Sunni or Shia Moslems, plus a handful of Hindus and even some Christians. Ibadhi (Kharajite) Moslems broke away early from "mainstream" Islam centuries ago, and are considered heretics by some extremists. In short, Oman is a stable, progressive state.

But Oman has a potentially disastrous problem; Sultan Qabus (sometimes written as Qaboos) has no heirs. The sultan himself has no offspring, and a number of close relatives are theoretically eligible to succeed him. Articles Five and Six of the Basic Statute lay out the process for determining the succession. Article Five limits the succession to male descendants of Sayyid Turki bin Said bin Sultan (the Sultan's great-great-grandfather), who must be a practicing Moslem of legitimate Omani parentage and of sound mind and body. Article Six states that within three days of the throne falling vacant, the Al Said family council will determine the succession from among the eligible family members. If the council fails to chose a successor, the Defense Council - a sort of "National Security Council/Defense Department" - will open a letter that the Sultan has entrusted to it. This letter contains the name of the person whom the Sultan believes most qualified to succeed; this letter is to be destroyed unopened if the family council selects a successor within the three days.

While Sultan Qabus' solution to the succession question is by no means irrational, it by no means eliminates the possibility of a serious succession crisis, which could destabilize the country and possibly even plunge it into civil war.

 

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