The prolonged absence of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who has not returned since travelling overseas for medical tests six months ago for suspected cancer, has stirred fears over stability in his Gulf country.
The 74-year-old absolute ruler is not only sultan, but also prime minister, as well as holding the foreign affairs, finance, defence and interior portfolios.
But without children, or even brothers, he has no direct heir, and his absence is raising questions over who will succeed him.
Oman was for quite a while a pretty stable country, and in my admittedly limited experience there it was hard to find anyone who would say a bad word about Qaboos. But that was years ago. Oman experienced its own Arab Spring protests in 2011-2012, with protesters angry at low salaries, high unemployment, and government corruption, and Qaboos’s response really failed to satisfy their demands. The country has a very young population that doesn’t remember what things were like before Qaboos overthrew his father, that sees (correctly) that Qaboos has failed to fully modernize the country, and that is probably on the verge of another protest movement given how hard Oman is being hit by low oil prices.
Now Qaboos is probably dying of cancer in Germany, and since he has no sons the succession is up for grabs to some extent. It’s likely that one of his cousins will wind up on the throne, but the royal family has to either decide on one of them or turn to Qaboos’s choice, which he’s apparently left in an unopened letter for some reason. The best thing for the country would be to transition to some kind of parliamentary monarchy and give people a real voice in their government, but this being the Gulf, that’s probably not too likely. Oman just isn’t wealthy enough to buy off dissent the way some of the other Gulf countries have been able to do, though, so the country may be heading towards a problem.