GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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That Late Unpleasantness: Oman after the Arab Spring
Paper Proposal Text :
That Late Unpleasantness”: Oman after the Arab Spring

One year after the Arab Spring, the world maintains a warily optimistic eye on the region and its leaders. One place that global eye rarely seems to roam is Oman. Bordered on all sides by headline-hogging neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and the UAE, Oman maintains an usually quiet existent out of the limelight. Widely considered peaceful, progressive, and prosperous with a GDP per capita of $26,000 USD (IMF 2011), Oman is possibly the last country in the region expected to experience an uprising. Indeed a ‘World in 2012’ special edition of the Economist, makes mention of every single country in the GCC and Arabian peninsula to watch for signs of distress in the coming year except Oman (2011). However, Oman was not spared the regional contagion and was severely and irreparably changed by the Arab Spring.

While small by Egyptian standards, the demonstrations in Muscat and Sohar were unprecedented (at least since the 1970s), and the reports of several deaths as a results of skirmishes with the authorities, shocking to the entire nation. Deemed a ‘surprise wake-up call that shouldn’t have been a surprise’ by a leading Omani businessman (Arthur interviews 2011), the demonstrations called into question the rentier-style social contract that has thus far underpinned stability. The immediate official responses were a mix of stop-gap, haphazard, and cautious but the next phase, poised to align with pre-planned national development guidelines, holds the promise of grander bargains. This paper investigates the immediate response to the demonstrations alongside the medium term policy implications of the Arab Spring utilising extensive field research in Oman, girded with the theoretical framework of ‘late rentier state theory’ (Gray 2011).

Why the oft-overlooked Sultanate? Unlike Saudi Arabia to the north, Oman is not a power player in the global energy market. As a rentier state, Oman derives 70% of government revenue through the sale of hydrocarbons, namely crude oil (Ministry of Finance 2010). A small producer only recently hitting 900,000 barrells per day, the country is dependent on high prices to offset expensive recovery methods such as fracking, which are necessary to reach Oman’s extremely deep, rocky and sulfuric reserves (Ministry of Oil 2010). Despite its production capability, Oman, is, however a strategic member of the energy community, as guardian of the Straits of Hormuz through which 1/3 of all oil tankers pass (Cordsman 2007). Its stability and political direction then is of great importance beyond the region. Second, Oman lacks both a heavily repressive state security state system and a bottomless treasury purse. Thus, adept policy shifts were not only a question of leadership but of means. Oman has fewer financial cards to play than its wealthier UAE neighbors to deal with discontented citizens/youth. At present, oil revenues are used to fund a) extensive social benefits such as free university education, land, medical care and b) staple subsidies including water, electricity and petrol. The latter of these cost $850 million in 2010 for a population of just over 3 million (Author interviews 2011), and these costs continue to grow. This is due to the increasing number of customers (Omanis still average 4-5 children per woman) and poor demand side management as subsidies encourage overuse and market distortions. Since Oman cannot rely on cash to overcome calls for change, this suggests potential for meaningful developments. Third, Oman’s reserves are dwindling, with predictions of 20 years remaining (Central Bank of Oman 2011). This urgency makes political and economic diversification much more likely than in other regions in the GCC, as Oman tweaks its Vision 2020 plan to deal both with the unforeseen and the foreseen.

What were the initial policy reactions to the Arab Spring in Oman? Following its wealthier UAE brethren, the knee-jerk reaction was to ignore first and pay second. After some initial hesitation, Muscat dispensed cash bonuses of 1000 RO/$2,500 USD to every university student and a 40% increase in unemployment benefits (Ministry of Manpower 2011). The latter predictably led to a flood of new applicants as some previous employed Omanis earning less than the new benefit quit their jobs to join the bread queue. Some political concessions were also granted, mostly involving putting some long-standing ministers out to pasture amidst charges of corruption. Publishing by leading newspapers these, the editors were promptly arrested and are still awaiting trial (Muscat Daily 2011) even as His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos very visibly shuffled his cabinet 6 times. More recently in October, the Majlis al Shura was granted limited budgetary oversight powers. Will this move suffice for a new generation’s clamour for voice, or does the still modest commission merely service the ‘practical aim of maintaining the status quo and the simultaneous appearance of being consultative with society’ as is posited by Gray’s Late Rentierism theory? (Gray 2011, 25).

One year later, what is the impact of these changes? And what other policies have been enacted in the name of the Arab Spring? Utilising extensive field research in Oman in 2011, this paper uses input from various stakeholders including government officials, business leaders and youth to assess the current trends in Oman in light of regional events and its import to the region and the world.

Selected Bibiliography

Cordesman, A. 2007, ‘Iran, Oil and the Straits of Hormuz’ Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC.

Gray, M. 2011’A Theory of Late Renterism in the Arab States of the Gulf’ Centre for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Occasional Paper No 7.

IMF 2011, ‘Economic Trends in the Sultanate’ Presentation to the Central Bank of Oman, Muscat, 14 December.

Ministry of Finance 2011 ‘Annual Budget 2010’ Available online at, Accessed 1 October 2011.

Smiley, X. 2011 ‘One Year On in the Middle East and Africa’ World in 2012 Edition, The Economist, p 83-84.