Oman has remained largely free from sectarianism and religiously motivated violence since Qaboos bin Said ousted his father Said bin Taimur, in 1970. Even before this time, the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, as it was then known was relatively free of the violence that plagued neighbouring states. Following the 1798 Anglo-Omani treaty, the Sultanate was annexed by the British empire, and the subsequent discovery of vast oil reserves in the Persion and Oman Gulf regions early in the 20th century led to an increase in British aspirations and power in Oman.
The Dhofar Rebellion
The Dhofar Rebellion began in the region of Dhofar in Oman circa 1962, and was against theSultanate of Muscat and Oman (hereafter referred to as Oman), which had British and Iranian support. It ended with the defeat of the rebels in 1976. However as a result of a change in leadership during the rebellion, the newly named the state of ‘Oman’ was economically and socially reformed and modernised.
In 1962, Oman was a underdeveloped country. Sultan Said bin Taimur, an autocratic ruler under British control, was by agreement with the British, supposed to improve the country with monies paid by the British for oil leases. Yet the Sultan ran a rudimentary state and hoarded the gold for his own use. Consequently, disillusioned tribes launched a rebellion in the Dhafor province, with the goal of removing British influence and the Sultan who refused to properly care for his people.
By the end of 1968, the rebellion had been infiltrated by predominately socialist and communist radicals and renamed itself the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). This move attracted support from both China and Yemen. By early 1970 communist militias working for the rebels controlled the entire Dhafor mountain range.
Seeing his country slip away by his fathers misrule, Qaboos bin Said launched a coup d’état in July 1970. Sultan Said bin Taimur fled to exile in England. Qaboos bin Said, himself an educated man, immediately started major economic, social, military and educational reforms. The reforms by the new Omani government had a growing impact, and the rebels began to lose allies, supplies and local support. In an effort to regain momentum, the rebels launched a major attack on Mirbat in 1972, but failed and sustained heavy losses. The rebels defeat was inevitable, following the battle of Mirbat, and the Rebellion was ultimately announced to be defeated in January 1976.
Historical context of the Omani position on religious tolerance
Though Oman had largely been free from sectarian violence, the reforms initated by Qaboos bin Said reinforced acceptance and tolerance. Oman is the only majority Ibadi Islam country, and is also home to Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. Qaboos bin Said is largely attributed for the tolerant Omani approach to religious differences. Since taking power Qaboos bin Said was implemented a legal system that enshrines tolerance and religious freedoms, “basic law prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right to practice religious rites on condition that doing so does not disrupt public order”. Those that incite religious discrimination may find themselves thrown in jail for a number of years. Qaboos, who is still the Omani ruler, is now the longest serving leader in the Arab world, deals harshly with those that threaten Omani peace. This is in “sharp contrast to other countries in the Middle East where prominent Muslim preachers openly incite sectarian divisions”. With religious minorities being successfully integrated into the social, economic and political factes of Omani society there is little reason for them to resort to violent extremism.
Open borders and the trade influence
The ‘golden era’ of the Omani empire, during the first half of the 19th century was marked by expansive maritime trade. At a time when its neighbours were pushing isolationist foreign policy and leaders were responsible for, or at least facilitating the spread of sectarian violence, the Omani empire was trading with the world. This allowed Oman to become a religiously and ethnically diverse country. Consequently, despite the Dhofar rebellion and other minor internal conflicts, Oman has maintained this diversity within its borders.
Broader security implications – The succession dilemma
Oman faces an uncertain future. The long serving ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said is 77, in poor health, has no heirs and the succession plan, if the ruling council fails to agree within 3 days, is a vague and closely guarded mystery. The looming succession crisis has a number of facets that could destabilise Oman;
• The successor, whatever their personal or religious views on governing and foreign policy may be, could bring a period of change in Oman that creates a “window of opportunity for meddling by its powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”. Oman generally remains impartial on foreign policy matters, adopting a non-interference stance.