Is Oman really the peaceful anomaly of the Middle East?
"On our flag, green is for farming… red represents what we have been through, wars and expelling the Portuguese… and white represents peace. We are now a peaceful country," says my Omani guide as we tear along one of Jebel Shams’ rocky roads.
This was certainly not the first, nor the last time I heard this in Oman.
Tranquility is an image difficult to fathom for a nation bordering warring Yemen and sandwiched between the flaring tensions of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran on the cusp of a proxy war. It seems like a concoction destined to fail; three sects of Islam (Ibadi, Sunni, Shia), an array of differing ancestries; Arab, African, Baluchi and Indian, and an injection of two million expatriate workers from Asia and Europe.
Yet I found myself stunned by how seamlessly Omani’s multi-sectarian society appeared to be stitched together. In Muscat, Omani men and women stroll along the beach in thobes and abayas, dodging Italian and German tourists sunbaking in bikinis and board shorts.
Omani couples have a sociable hit of badminton on the pavement, while African, Arab and Pakistani men enjoy a traditional game of Hawalis in the dirt. The Shia Islamic minority attends a mosque located at the forefront of Muttrah’s bustling corniche. Young affluent Omanis can be spotted enjoying conspicuous alcoholic beverages in hotels. Few people lock their cars, insisting that crime is rare.
Unlike neighbouring Yemen which has one of the highest rates of death by terrorism in the world with a global terrorism index (GTI) of 7.6, and Saudi Arabia which produces the second highest number of foreign fighters with a GTI of 4, Oman received a 0; indicating no impact of terrorism.
"We like peace. My family is Ibadi. My daughter, she married a Shia. There are no real differences between us," an Omani port worker tells me proudly.
"If someone does something bad," says my guide, "It doesn’t matter what type of Omani you are. We all agree you should be punished."
A jewellery seller in Muttrah from Indian Kashmir says he has been enjoying life in Oman for 30 years. "It’s the Omani people. They’re very friendly, nice people."
Two cafe workers from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka agree, although they miss home, have found Oman to be a very peaceful, relaxed and welcoming place. These kinds of sentiments were a stark contrast to those of the conversations I had with hospitality workers when I was studying in Qatar.
Reign of Sultan Qaboos
Yet Oman was scarcely a unified country when Qaboos bin Said al-Said toppled his father Sultan Said bin Taimur and became Sultan 1970. Although an elusive figure, he has an ubiquitous presence throughout Oman. Portraits of his face, big and small, adorn shop windows, car doors, hotel lobbies, shop fronts and desk counters. His super yacht - a bit of an eye-sore at 155m long - lies moored in the Muttrah Corniche, calibrating his rule.
The Oman of the 1950s, "A truly medieval state… vanished like a dream” after Sultan Qaboos’ takeover, wrote illustrious travel writer Jan Morris.
The country suffered from shocking levels of disease and poverty. There was 10km of road, one private hospital and three primary schools, and no electricity grid. Most educated Omanis were living as expats abroad.
For many Omanis, particularly the older generation, these days of darkness haunt their collective memory. On route to al-Hamra, a town an hour from the capital, my guide and I stopped by an abandoned village. Most of the town’s inhabitants had been slaughtered for collaborating with the Imam staging a revolt against the rule of the British-backed Sultan Taimur. My guide describes the lifestyle of his family and village 40 years ago when survival depended on hunting rabbits and birds. His sisters are now English teachers and he works in tourism.
Today, Oman has been recognised by the United Nations Development Programme as one of the top Human Development Index (HDI) movers in the last 40 years, with development as remarkable as China and South Korea. This transition is humbly marked by an annual "Renaissance Day," the day Sultan Qaboos acceded to the throne.
His seeming bravery and leadership in Middle Eastern diplomacy and pragmatism in foreign policy have also earned him international admiration and respect. Oman was the only Gulf state that refused to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Sultan Qaboos has advised both Israel and Palestine to de-escalate tensions, and he played an instrumental role in the facilitation of nuclear talks between Iran and the US.
Many Arabs and South-East Asians share this marvel for Oman’s Sultan, particularly those who feel betrayed by the promised fruits of democracy. A Pakistani foreign worker shudders when I talk to him about his homeland. "Pakistan is not good. We have democracy but the situation is very bad. Oman is good. They have peace. No violence." It is a view that can be empathised with. The Facebook page calling for him to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize has gained a not insubstantial following of 129, 319 people.
But at what cost?
However, the vacuum of criticism in Oman and the apparent unvitiable pedestal the Sultan occupies in the international eye is unsettling. "Oman’s public image of tourism and a progressive country hides quite a different reality," says Radidja Nemar, chief legal officer of the Gulf region for Al-Karama, a Geneva-based, independent human rights organisation. "There is virtually no freedom of expression."
Upon his visit to Oman in 2014, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, Kiai found a "pervasive culture of silence and fear affecting anyone who wants to speak and work for reforms in Oman." The superficial separation of power between the executive and the judiciary dangerously situates activists and journalists who dare to criticise or question.
Broad criminal laws including the prohibition on any publication that "leads to public discord, violates the security of the state or abuses a person’s dignity or his rights" (Article 31, Oman’s Basic Law), and insulting or defaming the "Sultan’s rights or authority" (Article 126, Penal Code), confers the Sultan’s cabinet arbitrary punitive powers, deciding "who gets arrested, who stays imprisoned and for as long as they see fit," says Nemar. Any private gatherings of more than nine people without authority approval are illegal, as is forming a relationship with foreign organisations.
Mohammad al-Fazari is an Omani who has suffered reprisals for speaking his mind on the government and demanding civil and political freedom. A participant in the 2011 Arab Spring protests, al-Farazi protested for democracy, a real parliament with legislative powers, a new contractual constitution, transparency and separation of powers. Throughout 2012 and 2013, al-Farazi faced numerous arbitrary arrests and interrogations, including charges of "insulting the sultan" and engaging in an "illegal gathering".
In 2013, al-Farazi founded Al-Mowaten, an independent news magazine concerning Omani society - after which he says his life became exceedingly difficult. In August 2014, he was arrested "for reasons that concern him personally" after calling upon Omanis to talk to the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly, Mr Kiai, during his visit to Oman.
After urgent appeals by human rights organisations including Al-Karama, he was released days before Kiai’s visit and put under strict surveillance. Months later when al-Fazari tried to travel from the airport, his identity documents were confiscated and he was prevented from travelling overseas. The primary purpose of the confiscation of travel documents, says Nemar, "are to prevent them from travelling and gaining refugee status, but also to punish them because without their papers they are very limited in the activities inside the country (ie driving a car and daily administrative matters)."
Al-Fazari managed to escape Oman without his papers and is currently living as a political refugee in Britain. Due to recent arrests and interrogation of other Al-Mowaten contributing journalists living in Oman, on 14 January 2016, the magazine was forced to cease publishing.
However, it is not just journalists who are denied a voice. Talib al-Mari was a member of the Sultan’s Consultative Council who is currently serving a four-year prison sentence for "harming the prestige of the state," despite multiple attempts at intervention by UN experts. Al-Mari was protesting against the effects of petrochemical pollution on his local community in 2013. Such an arrest also surely sullies the earnestness of Sultan Qaboos’ UNESCO International Award for Environmental Protection.
In 2014, Dreamlab CEO, Nicholas Mayencourt, responded to Wikileak’s "Spy Files" implicating the Swiss company and British surveillance company Gamma Group in the installation of internet spy surveillance equipment in Oman. He argued that Oman "is the most advanced country in the Arab world… On the beach you see women in bikinis… Just because Oman is not a Western democracy and the Sultan may overrule the decisions of parliament is not all bad."
This is a similar excuse expounded by the government. In response to Kiai’s Freedom of Assembly report, Oman argued that the government prioritises "public convenience over disturbance, or peace and quiet over commotion".
However, Kiai emphasised that civil and political rights, and stability are not mutually exclusive. "Human rights are the foundation for true and sustainable stability." He warned: "When a government fails to provide an outlet for popular sentiment, it loses a valuable opportunity to feel the pulse of the nation, and effectively creates a sealed vessel under pressure that will eventually explode with dire consequences."
With the Sultan now encroaching old age, suffering from cancer, and with no children or siblings to be heir to the throne, the horizon for Oman is looking increasingly uncertain. The Imam also died in 2009 and has yet to be replaced. Can Oman withstand another authoritarian ruler, especially one lacking the historical rapport of Sultan Qaboos? Or will the seemingly idiosyncratic Oman, as Kiai predicts, sit like a ticking bomb so long as it remains voiceless?