MUSCAT (Reuters) - Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said rules his perch on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes as an absolute monarch, without checks from a parliament or judiciary.
But at 71, he has not named a successor, and with much of the Arab world in turmoil, the lack of certainty surrounding the future leadership of the strategically placed country is becoming a cause for concern.
Nearly 42 years after overthrowing his father Sultan Taimur with British backing, Sultan Qaboos is credited with transforming Oman from an isolated backwater beset by poverty and insurgency into a stable welfare state with an exporting oil industry and modern infrastructure.
Where Taimur denied Omanis freedom of movement and education, Sultan Qaboos has been more palatable, both to his own people and to Western backers such as the United States and former colonial power Britain.
But without a clear successor, analysts and diplomats worry about royal family infighting, and a resurgence of tribal rivalries and political instability when a new ruler has to be chosen.
“There is a risk that you can have a split and quarrel in the ruling family. You could have the army supporting one group and the security (service) supporting the other and there could be a challenge to the successor, the possibility is there,” said an Omani academic, who did not want be identified.
“It is a difficult situation and Omanis feel they are walking into the future without knowing their leader.”
Political stability in Oman, currently one of the quietest corners of the Arab world, is important since it sits on the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of oil traded worldwide passes, with Iran on the other side. Iran has threatened to close the narrow shipping channel if it is attacked by the United States and Israel.
After the Arab Spring sparked a rare expression of political and economic discontent on the streets, Sultan Qaboos spoke to the advisory councils - quasi-parliamentary bodies with limited legislative powers - about the importance of jobs for youth.
“Creating jobs must be the top priority,” he said in November, wearing a black Arab cloak with golden embroidery and the red and blue turban of the ruling Al Said dynasty.
“We call on the private and public sectors to employ as many young people as possible to serve the development of our country.”
The protests were contained with promises of jobs, pension and salary hikes and talk of increased powers for the advisory assemblies. The councils’ advisory role has so far remained unchanged but 44,000 new government jobs were created last year.
Oman has no political parties and questioning the Al Said family’s right to rule is taboo. A leftist rebellion in south Oman during the 1970s, several leaders of which Sultan Qaboos long ago coopted into the system, is a distant memory.
Sultan Qaboos, a graduate of the Sandhurst military academy who served in Britain’s army, has no brother or children and is divorced after a brief marriage. He is seen as in good health.
The ruling dynasty includes 50 to 60 male members who could be eligible to become sultan, but there is no clear candidate and no formal discussions have taken place.
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, there is no division of labor with other members of the family - Sultan Qaboos is prime minister and holds other key government portfolios including foreign affairs and defense.
“It is an unspoken agreement that we don’t talk about it (succession) because once we do, there will be an immediate division and the power struggle will start right away,” a senior family member told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many in the country of 2.8 million fear conflict within the family or among key groups within the system when Sultan Qaboos is no longer master of the scene.
“Qaboos has united feuding tribes, reconciled sectarian differences, overcome a rebellion in the south and built the modern state in just a few decades,” said a tribal sheikh from the mountainous interior of the Arabian peninsula state.
“He is accepted wholeheartedly, but we fear that the next sultan may not be acknowledged and the ghosts of the past will come back.”
Rules set out in a Basic Law say the royal family should choose a new sultan within three days of the position falling vacant.
If the royal family council fails to agree, a letter containing a name penned by Sultan Qaboos should be opened.
Those authorized to witness the opening and attest to its contents include a defense council of military and security officials, supreme court chiefs and heads of the two quasi-parliamentary advisory assemblies.
The rules are seen by analysts as an elaborate means of Sultan Qaboos securing his choice for successor without stirring the pot by making it public during his lifetime.
“We are not like the others, that we announce the successors for the nation,” foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi told Reuters. “What’s written in the Basic Law is what is accepted by the traditions of this country and that is how we see the succession handled.”
Critics say the process is risky: some royals could use it to corner the throne for their branch of the family, triggering infighting as they realize this could be their last chance in a free-for-all succession that won’t last.
“Sooner or later this whole idea of anybody in the royal family (having a chance to rule) will change to father-to-son, and if they lose it now they lose it forever,” the Omani academic said.
Oman observers say the sultan’s three cousins - Assad, Shihab and Haitham bin Tariq al-Said - stand the best chance of taking over.
None of the three brothers would be likely to change Qaboos’ policy of balancing the interests of neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia with that of Western countries - offering Britain and the United States military facilities.
“Everybody in Oman knows about them but they do not know them in action,” said J.E. Peterson, who worked as a historian of the Royal Armed Forces in Muscat until 1999 and is now an expert on Gulf affairs.
“They don’t know a lot about their personalities and capabilities. And therefore they’re a bit anxious.”
Assad, 62, is seen as the frontrunner by some experts, partly because he may have the support of the military. Another Sandhurst graduate, he commanded the sultan’s armed forces for many years and now serves as his personal representative. Shihab, 57, is a retired navy commander, while 55-year-old Haitham is a veteran minister of national heritage and culture who worked previously in the foreign ministry.
But their various business interests could work against them and favor another: 66-year-old Fahd bin Mahmood al-Said, a deputy prime minister since 1983 who attended France’s Sorbonne university and is married to a Frenchwoman.
“What is affecting the three brothers a little negatively is that they are all involved in business. When you have a business interest, you have enemies,” the academic said.
He said the businesses of the brothers range from real estate to tourism.
“Fahd does not have any business interests...” the academic said. “He’s acting very much like a royal. When you talk to people, it comes up quite a bit.”
Khalid al-Hinai, a royal watcher, said Fahd, who has handled top-level diplomacy for the sultan, was “the only eligible royal to have extensive government experience.”
Others point to younger royals, usually citing Assad’s son Taimur, who was born in 1980.
Some say that tribes could even favor reestablishing the Imamate, the former religious Ibadi state of the interior, which challenged the rule of sultans on the coast in the past.
“Oman has always been tribal and certain tribal leaders may take advantage of a power vacuum after Qaboos’ death and re-establish the Imamate that the Busaidi family got rid of,” said an Omani historian who did not want to be named.
Whoever next leads Oman will face pressing demands to create tens of thousands of private sector jobs as the recent social measures have stretched the budget and there is simmering resentment about the around 800,000 expatriates with jobs there.
The population has been growing at around 3 percent a year, oil reserves, which provide nearly 70 percent of budget revenues, are shrinking and unemployment - at 24.4 percent in 2010 - is rising, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“The country has a growing, young and educated population with insufficient employment opportunities,” said Calvin Allen, Middle East expert at Shenandoah University in Virginia in the United States.
“This was one of the reasons for the unrest in Sohar last year and is the biggest challenge for both Sultan Qaboos and any successor.”
A diplomatic source agreed unemployment was a pressing issue along with a lack of diversification in the economy away from oil.
“The succession issue is very important in terms of that broader agenda because it is a key component in the stability of the country, which is in turn key to the economic viability of the country going forward,” the source said.
Writing by Martin Dokoupil; Editing by Andrew Torchia, Andrew Hammond and Sonya Hepinstall