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Demonstrators gather outside the building housing the Majlis al-Shura in Muscat, Oman, on March 3
Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said reshuffled the Omani Cabinet on March 5. The reshuffle — the second since protests started in Oman on Feb. 26 — is meant in part to appease protesters and contain the unrest. However, it also gives Qaboos an opportunity to reshape Oman’s political system in order to prevent political chaos when the childless 71-year-old monarch dies.
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Omani monarch Sultan Qaboos bin Said on March 5 reshuffled the Omani Cabinet for the second time since Feb. 26, when demonstrations began in the Omani industrial city ofSohar. Those protests have spread to the capital, Muscat, and though they are not large and do not aim to overthrow Qaboos (the protesters demand better living conditions and more political participation) the sultan wants to contain the unrest.
Keeping demonstrations in check will be particularly important for Qaboos if protesters in Bahrain make gains and the geopolitical balance in the Persian Gulf shifts in Iran’s favor. Though Qaboos’ primary motivation in reshuffling the Cabinet is to end the demonstrations, he could also gradually overhaul the Omani political system to smooth the succession process after his death.
Qaboos has been the unchallenged leader of Oman since he toppled his father in 1970. He is sultan, prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and finance minister, and he oversees the work of the Majlis al-Shura, or consultative council, which gives him a direct rule over the country. This one-man system has assured Qaboos’ absolute power and prevented the emergence of a rival, but it has made Oman highly dependent on his individual skills and left little room for other political actors to learn how to manage power.
This might not be a problem at the moment, but Qaboos is 71 years old and has no children or heir apparent, so his death could trigger a crisis. According to the formal succession procedure, after his death the ruling family is to decide on his successor in three days. If they cannot, one of the two candidates Qaboos has suggested (whose names are kept in sealed envelopes in two different regions of Oman) will ascend to power. But this succession plan has its own risks, as the end of Qaboos’ absolute dominance could result in a power vacuum that members of the ruling family might not be able to fill.
Qaboos is keeping this possibility in mind while making slight changes to the Omani political system, prompted by the recent unrest in the region. He sacked six ministers Feb. 26 and announced a series of economic reforms, such as a 40 percent increase in the minimum wage for workers in the private sector, new welfare payments of about $390 per month for the unemployed and a promise to create 50,000 jobs. Qaboos also announced his willingness to grant more political power to his citizens by increasing the authority of theMajlis al-Shura, which is the only institution whose members are elected by the people. TheMajlis al-Shura, established in 1991, currently has no legislative power, and hundreds of protesters have been camped out in front of the council’s building demanding the body be reformed.
The overhaul of the political system provides an opportunity to many members of the ruling family who have long waited for such a moment. For example, Qaboos appointed Sayyid Ali bin Hamoud al-Busaidi to talk with protesters in Sohar and chair a ministerial committee to study a proposal to grant the Majlis al-Shura more power. Al-Busaidi was a minister assigned to the royal court until March 5, when he was replaced by Khaled bin Hilal bin Saudal-Busaidi. It is not clear yet if the Omani regime is grooming him for a more senior role by making him the face of the government in talks with the protesters, or if he is being sidelined from the political process.
Regardless, there will be more room for such political actors to claim power while Qabooshandles the delicate process of easing unrest and reshaping the political system in order to keep Oman from falling into chaos after his death.