The Sultanate of Oman was a welcoming introduction to the Middle East for Jay. Tanya had lived in the region 30 years ago but for Jay, other than a previous visit to Israel, it was a new destination. To appreciate Oman, you need to suspend, at least for a bit, your preconceived ideas of how a successful society should operate.
First of all, forget about Western ideas of democratically elected leaders. Oman is an absolute monarchy run by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, who took over in the early 1970s after staging a successful “bloodless” coup against his father. The Sultan, now 76, has his name and image plastered all over the country and there’s no doubt who is in charge here. Every town of any significant size has a Sultan Qaboos Mosque and his picture is on every denomination of Omani currency. He is simultaneously the head of state, defense minister, foreign minister, finance minister, and head of police. There is a sort of parliamentary advisory group, appointed by the Sultan, but his will is what counts.
As you might imagine, this is a very efficient system of government. The capital, Muscat, is very clean and orderly because this is the way the Sultan wants it. Every car is sparkling because the Sultan doesn’t like to see dirty cars and it is against the law if one’s car isn’t clean. Our guide told us there is no conflict between the different Islamic groups because the Sultan has decreed that anyone who speaks ill of any other group goes to jail. On our 2-hour trip outside the capital we saw evidence a few large detention centers so we assumed violating the Sultan’s wishes have consequences. At least half the country’s population is made up of foreign workers, but Omanis are not allowed to marry foreigners. Their non-Omani marriage partners are limited to a few nearby countries, including UAE and Saudi Arabia. This obviously helps the country maintain a certain level of stability and homogeneity.
As Westerners, an absolute monarchy may seem a bit harsh. But, for a strict Islamic society, it seems to work out just fine, especially if you’re male. Again, according to our young guide, when he is ready to marry, the government will give him land, build a house for him and make sure his financial needs are taken care of. This kind of governmental largess probably doesn’t hurt the Sultan in maintaining his position. The Sultan has no children but recognizing that he can’t live forever, he has made provisions to name his successor, one of two cousins. Upon his death, the army immediately takes “temporary” control of the government and gives the cousins three days in which to decide which one of them will become the new Sultan. If they can’t decide within this time, the army will decide for them and name the new Sultan. Neat, clean and orderly, just the way Omanis like it. By contrast, Western democracy is such a messy system.