Legitimacy-building in a post-civil war context: The case of the Sultanate of Oman after 1970

Marc Valéri, December 2009


  • State
  • legitimacy
  • post-conflict
  • political power
  • conflict
  • religious authority
  • Oman

July 2009 marked the beginning of the fortieth year of Sultan Qaboos’s rule in Oman. Only three other current heads of State have stayed in power longer: King Adulyadej of Thailand, Queen Elisabeth II and Libya’s Colonel Qaddhafi. The sultan’s durability has been accompanied by tremendous and unparalleled economic and social expansion in this country of the Persian Gulf, lying in the South-Eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

When Qaboos Al Sa‘id overthrew his father Sa‘id in 1970 with the help of British advisers, fifteen years of civil war had been highlighting the extreme divisions of a territory known at that time as the “Sultanate of Muscat and Oman”. This name is inherited from the signature of the Seeb Agreement in 1920, initiated by the British to secure the stability of this territory and assert their control on it. It established conditions for peaceful coexistence which was to last until the mid-1950s between two political powers each in quest of legitimacy: the religious authority of the Ibadi Imam, who enjoyed effective control over the greater part of Inner Oman; and the temporal Sultanate of Muscat, retaining formal authority on the whole country but controlling effectively only Muscat and the coastal plain. Each proved too weak to overthrow the other and manage to do without the British tutelage over this balance. By this agreement, the British achieved a de facto division of Omani territory.

This status quo would be challenged after World War II only and the intrusion into the game of new players, attracted by the smell of oil. In the 1950s, a conflict that received little international attention arose between the Imamate authorities and the Sultan, backed by Britain, and led finally to the extinction of the Imamate in 1959. In 1962 the southern Dhofar province saw an uprising of mountain tribes that took on a nationalist character, turning into the Marxist-Leninist Dhofar Liberation Front after 1968. Two-thirds of the southern province of Dhofar was out of control of the central power in 1970.

These conflicts are contributory explanations of the overthrow in 1970 of Sultan Sa‘id, who was unable to extend the pact that had granted the political stability until the 1950s, by his son Qaboos. But Qaboos’s room to manoeuvre with regard to the British was reduced to a minimum, and no actor in command in the new regime had any political legitimacy. Qaboos himself knew little about the country he would rule until his return from military studies in England in 1964: he effectively lived under house arrest for the six years before his accession to power. The main members of his family called to support him, who had returned to Oman after years of exile, had only a partial and outdated vision of the matters they had to deal with. As for senior officials who would deal with the country’s development, they were mainly from families exiled in the Middle East or in East Africa for one to two generations. Thus British military and political advisers, several of them personally involved in Qaboos’ accession to the throne, had the best socio-political knowledge of Omani territory and could not be bypassed in the definition of the new regime’s policies.

Against this background the socio-political stability that has characterised the sultanate for forty years now stands out even more. Almost never has the banning of parties or other means of public expression generated organised protests in this monarchy where the ruler is concurrently in 2009 Head of State, commander in chief of the armed forces, Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Central Bank. Then the question here is to understand how a territory which had been shaken all over the twentieth century by divisions and struggle for power has become since the end of the 1970s “the exception which proves the rule” in the Gulf. The fact that the current authority gives the impression of being ‘natural’ to observers suggests more than an explanation based on coercion, even though that dimension should not be neglected. The ambition here is thus to analyse the fascinating political stability in post-1970 Oman by studying the regime’s constant quest for legitimacy.

This approach may appear as surprising since the concept of legitimacy is usually conceived as an inherently democratic category. Based on the observation that elections in Arab countries are not primarily designed by ruling elites as sources of internal legitimacy, these regimes are often perceived as lacking legitimacy. However, Max Weber asserted that “all political dominations try to establish and maintain the belief in its legitimacy […] Every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance”, which can be explained either by “custom, by affectual ties, by a purely material complex of interests or by ideal motives.” Seymour Lipset considers that legitimacy involves “the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society”.

Based on these complementary assumptions, this chapter will show that the stability of the current Omani rule can be understood in a two-time perspective. The strategy of the new regime in the early 1970s was first to assert its rule on the whole territory and destroy any credible alternative, especially the Dhofari leftist movements in the South. Then, once this job achieved, the most difficult task had to be implemented, from the end of the 1970s: to convince the population that Qaboos-rule was not worthy challenging in the short term. Qaboos’ idea has been to break with a model in which the temporal Sultanistic legitimacy was only perceived as one among other legitimacies (tribal, religious, etc.), and impose it as the arbiter of all the others. To this end, the Omani ruler has progressively built his own legitimacy by initiating a process of nation-building that redefined the cultural and political references of a society formerly rooted in the local identities (tribes, ethno-linguistic groups and religious communities). Nowadays, one of Qaboos’ major achievements is considered to be the imposition of the idea of an Omani nation as the horizon of all actors’ strategies, as well as a collective framework of belonging.

Paradoxically, this process of substitution of identity allegiances, the local giving way to the national, was not to lead to the extinction of the local solidarities. On the contrary, the central power has tried to encapsulate them into the State apparatus, neutralising their centrifugal potentiality by rendering them fully dependent on a political game that the regime controls and whose rules the regime establishes. The State is thus both the author and the object of redistribution, the framework that is reshaping local identities while simultaneously being continuously reshaped by them.

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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)