Britain’s Closest Ally in the Gulf

Tom Stevenson

Over the past week there have been daily demonstrations in towns and cities across Oman. Public protests are rare in the Persian Gulf monarchies. They last happened in Oman in 2019, when protesters demanded that the sultanate address rising unemployment. This was also a central concern of Omani protesters during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The main demonstrations this time have been in the two main port cities, Salalah and Sohar, where unemployment has historically been highest. Activists have shared photographs of British-made tear-gas canisters used against them, similar to those used by police in Hong Kong.

The demonstrations began last Sunday, when protesters staged sit-ins in front of government buildings to demand a solution to rising living costs and a general lack of jobs. The crowds have been modest, but in a country with a small population (around four million, only half of whom are nationals) they are significant. At first the response from the security forces was cautious, but on 26 May they began to take a harder line. Police fired CS canisters in Sohar and made arrests. The national newspapers published prominent reports of the sit-ins. This is the first major political crisis in Oman since the death of Sultan Qaboos last year, after fifty years in power, and the succession of his cousin Haitham.

The dramatic fall in oil prices last year caused by the coronavirus pandemic had a severe effect on Oman’s economy. The sultanate sought financial aid from Qatar, but it wasn’t enough. Sultan Haitham adopted a standard package of austerity measures: utility subsidies were cut in January, a value added tax was introduced in April, and the salaries of government employees were cut earlier this month. Military spending was untouched and remains the highest in the world as a percentage of GDP.

Compared with the larger Middle Eastern states outside the Arabian peninsula, unemployment in Oman is low. But the subjects of the Gulf monarchies are less used to economic privation than the citizens of the Arab republics. The full range of neoliberal reforms that have been imposed by the Sisi regime in Egypt, at the urging of the IMF, could not be passed in Oman in the near term. The more limited austerity measures that have been attempted seem to have led directly to the present crisis.

Sultan Haitham has announced the creation of temporary jobs in the civil service (presumably at the reduced salary level) and the military. Additional riot police were deployed in the satellite cities around Muscat.

The British government will be hoping these measures are sufficient to pre-empt a more serious challenge to the sultanate. The UK supports all the hereditary dictatorships of the Persian Gulf, but Oman is arguably the closest British ally in the region. Muscat was the first and last British colonial possession in the Gulf. British intelligence agencies have influence in all the major organs of the Omani state. Royal Dutch Shell still owns a third of Petroleum Development Oman. The port of Salalah is managed by a British national.

Oman has if anything become more central to UK military planning in recent years. In 2019, the UK Joint Logistics Support Base was opened in Duqm. It is one of the naval bases designed to service the UK’s new aircraft carriers. Duqm is also the site of the largest British army training facility in the world. Part of the reason Oman’s military budget is so inflated is to tie the country to its Anglo-American sponsors with long-term procurement contracts.

Some demonstrators have described the Omani government’s response to their demands as a token salve, but that doesn’t mean it won’t succeed in defusing the crisis. The protesters have for the most part stuck to expressions of economic dissatisfaction. There has been little attempt at a systemic critique. The present crisis may not signal the beginning of an organised political opposition that would threaten the sultanate itself. For that to happen, the extent of British influence in Oman would have to come into question, as would the billions the sultanate spends on British fighter jets.