Oman: A Beneficial Dictatorship

By Ingeborg de Koning

Petro-states exhibit many characteristics inherent to neopatrimonialism, a term developed by Kohli; as mentioned in Pierson, the discovery of oil resources allows personalistic leaders to establish rent-seeking opportunities and patrimonial structures. The Sultanate of Oman too, is a petro-state; yet it does not quite fit the neopatrimonial picture. While it is patrimonial in the sense that the Sultan, Sultan Al-Qaboos bin Said, secures the loyalty of the general population through the use of state resources, Oman’s public resources are not “[treated] as personal patrimony,” along Kohli’s description.  

Indeed, here Oman would fit more into the type of the cohesive-capitalist state, as a distinction is made between the realms of public and private resources. As Al-Yousef states, Oman’s approach centres on the idea “that there was no alternative to a substantial intervention by the state in order to achieve a satisfactory rate of resource mobilisation for economic development.” Throughout a series of Five Year Plans from 1976 onwards, under a repressive, authoritarian government headed by the Sultan, Oman employed an intense development policy to achieve rapid socio-economic development.

Yet, Oman too differs from a cohesive-capitalist state; while the governance is indeed a “centralized and purposive authority structure” and economic growth is the no. 1 priority, this is not achieved through the tight control of labour, but rather, through the effective employment of its public resources, the oil, to stimulate the economy and develop a strong market. The ‘rewards’ of this approach constitute the Sultan’s patrimony: for his position is justified through socio-economic and human development. Recognizing that both categories are ideal types, it remains interesting how Oman does not quite fit snugly into either. Perhaps a useful addition would thus be the category of “beneficial dictator,” as Al-Qaboos has often been called, to explain Oman’s state authority and – intervention dynamics.

British Colonial Policy in Oman, an Informal Colony

By Ingeborg de Koningh

The Sultanate of Oman, which I called home for a number of years, never formally constituted part of the British Empire, yet the extreme dependency of the Omani regime enabled the British to exert economic and political control of Oman, similar to colonial levels. In their analysis of pre- and post-colonial development statuses, Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson limit their discussion to those colonies legally recognized by colonial powers. Bearing Oman’s status as an informal colony in mind, I wondered to what extent the reversal of fortune might be applicable here too.  

After a brief period of colonization, Oman expelled the Portuguese in 1650 and subsequently established equitable trading relations with the Brits. In the following centuries, Oman expanded its territory by colonizing areas down the East African coast and flourished from the slave and ivory trade. Thus, by the mid-nineteenth century Oman was a powerful and prosperous nation.

Yet, this agreement ceased to satisfied the British- Oman had become too powerful for their taste and domestic anti-slavery agenda in the Indian Ocean condemned Omani trading policies. An internal power struggle in Oman’s ruling family arbitrated by the British consul in Muscat gave opportunity to increase political control, sustained by the new regime’s dependence on British arms for its existence, and to bend Oman’s trade and regional influence towards utilization for own benefit. Consequentially, the British gradually institutionally abolished the slave trade and restricted the extent of extraterritorial control. While British control of the Indian Ocean was secured, Oman was left in economic malaise until the discovery of oil fields in the 1950s.

So Oman’s time as an informal British colony did cause a reversal of fortune, yet not through the implementation of extractive institutions. It was the institutional destruction of Oman’s main sources of revenue which caused the reversal of fortune.