Tag Archives: muscat

Oman may (or may not) have a looming succession crisis

Despite health problems in recent years, Oman's sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, has not publicized his succession plan, if any even exists. (ONA)
Despite health problems in recent years, Oman’s sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, has not publicized his succession plan, if any even exists. (ONA)

I write for The National Interest today about another potential political headache for the Middle East on the horizion — the apparent lack of successor to the widely beloved sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said.oman

It’s safe to say that in his 46-year reign, which began when he ousted his own father from power in 1970, Qaboos has political and economically forged the modern state of Oman. In so doing, he has become a crucial figure in defusing regional crises:

Omani diplomats, equally at ease in Washington and Tehran, were crucial to bringing together U.S. and Iranian negotiators as early as 2009, paving the way for the early first steps of the landmark nuclear energy deal between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the ‘P5+1’ governments inked earlier last year. Presumably with Iran’s encouragement, Oman also last year hosted peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels who now control much of Yemen.

Omanis chiefly practice Ibadism, mostly distinct to Oman, Zanzibar and eastern Africa, that predates and is distinct from both Sunni and Shia Islam. In practice, Ibadis are relatively moderate Muslims, and Ibadism’s distance from both Sunni and Shiite has helped make Oman an important peacekeeper in the Muslim world. Oman is a close ally of Iran, but it was also a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981, even while it has aided American anti-terrorism efforts in the region. In January, for instance, the United States transferred 10 Guantanamo detainees to Oman. It has no real military might, nor does it project economic strength (its $58.5 billion economy is dwarfed today even by Syria’s), but its ability to project soft power in the region is off the charts. Moreover, with Iran, it guarantees safe passage of Middle Eastern oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage linking the Persian Gulf to the wider Arabian Sea.

The problem is that the 75-year-old Qaboos, has no brothers, no wife, no sons and, by all accounts, hasn’t particularly groomed anyone as his successor, even as he spent much of 2014 and 2015 fending off a health scare that most observers believed to be colon cancer. Continue reading Oman may (or may not) have a looming succession crisis

Who is Joseph Muscat?


It’s the least populous — and newest — member of the eurozone, but tiny Malta, with around 420,000 people, is poised to become the latest European nation to vote for massive change, tossing out the long-governing center-right Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista) of prime minister Lawrence Gonzi. malta

Polls have closed in Malta, and opinion polls show that Joseph Muscat, the leader of the opposition center-left Labour Party (Partit Laburista), will likely now become Malta’s new prime minister and, at age 39, the eurozone’s youngest leader (younger even than Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen).

What does that mean for Malta and for Europe?

Muscat has borrowed liberally from the ‘change’ playbook that propelled U.S. president Barack Obama to office in 2008, but it’s not incredibly clear exactly the kind of change that he’ll bring to Malta, other than a promise to reduce Malta’s incredibly high electricity rates by 25% (though, again, it’s not clear how he’ll do that).

But Malta, with GDP growth of around 1.5% in 2012, unemployment of just 7% and a budget deficit under the EU threshold of 3% of GDP, has been relatively immune to the recession that’s gripped much of the eurozone and especially Mediterranean Europe, thanks in large part to tourism and a growing financial sector.

Muscat, a former member of the European Parliament, took over the leadership of the party following the previous March 2008 elections, in which Labour very narrowly lost the election, giving the Nationalists a one-seat advantage in the 69-member parliament.

He succeeded Alfred Sant, who led Labour throughout the 1990s and led the (failed) opposition to the 2003 referendum that opened the way for Maltese accession to the European Union.  Muscat and most of the Labour Party in 2003 opposed accession, which along with accession to the eurozone, is the chief Nationalist accomplishment of the past decade.

Muscat has since backtracked and supports Malta’s eurozone membership — that’s good, because Malta will hold the rotating six-month EU presidency in 2017.

Gonzi, prime minister since 2004, leads a party that has governed Malta, with the exception of a 23-month Labour government in the late 1990s, since 1987.  His government fell earlier this year over the budget — not because of any austerity measures, but because a member of his own party opposed a decision to hire a German operator to manage Malta’s national bus service.

Muscat’s campaign, however — long on platitudes and short on details — suggest that the Maltese rationale for change is different than that of most European voters, who over the past two years have ousted incumbents from France to Greece to Spain to Ireland, but simply because they have grown weary of a Nationalist government that’s come to the exhausted end of a long run in power:

Has Muscat landed at a fortuitous time in Maltese politics? The Nationalists are a spent force ten years after EU accession, the unpredictable Alfred Sant has been exorcised from the new Labour tableau, and the perception of the ‘clique’ at the PN’s Stamperija and Castille has been amplified so much, that the fin-de-siècle odour is too strong to ignore. Enter the politics of the air-freshener.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the fatigue many voters felt toward the end of the Conservative Party’s 18-year hold on power in the United Kingdom in 1997 (just cast Gonzi as former UK prime minister John Major).

Likewise, Muscat has led a flashy campaign to reinvigorate the once-dowdy Labour Party in the same way that Tony Blair revamped the UK Labour Party.  Since taking over from Sant in 2008 (cast Sant as Malta’s answer to Neil Kinnock), Muscat has worked to build bridges with the Maltese business committee and otherwise modernized and moderated his party’s views, least of all in support of Malta’s new role in the EU.

Nowhere in the campaign has there been the kind of discontent or anger or economic pain that’s fueled the rise of protest movements — like the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) that recently won over 25% of the vote in the Italian elections.

As such, Muscat’s election seems unlikely to add much to the ongoing ‘austerity vs. growth’ debate in Europe.