- Democracy and Youth in the Middle East: Islam, Tribalism and the Rentier State in Oman by Sulaiman H. Al-Farsi
Sulaiman H. Al-Farsi (PhD, Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds) is an independent Omani scholar who argues that Oman is in transition from a rentier political model toward a democratic tradition based on the Islamic principle of shura (consultation) as defined within the country’s Ibadi tradition. The outcome of this transition will be based on the interaction among three groups: government officials representing a top down model, religious elites representing a traditional model, and the “younger” (defined as 25–50 years old, p. 184) generation representing a bottom-up model of political development.
Al-Farsi begins with a general background to the book, including research questions and methodology, which is based on qualitative research utilizing semi-structured interviews. Chapters 2 and 3 provide more specific background, including a survey of the literature on democratization in the Arab world, including the relationships between democracy and external interventions, authoritarian regimes, the rentier state, Islam, and civil society and an historical survey of Oman, focusing on tribalism, social change after 1970, the traditional and contemporary political processes, and current political institutions, including the Basic Statute of the State (Oman’s quasi-constitution), the Council of Oman, elections, and the sultan’s annual tour. The next three chapters analyze the political attitudes of government elites, senior members of religious institutions, the “Young Generation” comprised of those who are not government or religious elites. The conclusion summarizes the contents and presents and overall finding that Omanis are satisfied with the both the structure and progress of democratization.
In analyzing political development in Oman, Al-Farsi states that his interviews indicate that the major factors driving political [End Page 327] change are “the historical legacy of Shura in Oman, the growing number of graduates, urbanization and globalization,” (pp. 89–90), and these three themes are the focus of his interviews. In emphasizing shura, Al-Farsi asserts “Oman is the only country which has maintained the Shura practice throughout its history” (p. 4; and slightly different wording, p. 89). He divides this legacy between the “historical” or “traditional” Ibadi version characterized by the leadership of a nonhereditary imam selected through and guided by consultation and the “contemporary” version with elections of the Shura Council that then consults with the government led by a hereditary sultan. He then seeks to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory political traditions, emphasizing the opinion of his political elite respondents that both hereditary and nonhereditary governments are “legitimate so long as they adhere to Shura and fulfill the aspirations of society” (p. 183). With all of this discussion of religion and politics, one would have expected some analysis of the 1994 and 2005 plots by religious “militants” to overthrow the government.
While a case can be made for the significance of the shura tradition, Al-Farsi basically discredits his own assertion: all three respondent groups agree that the younger, educated generation is alienated from the democratic process and asserting little or no pressure for change, urbanization is ignored, and all three groups agree that globalization has no impact on Omani democratization.
Al-Farsi fares somewhat better in analyzing the negative impact of Oman’s tribal social structure on the political process, although characterizing it as “tribal fanaticism” seems an overstatement. Given the salience of tribalism in slowing democratization, one would have expected a respondent group of tribal elites.
Surprisingly, Al-Farsi chose to ignore the role of Sultan Qaboos and the royal family in the political process. While Qaboos’s role as the architect of modern Oman is often overstated, excluding the current or future sultan ignores the reality of Omani politics. Furthermore, although Al-Farsi incorporates the implications of the “Arab Spring” into his discussion of democratization in the wider Arab world, he completely ignores events in Oman, where popular demonstrations in 2011 led to a reorganization of the cabinet that for the first time...