Oman’s Delicate Domestic Balance
Brian M. Perkins
Oman’s longstanding financial and governance model is being tested like never before as the country’s economy continues to decline due to its historic reliance on oil, as well as the harsh economic impacts of COVID-19. These crises have hastened the need for reforms. Sultan Haitham’s cousin and predecessor, Sultan Qaboos, ruled with absolute authority, but was beloved for transforming the country into a stable, more modern country and for his softer rule in comparison to other Gulf monarchs. Qaboos, despite his many achievements, established an unsustainable model desperately in need of an overhaul that will fundamentally alter ordinary Omanis’ relationship with the state and will likely, in the short term, prove wildly unpopular.
Sultan Haitham had already assumed control of the country at a particularly challenging time in terms of heightened regional tensions and the country’s economic downfall necessitating reforms long put off by Sultan Qaboos, who avoided doing so for fear of short-term unrest. The COVID-19 outbreak and plummeting oil prices, however, have only served to hasten the need for reform.
In response to oil prices and the COVID-19 outbreak, Sultan Haitham has cut government employees, including numerous officials that served Sultan Qaboos, and has ordered the government ministries and civilian government entities to reduce expenditures by 10 percent (Al Jazeera, April 15). At the same time, the government will need to grapple with the high volume of jobs lost in the private sector.
Sultan Haitham is an adept political figure but, unlike Qaboos, does not have decades of goodwill from the people on his side, making the balance between reform and appeasement of the public a particularly challenging balance. While the country’s economy is over reliant on oil, the population is heavily reliant on a bloated public sector with massive budget shortfalls and an aging workforce. Upwards of 45 percent of Omanis work for public entities and there has long been an expectation for the government to provide jobs—an expectation that is particularly thorny for the high number of unemployed youths.  In order to set the country on the right long-term path, Sultan Haitham will need to fundamentally alter this expectation and the relationship between the state and society by downsizing the public sector and royal spending while fostering private sector growth. During the Arab Spring, protests in Oman focused primarily on jobs and political reforms, with Qaboos appeasing protesters by promising 50,000 public jobs, a move that only contributed to the underlying economic problems (Al Jazeera, April 22, 2011).
A prolonged economic crash due to COVID-19 could limit the Sultan’s ability to take a phased approach to controversial economic policies, which would, to an extent, mute the public response and likely unrest. A hastened approach is more likely to prompt widespread unrest or strikes, particularly among Omani youths, and make the balancing act even more challenging. Unlike Qaboos, however, Sultan Haitham should not shy away from reforms for fear of public unrest—which is an uncommon feature of Omani society—and should instead ensure the government response to any unrest peacefully addresses demands without taking a step backward. At the same time, the Sultan should continue to reduce lavish royal expenditures and empower the Majlis al-Shura—the country’s only legislative body in which all members are democratically elected. Balancing controversial economic reform with long demanded political reform and increased public participation is key to Oman improving its economic outlook while remaining the politically stable nation the international community often relies on in the Gulf.
 National Centre for Statistics & Information, https://data.gov.om/nyavlmf/labor-market
Tunisia’s Precarious Position and the Battle for Western Libya
Brian M. Perkins
Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has made notable gains against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army in Western Libya over the past week. The GNA has reportedly wrested control of several key towns, including Sabratha, Surman, al-Ajaylat, Regdalin, al-Jumayl, Zelten, and al-Essa, establishing a line of control between Tripoli and the Tunisian border (Al Jazeera, April 14).
These gains mark a significant shift in the tide of the war and balance of power in western Libya and were made possible by significant Turkish involvement. Turkey has acted as a major force multiplier for Fayez al-Sarraj’s GNA and its allied forces in western Libya. Turkey’s entry into the war in Libya initially drew condemnation from Tunisia, which warned of international meddling in the conflict.
Tunisia long attempted to remain neutral in its stance toward the warring parties in Libya. Tunis publicly refused to allow Ankara to use the country as a supply line for its activities in Libya, though privately Turkish materials are likely still passing through Tunisia. Tunisia’s public stance, however, appears to be somewhat shifting as the GNA, with Turkish support, is extending its control of territories in western Libya and reopening a link between Tunisia and Tripoli. Just days after the major GNA offensives, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced his full support for the GNA, while rebuking the Tunisian defense minister for calling GNA forces “militias,” a statement that drew ire from Fayez al-Sarraj (Middle East Monitor, April 17).
Tunisia has maintained open lines of communication with Sarraj and the GNA and, to a lesser extent, with Haftar. While Tunisia likely wants to continue to appear relatively neutral and pursue a track of noninterference, the GNA’s expanding control in western Libya will likely necessitate a higher degree of communication and coordination, inherently placing Tunisia closer to Turkey. This coordination and information sharing is particularly important in terms of border security following the displacement of fighters and the GNA’s control of the coastal roads connecting Tunisia and Tripoli following the offensive. Tunisia immediately established an emergency military plan to reinforce its border following the GNA operations and intelligence officials are likely attempting to gather information on militant movements (Asharrq Al-Aswat, April 15).
While the GNA’s expanded control in the region could draw Tunisia more in alignment with the al-Sarraj’s government, though likely only nominally, Turkey is still pursuing other avenues for goodwill in Tunisia, including by helping with the COVID-19 outbreak (Middle East Monitor, March 26). On the military side, the conflict in Libya has underscored the need for Tunisia to transform its military—an avenue Turkey will continue to explore while being able to provide actual use cases.
Drawing Tunisia closer is of particular importance to Turkey sustaining its operational cover—Turkish vessels have used Tunisian ports in fake destination reports to cover for shipments directly into Libya (Al Arabiya, March 26). In January, Tunisia signed a deal to purchase armored vehicles from Turkish manufacturer, BMC, and, in mid-March, TUSAS secured a deal to sell Tunisia six Anka-S drones (Ahval, March 17). In addition to military hardware, what Tunisia is in particular need of is training regarding broadening and integrating its intelligence and concept of operations (CONOPS) capabilities, both of which Turkey has proven to be particularly adept at in recent years.
The GNA’s opening of vital routes that connect Tunisia with Libya and the potential for more stable control of western Libya will necessitate closer, even if only in private, relations between Tunis and the Tripoli, and inherently Ankara. Meanwhile, Turkey is likely to continue pursuing efforts to draw Tunisia closer in order to leverage the country’s strategic position to continue its operations. Tunisia, however, will need to maintain a veil of neutrality to avoid riling its own populace, which has shown disdain toward any cooperation with Turkey in Libya.