The Al Said Dynasty

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Members of the Al Said family have historically played a central role in the state apparatus, not only because of hereditary succession to the sultanate but also because much of the ruler's bureaucracy has consisted of his relatives. Before 1932 there was an implicit division between Muscat and Oman, with the ruler rarely able to extend his authority over the whole geographical area of Oman. Not only was the interior outside his sphere of influence, but frequently the ruler could not exercise authority over the Al Batinah coast. Relatives often controlled towns such as Suhar and Ar Rustaq autonomously, creating individual fiefdoms.

By the time Sultan Said ibn Taimur assumed power in 1932, these independent power centers had disappeared. This coincided with an increasing role of family members in the administration of the state. This nepotism has been practiced since the nineteenth century when members of the Al Said served in such positions as representative (wakil), deputy (wazir), governor (wali), field general, and council minister. Yet, the practice was not without its risks, and often rulers were sensitive to the potential for relatives to become contenders for power. Sultan Said ibn Taimur recognized the risk his half-brothers Tariq ibn Taimur Al Said and Fahar ibn Taimur Al Said and his son Qabus ibn Said presented, and he delegated only minor responsibilities, if any, to Qabus.

Sultan Qabus ibn Said has similarly incorporated members of the Al Said family into the state apparatus, particularly in sensitive ministerial positions. The sultan reserved major ministerial positions for himself--in 1993 he held the posts of prime minister, minister of defense, minister of finance, and minister of foreign affairs--although the functions of the prime minister were often entrusted to the minister of state for foreign affairs. In the 1993 cabinet, two members of the Al Said served as deputy prime ministers: Fahar ibn Taimur Al Said for security and defense and Fahd ibn Mahmud Al Said for legal affairs; Faisal ibn Ali Al Said served as minister of national heritage and culture. The Al Said also controlled the Ministry of Interior, the governorship of Muscat, and the governorship of Dhofar. Sultan Qabus ibn Said's cousin, Thuwaini ibn Shihab Al Said, was the sultan's special personal representative, and some considered him the most likely candidate to succeed Qabus ibn Said. Shabib ibn Taimur Al Said, Qabus ibn Said's uncle, assumed the role of special adviser to the sultan for environmental affairs.

Despite his progressive rule on some fronts, Sultan Qabus ibn Said has been slow to delegate real political authority. One of his first acts as sultan was to return his father's half-brother, Tariq ibn Taimur, from exile in West Germany and appoint him prime minister. Tariq ibn Taimur was educated in West Germany, married a German national, and had extensive experience working in the Middle East as the representative of a construction firm. He had been an outspoken critic of Sultan Said ibn Taimur's rule, when forced into exile in 1958.

Tariq ibn Taimur formed his first cabinet on August 16, 1970, and brought the notion of political reform. He supported the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system and as a result came into direct conflict with Sultan Qabus ibn Said, who preferred the status quo, with real power remaining in the office of the sultan. As of 1993, power remained centralized with the Al Said, and, although departing from his father's contention that to maintain the ruler's power the people must remain uneducated, real decision making remained the exclusive privilege of a narrow-based elite that the Al Said dominated.

The centralization of power with the sultan and the absence of a mechanism for succession left speculation open concerning Oman after Qabus ibn Said. Qabus ibn Said has no heir, although he was married briefly in 1976 to Tariq ibn Taimur's daughter. The Al Said family is small, numbering fewer than 100 male members. Since the death in 1980 of Tariq ibn Taimur, no individual within the ruling family has distinguished himself or demonstrated any exceptional ability to rule. Likely candidates to succeed Qabus ibn Said include his two uncles, Fahar ibn Taimur and Shabib ibn Taimur; three cousins, Thuwaini ibn Shibab, Fahd ibn Mahmud, and Faisal ibn Ali; and, among the junior princes, Haitham ibn Tariq Al Said, son of Oman's former prime minister. The issue of succession is sensitive, and, in the absence of a designated crown prince, the door is open for political struggle.

More about the Government and Politics of Oman.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress