Two remarkable transitions: lessons from Oman and Somaliland

20th July 2015

We tend to look through the political settlements lens only at places experiencing either conflict or deep poverty – or both. Yet we would know much more about how useful the lens is if we examined more successes with it. Areas of stability and calm, especially in regions where near neighbours seem to be struggling to resolve strife, might teach us something about how historical experiences do or don’t chime with contemporary donor practices.

Oman and Somaliland are dramatically different empirical cases, but both have promising developmental trajectories that make them positive outliers in regions where stable state formation seems to have been particularly difficult. Asking what aspects of their respective political settlements have helped them forge a path out of conflict offers a useful comparative case study.

At the time of the 1970 coup in the Sultanate of Oman, its ruler was locked in violent conflict with a secessionist rebellion in Dhofar. The country had almost no formal bureaucratic institutions, just one hospital, and was beset by grinding poverty. In the popular press, Oman was described – alongside its next-door neighbour Yemen – as ‘rushing headlong into the fifteenth century’. By 1997, however, the World Health Organisation ranked Oman first out of 191 countries in ‘health care system performance and outcome,’ and by 2010 the UNDP judged Oman to be ‘most improved nation’ since 1970 – putting it ahead of China.

Somaliland declared itself independent of the rest of Somalia in 1991 and, after a period of civil war, emerged from violent conflict in 1996. Now internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia (and not an independent state), Somaliland is an example of peace and relative order being upheld despite the absence of a government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It has a functioning government, the basis of an elementary taxation system, a reasonable level of internal security, and some rudimentary public services. Somaliland holds regular elections for three tiers of government, and has seen two peaceful presidential transitions, including one to the opposition.

Political settlements clearly emerged during both of these remarkable transitions. What can a comparison of these settlements tell us? Jennifer Hunt and I argue in a forthcoming paper that there are three important points of crossover between the two cases.

‘Critical to the shape of both settlements was the nature of each country’s relationship with external actors … neither is consistent with contemporary donor practices in developing states.’

First, critical to the shape of both settlements was the nature of each country’s relationship with external actors and global power hierarchies. However, neither relationship is consistent with contemporary donor practices in developing states, which suggests that developing states almost always need outside assistance – though not too much of it. Here Oman and Somaliland are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Somaliland was unusually isolated from global political and economic structures in the early days of its ‘independence’, while Oman was unusually enmeshed in them at the time of its coup.

Throughout Somaliland’s formational period, foreign support of any kind was negligible. No external power attempted to end (or prolong) its civil wars, and this dramatically limited access to external revenue for those groups that wanted to carry on fighting. Somaliland, therefore, is a case in which the domestic drivers of peace and development come to the fore since aid and other forms of international intervention were not significant variables. This meant that Somaliland’s elites were also unusually dependent upon one another for their survival.

The experience of Somaliland challenges the prevalent notion that some form of external assistance is usually necessary to end large-scale violence. Instead it demonstrates that less intervention can create greater space for local agents to forge locally legitimate solutions.
 
The experience of Oman contrasts sharply with this. The seizure of power by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos in 1970 was both ordained and performed by the British government as it prepared to end its colonial presence in the country. Although the British had officially gone, Sultan Qaboos received an extraordinary level of military and development assistance from the British government through the SAS and its intelligence agencies.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that the colonial model is an appropriate basis for development assistance – but it shows the degree to which Oman’s development deviated from the orthodox ‘theory of change’ held by most contemporary development organisations.

For both cases, therefore, there was no external push to impose an inclusive political agenda – indeed, in Oman the British were highly supportive of Sultan Qaboos’ efforts to concentrate power into his own hands.

‘Exclusive settlements may be more likely to augur political stability, at least in the short to medium term, than widely inclusive ones.’

This leads to the second point of comparison: exclusion. One of the most important insights from the political settlements literature – and one that hits up against the instrumental aims that tend to accompany the use of a political settlements framework – is the uncomfortable finding that exclusive settlements may be more likely to augur political stability, at least in the short to medium term, than widely inclusive ones. In Somaliland, the exclusion was predominantly economic and in Oman it was predominantly political. 

The final point of comparison is that both countries had a pre-existing class of reasonably well-educated locals (at a secondary level) from which political elites could staff a nascent bureaucracy and who could perform some technical roles when the ground shifted to create greater space for change. Neither country needed (or was expected) to rely on outsourced international “technical assistance” or “technical expertise”, as is the usual practice in donor-funded state-building programs.

The political settlements lens, in both these cases, reveals a degree of deviation from the orthodox models of development. It uncovers important underlying power dynamics in the processes of political change. However, both also highlight how integral the external context is to domestic change, and this angle is seldom explicitly examined within a political settlements framework. For a political settlements framework to be a useful component of development actors’ work, its analytical scope must include the broader relationship between recipient states and global power structures. Without this, the international complexities and inequalities that may be helping to fuel poverty, conflict, and instability in recipient states will – again – be written out of the picture.


See more posts on political settlements by researchers, policy-makers and practitioners.

Image: Muttrah, Oman (Photo: Andrea Moroni, Flickr)

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Author

Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney. Her work focuses on politics, development and security in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, particularly Yemen and Somalia/Somaliland, and on the politics of state-building.

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