He’s dead and yet still everywhere. With the many mosques, schools, and even sports complexes that bear his name, it is impossible in Oman to escape Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died in 2020 after ruling for 50 years.
When I visited in December, it was eerie to feel as if Qaboos was still walking among us. He remains everywhere: his face is in people’s homes, his name on their lips. There is still genuine admiration for him because, unlike the many strongmen whose rule produced disaster, Qaboos genuinely served Oman, transforming his country from a wasted empire—that once held Zanzibar (now Tanzania) and the port of Gwadar (now Pakistan)—into a modern country in less than a generation. Because he provided genuinely good governance, he never faced a democratic challenge; for that same reason, neither does current Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, a cousin of the childless Qaboos. Haitham may not enjoy the legitimacy Qaboos had as the country’s founding father, but he is well-respected and all but set to rule for life.
Like other Gulf states—including World Cup host Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—Oman seems to have cracked the code for becoming a “successful” autocracy, even as their approaches to political freedom and their stances on issues like LGBTQ and women’s rights fall short of what we in the West consider basic decency. Yet all it takes is to visit one of these countries—or one like Singapore—and speak with locals to better understand why they believe autocracy, not democracy, is better equipped for the 21st century. Indeed, these autocracies are set to endure because their systems work well enough for most Omanis, Qataris, Emiratis, and Singaporeans, not because the government harshly represses its people, as in Iran or Russia. They credit the government for making their countries the peaceful and rich ones they are today. They don’t want regime change, and they don’t wish for democracy. They want a dictator—as long as that dictator continues to serve them well.
When the 29-year-old Qaboos, a member of the Al bu Said family that has ruled Oman since 1744, deposed his reactionary father in his 1970 coup, Oman was a desperately poor, disease-ridden, and largely illiterate amalgamation of warring tribes and religious powers.
Sure, they had oil, but natural resources are hardly a recipe for national success when dealing with state weakness, ethnic divides, and poverty. The chaos that has plagued Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades could very well have claimed Oman, as well (to say nothing of neighboring Yemen).
But Qaboos was headstrong and dedicated to developing his country. His first move was to quash a Soviet-backed separatist movement in Dhofar province. How? By building roads and schools.
He continued to peacefully subdue the rest of his people with public goods. Over the following 50 years, Qaboos wielded the country’s oil resources, which were only a fraction of those of the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, to give more and more to Omanis. The roads are well built and extensive. The airports are clean and well conceived. The government has long provided free education and substantial social security. People take real pride in having a “good,” “caring,” and “rich” government that they believe is truly looking out for them, as I heard throughout my recent visit. They credit Qaboos for making all this a reality. “Before Qaboos, we were nothing,” one man in his mid-30s told me in December. “He made us.”
Still, Oman was not immune from the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw anti-regime protests across the Middle East and North Africa. But unlike protesters in those regions who demanded the ouster of their autocrats, most of Oman’s demonstrations focused on a specific problem they wanted the ruling government to solve: a lack of jobs. Whereas protesters abroad called for their authoritarian leaders not to govern at all, Omanis simply called on Qaboos to govern better.
He responded by expanding government spending and promising to create jobs. These moves mostly quelled the discontent, and the Omani miracle continued to chug along.
Yet there are some lingering pressures facing Qaboos’s successor, Haitham. Oman’s economy has recently stagnated due to declining oil prices and COVID-19. How the country will replace oil as the world shifts to green energy remains unclear. People are increasingly calling for economic reforms. The country remains reliant on migrant labor from South Asia, creating a quasi-underclass that invites foreign criticism, even as the government works to bring more Omanis into the workforce through the “Omanization” policy. And while Qaboos’s 2020 death left open the door for elite political tensions, Haitham has deftly navigated the difficulties that afflict familial succession.
The numbers speak for Oman’s success. The country remains in the top fourth of human development globally, according to the United Nations Development Program. Omanis actually live longer, on average, than Americans—some 78 years. The UNDP in 2010 declared Oman to be the most improved nation in terms of development during the preceding 40 years—above even China. Things may not be perfect, but life is pretty good for most Omanis.
That success is largely the result of Qaboos’s vision, which comprised much of what citizens in both autocracies and democracies continue to want: public goods. His ability to deliver for his people created such enormous public trust in his government that nobody was or is calling for democracy. (Haitham’s apparent commitment to these same goals— “He’s making plans for the future,” a young man told me—has won him the public’s backing, even if there remains more emotional affinity for Qaboos.)
Other young men who took the reins of their impoverished lands as the colonial era ended won such social trust. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emitates are chief among them.
When Lee took over Singapore in 1959, much of the population was unskilled and illiterate, as in Oman. He, too, had to deal with the difficulties inherent to diversity; Singapore’s population comprised Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even a few Jews. Like Qaboos would a decade later, Lee prioritized development over democracy, believing that Singaporeans wanted food, cash in their pockets, and strong hospitals more than they wanted liberty.
Because Singapore had no natural resources to harness, Lee and his aides directed the government to focus on laying the groundwork for economic growth, which turned the city-state into a major financial hub. In Singapore’s first nine years of full independence, the gross national product nearly tripled—raising the average per capita income to the second highest in Asia, trailing only Japan. By the mid-1980s, many Singaporeans enjoyed a lifestyle rivaling the West’s. Singapore was and remains what Lee called a First World oasis in a Third World region: a clean, safe, and well-governed country.
Lee was an autocrat, and Singapore remains an authoritarian country today. The government has long restricted a host of liberties, severely constraining any potential political competition.
So have the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, which is far more repressive than Singapore.
People everywhere today know the UAE for the opulence oil has provided: the gold, the gleaming Burj Khalifa, and the pristine Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. But what makes the country more incredible is that within living memory, some 50 years ago, the UAE did not exist. Its current major cities, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, were little more than fueling stations for European empires. The country’s population were nomadic desert wanderers and coastal pirates; they lacked the traditions and collective identity needed to form a nation, let alone a functioning, prosperous state at the forefront of international politics.
In 1971, however, Zayed’s persuasion skills brought together the UAE’s seven emirates into a single country—even though several of the emirates’ ruling families had been feuding with one another for centuries, often fighting low-level wars in the desert.
Since unification, the country has followed a relatively simple recipe to success: using oil profits to fund development and guarantee its people a high quality of life (all while importing a staggering number of South Asian, African, and other migrant workers to do the service and construction jobs that Emiratis, accustomed to wealth, will not). From 1975 to 2019, the country’s GDP jumped from $15 billion to $358 billion—an increase of around 2,280 percent. In this same period, life expectancy increased from 65 to 78. The UAE today stands tall, not only because of the renowned Burj Khalifa.
As in Oman and Singapore, that rapid development has produced widespread respect for Sheikh Zayed and the ruling family. He “was the father of our nation,” one middle-aged woman told me when I visited last year. “He treated us as well as his children.”
Yet modern autocracies, like all autocracies throughout history, are fundamentally flawed. Lacking feedback mechanisms hampers their ability to deliver. Repression stifles creativity and innovation. Succession troubles are more likely to eventually rear their head than not.
But many—like Oman, Singapore, and the UAE—have proven durable. They have not just survived but thrived. Much the same can be said to varying extents of China, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, and Vietnam. These countries face economic and structural challenges but provide their citizens enough comfort to quell most democratic demands. Majorities are not calling for revolution because the system serves enough people. These autocracies have very well suppressed the innate human yearning for freedom through relatively good governance (and, at times, repression).
That fact is a profound challenge to democracies today: More and more people worldwide want to live in an autocracy to emulate the successes of countries like the UAE and Singapore, not the dysfunction of the West.
These autocracies are nothing like our last great autocratic competitor, the Soviet Union. The West won the Cold War partly because Soviet illiberalism was never successful; it was, as the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger said, “the highest stage of underdevelopment.” The system never achieved legitimacy at home or abroad because it never worked.
Today, on the other hand, because successful autocracies “work” for a significant enough swath of their populations, fewer people are looking at democracy as a reasonable alternative. Why would anyone in Dubai, Muscat, or Hanoi look at the United States post-January 6 insurrections or the United Kingdom post-Brexit and think, “I want that?” Egyptians in Cairo have told me they want their government to look like the UAE, not a democracy; Cambodians in Phnom Penh and Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City have told me the same about China and Singapore.
What’s most concerning is that people within democracies are beginning to feel the same. Several Silicon Valley leaders have made it clear that they would prefer it if the United States operated in a top-down, authoritarian corporate way—that is, like Singapore. Brexiteers have argued that their country could follow the “Singapore model.” Polls show that a disturbing number of Americans would prefer an authoritarian strongman to a democratically elected leader. Some Europeans feel the same, believing autocracy is better able to handle complex issues like climate change. They would prefer a Sultan Qaboos to a Rishi Sunak, a Sheikh Zayed to a Joe Biden, a Lee Kuan Yew to an Olaf Scholz.
The authoritarian impulse promises a magic wand that one strongman, or a cadre of strongmen, can wave to make unbelievably complex issues disappear. The chief problem with this theory is that authorizing the state to coerce people into doing things they do not want would, by extension, authorize the state to punish those who do not obey those rules. “Benevolent” autocracy would devolve into repression quite quickly.
The second problem is that—appearances aside—autocracies do not perform better than democracies. The social science is clear: If you live in a democracy, you will almost surely receive a better education, become wealthier, live longer, and have a richer cultural life than your counterparts in autocracies worldwide.
But voters are inherently correct. They generally have a rational view of their political institutions; they tell decision-makers what is working, what is not, and what needs to be addressed. For all the elite laments about their supposed ignorance, voters know what they want, whether that be lower taxes, greater personal agency, or improved health care. And what Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen voters are telling politicians is that the system is not working for them, and they want to try something new—perhaps even autocracy.
To combat this belief, we will need to emulate the countries that have successfully established meritocracies, developed accountable systems, won social trust, built top-class infrastructure, and invested in human capital while embracing the volatility intrinsic to democracy. We can learn from democratic countries like Denmark as much as from authoritarian ones like the UAE while retaining the character of our own nations. It is our openness and commitment to liberalism that will allow us to implement these reforms better than any autocracy ever could.
The Omani Sultan, Saudi Crown Prince, Singaporean Prime Minister, and Emirati Sheikh may claim to hold the keys to the future. But there is a reason why they continue to educate themselves and their children in the West. It is the same reason their governments and people rely on our innovations, read our novels, watch our movies, and import our art. Something about our system is better, and deep down, even the dictators know it.