How Will Oman’s Next Sultan Steer Muscat’s Foreign Policy?
Widely recognized for its role as a quiet yet vital power-broker, Oman has long held a position of non-aggression amid seemingly ceaseless volatility in nearby countries. With Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen as its neighbors, Oman finds itself in a dangerous region where maintaining neutrality and promoting diplomatic back channels is highly challenging. Most of Muscat’s foreign policy trajectory relies on the 46-year leadership of Oman’s monarch, Qaboos bin Said Al Said. However, with ailing health at 76 years old and without any children of his own, the sultan has largely kept his succession plans somewhat vague. As a result, it is worth asking whether or not his successor will maintain Muscat’s regional foreign policy trajectory or steer Oman on a new course in response to new domestic and regional realities and challenges.
Qaboos came to power in 1970, toppling his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur Al Said, in a bloodless British- and Jordanian-backed coup. Since then, the sultan has held the country’s major portfolios, serving as prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, as well as overseeing all aspects of the country’s finance, including its central bank. Within the span of nearly fifty years, Qaboos transformed the barren and impoverished southeastern Arabian Peninsula state into a modern one with booming oil and gas reserves, substantial foreign direct investments (FDI), a strong tourism sector, along with well-developed infrastructure and healthcare.
Since Sultan Qaboos’ ascendancy, Oman’s adult illiteracy rate has dropped to 5.2 percent while life expectancy increased drastically to 76 years. At the same time, the sultanate has been effective in curbing any and all forms of social and political dissent. Its constitution, amended in 1996, promises freedom of press and the prohibition of “discrimination amongst [people] on the ground of gender, origin, color, language, religion, sect, domicile, or social status.” Such tolerance has thus largely been used to explain why Oman remained relatively unscathed during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Furthermore, with the recent rise in terrorism activity in the region, there have been no Omanis joining the ranks of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, thus earning the nation a zero on the annual Global Terrorism Index scale. Despite this stability on an external scale, what remains uncertain is the country’s internal and imminent transition of power. Coupled with Saudi Arabia and Iran’s acrimony and their heavy regional involvement in proxy wars, Oman’s path toward succession has thus drawn renewed interest as the international community scrutinizes the GCC and the greater Middle East’s fluid geopolitical order.
The transition of power process was largely opaque until 1997, when Qaboos publicized the process in a Foreign Affairs interview. The Omani constitution (the Basic Law) stipulates that the ruling Al Said family is required to choose a successor. The sultan explained that when he dies, his “family will meet. If they cannot agree on a candidate; the Defense Council will decide, based on a name or names submitted by the previous sultan. I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions.”
The likely contenders as of this moment remain sons of Qaboos’ uncle: Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Assad Tariq Al Said, and Shihab bin Tariq Al Said. Haitham, currently the minister of culture and heritage, was previously the undersecretary of foreign affairs and the secretary general for the ministry of foreign affairs. Despite his years of domestic and foreign policy expertise that initially made him the most apparent successor, Qaboos’s most recent appointment of Assad as deputy prime minister of international cooperation in March has complicated the hierarchy. A graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (an institution widely known to groom generations upon generations of future Arab leaders) and special representative to the sultan since 2002, Assad also runs his own company, Assad Investment Company, which is estimated to control over one billion dollars in assets. This appointment thus puts Assad ahead in the succession stakes, effectively replacing Haitham. Lastly, while Shihab is also a close advisor to the sultan and headed the country’s royal navy until 2004, he is not part of the Council of Ministers, earning him third place in the line to the throne.
Despite the varying qualifications of these likely contenders, one underlying issue is potential lack of legitimacy with which the Omani public will regard the ultimate successor. After all, the 46-year multi-faceted legacy of the sultan covers the establishment and rapid development of political institutions, the military, booming business industry, and day-to-day social benefits subsidized by the government such as housing and education. To ensure he gains a well-deserved recognition from the public, Oman’s next successor must continue to follow the footsteps of his predecessor and make sure that his leadership will continue to drive the growth of these aspects, while maintaining the general neutrality the country has prospered in under Qaboos. A potential failure to follow in the footsteps of the Qaboos will not only result in widespread dissatisfaction from the public, but even more problematically, a power vacuum in which Oman’s multiple tribes vie for control of the sultanate.
Regardless of the smoke and mirrors behind the matter of succession, what remains vital is that the new sultan must continue to steer a post-Qaboos Oman towards the path of neutrality and mediation. Through the years, Qaboos has earned his country a reputable position in the Middle East as an effective power-broker. Some of the many examples of its history of conciliatory efforts include Muscat’s neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War (1980) and Oman’s disapproval of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but refusal to condone a military solution and follow suit with a suspension of all ties with Baghdad. Instead, Oman served as a mediator in the Iran-Iraq War and in the conflict of 1990/1991.
In regards to the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict, Qaboos welcomed the Camp David agreement of 1978, as well as the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty the following year. He refused to participate in the 1979 Arab League summit that expelled Egypt as a result of its rapprochement with Israel.
During the second round of the civil war in Yemen in 1994, the sultan initiated a series of peace talks between the two sides in the Omani city of Salalah. In the Yemen theater today, Oman has served as the primary channel of communication during the Obama administration between the Houthi rebels and American administration officials, attempting to mediate the civil war. Officials in Muscat have also used their negotiating leverage to secure the release of numerous Western civilians detained by armed groups in Yemen since the Houthis usurped control of the country’s capital in 2014.
From 2010 all the way to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, Sultan Qaboos opened up his country’s doors to host discussions between the American and Iranian delegations (sometimes even at his own residences), playing an often overlooked yet instrumental role in the construction of the ultimate deal.
In 2011, during the international intervention in Libya spearheaded by NATO and on behalf of anti-Qaddafi forces, Oman endorsed the concept of a no-fly zone at the Arab League but remained neutral when it came to actual military involvement alongside its neighbors but has remained neutral in the North African country’s civil war.
After the Syrian crisis began, Oman was the only GCC member to maintain diplomatic relations with the Damascus regime and Muscat has not armed any rebel groups since the civil war erupted, standing in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia and Qatar which have provided extensive military assistance to anti-Assad rebels. Instead, Oman has once again played its role as a mediator, frequently serving as a diplomatic backchannel between the Assad regime and varying anti-governmental groups.
Lastly, since the Qatar crisis that broke out in June, Oman has and continues to maintain a position of neutrality while Kuwait carries out extensive rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Qatar.
As tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to flare, the importance of a neutral Oman cannot be underestimated. Some critics argue that because Oman’s independent foreign policy largely diverges from the collective decisions made by its neighbors within the Saudi-spearheaded GCC (for instance, dialogue versus belligerency towards Iran), it is weakening the council’s overall security. However, despite this concern, Oman’s stability remains highly necessary to the region, due to a particular reason – its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz and access to the Indian Ocean. It is through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow yet geo-strategically important artery, where twenty percent of the world’s oil passes. Hence, it is often considered as the most valuable prize in the standoff between Riyadh and Tehran. Should Oman lose its meditative position due to foreign policy decisions of Sultan Qaboos’ successor, then the strait could possibly become the exclusive source of the next major conflict in the region. Thus, be it Haitham, Assad, or someone entirely different, Oman’s next monarch must make sure that the Sultanate maintains its intermediary role as a delicate counterforce to the bad blood between the hegemonies.
Regional peace aside, the new successor should also maintain this delicate balance between the two powers out of Oman’s own interests. For example, Oman and Iran are currently cooperating on the construction of a natural gas pipeline between Iran and the Omani Port Saffar. This pipeline is vital to the Omani economy as the country is less oil abundant compared to its neighbors. Hence, by maintaining relatively cordial relations with Iran, Oman is able to reap the economic benefits that comes with its geostrategic proximity to its Shia neighbor. At the very same time, it is also best for Oman to preserve its relatively warm relations with Saudi Arabia, just in case it experiences any disillusionments with Iran. Oman’s most recent decision to join the Saudi-led anti-terrorist force, Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), which consists of forty other Muslim countries, came at a time when Muscat felt particularly disappointed towards Iran’s pivot to more lucrative European partners since the signing of the nuclear deal. By maintaining a balancing act between the two powers, Oman is able to execute an independent foreign policy that not only signifies a highly-needed show of neutrality in the region, but also serves its own domestic interests.
Through an international lens, the United States with its military bases in the Arab Gulf country holds some of the largest stakes in Oman’s question of succession. Currently, there are three US military bases in Oman, all of which have been used extensively during the Iraq wars. Whoever Oman’s successor may be, the United States needs to make sure it maintains its steadfast relationship with the country. This means taking the Gulf country seriously and not engaging in rather humiliating public stunts such as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s unexplained cancelled meeting with Oman’s foreign minister during the Riyadh summit earlier this year. Oman, alongside other GCC nations, provides the military and logistical support for US forces based in the region. Furthermore, by offering itself as a much needed diplomatic backchannel in the Yemen crisis, Oman has been able to help the US negotiate with various militias the release of Western hostages. In return, a post-Qaboos Oman sharing warm relations with the US can continue to benefit from different deals such as the highly profitable United States-Oman Free Trade Agreement, thus creating a win-win situation for both nations.
Overall, with Qaboos’s days numbered and his succession plans still largely secretive, young Omanis face an uncertain future. As for the rest of the world, only time can tell who will take over the sultan’s historic role as a respected mediator in a highly volatile region.