The passing of Sultan Qaboos Ibn Sa‘id Al Sa‘id of Oman on January 11, 2020 could not have occurred at a worst time. In the height of regional tensions, the Gulf loses one of its most pragmatic leaders favoring an always balanced diplomacy between various rivals throughout the MENA region. The geographical situation of the State of Oman and its jointly mastering of the Strait of Hormuz, where tensions have reached an unprecedented pike in spring 2019, compel Omani leadership to maintain good relations and a central position in the regional diplomatic game. If the strategic factors and balance imperatives certainly frame Oman’s foreign policy, it had also a lot to do with the personality of its late ruler Sultan Qaboos. Through his personal acquaintances and charisma, Qaboos managed to create independent relations between the main leaders of the region. His passing may prompt fear regarding Oman’s future diplomatic mediation as tensions rose up a notch following Iran-US recent clashes.
Smooth maneuvers through untamed waters: Qaboos' neutral diplomacy
Oman’s geographical location certainly places it in the eye of the maelstrom when it comes to the Gulf crisis. The Sultanate is indeed neighboring both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to the West, Yemen to the South-west, and is sharing control of the Strait of Hormuz with Iran up North. Oman therefore cannot allow itself to antagonize one of its neighbors as the UAE also control most of the Strait through the Emirate of Fujayrah, splitting Oman’s territory into two. Likewise, the Sultanate shares a 646 kilometers-long border with the KSA (its longest). At last, the Strait is held by both Oman to the South and Iran to the North, making it particularly difficult to break dialogue with Tehran. Between Iran and the Abu Dhabi-Riyadh axis, willing to coopt the GCC members into a broader Arab alliance countering Tehran influence, Qaboos’ Oman played the balance card by handling the invasive foreign policy of its Sunni neighbors on the one hand, and Iran’s proxies strategy on the other.
Therefore, the neutrality of the Sultanate of Oman appears to be of paramount importance to assure the country a soothed shared management of the Strait. Moreover, Oman’s economy relies on trade with Iran and the South Pacific as well as partners inside the Gulf. This explains why Oman remained rather critical of KSA’s anti-Iran alliance strategy in order not to break its neutral position and independent foreign policy. The 2011-2014 Union project of Saudi Arabia, aiming at gathering all the GCC-members against Iran, fell short due to the opposition of Muscat. Following its own path, Oman hosted the 2015 negotiations between the country-members of the P5+1 and Tehran preluding the JCPOA on Iranian nuclear. Such an involvement was frowned upon by KSA and the UAE which harshened the pressure on the Omani economy, delaying some joint projects like the building of a railway connecting Oman to the rest of the Peninsula. In addition to these pressures, Oman sees itself as encircled by the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis as UAE forces were present in the Yemeni neighboring area of Mahrah until August 2019.
The Sultanate carried on with its neutral policy regarding the 2017 boycott of Qatar, refusing to side with Riyadh, opening its ports of Sohar and Salalah to Qatari goods and merchandise, and signing a joint memorandum of understanding with Doha on January 2018 strengthening trade partnership between both countries. Omani and Saudi-Emirati diplomatic paths also diverged regarding military involvement in Yemen. Not only did Muscat not take part in the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi militias, but it allegedly played a strong and active role of broker when it came to US-Houthi negotiations in May 2015, prompting the ire of Riyadh. At last, Oman’s role of facilitator can also be seen in non-Gulf rivalries, especially regarding Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The official visit in Muscat of Benjamin Netanyahu on October 26, 2018, four days after Mahmoud Abbas, is a vivid illustration of Oman’s balanced diplomacy. It also reveals the regional tendency of Gulf monarchies regarding the underground normalization of the relations with Israel.
In order to maintain such an independency, Oman keeps a close eye on the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Facing the projection of UAE armed forces in east Yemen and their sponsoring of this country’s southern independency, also fearing an encirclement by the ever-ambitious Emirates, Oman bolstered its defense accords with the US and the UK, opening its Duqm port to the British fleet in Spring 2019 as the US benefit from military facilities in Muscat and the Masira Island, south of the country. Following the same pattern, 9% of Oman’s GDP is allowed to military expenses, revealing the country’s fear of foreign pressure and undercover military interference.
The once and future king: continuing transition and the challenges ahead
Maintaining the course of the Omani ship through the current storm implied the firm and steady hand of an absolute ruler such as Sultan Qaboos. Through his utter and complete domination over the country’s institutions, the Sultan was the real head chief of Oman’s diplomacy and the main instigator of this strategy. This absolute autocracy was not without its challenges however. Today’s wide number of newspaper columns and analysts’ obituaries praising the openness and wisdom of the late Sultan must not obliterate the opposition the regime encountered in the wave of the 2011 Arab Springs. More and more civil pressure was directed against Oman’s authoritarian rule as young activists demanded constitutional reforms and structural policies to provide jobs and fight unemployment, leading to massive arrests and condemnations but also to the promise of more consultative assemblies. Such protests have first revealed the frailty of Oman’s rentier economy, as hydrocarbons represent more than a third of the country’s GDP and 15% of the population are without jobs. But they have also illustrated the absolutism of Oman’s regime, where Sultan Qaboos also ruled as Prime minister and saw his power unbalanced by any judiciary of legislative branch, with the support of the national army. This unshared power has allowed the Omani leader to conduct his affairs as he saw fit.
Therefore, if such an absolutism allowed Qaboos’ rule to remain unchallenged it has also personified power and made him the central and vital piece of Oman’s diplomacy. Questions rose as rumors of the ruler’s illness spread out. More troubling was the absence of designated successor as Qaboos Ibn Sa‘id had neither children nor brother. The absence of officially designated heir made it necessary to turn back to the 1996 Fundamental Law, settling the rules of succession. In order not to foster strife inside the royal family and to avoid palace revolutions potentially undermining state power, Sultan Qaboos had written two sealed letters in each of his palaces containing the name of his heir. The Fundamental Law stipulates that the Family Council gathers at the passing of the sovereign in order to reach an agreement on the name of the future Sultan. If no consensus is reached within 3 days, the Article VI of the Fundamental Law requires the letters to be opened in the presence of the members of the Council, but also the military hierarchy of the Defense Council, the President of the Supreme Court and the Presidents of both consultative assemblies. All must verify that both letters contain the same name or eventually an order of preference between pretenders. If this complex transitional process can create divisions and entanglements if the late sovereign’s last will is not clearly enunciated in the letters, it also gives the army a tremendous role as a referee.
Such a complex and potentially unsecure process led to the fear of a precarious transition at a time when Oman’s middle ground diplomacy is more needed than ever. Other questions rose regarding the profile of the successor of Sultan Qaboos. Until January 11, 2020, three candidates were in favorable position to succeed the late Sultan: Assad Ibn Tariq, 65 years old, his brother Haitham Ibn Tariq, 65 also, and Shihab Ibn Tariq, the third brother, 63. All three were Qaboos’ cousins, and Assad was seen as the main contender because of the close links he had with the Sultan as a commander of the armed forces, Vice-Premier in charge of international cooperation and personal representative of the sovereign. The 24 hours following the passing of Sultan Qaboos, on January 10, however proved these predictions wrong.
Indeed, contrary to what was expected, the 72-hours conclave of the Family Council did not occur as it was decided to open the late Sultan’s letter on January 11, in order to shorten this period of uncertainty. This urgency shows once more the awareness of the Omani ruling establishment of the necessity to ensure continuing stability in an ever-unstable region. Moreover, both letters clearly mentioned Haitham Ibn Tariq as the chosen heir, making the succession quite easy and without any doubt regarding the identity of the new ruler. The choice of Haitham also unveils the strategy of the late Sultan and the priorities which are to be Oman’s for the next decades. Whereas Assad could be seen as a military leader in view of his career as an army commander, Haitham is seen as a more consensual character. His profile is rather turned towards economy and development. Minister of Culture and Heritage in 2002, he is also the leading figure of the Oman Vision 2040 project which aims at loosening the country’s economy from its oil dependency by diversifying its resources. The new Sultan is also a strong advocate of the neutral diplomacy of his predecessor as he vows to uphold the good relations between Oman’s and its neighbors. In spite of all the fears, the succession was quickly and smoothly handled announcing the pursuit of a balanced Omani diplomacy willing to shuttle between the various rivals of the region.
If the Omani regime seems to be holding fast in an era of regional turmoil, the reign of Haitham will not be free of challenges. The new Sultan will have to maneuver his vessel between Charybdis and Scylla, the Saudi compelling alliance system or the Iranian ire, without antagonizing its neighbors. But internal issues also lay ahead as Oman cannot elude its economical and societal problems and has to tackle them in order not to be facing riots, protests, and the same fate as Iran, Iraq or Lebanon.