How Oman Became the Middle East’s Indispensable Nation

To many Omanis, it is offensive to openly contemplate life after Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the widely admired albeit absolute monarch who has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since July. But policymakers elsewhere in the world have no choice but to do just that. The 73-year-old Qaboos is said to have colon cancer and rumors suggest he may not be around for too long. The Omani royal court has said he is recovering from successful surgery, and some say that he will return to Oman in time to attend the annual National Day military parade on November 18. But dark clouds of uncertainty nevertheless hover over the country’s future. And given Qaboos’ importance as a strategic partner for the West—and for Washington in particular—it’s only natural to wonder what will transpire after he is no longer in charge in Muscat.

Oman tends to feature far less in international discussions about the Middle East than other countries in the region. But that is mostly a reflection of its deliberate preference for avoiding the spotlight. Indeed, Oman has long had tremendous strategic significance for Washington—although, unusually for the region, not because of its oil. Rather, it provides a rare regional example of domestic tranquility, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance, and skillful diplomacy. 

The country benefits greatly from its geography. Oman controls the southern half of the Strait of Hormuz—which includes the waterway’s main deep-water channels and shipping lanes—through which approximately 30–40 percent of the world’s oil supplies pass (the other half of the Strait is controlled by Iran). Oman also has an extensive coastline that faces the Indian Ocean, which has allowed the country to become a regional trading hub and spurred a more open society. In recent years, Oman has built the second-biggest dry dock in the Middle East at the strategically important town of Duqm, with quays stretching for 2.5 miles. Given its location, Duqm has a vast advantage over Dubai, a rival regional trade powerhouse: Duqm is not along the Strait of Hormuz, which brings enormous savings in insurance and fuel costs because of Iran’s tendency to threaten to close off the waterway for political reasons. 

Oman is also an island of religious moderation and tolerance in the region. The country is religiously distinctive from its neighbors: It is the only one in the Arab world with a population that predominantly adheres to Ibadism (a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia); it is also the only Arab country that has developed truly tolerant religious traditions. It is common practice in Oman, for example, for different Muslim sects to pray in one another’s mosques. Amid the violent hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims elsewhere in the Arab world, Oman offers a model of peaceful coexistence. 

Further, Oman does relatively well on gender equality. Given the rampant violations of women’s rights elsewhere in the Middle East, Oman has managed to recently pass legislation that supports women’s rights and addresses discrimination against women in education, the work force, and politics. National political institutions have tended to include a significant number of female political representatives despite the fact that there is no quota system that mandates their presence. For example, the ministers of education and higher education in the national cabinet are both women, as is the ambassador to the United States. The net enrollment rate for Omani girls in primary and secondary school exceeds that for boys. One out of three Omanis in the workforce is female, a relatively high number in a patriarchal region. And, unlike in every other country in the Arab world, women in Oman have the same right to own land as their male counterparts. 

The country’s distinctive society and geography have also shaped its approach to diplomacy, allowing it to build bridges within the region and between East and West. Decades before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preaching about a foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” Oman had already mastered it. Oman managed to maintain peaceful ties with both Iran and Iraq during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, and with both Iran and the United States after those countries had a diplomatic falling out in 1979. In recent years, Oman has managed to successfully organize border negotiations with both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, promote a measure of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitate better relations between Yemen and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and, most recently, mediate between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other, following a bitter political dispute over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Oman has also succeeded at facilitating secret high-stakes talks between Washington and Tehran as part of the international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program—and on other matters such as the release of three American hostages who were arrested by Iran while hiking along the Iran–Iraq border.

Oman also plays an important role in the GCC, of which it is a quiet member. Muscat, often perceived by its Arab Gulf neighbors as an errant maverick because of its friendly relationship with Tehran, has openly resisted Riyadh’s efforts to dominate the GCC and make it a tool to counter or weaken Iran. Oman is far more interested in emphasizing economic cooperation among GCC members (although it has said explicitly that it will not join a single Gulf currency) rather than plans for military or political unity. 

That Oman has done better than most others in the region, in terms of domestic and foreign policy, can be mainly attributed to Qaboos. Since overthrowing his father with the help of the British government in 1970, he has personally led an effort to modernize Oman and raise its standard of living and regional profile. He engaged in tireless personal diplomacy to build peaceful relations with all his neighbors and demarcate all his country’s borders. He also instituted policies that opened up Oman and made it more attractive for foreign direct investment.

But Qaboos’ determination has also created a problem: having accomplished so much almost singlehandedly, it’s unclear whether anyone could take his place. With no siblings, children, or heir to the throne, and few credible, authoritative political institutions (including political parties) to effectively manage a possible transition, it’s fair to wonder whether Oman can maintain its stability without Qaboos. Oman does not have sectarian and religious divisions, which reduces the likelihood of severe political violence, but, if opportunistic political actors see fit, it’s possible that old divisions between the north and south could re-emerge. (A Soviet-orchestrated communist insurgency in Al Dhofar in the south between 1962 and 1976 almost tore the country apart, but was ultimately defeated by Muscat with British and Iranian military assistance.) 

Oman should be able to survive without Qaboos, despite his unique traits and accomplishments. The nation can rely on its geography, culture, and human capital to make a successful transition and stay on the path of development. Qaboos is also believed to have already made detailed plans for his succession. He is said to have drafted a letter that names his preferred successor (most likely one of his four cousins), a copy of which is in Muscat and another in Salalah, the capital of the Dhofar region in the south. Assuming that the transfer of power goes smoothly, the next sultan will face many immediate challenges, beyond preserving the legacy of his predecessor. The biggest, arguably, will be to diversify the economy, by reducing the country’s reliance on oil sales (which currently comprise 45 percent of GDP), and also reduce unemployment, which currently stands at 15 percent.

The probability of a radical shift in Omani foreign policy may be small, but U.S. officials are understandably concerned that the next Omani leader might be less enthusiastic than Qaboos about the country’s strategic partnership with the United States, and more receptive to deeper ties with Iran. This could jeopardize the significant U.S. military assets (including the Masirah Air Base and the Thumrait Naval Air Base for anti-submarine patrol planes) that are stationed in Oman. The U.S. Air Force could also be denied access to Seeb International Airport. Any of those eventualities would have major consequences for U.S. military strategy in the region. 

But none of this is inevitable. Indeed, that longtime trusted advisors of Qaboos with whom I had a chance to meet on a recent trip, including Yusuf bin Alawi, the minister responsible for foreign affairs, are likely to remain politically influential in Muscat gives reason for optimism. Of course, it will be impossible to know for sure until there’s some clarity about the sultan’s physical condition. Ultimately, it is Qaboos’ task to continue his decades-long record of responsible leadership by being transparent about what lies in store in the immediate future.

Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.