The demise of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, father of the 'Omani Renaissance', has left a void in mediation and diplomacy in the Gulf. How will this impact the Middle East?
Oman, the largest oil producer outside the OPEC, is strategically located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and borders neighbours like Iran to its East, war-torn Yemen to the West and Saudi Arabia and UAE to the North. Iran and Oman share the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most important choke points in the world. The strait of Bab - El Mandeb or "Gates of Tears": vital trade link between the Mediterranean and Asia also falls within its sphere of national security.
Oman was created by Al Bu Said who expelled the Portuguese in the 1600s. Qaboos is his direct descendent.
In 1913, Oman was divided between the religious imams ruling the hinterland and the Muscat Sultan exercising his rule er the coastal region. The discovery of hydrocarbons in the Persian Gulf aggravated the dispute between the Sultan and the Imams.
The Anglo-Persian Company, the precursor of British Petroleum, began drilling in Oman in the 1920s. The British government continued to have vast political control over the Sultanate as all ministers of the Sultanate except for one were British. It was with active British military participation and the support of Iran, Jordan and Pakistan that the Sultan was able to stem uprisings around the country and unite the coast and interior areas
Sultan Qaboos ousted his father in a British backed coup in 1979 and in the 50 years of his rule, the Sultan transformed Oman from an insular to an advanced economy Under him, Oman has been an oasis of peace in the troubled Middle East. It is an inclusive state where three Islamic traditions of Sunni, Shiite and Ibadhi peacefully co-exist. Qaboos had refused to join the Saudi led coalition against the Shiite Houthi groups in Yemen or the Saudi-UAE led the boycott of Qatar.
The successor is Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, an Oxford-educated cousin of the late Sultan Qaboos. He is the architect of Oman Vision 2040 and is reported to be possessing a quiet and reflective character, akin to his highly respected predecessor. The new Sultan has vowed to preserve Oman's traditional policies of 'good neighbourliness'.
The demise of Sultan Qaboos bin Said has brought to the fore the role played by the Sultan in bridging diplomatic divides between the West and the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC).
Oman trod a path of neutrality and this impartial stance has been the cornerstone of Omani diplomacy.
He developed good relations with the US, upgrading the Duqm port to handle US naval assets. The US was also provided three air bases in Oman. However, of late, under President Trump, there have been a significant reduction in US military support to Oman.
Sultan Qaboos was an effective interlocutor and his deft behind the scene manoeuvres to solve complex problems bore fruition. He worked behind the scenes to secure the release of American hostages in Iran in 2009. He also facilitated dialogues between Tehran and Washington as much as between Tehran, Riyadh and other gulf countries.
Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said first test would be how he can navigate and diffuse the current situation brought about by the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. Having important US military assets on its soil could displease the Iranians.
Now at the domestic level, the new Sultan has to grapple with increasing unemployment and the rising cost of living due to falling oil prices. Omanis too have protested against their government as part of the wider Arab Spring unrest in 2011.
India and Oman enjoy excellent relations going back centuries. In fact, between 1913-21, Sultan Taimur bin Faisal was mostly ruling from his residence in India. It is a strategic partner of India in the Gulf and an important interlocutor at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab League and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) fora. The bilateral trade is over US$ 4 billion and rising, and there is an Indian ex-pat community of over 8 lakhs working as doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, teachers, lecturers, nurses, managers, etc. Oman has a close military relationship with India.
Sultan Qaboos's human rights record has come under scrutiny in recent years. Following the Arab Spring, scores of activists have been convicted or are facing trial for participating in demonstrations or insulting the Sultan.
- Oman is unaffected by the Shia Sunni divide as a majority of its population are Ibadi Muslims who are neither Sunni nor Shias, placing Oman in a unique position to act as an interlocutor for Iran.
- Sultan Qaboos was able to walk the geopolitical tightrope between US and Iran deftly. In the current situation, his successor may have a much more difficult task at hand to balance both sides while ensuring the security and interests of Oman.
- Oman also has to balance the UAE and Saudi Arabia, courting their economic engagement while deflecting any infringements on Oman's sovereignty
- The country is running out of natural resources and has to focus on building human capital through education, civil society and the building of state institutions.
- The new Sultan must diversify the economy to get out of the debt repayment cycle. Winning the confidence of Omanis will be essential as he may have to cut public spending and employment. It is in this field, India can play a meaningful role, given its long-standing relationship with Oman.
image courtesy: meed.com