An Empty Throne: Oman’s Missing Sultan

The popular and respected leader of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, credited with leading the nation into the modern world after seizing power from his father in 1970, appears to have vanished. Neither of the Sultan’s two private 747 jets (registration numbers A4O-OMN and A4O-HMS) have moved in recent months, suggesting that he remains in Oman despite his absence from the public eye. His yacht (the Al Said) also remains berthed and unmoving in Muttrah port. In a region awash with conflict, the disappearance of its most effective mediator could prove to be a significant problem. The disappearance of the leader of the Middle East’s most stable nation could be an even bigger problem.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

The last public appearance of Sultan Qaboos of Oman was in February of this year, when a fragile-looking Sultan greeted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Muscat. That appearance was itself remarked as being a rarity for the elusive Sultan, and he has not been seen in the six months since. This is not his first disappearance; the political scene in Muscat has been suspiciously quiet these last two years with rumours circulating that the Sultan spent as long as 12 months in Europe receiving medical treatment for what is believed to be colon cancer, before finally returning to the public eye in late 2016. At the time the 76-year old Sultan appeared to be in observable good health, although certainly thinner and frailer-looking than during his last appearance, although many are now questioning if his condition had worsened between then and his last appearance in February.

The Sultan, like many Gulf rulers, makes all major decisions as head of state, prime minister, defence minister, foreign affairs minister and finance minister. This system has long served Oman well, with the Sultan’s careful and intelligent leadership carrying the country to prosperity. That prosperity now appears to be at risk given repeated and mysterious absences, the Sultan’s lack of direct heirs, and a questionably vague succession plan.

Though Qaboos was briefly married in 1976, he has no children, and without a child or brother there is no obvious heir to the throne. Omani tradition dictates that the successor must be a descendent of Turki bin Said with two natural-born Omani parents, leaving a pool of 50 to 60 male Al Said family members from which to select an heir . Preparations have supposedly been in place for some time, and are said to involve secret letters containing the name of the Sultan’s favored choice for the throne. The secrecy and vague public profile of the plan is believed to be due to the Sultan’s concerns that a potential successor could gain enough power to dethrone him while he still lives; not an overly-imaginative concern given that Qaboos himself came to power by ousting his own paranoid father in a palace coup.

Oman has long been seen as a stable and generally neutral player in a turbulent region. The nation has brokered multiple rounds of discussions between its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours and Iran, and is often turned to as a conflict mediator within the region. Oman also served as mediator between Iran and the U.S. in hostage deals and the initial talks that led to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.

In Muscat’s most recent display of neutrality, Oman did not join the Saudi Arabian-led political embargo in June 2017 to isolate Qatar over a number of disagreements, principally Qatar’s involvement in the funding and arming of regional militant groups. Most surprisingly, Oman has this time only taken a supporting role in Kuwaiti-led efforts to resolve the dispute through mediated discussions. Although Oman’s senior diplomat Yusuf Alawi did visit the U.S. to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss the crisis in July, it must be questioned whether Muscat’s failure to seize the principle mediator role in this latest crisis is a new strategy in the traditional long term Omani neutrality stance or a more worrying form of foreign policy paralysis in the absence of the Sultan.

With a regional diplomatic crisis unfolding, Oman’s neighbours will be looking to the Sultan’s leadership more intensely than ever before, and his absence will only contribute to the intensifying GCC-Qatar dispute.

Little is known of the geopolitical outlook of his potential successors, raising concerns of Oman’s future role in the region following the Sultan’s passing. Despite its rare status as a stable nation and constructive political force within the Middle East, Oman’s strength is derived primarily from its oil-based prosperity and the popularity of its leader, of which neither are eternal. The threat of destabilization is growing with the potential for a succession-driven power struggle. Ahead of succession, Oman also faces the challenge of an ailing Sultan and the risk of falling into accompanying foreign policy paralysis.

In a region awash with conflict, a reappearance by one of its most effective and respected peace-makers is desperately needed. The lack of such an appearance makes the Sultan’s absence all the more worrying.

Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on MENA-region geopolitical and security analysis.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State


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