Cannons in Oman 2014

The Quiet Reappearance of Sultan Qaboos

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman has been mysteriously absent in recent years, having last appeared in public in February 2017. In an unexpected turn for Oman-watchers, the Sultan has quietly reappeared in the spotlight in recent weeks in a series of meetings including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis. The return of the experienced conflict mediator and genuinely popular Sultan comes at a time when the Gulf is awash with crises. In this piece, we examine the Sultan’s absence, and what his return could mean for Oman, the Middle East, and the World.

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When Sultan Qaboos greeted President Rouhani in February 2017, his appearance was remarked as being a rarity for the lately elusive Sultan. At the time, he had not been seen in the six months, and it was certainly not his first disappearance. His thin and frail frame led to questions circulating once more around the Sultan’s health; the political scene in Muscat has been suspiciously quiet in recent years with rumours of the Sultan taking long stretches in Europe receiving medical treatment for what is believed to be colon cancer.

Under the Sultan’s reign, Oman has stood alone as a stable and truly neutral player in the turbulent region and the nation has leveraged this reputation repeatedly in order to broker truces and deals in neighbouring conflicts. Oman was crucial in brokering multiple rounds of discussions between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran over the years, and served as a key mediator between Iran and the U.S. in hostage-swap deals and talks that paved the way for the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement. In March 2015, Oman continued on this course by being the only GCC country not to join the Saudi-led war against Houthi forces in Yemen, while also maintaining its strong relations with Riyadh.

In Muscat’s most recent display of neutral diplomacy, Oman abstained from joining the Saudi-led political embargo in mid-2017 to isolate Qatar over a number of disagreements, principally Qatar’s involvement in the funding and arming of regional militant and Islamist political groups. What has been surprising about the Qatar-GCC dispute, however, is Oman’s minor supporting role in Kuwaiti-led efforts to resolve the crisis through mediation. In a situation that desperately requires the Sultan’s seasoned negotiation skills, the most that Muscat could muster was dispatching senior diplomat Yusuf Alawi to the U.S. to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss the issue on the Sultan’s behalf. This led to questions over whether Muscat’s failure to seize the principle mediator role in the crisis was a new strategy in Oman’s traditional neutral foreign policy stance or a more worrying form of diplomatic paralysis in the absence of the Sultan.

Concerns around the Sultan’s health have led to questions around his enigmatically-secretive succession plan. The Sultan, like many Gulf rulers, is extremely central to almost all elements of Oman’s government, from Finance to Defence. This system has long served Oman well, with the Sultan’s thoughtful leadership carrying the country into relative prosperity and bringing unusually high approval ratings from his citizens. Many have asked whether that prosperity may now be at risk given these 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. Preparations have supposedly been in place for some time, and are said to involve secret letters naming the Sultan’s favored nephew as his choice for the role. Little is known of the geopolitical outlook of this small list of potential successors, raising concerns of Oman’s future as neutral mediator in the region following the Sultan’s inevitable passing. More concerning in the short term, however, is the fact that ahead of succession, Oman may face the challenge of an ailing Sultan and the associated foreign policy paralysis that his repeated, possibly medically-mandated absences may bring.

The good news, felt as a sigh of relief across the region, is that the Sultan Qaboos has once again proven himself still lucid and able to handle the burdens of statesmanship with a fresh official appearance. In February of this year, the Sultan met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi where the two leaders signed eight agreements ranging from defence cooperation through to healthcare and tourism deals. The Sultan then hosted Secretary of State Jim Mattis in mid-March at the Bait Al Baraka royal palace in Seeb in a meeting attended by Sayyid Badr bin Saud bin Harib al Busaidi, Oman’s Minister for Defence Affairs, and Washington’s Ambassador to the country, Marc Sievers. At the meeting, bilateral relations were discussed along with the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Yemen and the GCC-Qatar rift.

On the flight to Oman, Mattis spoke to the accompanying press and said of the Sultan, “He’s a very strategic leader…and he recognizes the advantage that violent extremists, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, ISIS, gain from that sort of disarray inside of Yemen. So we’ll also be looking at ways that we further strengthen our [military-to-military] relationship. We have a very good professional relationship with the sultan’s armed forces”.

The relatively professional nature of Oman’s armed forces have contributed – in combination with the Sultan’s diplomatic neutrality and the resistance of the country’s unique strain of Ibadi Islam – to the nation being relatively insulated from the turbulence surrounding it. Yemen’s civil war has not spilled over the frontier, and not a single Omani had joined the estimated 20,000 foreign fighters battling alongside the Islamic State in the Levant.

The 77-year old Sultan appeared to be in good health judging by the official photographs released after his meeting with Mattis, although certainly still as thin and frail as during his February 2017 appearance. Whether this appearance represents a full-time return to diplomatic life for the Sultan is yet to be seen, although it is clear that it would be welcome news for the region.

A more “assertively neutral” Oman would be well placed to begin brokering fresh talks to reboot the stalled (although commendable) attempts by Kuwait to resolve the GCC-Qatar dispute. It is clear at this point that the GCC’s blockades are not as damaging to Qatar as Riyadh had hoped, and Qatar remains unwavering when it comes to the coalition’s list of demands. With little chance of either side backing down unilaterally, the Sultan’s influence could allow the parties involved to begin closed-door mediation to identify a handful of the less controversial GCC demands that could be “ceded” by Doha, allowing a deescalation that saves face for all parties.

A similar stalemate has also emerged in Yemen, with rifts appearing in the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi forces now fighting with their backs to their well-fortified mountain strongholds (which negate the Saudi armour-air advantage significantly). Oman previously attempted to broker a solution in Yemen, presenting a 7-point plan to both Iran – the sponsor of the Houthi forces – and Saudi Arabia that it hoped might end the conflict. This plan fell apart following repeated ceasefire violations on both sides, and it appeared at the time that Oman lacked the diplomatic stamina and the conflicting parties lacked the political motivation to follow through with the mediation. As the war now plays out into its fourth year, with the humanitarian cost soaring, the time might be right for the Sultan to invite the belligerents back to his table.

Although it is admittedly excessive to draw so much hope from a handful of official photographs of the Sultan’s meeting with Mattis, the region desperately needs his return to diplomacy.

Suggested books for additional reading on this topic:

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

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

Photo credit: Luca Nebuloni

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