Complex Made Simple

The sultan and the sultanate: what next for Oman in 2020 and beyond?

The last public service that the late Sultan Qaboos performed for his people was the choice of a seasoned, prudent diplomat to succeed him on the throne of the sultanate in a swift, uncontested succession to power. Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq succeeds the Arab world’s long serving monarch, at a moment of grave geopolitical, economic and military uncertainty in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. It is significant that Sultan Haitham, a Pembroke College, Oxford Foreign Service Program graduate, has been the former patron of the Anglo-Omani Society and has impeccable connections at the highest levels in Whitehall, Downing Street, the City of London, and, naturally, Buckingham Palace. Both the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Johnson flew to Muscat to offer their condolences to the new Sultan. A Minister of Heritage and Culture in the Omani Cabinet and handpicked royal envoy on several sensitive diplomatic missions in the past two decades, Sultan Haitham is no stranger to the world’s captains and kings as well as the game of nations played at the head of state level.

Sultan Haitham is extremely sensitive to the complex social tapestry of Omani elites – the merchants of Muscat, the civil service, the tribal configurations in the Sultanate’s different wileyets, the need to create jobs is a nation dangerously dependent on volatile oil and gas prices. It is significant that Sultan Qaboos choose Sayyid Haitham, a 65 year old prince with broad socio-economic, governmental and foreign experience as the next Sultan to succeed him rather than a member of the Al Said dynasty with a narrower military, intelligence and national security background.

As usual, Sultan Qaboos knew that Oman’s most fundamental challenges in the 2020’s will be economic, social and diplomatic, not the military nightmare he himself had inherited with an insurgency in Dhofar instigated by South Yemen, then the only Marxist-Leninist state in the Arab world, the Brezhnev Kremlin’s pawn on the Arabian Peninsula’s geopolitical chessboard. The Omani friends I know all tell me that Sayyid Haitham is acutely sensitive to the economic and social welfare needs of the Omani youth and will spare no effort to accelerate the economic reform agenda to attract FDI and boost the role of the private sector in an economy that only managed 1% GDP growth in 2019.

As Sultan Qaboos’s handpicked successor, Sultan Haitham also has the political legitimacy to confine his revered predecessor’s policies of economic liberlisation amid a tolerant, pluralist, non-sectarian social milieu. The late Sultan Qaboos’s closest advisors and ministers included elites from all sections of Omani society – Arabs, Sahelis, Zanzibaris, Ajamis, Baluchis, Baharana, Dhofaris and the Lawati merchant communities. This “rainbow nation” concept of Omani identity makes the sultanate one of the most politically stable, modern and socio-culturally vibrant societies in the Arab world. Oman is a delightful country with tradition and heritage to visit as a tourist and to do business in as I can personally attest from dozens of visits since 1993. The haunted ruins of Nizwa, the forts and beaches of Mutra, the ancient Portuguese cemeteries, the golden dunes of the Rub al Khali and the misty green hills of Salalah evoke the enchantment of an ancient Arab heritage sadly lost amid the glass and concrete swirl of so many futuristic obsessed cities in the Arabian Gulf. The late Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi said it best – you do not have a future if you forget your past.

Sayyid Haitham’s first words as the new Omani head of state affirmed his adherence to the late Sultan Qaboos’s principles of “peaceful coexistence among nations” and “good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others”. This the template for Oman to continue to play the role of the Switzerland of the Arab world, a state that never broke off diplomatic relations with any government, no matter the provocation, ever since Sultan Qaboos ascended the throne in 1970, transforming a medieval backwater located on the energy shipping chokepoints of the Straits of Hormuz into a modern, united, peaceful nation-state.

Oman maintained embassies in Tehran and Baghdad during the height of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s and was a diplomatic mediator between Washington and Iran’s theocratic regime, hosting secret talks in Muscat that culminated in President Obama’s signature 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Oman chose a policy of neutrality in regional conflicts, not joining in the Coalition blockade of Qatar or military intervention in Yemen.

Oman remained a staunch ally of Britain and the United States while also doing its best to unfreeze the West’s cold war with revolutionary Iran since 1979. This was a delicate diplomatic pirouette that imposed political and economic costs on the Sultanate yet amplified its regional voice and consolidated its sovereignty despite its periodic acceptance of development aid from its far wealthier GCC neighbours. Sayyid Haitham, more than any other member of the royal Al Said clan, was Sultan Qaboos chosen emissary to his head of state peers in the GCC, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Britain, India, Pakistan and the US – among so many other global powers. To the cognoscenti of the diplomatic game, he was a “A lister” on the world stage long before he became the Sultan of Oman.

It is a pity that the end of the Sultan Qaboos’s era coincided with the escalation of US-Iran tensions after the killing of General Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s decision to publicly claim the launch of retaliatory ballistic missile strikes against two American air bases in Iraq. Even though Trump has claimed Iran is “standing down”, Ayatullah Khameini has sworn to expel the US from the Middle East, a pledge that could once again plunge the Gulf into another catastrophic war.

Oman’s national security and economic umbilical cord (tourism, LNG sales, aviation etc.) requires that the oil tanker sea lanes of the Straits of Hormuz and the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean be immune from Iran’s threat of war or sabotage. Strangled by “maximum pressure” sanctions of the Trump White House and US Treasury, blackballed from Euroclear and SWIFT, Iran has lashed out by mining, sabotaging and seizing foreign flagged oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, shooting down a Pentagon Global Hawk surveillance drone and ordering a ballistic missile attack on Saudi Aramco’s most sensitive oil processing hub in Abqaiq and Khurais. Iran’s regime has violated international law with impunity and now responds to the outrage of its young opponents with bullets and state terror. As in 2015, the world needs Sultan Haitham to do his best to persuade Iran and the US to negotiate with each other, not sleepwalk into another bloody, ruinous war. The Middle East has still not learnt the existential lesson from two millennia of its own tragic past – an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.

Oman’s relations with its Western allies also need to be rebooted. Britain, obsessed with Brexit, has not engaged with the GCC states to prevent a potential US war with Iran, even though the Royal Navy has been deployed to escort British oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz and HMG played a seminal role in the defeat of the Marxist-Leninist insurgency in the 1970’s. US-Omani relations, which go back to the time of Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were devalued by Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). Washington will find a veteran, discreet diplomatic mediator in the new Sultan to Oman. This is an opportunity even Donald Trump should gratefully grasp in a Presidential election year.

Economics will remain a major challenge for Sultan Haitham, particularly the Sultanate’s sluggish GDP growth since the 2014-16 oil price crash, youth unemployment despite proactive and accelerating Omanization policies and the state’s “petrocurrency” DNA with the government budget hostage to hyper-volatile international crude oil and LNG prices. As the chairman of Oman Vision 2040 development blueprint, Sultan Haitham will focus on attracting Chinese, South Korean, Indian and Japanese investments into Oman’s port and infrastructure complexes on the Indian Ocean, gateway to Asia’s high growth tiger economies, all lucrative downstream markets for Omani oil/LNG and petrochemical exports.

Oman also needs to maintain its historic relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the wealthiest states in the GCC that Sultan Qaboos helped create in 1981. Assassinations of high government officials, terrorist sieges of embassies and ballistic missiles launches against targets in a foreign country promise the Middle East only and endless nightmare of human suffering. Our world needs a different path, a gentle and civilized model of dialogue to heal its multiple wounds. The Omani path of quiet diplomacy not boastful threats to unleash war by world leaders is the only way we can defuse the geopolitical time bomb that now ominously threatens to explode in the Middle East. Oman has chosen not to play the zero sum, Darwinian game of nations in the Gulf since the fall of the Shah of Iran’s regime in 1979. Hopefully, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq bin Taimur Al Said will do his sacred duty to preserve the peace of our region and, inshallah, become the first Gulf Arab head of state to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Now that would be an event that would really please the soul of the late Sultan Qaboos!