Known as a peacemaker in the Arab world, his passing represents the loss of a man who worked hard to not let his country suffer the issues and tensions that have threatened the region’s stability.
The Middle East woke up on Saturday, January 11 to the news of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s death, one of the few visionary leaders left in the region. Known as a peacemaker in the Arab world, his passing represents the loss of a man who worked hard to not let his country suffer the issues and tensions that have threatened the region’s stability.
Domestically, since taking power in 1970, Qaboos carried out reforms that transformed the country significantly and improved the lives of its people. His wisdom was always present, even when dealing with challenges. For instance, when there were protests in Oman in 2011, Qaboos’s remedy for the angry voices was to carry out significant reforms. The sultanate reportedly created 50,000 new government jobs, raised the minimum wage, subsidized more than 80,000 low-income households, increased opportunities for university enrollment, and increased salaries. The late Sultan also fired two senior ministers in response to protesters’ demands.
Carrying out these reforms prevented the scenarios that occurred during the Arab Spring in other countries from happening in Oman. Moreover, Qaboos ensured that national unification was a key theme of his leadership.
“That connection between Qaboos and the state has been at the heart of his rule since the sultan took power in 1970,” wrote Marc Valeri, director of the Centre for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. “Relying on the country’s oil revenues, the sultan asserted his legitimacy by implementing an ambitious policy of national unification and by creating a vast pool of civil servants who depended on the regime for their survival.”
Internationally, Qaboos was seen as a credible broker, a friend to everyone and a bridge between adversaries.
Internationally, Qaboos was seen as a credible broker, a friend to everyone and a bridge between adversaries. During the Iraq–Iran war in the 1980s, Oman remained neutral and played a positive diplomatic role. During the Kuwait–Iraq war, although Oman did condemn Iraq’s invasion, it was the only Gulf country that did not cut diplomatic relations with Baghdad. It also attempted to create opportunities for crisis resolution.
Qaboos’ role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was also significant. The late Sultan spoke about Palestinian rights continuously in his speeches, and Oman opposed the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq.
The Sultanate, furthermore, was the only GCC country that never severed ties with Syria after the Arab Spring. One of its most significant diplomatic achievements is that it hosted the secret talks that led to the 2015 U.S.–Iran nuclear deal. Unfortunately, President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal has wasted the enormous effort that resulted in the historic deal.
Under Qaboos’ reign, Oman’s diplomatic relations with all Gulf states were maintained. He did not allow good relations with Tehran to have an impact on those with neighboring countries, who have a more aggressive approach towards Iran. Imposing blockades, starting wars, and putting pressures on fellow Arab countries was never on his agenda. Rather, he constantly called for peaceful resolutions and remained steadfast as well as neutral in regional crisis.
“Before 1970, Oman pursued a steadfastly isolationist foreign policy, leaving it to Britain to interact with the outside world,” J.E. Peterson, who is a historian and political analyst specializing in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf, told Inside Arabia. “After the accession of Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s tentative outreach to Gulf neighbors eventually blossomed into a policy of semi-neutrality and deliberate interaction with all actors.”
“From the precipice of war with South Yemen, Oman forged a treaty and delineated boundary.”
“From the precipice of war with South Yemen, Oman forged a treaty and delineated boundary,” Peterson, who also served as the Historian of the Sultan’s Armed Forces added.
“Diplomatic relations were established with first China and then the Soviet Union before most Gulf states, yet relations with Britain remained strong and a political and security relationship with the United States deepened. Fully committed to the GCC, Oman nevertheless kept useful ties to Iran and Israel. The strength of this foreign policy lay in never making enemies, keeping all channels open, and seeking to maintain a neutral path through the minefields.”
The new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, has vowed to continue this path. In one of his first remarks as Sultan, Haitham promised to uphold Muscat’s policy of peaceful coexistence with all nations while developing Oman’s economy. “We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully,” he said.
One could argue that the national unification Qaboos worked to establish is one reason why the transition of power has gone so smoothly and faster than some experts may have expected.
One could argue that the national unification Qaboos worked to establish is one reason why the transition of power has gone so smoothly and faster than some experts may have expected. Indeed, the success of the transition has made Oman pass one of its very first challenges in the post-Qaboos era.
It is worth noting that the new Oxford-educated Sultan has served as Minister of Heritage and Culture and as Chairman of the Oman 2040 Future Vision Main Committee. He is reportedly known in international policy circles for his interaction with world leaders and royals. He has extensive foreign affairs experience, as he served for several years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as special envoy to Qaboos. With business experience too, Haitham’s domestic and foreign experience may have contributed to Qaboos’s choice of him as a successor.
Qaboos has left behind a path that should be followed. As Sultan Haitham bin Tariq takes over, and if he succeeds in tackling the challenges he is likely going to face, such as stimulating the economy and carrying Qaboos’s neutral foreign policy approach, it could play a role in increasing his popularity among Omanis as well as maintaining the sultanate’s bright global image.