Nobody Knows Who'll Be in Charge after Oman's 'Founding Father'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State

The sultan has no brothers, no wife, no sons and no clear successor.

In the 1860s, while the United States was fighting a savage civil war, the Omani empire was reaching its zenith. At one point, Oman’s reach stretched from southern Persia, across the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa, to what is today much of Somalia, the Kenyan coast and south to Zanzibar. Muscat, controlled by the Portuguese in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, had become a pivotal Indian Ocean capital.

Muscat’s writ runs far more shallowly today, but the sparsely populated country still punches above its weight in international affairs. Under the forty-six-year leadership of Qaboos bin Said Al Said, Oman has become a quiet diplomatic power throughout the region, lowering sectarian tensions and brokering discreet contacts among the United States and other regional actors. Omani diplomats, equally at ease in Washington and Tehran, were crucial to bringing together U.S. and Iranian negotiators as early as 2009, paving the way for the early first steps of the landmark nuclear energy deal between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the P5+1 governments inked earlier last year. Presumably with Iran’s encouragement, Oman also last year hosted peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels who now control much of Yemen.

A Soft-Power Star on the Edge of Arabia

Omanis chiefly practice Ibadism, mostly distinct to Oman, Zanzibar and eastern Africa, which predates and is distinct from both Sunni and Shia Islam. In practice, Ibadis are relatively moderate Muslims, and Ibadism’s distance from both Sunni and Shiite has helped make Oman an important peacekeeper in the Muslim world. Oman is a close ally of Iran, but it was also a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981, even while it has aided American antiterrorism efforts in the region. In January, for instance, the United States transferred ten Guantánamo detainees to Oman. It has no real military might, nor does it project economic strength (its $58.5 billion economy is dwarfed today even by Syria’s), but its ability to project soft power in the region is off the charts. Moreover, together with Iran, it guarantees safe passage of Middle Eastern oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage linking the Persian Gulf to the wider Arabian Sea.

Increasingly, the Middle East’s borders and institutions are grinding through a disruptive reorganization, Westphalian in scale and Hobbesian in brutality. It’s easy to overlook Oman, a country of just around 4.4 million (including nearly two million guest workers) that hooks around the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, and it’s even easier to take its stabilizing role for granted. It’s certainly at the top of no one’s Middle Eastern agenda, in the wake of Turkey’s recent failed coup attempt, Syria’s ongoing civil war, Iraq’s continuing division and the international effort to halt ISIS. Yemen has increasingly become an anarchic quagmire, a pawn in a regional cold war between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni kingdom and Iran’s Shiite republic.

The last thing anyone wants is a succession crisis in Oman—or a reversion to the chaos that marked Oman when Qaboos took power in 1970. Nevertheless, Oman’s status as a modernized, united and stable country in a neighborhood of tumult could be far more tenuous than it seems. Imagine, for example, if even a fraction of the chaos that dominates the Gulf of Aden in the failed states of Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen were visited upon Oman.

The sultan—seventy-five-year-old Qaboos—has no brothers, no wife, no sons and, by all accounts, hasn’t particularly groomed anyone as his successor. In the aftermath of a serious health scare over the last two years, it’s not clear that, despite the sultan’s flagging health, Oman is prepared to cope with the post-Qaboos era. Though the sultan returned to his country last March, he spent eight months of 2014 and early 2015 seeking treatment in Germany for what the world believes to have been cancer, though Qaboos and his royal advisers have been cagey about the real cause of his illness. No one today knows, reliably, the true state of Qaboos’s health.

Qaboos’s Long Shadow

Speculation swirls over the future of the allegedly ailing, seventy-nine-year-old Saudi monarch Salman. Americans thought that they were familiar with the man who would became the key player in a feeble Salman-led regime: the fifty-six-year-old interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, the highly regarded crown prince and top U.S. ally, especially as regards counterterrorism matters. But there are reports that Mohammed is suffering from health problems after taking an uncharacteristically low profile under Salman. The thirty-year-old defense minister Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son, and now second in line to the throne, is now ascendant, leaving American officials scrambling to curry favor.