It has been 30 days since Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, passed away. During his 49 years at the helm of Oman, he shepherded the Sultanate from a desolate, hermit country to a modern, vibrant player in the international arena. Omani citizens revered Sultan Qaboos because they believed him to be responsible for implementing change to turn their country around. In fact, Omani citizens respected their former Sultan so much that during the Arab Spring of 2011, when protests were spreading throughout the region, the protests in Oman were comparatively tame (some protesters actually expressed support for the Sultan) – and the Sultan made some changes to Oman’s rule as a result because he wanted to please his citizens! Needless to say, this is not common behavior by a monarch in the Middle East.
Since the calendar turned to 2020, the Middle East has been subject to two unique developments in which Sultan Qaboos could have played a significant role had he been alive. The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on January 3 and the subsequent Iranian counterattack on United States forces on January 8 happened in the Sultan’s final days. While the limited relations between the U.S. and Iran have been slowly deteriorating since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015, one thing is clear: without the Sultan, it is quite possible that there would never have been limited relations in the first place. Sultan Qaboos was able to bring the U.S. and Iran together for low-level negotiations in a previously unthought manner beginning in 2011. These talks culminated in the signing of the JCPOA four years later. The fact that the leaders of the P5+1 were not able to conduct the negotiations from a position of strength to effectively stop Iran’s nuclear ambition is a separate story. What cannot be understated is that without Sultan Qaboos playing a role in bringing the two sides together, it is possible that Iran might never have come to the negotiating table. It is unknown what the next round of the U.S.-Iran conflict will be. However, if Sultan Qaboos were still alive, it is possible that he would have been working to calm the increasing tensions and remove potential triggers in order to avoid another escalation. It is somewhat likely that, based on recent history, both the U.S. and Iran would have listened.
The second development is U.S. President Donald Trump’s release of his proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan two weeks ago. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a perennial source of frustration for many who get involved. Compounding this frustration is the belief by various observers and third party sources that the two leaders currently at the helms of their respective sides are the wrong combination to resolve the conflict. The “deal of the century” is looked at by some as nothing more than an effort by the Trump Administration to keep Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power. However, there may be more to the release of the proposed peace plan than this seemingly pessimistic view.
In October 2018, Netanyahu paid a surprise visit to Oman, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit the country in over 20 years. This visit followed one by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Oman days earlier. Although the U.S. has been the primary intermediary between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it seemed that Oman under Sultan Qaboos was looked at as a legitimate regional go-between by both the Israelis and Palestinians. Why? Because as an Arab state that has historically not been overtly anti-Israel, it was trusted by both sides in a way that most other states in the region (and world) were not. While Oman has had mixed reactions to the release of the Trump peace plan, history tells us that Sultan Qaboos could have played a role in moving the plan forward to the benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians had he been alive in the aftermath of its release. It is possible that the U.S. had been hoping for this scenario all along.
Many invested in Oman’s future hope that the new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said (Sultan Qaboos’s cousin), will continue to lead the country down a path of neutrality and remain committed to building an Oman that is trusted by all states, one of the enduring legacies of his predecessor. Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said set the bar quite high.
May his memory be a blessing.