In a January 21, 2020 op-ed for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Can Oman Survive Its Own Neighborhood After the Death of Sultan Qaboos?” POMED’s Advocacy Associate Louisa Keeler writes on some of the challenges Oman will face after the death of its leader.

The small Gulf state of Oman’s identity is closely—if not inextricably—linked with the person of Sultan Qaboos, who passed away on January 10 after nearly 50 years in power. He singlehandedly transformed the country from a sleepy, closed-off country comprising disparate groups to an interconnected, modern, and unified state that has proven itself an invaluable player on the international scene. Within Oman, his portrait is ubiquitous, and his name is on countless mosques, hospitals, and institutions throughout the Sultanate, a sign of both his revered status and proof of his impact on society. Now that he is gone, he leaves behind an untested successor who is not particularly well known to the international community. Qaboos’ presence will be missed during one of the tensest moments since 1979 between the United States, Iran, and the Arab Gulf states, countries which have relied on Oman as a badly needed messenger and facilitator for negotiations. If there was ever a good time for Sultan Qaboos to die, this was not it.

Oman, the Messenger

Oman under Qaboos carved out an invaluable niche for itself as a key facilitator of dialogue between adversaries inside (as well as outside) the region, setting itself apart from its neighbors as a friendly acquaintance to all. This role is embedded in Oman’s very identity, and Omanis pride themselves on not falling under the influence of more powerful countries around it—no small feat, nestled between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and the United States (geopolitically, if not geographically). Its closest foreign partner is the United Kingdom, which supported Qaboos in his coup against his father in 1970 and militarily in the Dhofar Rebellion, an insurgency in Oman’s westernmost governorate that lasted from 1962 to 1976 that saw the Marxist-Leninist Dhofari Liberation Front attempting to gain independence from greater Oman. Oman’s current domestic stability is often attributed to a sense that everyone should really just get along and a general outlook that the highest reward is keeping regional and internal risk low. The Sultanate has managed to do this through its centuries-long partnership with the United States, which affords it military and economic assistance, but also its steadfast commitment to remaining politically neutral and as a vehicle for regional diplomacy—even between antagonistic and hostile actors.

Oman is not neutral, exactly, because it is deeply invested in peace between the powers around it. As a result, its relations with each side can be counted upon to be genuine, but limited in scope. In the aftermath of the United States’ assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Oman was seen as a natural country to enable quiet diplomacy because it is one of the only players that both the United States and Iran were likely to trust and that could likely convince both parties to come to the table. (In hindsight, Oman’s hesitance to get involved with U.S.-Iran negotiations after Soleimani’s assassination is perhaps more likely due to the Sultan’s decline rather than any political reasons.) Much to its northern neighbors’ frustration, Oman encouraged and enabled negotiations that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 and has been a frequent—if also controversial—host for negotiations on the conflict in Yemen

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