Dr. Michael Gunther
The Sultanate of Oman occupies an important strategic position in the world as the state responsible for the southern portion of the Straits of Hormuz. For nearly fifty years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said steered Oman’s national strategy as its chief of state, senior diplomat, and commander of the armed forces. He followed a path of strategic nonalignment during and after the Cold War, which placed in the Sultanate in a unique position as a neutral broker between the West, Iran, and other Arab states. Qaboos executed this policy in a manner that never brought him, or Oman, a lot of attention, which made him a valuable ally.
Qaboos assumed the mantle of Sultan following a bloodless coup in July 1970. The only son of Sultan Said bin Taimur, he was educated at Sandhurst, served as an officer in the British Army, and studied local government in East Anglia. Upon his return to the Sultanate, his father kept in isolation in Salalah while the state fought a Marxist-aligned insurgency in the southern region of Dhofar. Said’s isolationist policies emboldened the insurgency and allowed them to build support from local states, including South Yemen and Iraq, and larger states including the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. After the coup, Qaboos’s domestic policies remained consistent with his father’s due to a lack of internal resources; however, he differed in one key aspect. The new Sultan committed to establishing diplomatic relations between Oman and other states. Qaboos and his Prime Minister, Tariq bin Taimur, pursued a policy to bring Oman into the international community at a pace that worried his British advisors. They successfully gained membership in the Arab League and the United Nations in 1971 after working through diplomatic objections from Saudi Arabia, South Yemen, and Egypt.
The Sarfait campaign of April 1972 proved more decisive to securing Oman’s place in the Gulf and Qaboos’s place as a keen diplomat. Facing calls to quickly end the insurgency, the Sultan’s Armed Forces attempted a series of operations to isolate the rebels in Dhofar from their support area in South Yemen by seizing a base on the border. Although the mission failed to accomplish its primary mission, Qaboos remained committed to concept of defending the entirety of the province. Following the decision to bomb rebel sanctuaries across the frontier in Hauf, he accepted a substantial offer of Iranian assistance against the advice of British officials who worried he would alienate Arab states. Instead, Qaboos built an international coalition of unlikely allies in the Gulf, including states such as Saudi Arabia that previously supported rebels in the Sultanate. During the subsequent Yom Kippur War, OPEC, which included Oman, voted to embargo oil sales to the West due their perceived support to Israel during the war. However, Qaboos secured an exception for the Sultanate’s exports due to the need to fund the state’s prosecution of the war in Dhofar. In this episode, Qaboos negotiated both the ability to outwardly support the unified Arab position, while still providing oil exports to the West. The increased revenue enabled Qaboos to secure country through civil development and upgraded weapons systems.
As fighting in the Dhofar Rebellion abated, Oman’s foreign policy strategy seemed somewhat haphazard. In late 1974, the British government sought to finish its withdrawal ‘East of Suez’ by leaving its bases in Masirah and Salalah. Qaboos gradually turned to the United States as a strategic partner; however, without the legal entanglements as his partnership with the UK. Following the declaration of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, the Americans signalled a more active interest in the Middle East. Qaboos supported this idea and even allowed the US to use Masirah for the staging of Eagle Claw, the failed military operation to rescue the American embassy hostages in Tehran. In return, Qaboos secured a military assistance and access agreement valued at more than $100 million.
Following the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979, most Arab and Gulf states severed diplomatic relations with Egypt. Oman was the lone exception, and the Sultanate was subsequently the first Gulf state to host an Israeli Prime Minister for an official visit. Qaboos argued that his neighbours were allowing themselves to be distracted by the Palestinian issue and losing focus on the threat of populist movements in the Gulf. At the same time, he normalised relations with communist China. While many of these actions seem diametrically opposed, Qaboos was slowly undermining the sources of support for the rebels in PDRY while also aligning himself with western interests, such as President Nixon’s rapprochement with Chairman Mao.
In March 1981, Arab leaders met in Muscat to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although officially non-aligned, Qaboos and other Omani officials believed that the organisation should cooperate with the United States and other western allies. Qaboos believed that the Soviet Union and Cuba were the primary sources of instability in the Gulf. Although he had drawn the ire of other member states by supporting the Camp David Accords, the GCC states concurred that his concerns over Communism were validated following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the need for the US to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf during the Tanker War (1986-1988). The GCC (including Oman) sent two brigades of troops to support Kuwait and US-led alliance during Operations Desert Shield and Storm (1990-1991).
Following the Cold War, Qaboos cemented his diplomatic position as a neutral arbiter for western interests. Since Oman remained officially non-aligned, and Qaboos never sought the limelight for efforts, the country played a pivotal role in the negotiations. In 2011, Qaboos served as an intermediary between the US and Iran when three American backpackers wandered into the Islamic Republic and were arrested. Since the US government was prohibited from exchanging money directly with Iran, Qaboos personally paid the ransom and transportation costs associated with their repatriation. More recently, Oman hosted talks between the US, EU, and Iran prior to the 2015 nuclear agreement as well as the early rounds of talks between NATO, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan regarding future negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Finally, Oman managed to steer a neutral position in the recent conflict between Qatar and the other Gulf States. In each of these disputes, Qaboos avoided characterisation of being aligned with a certain side.
Qaboos’s selected successor, Haitham bin Tariq, committed Oman to follow the same policy of strategic neutrality, but it remains to be seen if he can continue to serve as trusted arbiter for the West. His pedigree is similar to the former Sultan’s. He is western educated and served in a variety of roles across the Omani government, including several that had him assist with the Sultanate’s foreign policy. However, he lacks the same historical ties that his cousin built during the Dhofar Rebellion. In this sense, Qaboos’s death leaves the west without a backchannel to Iran at a time when both parties would find it valuable.
Dr. Michael Gunther is recent graduate of the DSD programme and the United States Army’s Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program. His work at King’s College, London focused on the development and evolution of Omani-British strategy during the Dhofar Rebellion.