If you read this blog or follow news stories closely, you can probably name at least a few major Middle Eastern countries by now. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen....all of these have been in the spotlight in recent months and years for one (usually awful) reason or another. But there is one country that could be critical to the stability of the region (or what's left of it). That country is Oman. This week, all eyes are focused on president Trump's major international visit to Saudi Arabia (whose importance we have already covered in a previous post). But few people and news organizations will be talking about Oman. For this post, we'll provide a quick history of this Arabian Gulf nation and tell you why it may have major consequences for the Middle East region.
Oman is a mostly barren desert nation located at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula (next to Yemen and Saudi Arabia). Being a region filled primarily with sand and angry desert scorpions, the Omani people have generally stuck to the coasts throughout their history and made a living on the sea. They, like most of the world at one point in time, were subject to substantial influence from the British in the 1800s and early 1900s, as the British East India Company controlled much of the sea trade. In 1951, the reigning absolute monarch, Sultan Said bin Taimur (of the al-Said family), managed to get the British to recognize Oman's independence. Then, along came the current leader of Oman, Taimur's son Qaboos bin Said al-Said (meaning "son of Said of the house Said").
By the late 1960s, a lot of people were getting pissed at Taimur and his rule. He was extremely suspicious of foreign interference in Oman (understandable given his experiences with the British) and tried to completely close the country off from outside investment. By 1970, Qaboos saw his opportunity to ascend to the hereditary throne and deposed his father. Qaboos quickly changed his father's policy of isolationism by opening up the country to foreign investment. However, he still had to contend with a large communist uprising in his home region of Dhofar. With the help of Iran (pre-Islamic revolution), Qaboos put down the rebellion and reasserted his power as absolute monarch. Since then, he has continued to modernize the country and typically tries to keep Oman neutral in foreign affairs.
So why could Oman potentially cause big problems for stability on the Arabian Peninsula? Well Sultan Qaboos is old. Like 76 years old. He also has no heir apparent, since he never had a child with his ex-wife during their short three year marriage. Instead, Qaboos has instructed his closest family to choose an heir among themselves when the need should arise. If they cannot decide within three days, a letter will be opened revealing the name of his chosen successor. However, it should be noted that many of his family members have been sidelined from important roles in the country (Qaboos has instead favored business professionals in many policy-related issues). And the uncertainty of the line of succession leaves the door wide open for a power vacuum or crisis of succession in the country.
Ok, so a small Middle Eastern desert country has a political crisis. Who cares, right? Well aside from the inevitable and appalling civilian casualties that a possible war or military conflict could cause, Oman also holds a substantial strategic importance in naval trade. Oman's port cities of Salallah and Muscat are likely to increase in importance given the instability in nearby Yemen. But even more important is Oman's control over half of the critical waterway known as the Strait of Hormuz. You may remember this as the strait that Iran threatens to blockade every now and then because a substantial amount of the world's petroleum trade travels through this area. Though all of the other Arabian Peninsula nations are generally not thrilled with Iran (for a variety of reasons mentioned in this post), Oman has always maintained a much more amicable relationship with the Islamic Republic. Given the increasingly hostile Saudi-Iranian relationship, it wouldn't be surprising if Iran attempted to use the eventual succession as a means to increase its influence in the Peninsula.
To be fair, it's not likely that this would have the same disastrous outcome that is currently happening in Yemen (which is also ravaged by Cholera now). Neighboring Yemen has been torn apart by a civil war involving the (allegedly Iranian backed) Shia Houthi rebels and the Saudi backed Sunni government. For one, Oman's religious minority is actually rather unique. Nearly three-quarters of the country practices Ibadi Islam, which is neither Sunni nor Shia. But that probably won't stop Saudi Arabia, by far the largest and most influential country in the Arabian Peninsula, from freaking out and assuming Iranian meddling is at play. It doesn't help that the original uprising in western Oman (the one that Qaboos helped put down) was created in part by turbulence in Yemen spilling over across the border into Oman. The country managed to navigate the turmoil of the Arab Spring protests of 2011 and 2012 (the same ones that caused crises in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and many others). But the underlying tensions in Omani society remain. Currently, Oman stands as a bastion of stability and predictability in the Middle East, but anything that jeopardizes this is likely not going to be good.
But all that being said, there is little reason to suspect that Oman is on the brink of catastrophe right away. Though any nation that depends upon an absolute monarch is inherently unstable, the government and royal family still maintain support from a significant segment of the population. Still, Oman remains stable today in large part due to Sultan Qaboos. The United States and its allies would do well to focus a little less attention on the obvious big players in the Middle East (like Iran and Saudi Arabia) and spend more time thinking about the less-obvious (but no less critical) powers in the region.