Giorgio Cafiero –
The passing of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos last month marked the end of an era. The legacy of his nearly 50 years on the throne will forever shape Oman and the country’s deserved reputation as a force for peace, stability, and tolerance in a region severely lacking all three. There is no doubt that HM Sultan Qaboos will be missed dearly not only in Oman, but also in countries across the globe. As a dual citizen of the United States and Italy, I know that HM Sultan Qaboos’s unique leadership helped the United States and European states in many special ways which will never be forgotten in Washington or Brussels.
For non-Omanis to truly appreciate what HM Sultan Qaboos achieved, it is important to go back to July 23, 1970. What followed was an implementation of successful development plans that transformed Oman from an impoverished backwater of the Arabian Peninsula into a modern and prosperous state.
A few statistics help one comprehend the extent to which the Sultanate developed so rapidly after Sultan Qaboos’s ascendancy to the throne. In 1970, there was 10 kilometres of paved roads and only three schools in Oman. When HM Sultan Qaboos took power, two-thirds of Oman’s adult population (and nearly 90 per cent of women) were illiterate. Infant mortality rates were high with 20 per cent of children not living to celebrate their fifth birthday. Life expectancy was 49 years. Yet, by 1980, the Sultanate had built 2,143 km of asphalted roads and 363 schools. The number of enrolled students in Oman increased roughly 95-fold during that ten-year period. From 1970 to 1985, the number of medical facilities soared from 19 to 100. By 2017, adult illiteracy fell below six per cent and life expectancy had jumped up to 76 years.
Not only did HM Sultan Qaboos lead Oman on an impressive development path at home, but under his leadership Muscat’s foreign policy became influential on a global scale. From early on during his time on the throne, Sultan Qaboos began to adhere to set of principles that guided Oman through countless challenges both in the Gulf and the greater Middle East. Pragmatically, HM Sultan Qaboos established Oman as a key ally of the United Kingdom and United States which worked closely with the West on Cold War era security issues while also favouring the establishment of a “new world economic order” that sought to address the gap between the world’s “haves” and “have-nots”.
Throughout HM Sultan Qaboos’s nearly 50-year rule, he made extremely difficult decisions that enabled Muscat’s foreign policy to remain independent and true to Omani principles, beliefs, and values. His wisdom guided the Sultanate through turbulent times in the Middle East such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, Ansar Allah’s takeover of Sana’a in 2014 and the subsequent Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The Omani leader’s determination to pursue diplomatic solutions to regional crises, which were rooted in the need for more dialogue and accommodation rather than confrontation, established the Sultanate as a unique country among the Arabian Peninsula’s monarchies.
HM Sultan Qaboos’s vision for stability at home and throughout the region prompted him to pursue “friends of all, enemies of no one” foreign policy. Having never cut off Oman’s diplomatic relations with any government in the world during his nearly five decades on the throne, the late Sultan always believed that dialogue and diplomatic outreach between various countries was the path to lasting peace in the Middle East.
On countless occasions HM Sultan Qaboos and those around him in Muscat worked tirelessly to establish Oman as a diplomatic bridge between actors on hostile terms with each other. Although many pundits have described the Sultanate as a regional “mediator”, it would be more accurate to label Oman as a peace facilitator that served as a diplomatic back channel and neutral platform for talks between different actors that, for political reasons, would have been hard to pull off had it not been for a trusted and respected third-party such as Oman.
When looking back on the nearly five decades in which Sultan Qaboos was on the throne, it is undeniable that to his credit he managed to establish Oman as a modern state with a mature and sophisticated foreign policy. Rather than pursuing instantaneous reactions through impulsive decision-making, HM Sultan Qaboos’s agenda in the Gulf and world at large always focused on long-term results. Establishing deep ties with powers far and close while always seeking diplomatic solutions to multisided problems in order to avoid bloodshed have been pillars of Muscat’s foreign policy in the modern era.
The independence, pragmatism, values, and geography of Oman have made it an extremely important ally from the perspective of western powers. To be sure, all of this will continue in the post-Qaboos period with His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarek on the throne. As a secure state that believes it has a heavy burden of responsibility when it comes to helping less fortunate countries achieve their own peace and stability, Oman has a special place in this world. Unquestionably, throughout the future historians will look back on the 1970-2020 period in Oman as a time in which the Sultanate thrived with a brave visionary on the throne.
The writer is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. His research interests include geopolitical and security trends in the Arabian Peninsula and the broader Middle East. He is a regular contributor to the Middle East Institute, Responsible Statecraft, and New Arab. He frequently appears on Al Jazeera, TRT World, BBC Persian, and other networks as a commentator.