Joseph A Kéchichian
When the opportunity arose to write an original study on Omani foreign policy back in 1993, and while a number of individuals provided assistance during the following two years devoted to researching and drafting the book, little did I know that His Majesty Sultan Qaboos would play such an important role in it. Oman and the World was published in 1995, largely based on what senior Omani officials, including the Sultan, shared with me. Over the years, I was privileged to meet with the late Sultan on several occasions, though the first 1994 encounter, which lasted nearly two hours, went beyond any expectations.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos answered my questions in an open and frank way and, by doing so, explained to a novice researcher how to understand foreign policy imperatives, which highlighted the decision-maker’s vision for the Sultanate. That long conversation allowed for a philosophical appraisal of his wishes for Oman—in the traditions of a philosopher-king who deeply cared for his nation—and who wished to see Omanis assume their responsibilities. Since HM Sultan Qaboos was a genuinely popular leader in the Sultanate, his awareness of Omani aspirations and expectations were measured to reflect much more than infatuation. My notes reveal that he reiterated how much Omanis were doing to assume their fair share of duties, and how different the situation was from the early 1970s when he acceded to the throne, which was thoughtful to say the least.
As we discussed the foreign policy of the Sultanate of Oman in modern times, which he designed with aplomb, it became clear that what Qaboos sought for his nation were friendships with all and enmities with none. He forgave his domestic foes and won them over by entrusting them with authority. He applied what Abraham Lincoln preached when he stated: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” That, in short, was what HM Sultan Qaboos practiced at home. The results speak for themselves. HM Sultan Qaboos also tackled the super-sensitive Gulf security dilemma as early as 1979 at a time when regional tensions were high and both Iran and Iraq poised to launch hostilities against each other.
Strait of Hormuz
Speaking that year to his subjects as well as the rest of the World, the Sultan stated: “No doubt you have heard a lot about the Strait of Hormuz, which as you know is part of our national waters and one of the most important sea lanes of the world through which passes a huge proportion of the world’s oil supplies. Should the present instability in the Middle East result in an interruption of this flow, the results would be disastrous; not only would immense hardship be caused to millions of people, but the economies of many countries — countries whose own strength and stability is indispensable to the defence of freedom — would be gravely damaged. Oman is pledged to defend the right of all peaceful shipping to pass through this Strait. This is not only our duty under international law, it is also our duty to humanity and to our friends in the free world. Should the Strait be exposed to danger, Oman will not hesitate to act in defence of our national sovereignty and the safety of international navigation.”
That declaration, which was a lesson in leadership, clarified that the Sultanate was determined to keep all traffic lanes that crossed its territorial waters open and, equally critical, fixated to reduce regional tensions. HM Sultan Qaboos opted for diplomacy and called on Iran and Iraq to accept Islamic mediation “to reach a permanent settlement guaranteeing the rights of both parties,” though he regretted that belligerents were too entrenched in their narrow views. In 1987 he expressed his “sorrow” at the continuance of the Iran-Iraq War, though he “welcome[d] the courageous and wise step taken by the leaders of Iraq and Iran to begin their direct negotiations to settle their dispute by peaceful means”, a year later.
As much as the Iran-Iraq War concerned Oman, the August 1 1990 Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, saddened HM Sultan Qaboos as he re-affirmed “the necessity to reach a peaceful settlement to the Gulf crisis, based on [various] international resolutions and to return the State of Kuwait to its legal authority.” In other words, Muscat was on record, and thus committed, to the military liberation effort that started a few weeks later.
Without gloating, the Sultan simply noted in 1991 that “the Sultanate [had] performed its duties” towards the deliverance of Kuwait, congratulated the Al Sabah leadership and people of Kuwait “on the resumption of normal life,” but carefully linked this key event to necessary progress on the Arab-Israeli front. Even as he praised the Madrid Peace conference, he underlined the need to solve the Palestinian Question, and end an “occupation [that lasted] for almost half-a-century.” In 2004, that is after the American-led occupation of Iraq that toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, Qaboos called for “security and stability” in Mesopotamia.
He anticipated existential confrontations with Iran and focused on long-standing relationships between the peoples of Iran and those across the Gulf.
The Sultanate emphasised diplomacy as Qaboos guided Tehran towards a more inclusive approach even if this was a minority perspective within the GCC, where few tolerated reckless Iranian claims that it literally owned the Gulf region. Remarkably, and while the Sultanate strengthened its alliances with leading Western powers throughout the past few decades, Muscat became the ideal regional go-between during the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
Beyond the region itself, Omani leaders looked towards Asia as often as they looked to the Arab World and Western countries, as HM Sultan Qaboos acknowledged that “the Indian Ocean [had] always been the main gateway for Omanis” who explored its shores and travelled beyond it as they established long-term ties. In fact, the emphasis on Asia was carefully developed as Omanis rediscovered the vast continent, which blossomed into a vibrant new global economic pole.
The architect with a dream left his footprints in the tradition of his predecessors though his emphasis on “friendships with all and enmities with none” distinguished HM Sultan Qaboos like no other. In securing his realm, the leader served a nation that, in turn, saw in him a true philosopher-king.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and served as the Honourary Consul of the Sultanate of Oman in Los Angeles, California, between 2006 and 2011.
The author of 16 books on the Gulf region, his first published study was Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy, Santa Monica: RAND, 1995, which was followed a decade later with Political Participation and Stability in the Sultanate of Oman, Dubai: Gulf Research Center, 2005. In 2008, he published Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, which was dedicated to then Sayyid, now His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik.