Gerald M Feierstein –
The passing of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos truly marks the end of an era — in fact, the end of one of the most remarkable periods of development of any region in the history of the world. In his nearly fifty years on the throne, the Sultan was the singular architect of Oman’s transition from a near-medieval society to today’s modern country and a powerful force in the transformation of the region to one exponentially richer and more powerful than ever before. Across the Arabian Peninsula, only Shaikh Zayid bin Sultan al Nahyan can be said to have earned an equivalent place in the modern history of his country, the UAE.
The legends of the Sultan’s early days in power are legion. Assuming power in 1970, HM Sultan Qaboos inherited a country beset by chronic poverty. Governing institutions, including education and health infrastructure, were nearly non-existent. A raging Marxist-inspired rebellion in Dhofar was fuelled by the government in the neighbouring People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen).
Over the ensuing years, and aided by the discovery of modest oil and gas reserves, HM Sultan Qaboos set about addressing his country’s ills. He promoted the principles of governance. As the country developed, he introduced popular, albeit limited, participation in decision-making. Under his leadership, the government established capable civil and military institutions, modernised the economy, and guided Oman into the 20th Century.
With foresight and a commitment to inclusiveness, the Sultan brought an end to the Dhofar rebellion, promoted development in the formerly neglected southern region, and welcomed its leaders into the ranks of Omani society and government. But the Sultan was not an advocate of unmetered modernisation. Rather, he was determined to preserve the best of Oman’s traditional society while incorporating it into a modern framework. He was insistent that his capital, Muscat, would remain faithful to its historic roots and famously oversaw all of the design features of the capital down to the style of its street lamps. In economic development, too, the Sultan was determined that Oman should pursue a measured pace and resisted those aspects of development, like opening the country to mass tourism, that he believed would undermine Omani social and cultural values.
In Oman’s relations with the region and the world, the Sultan’s reign was shaped by his determination to keep the country firmly oriented towards the West while following a path of moderation and peaceful co-existence with its neighbours. Oman welcomed the Camp David Accords ending the Egyptian-Israeli conflict and was one of the first countries in the Arabian Peninsula to open lines of communication with the Government of Israel at the same time maintaining firm support for an independent Palestinian state. Most notably, even after the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Sultan insisted that Oman would respect its long-standing ties to Tehran and retain its friendly relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a result, Oman continues to play its role as a valued intermediary between Iran and the international community.
Peninsula Shield Force
Despite his policy of pursuing Omani neutrality, the Sultan was one of the founders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, formed in 1981 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. He understood clearly that the states of the Arabian Peninsula could only prosper if they built reliable institutions of political, economic, and security cooperation. Recognising his strong background in military and security affairs, the other Gulf leaders asked the Sultan to take the lead in promoting integrated military structures for the GCC organisation. The Sultan’s leadership culminated in the organisation of the Peninsula Shield Force in 1984.
Regrettably, the Sultan’s passing comes at a moment both within Oman and in the region that is nearly as fraught as the situation he inherited when he first came to power in 1970. Internally, institutions of popular participation in government, principally the Majlis Ash’shura and the State Council, must continue to evolve to provide Omani citizens with a greater voice in their country’s affairs. Meanwhile, the role of the energy sector as the driver of economic growth will continue to wane. Thus, the need to pursue a policy of economic diversification, initially launched at HM Sultan Qaboos’s direction, is more important than ever. To preserve stability, Oman will be challenged to build the institutions and create the opportunities needed to assure a prosperous future for its growing population.
Regionally, the Sultan’s presence and leadership will be sorely missed. But Oman will remain an indispensable partner in efforts to stabilise relations and reduce the risk of conflict in the Gulf region. Maintaining dialogue between Iran and the Gulf states is key to avoiding an outbreak of hostilities. Hosting discussions among the parties to the Yemen conflict is essential if that tragic situation is to be resolved. Promoting a resolution of the intra-GCC confrontation is essential to preserve the organisation that has served the needs of all of its member states. In each of these areas, world leaders will look to Muscat to show the way.
The burden of addressing these many challenges will now fall on the shoulders of HM Sultan Qaboos’s successor, HM Sultan Haitham bin Tarik. Importantly, HM Sultan Haitham made clear from the first moments of his rule that he is prepared to assume these challenges as he pledged to maintain the course that HM Sultan Qaboos laid down.
Legacy of wisdom
For those of us at the Middle East Institute, HM Sultan Qaboos’s passing is especially poignant. We have long relished the special relationship between our Institute and the Sultanate. The Oman Library at the Middle East Institute, a centre for scholarship and research on the Middle East, was endowed by the Sultanate of Oman at the direction of the Sultan. We are honoured that, with this facility, the Institute will continue to host generations of Americans seeking a better understanding of the region. In that way, we will be honouring the Sultan’s memory and reflecting his legacy of wisdom, benevolence, and mutual respect.
The writer is former US diplomat who served in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Tunisia. In 2010, President Obama appointed Feierstein US Ambassador to Yemen, where he served until 2013. From 2013 until his retirement, Feierstein was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Feierstein joined the Middle East Institute in October 2016 as a Senior Fellow and the Director of a new Center for Gulf Affairs. In November 2018, he was appointed Senior Vice-President by the MEI Board of Directors.