The sultanate under Qaboos became a quiet but deliberate and independent foreign policy actor in the region, often mediating between Western powers and Iran or between Riyadh and Tehran. Qaboos' death probably will not trigger a rapid deterioration of the Omani state, but it will mark the end of an era of careful management and widespread respect of government institutions by its citizens, and of Qaboos' strong institutional stewardship of Omani independence. A potentially more inward-looking Oman in transition has consequences not just for Muscat but for neighboring states as well, especially as Saudi Arabia looks to secure its position in the Gulf and an emergent Iran is keen to develop regional allies.
A quiet, stable monarchy, Oman is often overlooked in regional coverage that focuses more on the unrest, militancy and political fragility of the Middle East. But Oman's geographic position places it at the crux of maritime trade from the Red and Arabian Seas and the Persian Gulf. For centuries, Oman's rulers in Muscat dominated a monsoon-based trade network that linked Africa, India and the Middle East to more distant markets in Europe and Asia. These links with India, Pakistan and the West still hold, most visibly through trade and diplomatic links. Muscat remains a stable Western ally in the region, and Omani waters contain the navigable channels of the Strait of Hormuz as well as the potential for hosting greater foreign naval forces in the region.
The Foundations of Modern Rule
Historically, Oman's sultans profited from the trade of silk, spices and slaves, affording Oman a degree of development and social wealth absent in much of the resource-poor Arabian Peninsula until the 19th century. Following developments in maritime travel and the collapse of the slave trade, Oman's fortunes dwindled, allowing outside powers such as Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States to exercise greater influence over the sultanate. Oman's primary objectives center around its need to retain its independence in the midst of larger and stronger neighbors, usually through careful diplomacy and by backing a foreign naval power — preferably a distant one. Maintaining domestic stability has been another challenge for Oman, a country that in the past century has seen religious and Marxist rebellions, stemming from its internal desert-based populations, and a Yemeni-inspired uprising in the east.
In the early 20th century, Saudi Arabia supported various insurgencies within Oman in an attempt to weaken the sultanate, but Qaboos was able to coalesce his authority with British and Persian support, reinforced by the rising oil and natural gas production following his ascent to the throne in 1970. Qaboos was also able to merge the conservative desert interior of the country with the eastern tribal communities of Salalah and the cosmopolitan coastal regions surrounding Muscat, making him one of Oman's most effective rulers in several generations. Much of Oman's modern history has been defined by Qaboos' success in maintaining a balance between its stronger regional neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iran. The formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the subsequent discovery of oil reserves in the1930s dramatically strengthened Riyadh's position and national wealth in comparison to a weakening and impoverished Oman.
Qaboos' careful management of Oman's foreign policy achieved a delicate balancing act and allowed Muscat to act independently. The sultan is directly involved in many of the key economic, security and national policy decisions in Oman. As well as holding a firm grip on power and decision-making, the Western-educated monarch worked steadily to not only heal the internal divisions that plagued Oman before his rule, but also to establish a unique national character. Lacking the wealth of its Arab neighbors, Oman under Qaboos embraced modernity with an eye toward establishing the role of traditional work, dress and identity. Oman benefitted from its oil and gas wealth and from trade with its traditional partners in South Asia and beyond, but many Omanis still work in traditional industries such as fishing and local trading. Expatriates make up less than 40 percent of the labor force in Oman, compared to more than 80 percent in the United Arab Emirates and nearly 90 percent in Qatar. Though per capita social spending remains quite high, Oman does not face the same structural challenges some of its neighbors struggle against in employing its native workforce or needing to balance against an influx of foreigners.
But with so much of this development directly attributable to the wisdom and leadership of Qaboos, at least in official discourse, managing the state following the sultan's death is a growing concern for Oman and its neighbors. Strong leadership and institutional legitimacy will almost certainly fail to transfer to his successor. And while a national period of mourning will keep the transition manageable, Oman's long-term future after Qaboos is likely to incorporate some elements of constitutional monarchy or democratic representation, similar to the Kingdom of Morocco. Some structural changes have already been made, allowing for direct election of local governments and the appointment of an advisory body following the social unrest seen in 2011. Rising labor protests and greater demands for education and better employment reflect the changing demands and expectations of Oman's growing youth population, who are not as easily satisfied by the traditional values and opportunities enjoyed by their parents.
Oman's neighbors will be mindful of potential opportunities to shape the country's future. Saudi Arabia will seek to strengthen its regional position by bringing Muscat closer into its sphere of influence, relying on its oil and gas wealth as a bulwark against potential future unrest. Oman has undergone a series of domestic spending and infrastructure development projects since 2011, in hopes of strengthening the monarchy's position in society and keeping the Omani population satisfied. More important, Riyadh hopes to limit Iran's opportunities for regional coordination, a scenario made all the more important given the Kingdom's recent tensions with Qatar and concerns over unrest in Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen.
Oman joined the Gulf Cooperation Council following the Iranian revolution, helping improve relations between Muscat and Riyadh. But Oman continued to enjoy strong ties with Tehran despite the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and Oman has leveraged this relationship by hosting secret talks between Iran and the West. Iran would also like to see its bilateral relationship with Muscat continue, given the utility Tehran sees in having an Omani interlocutor. This relationship extends to Oman's Western allies as well. In addition to reportedly hosting U.S.-Iranian negotiations, the sultan paid bail for three American hikers held in Iran from 2009-2011, and he helped secure the release of British sailors detained by Iran in 2007.
Strong leadership and a clear vision for the future have been Qaboos' hallmarks across more than four decades of leadership. While Oman has prospered, there are serious doubts over Muscat's ability to continue these successes without Qaboos' direct guidance and the respect and acquiescence of the Omani public. Oman's more frequent labor strikes and rising public demands are kept relatively peaceful and low-scale out of deference to the sultan, but his successor — still an unknown figure — is not likely to enjoy such broad support. Given Oman's economic challenges and the strong likelihood of outside interference, Muscat is set to face social unrest, change and a strong inward focus in the years following Qaboos' death.