By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
Westerners who champion democracy should be grateful for the moment when an absolute dictator controls strategic territory on the Persian Gulf. The United States, for example, has no better friend in the Arab world than Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman. Sultan Qaboos reflects dictatorial power wielded for the sake of liberal virtue, thus contradicting the U.S. State Department's core philosophical assumptions.
Oman dominates southeastern Arabia and, thanks to the isolated governorate of Musandum, controls the navigable shipping channels of the Strait of Hormuz — to the degree that any littoral country does. (The deep-draft parts of the strait essential for oil tankers are entirely in Omani territory.) If the Persian Gulf were ever closed to shipping because of a military conflict, nearby ports, connected to it by railways and oil pipelines, would become even more vital — ports like Oman's Sohar, which sits just outside the Strait of Hormuz.
Oman is located between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Dominated for significant parts of its history by Persia, Oman has served the United States as a go-between with Iran to the extent that no other Arab country is capable. Oman's Ibadhi form of Islam has vague similarities to Iranian Shi'ism. Indeed, Oman is the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council that conducts naval exercises with Iran, and Sultan Qaboos reportedly has a direct line to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sultan Qaboos and his aides, according to Tufts University researcher Konrad Gessler, act as "a window into the calculus of the Iranian government" that Washington can always avail itself of.
Oman helped secure the release of 15 British Royal Navy sailors held by the Iranians in 2007. In 2010 and 2011, Iran released three American hikers after the Omani government paid a sum to Tehran. Oman's Thumrait Air Base and Masirah Island served as supply and repair stations for the U.S. military during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, it is likely that Oman would not grant similar access were the United States ever to attack Iran.
Because of Iran's size, strength and proximity to Oman, Sultan Qaboos is far more vulnerable to Iran than he ever was to Iraq or Afghanistan. One of the minor truths of any U.S. attack on Iran — however remote the possibility — is that it would put a trusted, long-standing and extremely useful ally in an absolutely terrible position.
It is even possible that an attack on Iran, were it to lead to a protracted naval conflict in the Persian Gulf, could help undermine Oman's internal stability. This is because Oman itself is undergoing a sensitive political transition.
During the Arab Spring in 2011, Oman saw its share of demonstrations, even as the protesters made it clear that their ire was not directed at the sultan himself but at his ministers and lower officials. In fact, under Sultan Qaboos' careful direction, civil society has been growing for years now in Oman. But keep in mind that the sultan is in his 70s and has no children, and thus no direct heirs to the throne. Moreover, he governs at a time when his population — almost a third of which is under the age of 15 — is impatient for a more responsive government. Indeed, the real threat to Western interests in Oman may be less an American-Iranian conflict than the death of the sultan.
The problem, according to another Tufts researcher who has specialized on the country, Joseph Sax, is that Sultan Qaboos simply rules by decree. Though his ministers and other advisers are a gauge of public sentiment, "feedback mechanisms within Omani society are extremely limited, so these policymakers have little cause to be concerned with how effective their policies will be once implemented."
Moreover, an authoritarian system, no matter how liberal-minded the sultan may be in his own aspirations, is partial to a well-connected elite, leading to the very corruption that aroused the fury of the demonstrators last year. As Sax explains, because the Cabinet is appointed top-down, "with the sultan selecting top ministers who then select their underlings," and so on down the bureaucratic chain, "there are no mechanisms by which" anyone is held accountable. In classic authoritarian manner, even the good despot is separated from his own people by an "entrenched power structure."
For the sultanate to survive it must change. But given how well ruled Oman is compared to so many other countries in the Greater Middle East, no one should want to see this particular authoritarian system toppled. What is required here, as in so many other places, is evolution, not revolution. Oman demonstrates that the preservation of tradition is more humane than extremism in the pursuit of democracy.
After all, as I have witnessed firsthand, Oman has real institutions — ministries and bureaucracies, that is, which function modestly well despite their shortcomings. The country also has excellent roads, power grids and other state-of-the-art infrastructure despite modest energy revenues, as well as parks and aesthetically designed buildings that should be the envy of its neighbors. Thanks to strict zoning, the capital, Muscat, has expanded greatly in size without ruining the ambience of the cityscape. Comparison is the beginning of all serious scholarship, and by any comparison Oman is a jewel of the Middle East.
In fact, the Western world over the decades has been fortunate that two benevolent and modernizing authoritarians, Sultan Qaboos in Oman and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, have overseen the two key choke points of the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca. Oman is particularly important these days for what it signifies: It is a symbol of what could be jeopardized by a third Gulf war.
The Gulf, all along the Arab side of its shores, should not be taken for granted. These "Eldorado states," as British area specialist Peter Mansfield called them in The Arabs (1976), are threatened by Iranian power and by the specter of an Israeli or American military attempt to thwart that power. This is taking place while these states undergo tenuous, albeit slow, evolutions toward more responsive governments.
Meanwhile, Bahrain is in the midst of a violent struggle between its Shiite majority and its minority Sunni autocracy. As long as Shiite Iran remains controlled by radical clerics, Western interests surely depend on the survival of the Sunni autocracy in Bahrain. The destiny of all these places, of which Oman is the most useful to the United States in particular, hint at the second-order effects that pundits insufficiently consider when they advocate a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Oman in and of itself should never deter the United States from striking at Iran if Iran's nuclear weapons program is ever deemed robust enough to fundamentally destabilize the region. I raise the subject of Oman only to suggest the possible regional consequences of attacking Iran, a country with much more than twice the population of Iraq and far more military and civilian capacity.
Of course, a theoretical war against Iran would not involve boots on the ground like in Iraq, and thus it could play out very differently. Indeed, a nuclear-armed Iran would have significantly more influence over Oman than a conventionally armed Iran has now — and that is certainly something to be avoided. The point is that it isn't only Israel that is in the crosshairs. The United States must take into account the security of every country in the Gulf when contemplating issues of war and peace. Oman proves it.