Argument

Oman’s Smooth Transition Doesn’t Mean Its Neighbors Won’t Stir Up Trouble

Regional rivals may see Sultan Qaboos’s death as an opportunity to pursue their expansionist ambitions.

The tiny village of Kumzar on the northernmost tip of Oman's Musandam peninsula on March 14, 2012, overlooking the strategic Straits of Hormuz.
The tiny village of Kumzar on the northernmost tip of Oman's Musandam peninsula on March 14, 2012, overlooking the strategic Straits of Hormuz. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

Many observers have commended the smooth and transparent process by which Haitham bin Tariq was designated sultan of Oman, following the death of Sultan Qaboos, which was announced on Jan. 10. Because Qaboos had not publicly named a successor, the ruling family opted to open a sealed envelope containing the name of the individual Qaboos preferred, rather than selecting the new sultan themselves. 

Qaboos’s selection of his cousin Haitham, with his background in the foreign ministry and most recently as the minister of heritage and culture, over Haitham’s brothers Asad and Shihab—both military men—appears to signal his desire to perpetuate Oman’s role as a facilitator of regional diplomacy. 

Yet Oman remains vulnerable to both foreign and domestic sources of instability as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seek to expand their regional influence. Potential causes of domestic unrest—including high unemployment, budget deficits, and dwindling oil reserves—lack clear-cut solutions. Sultan Haitham faces multiple challenges even without the threat of foreign meddling, yet Oman’s neighbors may view the death of Qaboos as a unique opportunity to advance their own expansionist agendas.

For decades, Sultan Qaboos positioned Oman as a neutral arbiter, allowing it to serve as a mediator for regional conflicts. This stance was challenged as the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which eliminated Iraq as a regional counterbalance to Iran and inflamed a combustible mixture of geopolitical and sectarian rivalry. 

From the Saudi perspective, facilitating cooperation with Iran challenged the interests of the Arab Gulf states: Perceived closeness to Iran contributed to the Saudi and Emirati decision to blockade Qatar in 2017. (Oman has defied the blockade by allowing Qatari-bound flights and shipping to transit in and out of Muscat as well as Omani ports.) Oman resisted Saudi Arabia’s attempts to use the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a tool to serve the Saudis’ foreign-policy agenda, most visibly when Oman’s minister of state for foreign affairs publicly rejected King Abdullah’s plan to deepen the GCC into a Gulf Union in 2013, and was the only GCC state to not participate in the Saudi-led military incursion against Yemen that began in 2015.

Oman’s reputation for neutrality and history of facilitating negotiations caused the Obama administration to seek Qaboos’s assistance in arranging secret meetings with Iran in 2012-2013 that eventually led to the Iran nuclear deal. In contrast, Sultan Haitham comes to power at a time when the Trump administration has repeatedly signaled its support for Saudi Arabia and antipathy toward Iran. The belated naming of low-ranking U.S. officials to attend the official ceremony honoring Sultan Qaboos was widely interpreted as a slight against the Omanis; the U.K., in contrast, sent both Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to pay their respects.

Saudi leaders likely hope that Sultan Haitham will be more amenable to a Saudi-led Gulf, and without U.S. support, Oman may feel pressure to acquiesce or face potential repercussions. Omani officials have privately expressed concerns that Oman could be the next target of a Saudi- and Emirati-led blockade. Unlike Qatar, Oman lacks the financial resources to survive such a blockade.

Saudi Arabia has already exhibited its willingness to pursue its geostrategic objectives, regardless of the implications. Despite precipitating the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has used its military presence there to declare its intention to build a pipeline through the Mahra region and construct an oil port on the Yemeni coast. Saudi Arabia currently ships oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, whereas the proposed pipeline would allow direct access to the Indian Ocean.

Mahra has close links to the adjacent Dhofar region of Oman, which has long viewed the province as an informal buffer from the instability in other parts of Yemen. Sultan Qaboos offered aid as well as dual citizenship to residents of Mahra as a means of eliminating the potential for another conflict resembling the Dhofar War of 1963-1976, which drew cross-border support from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen operating from Mahra into Dhofar. Qaboos came to power in the middle of that war and, after defeating the rebels with Iranian and British assistance, emphasized economic development as a means of preventing future conflict and earning the loyalty of former adversaries. 

Although Saudi Arabia established a presence in Mahra in 2017, the UAE had arrived in 2015, soon after initiating military hostilities against Yemen. Inhabitants of Mahra have expressed frustration with the presence of both the Saudis and Emiratis, given that these kingdoms’ alleged foes—the Houthis as well as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—are not present in Mahra. Yahya al-Sewari, the Yemeni author of a report on Saudi and Emirati activities in the region, was detained in July 2019, and his whereabouts remain unknown.

Saudi Arabia maintains that the Houthis present a significant threat and therefore it cannot end hostilities against Yemen until they are pacified. In contrast, the UAE’s actions in Yemen constitute a war of choice and a means of expanding regional strongholds. The UAE has taken control of the Yemeni island of Socotra, building a military base in a unique ecosystem nominally protected by UNESCO. The UAE is also building bases in Eritrea and Somaliland as part of a plan to develop a “string of ports” that will allow it to project power and escape possible pressure from Iran in the Persian Gulf.Emirati ambitions toward the peninsula are reflected in a map at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which depicts Musandam as part of the UAE.

Other Emirati ambitions include the Musandam Peninsula, an Omani enclave that forms the narrowest point in the Strait of Hormuz. The inhabitants of the peninsula have close ties to the UAE, as Musandam connects geographically to the emirates of Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah, rather than Oman. Oman’s control of the strategic chokepoint reflects the sultanate’s history as an empire whose territory once stretched from southern Pakistan to Zanzibar. 

The UAE’s designs on the enclave are no secret. Indeed, Emirati ambitions toward the peninsula are reflected in a map at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which depicts Musandam as part of the UAE. The border between Oman and the UAE was only formally demarcated in 2008, but Omanis see a circle of potential threats arising from Emirati activity in or possible designs on Musandam, Mahra, and Socotra.

Omani concerns about Emirati intentions were solidified in 2011 by the arrest of a senior member of Oman’s Internal Security Service, as part of a spy ring employed by Abu Dhabi. The arrest of another spy ring in November 2018 further heightened the Omanis’ sense of alarm. That same month, Sultan Qaboos issued a royal decree to bar non-Omani citizens from owning land in strategic border areas in Oman, including Musandam as well as Dhofar, in response to land purchases by Emirati nationals. In December 2019, while Qaboos sought medical treatment in Belgium soon before his death, the UAE’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, made a surprise visit to Muscat; Qaboos returned soon after.

With Qaboos gone, the UAE may feel that Oman’s new sultan may be more receptive to alignment with Emirati objectives than his predecessor. On Twitter, Emiratis celebrated the crowning of Sultan Haitham, featuring pictures of Haitham in the UAE. Haitham’s work as a businessman involved partnership with the Emirates, distinguishing him from the reclusive Qaboos.

Oman’s oil reserves have always been limited compared with those of its wealthier neighbors, and Oman has failed to significantly diversify its economy. Obtaining Oman’s remaining oil already requires advanced and expensive means of extraction. As in many oil-dependent economies, unemployment is high, especially among young people. Throughout his rule, Sultan Qaboos used Oman’s oil reserves to provide infrastructure and social services to a once desperately impoverished population, but the years of prosperity also fostered corruption and waste.

During the popular uprising of 2011, which brought thousands of Omanis to the street for the first time, the government used its nest egg to pay for a massive expansion of the government payroll. In a 2015 interview, an Omani government official in Muscat told me that some government offices had three employees to a desk to satisfy the protesters’ demands for employment. The official explained that if another massive popular uprising occurred, the government would have no money left to address citizens’ needs, as it was already running a massive deficit. Indeed, there are no available resources to try to finance a transition away from oil, and the low price of oil has further impeded the government’s efforts to meet its obligations.

Sultan Haitham inherits a problematic domestic scenario, further complicated by the ambitions of Oman’s neighbors. Although the Trump administration has exhibited minimal interest in the sultanate, a clear signal of support for Oman would reduce the potential for destabilization posed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A territorial incursion or a domestic uprising would bring additional upheaval to a restive region, potentially pulling in Iran and complicating U.S. efforts to extricate itself from the Middle East. For an administration that claims to seek an end to endless war in the region, this is a scenario Washington should seek to avoid.

Annelle Sheline is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Twitter: @AnnelleSheline

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