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By Vedran Obućina
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said al Said, ruler of Oman, is the first foreign dignitary to visit Iran’s newly-elected president, Hassan Rouhani. And Sultan Qaboos is no stranger to Iran. Over the past 20 years, he has been a present figure in Tehran, working as both a silent diplomat in negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with the United States.
But to smaller nations as well, Sultan Qaboos is also a force for diplomacy and an important figure in contemporary international political and economic relations.
Oman, which lies between the Indian Sea and Arabian deserts, seldom makes international news compared to larger countries. But this could soon change. Oman sports a growing economy and is uninvolved in any major conflicts with other countries. Its human rights record is also one of the highest-scoring in the Muslim world.
Oman is among the few Arabian countries where people can freely worship any religion they want. The country’s religious community is broad and thriving, although the government strongly adheres to a Muslim Ibadite monarchy. The blend of modern and traditional behaviors here is a principal sign that the country can subsist even with a prevalence of widely differing ideologies. By many accounts, the widely-popular Sultan Qaboos has helped maintain this balance.
It is said that the Prophet Mohammad blessed the people of Oman, as they were the first group to convert to Islam after the peoples of Mecca and Medina after hearing about the new faith. “May the people of Oman be blessed,” it is said that Mohammed declared. “They believe without seeing me.”
Oman’s landscape has also shaped its history and no doubt contributes to its success today. The country’s proximity to the Indian Ocean facilitates trade and brings in wealth. After overthrowing Portuguese colonists in the late 17th century, Oman took control of other territories, most notably Zanzibar and Mombassa in eastern Africa and Portuguese colonies in India and Pakistan.
For a time, British colonialism restricted Omani rulers, resulting in a long history of clashes between imams and British-backed sultans. Only in 1970 did Oman become completely free, although it was left in dire straits and still partially subject to the influence of dissident sultans.
Most Omanis belong to the Ibadite branch of Islam, which incorporates elements of Shi’ism and a philosophy of non-violence. As for the country’s politics, Oman holds the distinction of being one of the few countries in the Arabian Peninsula and among Persian territories that has a long history of choosing a leader from within the country and without significant influence from surrounding states.
Following internal divisions between Omani tribes, the Sultanate role emerged as the country’s supreme power, thus ending the reign of the popularly-elected imam. Sultan Qaboos, however, has by his policies changed popular notions of what it means to be sultan.
For most of the 20th century, Oman maintained a philosophy of isolation. Sultan Said bin Taimur, who came to power in 1932, was a harsh ruler who maintained a feudal system in Omani society. He also dealt with decades of internal rebellion. In 1970, his rule was cut short when his son Qaboos took over in the process of implementing a series of economic and social reforms.
As Prime Minister, Sultan Qaboos heads the foreign, defense and finance ministries. He rules by decrees, which makes the Omani political stage anything but a democracy. In 2011, a public call for democracy in Omani politics was crushed by government-ordered riot police. Nonetheless, Sultan Qaboos’s policies have proven popular, and the 2011 riots were followed by job growth and expansion of worker benefits.
As a country that is rich in oil reserves, oil revenues have helped Qaboos develop the country’s infrastructure as well as its health and social reform policies. Constitutional reforms have also taken place under Qaboos’s rule, including better parliamentary organization. Tourism, too, has boomed as have the agriculture and fishing industries. But the Sultan’s reputation as a diplomat defines him foremost.
As a diplomat, Qaboos has helped Oman deepen ties with other Arab countries. Iran, Israel and the United States are relatively uninvolved in influencing Oman’s policies. Oman also has a good rapport with neighboring countries, as seen in its relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran regarding control of the Strait of Hormuz.
This rapport is especially relevant considering that taking control of Omani land would be politically and economically advantageous for these countries. In part, Sultan Qaboos maintains these good relations through supporting regional associations, keeping in close contact with other countries’ leaders and their subordinates.
In his foreign policy, Sultan Qaboos has not emphasized using force against other countries. This stance also stems from the Ibadite philosophy of non-violence and the imam’s guidance. Both the sultan and imam also encourage religious harmony among Muslims, Catholics, Copts and Hindus, the most prominent religious communities in Oman.
Since the 1970 coup, Sultan Qaboos has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing circumstances in the Middle East. While other Arab nations have been prone to breaking treaties, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, founded in 1981, has strengthened ties among participating nations, which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in addition to Oman. Oman was a major player in the council’s development. Now, after four decades of state-building, Oman has entered the world stage with a rich historical identity and the tools necessary to face future challenges.
Sultan Qaboos’s significance will grow as Oman moves forward. Even as the country has maintained a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries, it has continued to remain, aside from occasional revolts, a political and economic model for the Middle East. In recent years, the Gulf Cooperation Council has built a strong line of communication with Israel, which has arguably resulted from Qaboos’s role as leader of the security section of the GCC.
Oman might be recognized in the world in part for its strategic geographical position, which includes the Bay of Aden, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz. And it receives equal attention for its wealth of oil reserves. But under Qaboos’s leadership, the country has become more significant for the international community. As communication between Tehran and Washington continues to grow, Qaboos’s input will arguably become vital to negotiations on topics like Iranian democracy and the country’s nuclear program, even if his participation in discussions is only ceremonial.
Vedran Obućina is The Atlantic Post’s Foreign Affairs Analyst, based in Rijeka, Croatia. Click here for the article in Arabic.