A reign dedicated to peace – Remembering Sultan Qaboos

The longest-serving monarch of the Arab world, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, passed away this January 10, 2020 at the age of 79, ceding power to his cousin and former culture minister: Haitham bin Tariq al-Said. While the smooth transition was welcomed by all – both foreign powers and Omanis, the loss of Sultan Qaboos will leave its mark on his people for years to come.

Made famous for his commitment to peace and his astute ability to maneuver through the most troublesome political waters, Sultan Qaboos is, to all intents and purposes irreplaceable. The new decade is forever poorer for such a loss …

Since news of the Sultan’s death became public, a litany of officials and world leaders made a point at highlighting the legacy he leaves behind, one, which, better than any eulogy could, speaks of the man he was, the world he aspired to build, and the lessons he hoped to impart.

“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said,” said UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay. “He will be remembered for his wisdom and vision of peace and development for his country and his endeavors in building a more sustainable planet. His commitment for biodiversity and nature conservation, encapsulated in the UNESCO – Qaboos Prize established some 30 years ago, remains as a legacy for today’s generations and those to come.”

Speaking to the press Queen Elizabeth II noted warmly “Sultan Qaboos’ devotion to Oman, to its development and to the care of his people was an inspiration. He will be remembered for his wise leadership and his commitment to peace and understanding between nations and between faiths. He was a good friend of my family and of the United Kingdom, and we are thankful for all he did to further strengthen the bond of friendship between our countries. My State Visit to Oman in 2010 remains a cherished memory.”

Speaking at his swearing in ceremony the new Sultan of Oman’s tone was one of continuity. 

“The trust in us is great and the responsibilities are great … We will follow the same line as the late sultan and the principles that he asserted for the foreign policy of our country, of peaceful coexistence among nations and people, and good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others.”

For the first time in four decades Oman will sit under the reign of another. Sultan Qaboos rose to power in a bloodless coup against his father in 1970. Educated in the UK, he oversaw something of a revolution in Oman during his reign, guiding the Gulf state in its development from an isolated loner to active member in the Arab League, the United Nations and eventually the World Trade Organization, as well.

Omanis will now have to navigate an unforgiving region without their Sultan, the only leader most of them have ever known. Needless to say that the challenges laid down before the new sultan are as formidable as they are many and protracted, both at home and abroad.

Even more consequential than the sultan’s passing, however, is the fate of his temperate model and dedication to implementing change gradually through regional cooperation. A man defined in tolerance and moderation, Sultan  Qaboos understood more than most how to mitigate risk in a region plagued by instability.

As Bruce Riedel, a U.S. diplomat noted in an article published by Brookings: “Qaboos was the 14th generation of his family ruling Oman. His shoes will be difficult to fill. No successor has the decades of legitimacy and leadership that Qaboos enjoyed, nor the training needed. The disruption in the region due to the crisis over the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani adds to the concerns about the future of the sultanate. He had a unique view toward the Arab-Iranian and Sunni-Shia divide in the Gulf, one that stressed engagement with everyone. I remember seeing Iranian Navy ships in Muscat harbor not far from vessels from the U.K. Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy. That unique viewpoint is much needed today. Let’s hope his successor can help us find a way out of the dangerous waters we have recklessly blundered into with Iran.”

 

Netanyahu’s Surprise Visit to Oman

In a surprising move, for the first time in over two decades, an Israeli leader visited an Arab Gulf state. On Friday of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Oman, where he was hosted by the ruler, Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The two leaders, accompanied by numerous government and security officials, held meetings in which they discussed pressing regional issues.

Diplomatic relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Israel were initially established in 1994 but were frozen six years later following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. As of now, the two countries still have no formal diplomatic relations.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries; Egypt and Jordan. However, it is understood and confirmed by Israeli diplomats, that the state maintains ties behind the scenes with many nations, including those from the Gulf but these have never been publicly or openly acknowledged.

A day after the visit, Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whilst speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2018 summit in Bahrain, publicly called on the Arab nations to accept Israel as part of the region and for Israel to, therefore, be treated as other regional states and bear the same obligations.

The Palestinian issue has long divided Israel and the rest of the Arab world. But recently, the Palestinian cause has been side-lined by the Gulf states as Israel has warmed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a bid to come together in the face of a shared enemy, Iran. Israel has consistently decried Iran’s alleged support of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Iran does not in fact support Hamas since Hamas betrayed Iran by opposing Bahar al Assad in Syria) and actual support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has also vehemently challenged Iran’s nuclear program, viewing the idea of Iran possessing nuclear technology as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel and the greatest threat to the Middle East.

The gradual normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world is not something that is sought to benefit the Palestinians or to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it is an attempt to create a bloc with a shared interest that challenges the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Whilst Oman is a neutral party concerning Iran’s presence and role in the region; this marks the first and open step in recent years towards publicly recognising Israel’s growing relationship with the Gulf states, a relationship which no doubt will continue to grow.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Discrimination and Intolerance against Women

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.

The Sultan’s Return

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After eight months of treatment in Germany, Sultan Qaboos bin Said has returned to Oman. His medical treatment was described by state television as a “total success” and the same station showed images of the Sultan walking unaided out of his plane after landing. No details of his illness were given by the royal court but his prolonged absence from the country had led to fears over his long-term health and the potential repercussions if it failed.

Having ruled the country since a bloodless coup in 1970, the 74-year-old’s bad health had raised the spectre of succession. He has no children and no publically designated heir. So, in theory, there could well have been disagreement over who would have succeeded Qaboos, which in turn might have brought instability to the kingdom. When Sultan Qaboos missed his own birthday celebrations on the 18th of November, fears over his health increased.

Omani law dictates that within three days of the Sultan’s death, the royal family council must decide on a successor. If they fail then the Sultan’s own choice – which has been secretly written down and put into a sealed envelope – must be enforced. However, Sultan Qaboos’s 44-year reign as absolute monarch means that it is unlikely the council would do anything other than use the envelope. Oman has rarely showed signs of instability in recent years but there were protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 and the uncertainty of a succession dispute might bring any grievances to the fore again.

Fortunately the Sultan has recovered his health and returned to Oman. His return also appears to convey his popularity: there were celebrations in the streets of Muscat, where people danced and waved flags and there was a huge out-pouring of joy on social media at the news of his return. There was also a boost to the Oman economy, with its stock market hitting a two-month high. So while the eight month illness may have left some uncertainty over the future of Oman and its leader, his return seems to have put it to bed for the moment and, in doing so, emphasised his popular standing.