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Oman's renaissance man faces Iran, succession tensions

The sultanate’s neutrality in the increasingly tense stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran complicates relations with its Arab Gulf neighbours

On 23 July 1970, Sultan Qaboos—a graduate of Sandhurst, a British military college—overthrew his father in a bloodless coup. Oman at that time was backward in terms of basic infrastructure, education, social services and other 20th century amenities. The new, young head of state set about modernising the country.

Sultan Qaboos has been steering his nation, singlehandedly, throughout the 48 years since then. His influence on the country is so overwhelming (he occupies all the key posts in cabinet) that Omanis can't imagine a future without him. While lengthy spells of medical treatment abroad appear to have been successful, a day will inevitably come when the country has to contemplate a new era.

The succession process involves first a meeting of a Family Council, and later, if there's no agreement on a successor, the opening of a sealed letter containing the names of two people, in order of preference, written by Sultan Qaboos himself. What concerns Omanis isn't so much the process, but uncertainty over the outcome: who will be able to step into the shoes of a leader so intimately entwined with the unification and modernisation of the nation?

The sultan's decision not to announce a successor is apparently intended to keep potential contenders on their toes and prevent the emergence of a power base below him. The effect, though, has been to stop potential leaders of the country (who have to be members of the ruling family) becoming known by the public. While the choice of the next sultan can only be the subject of speculation, many Omanis believe that a son of his uncle, probably Saad bin Tariq, in his sixties with senior military experience and a personal representative of the sultan, is a front runner.

Iran shadow

Also overshadowing the latest anniversary of Qaboos's rule is the increasing international tension over Iran. The recent exchange of threats between President Trump and President Rouhani has served to intensify the crisis. Oman feels uneasy because it has long been out of step with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states by maintaining friendly relations with Tehran. So much so that it hosted the secret talks between Iran and the US that led to nuclear deal in the first place.

Oman is proud of its unique foreign policy strategy. An official statement this week spoke of the country's "efforts to bring wars to an end, bridge differences and ensure a proper environment for restoring peace, security and stability in the Gulf and Arab regions".

But if the Iran crisis were to deepen still more, Oman might feel exposedaware of the economic and political boycott that Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed on Qatar for straying from what they regard as the proper Gulf foreign policy path.

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