Remembering Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, a critical interlocutor for the US in the Middle East

FILE PHOTO: Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said al-Said at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace in Muscat, Oman January 14, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool  via REUTERS/File Photo

Sultan Qaboos ruled Oman for five decades, shepherding its transformation from a medieval backwater in the Arabian Peninsula to a modern country with good relations with all its neighbors — despite living in the most dangerous region of the world. He became a valued ally of the United States. I had the opportunity to meet with him several times, and those meetings illustrate how important the Omani leader was for America’s role in the region. His passing comes at a very tumultuous time in the Persian Gulf, adding more uncertainty about the future of the most dangerous place in the world.

Oman is at one of the great crossroads of humanity. It sits between South Asia and the Middle East with the Strait of Hormuz on its northern shoreline. Omanis are Ibadi Muslims, a unique sect that is neither Sunni nor Shia. At its height, the Omani Sultanate ruled from Baluchistan to Zanzibar.

Qaboos’ father ruled the country like a personal plantation, even keeping the treasury in a box in his palace. There were only three schools in the country, 19 medical facilities, and 10 kilometers of paved roads. The son was under de facto palace arrest after graduating from the British army academy in Sandhurst and serving for a year with the British army in Germany. In 1970, the British — the former colonial power — assisted a coup to put Qaboos in power and sent his father into exile.

Oman has modest oil reserves, and Qaboos invested wisely in infrastructure and development. Schools, hospitals, and modern facilities were brought in to the nation. According to the CIA, by 1985 Qaboos had built 500 schools, 100 medical facilities, and 3,200 kilometers of paved roads. An elected parliament was created to support the monarchy. Women can vote and be candidates for office. But 55% of Omanis are under the age of 25, and the country has witnessed serious protests in 2017 and 2011.

Sultan Qaboos meeting with Secretary of Defense William Perry in the Royal Palace in Muscat in 1996.
Sultan Qaboos meeting with Secretary of Defense William Perry in the Royal Palace in Muscat in 1996. Photo credit: Personal archives of the author.

Oman has hosted American troops since 1980, when the abortive hostage rescue mission in Iran was staged from Oman. Ironically, despite his close relationship with the United States, Qaboos only made one state visit to Washington in 50 years. A recluse by nature, the sultan was always available for American officials who sought his counsel in Oman or Europe.

I first met Sultan Qaboos early in 1992, after he had already been on the throne for 22 years. I was part of a State Department and National Security Council team touring the six Gulf states a year after the liberation of Kuwait to speak to our partners in the region. Oman was the last stop on our trip.

The sultan was in the midst of his then-annual tour of the sultanate to meet with his subjects and hear directly about their concerns. He was camping in the desert in a group of tents with his entourage and security. We we’re helicoptered from Muscat to his party. Qaboos spoke about the region for an hour, stressing the need to avoid confrontation with Iran and seek dialogue. Qaboos was a very impressive monarch who was reaching out to his own people while pursuing a sophisticated foreign policy.

My next appointment was in 1994, when I accompanied then-Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright on a tour of the members of the Security Council to encourage them to maintain a firm line on containing Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Oman held an Arab non-permanent seat on the Council, and its vote was crucial. I was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, and my role on the trip was to provide a briefing using satellite photographs to demonstrate, graphically, how Iraq was systematically violating the U.N. Security Council resolutions enacted after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

The meeting this time was in one of the royal palaces. It was a beautiful gem of Omani architecture. Ambassador Albright asked me to brief the sultan and show him the imagery. It was very compelling, but the sultan was already convinced that the U.N. needed to hold the line. He assured Albright that Oman was a firm supporter of the Security Council resolutions.

Later that year, I accompanied the director of central intelligence on a visit to the region, stopping in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. The Omanis gave us a great tour of the country, including visiting some of the old Portuguese forts built in the 16th century. The meeting with the sultan provided a chance for him to give us a tour d’horizon of the region.

Soon after, I left that position to become deputy assistant secretary of defense for the same region. In that job I traveled frequently to Oman with Secretary of Defense William Perry. Perry is one of the finest public servants I ever had the pleasure and good luck to work with. Thoughtful and decisive, Secretary Perry was a critical member of President Bill Clinton’s first term cabinet. Qaboos was a great interlocutor for Perry.

My most consequential meeting with the sultan took place after I returned to the White House to be the senior director for the Near East and South Asia in Clinton’s second-term National Security Council. Much of my attention was devoted to the attack on the U.S. Air Force barracks in Khobar on June 26, 1996, in which 19 Americans were killed and scores more wounded. The evidence was developed gradually, and ultimately pointed to Iran. But in the interim, Iran had elected a new president —  Muhammad Khatami — who publicly called for easing tensions with America. President Clinton wanted to convey two messages to Khatami: Iran must not repeat the Khobar attack or face dire consequences, but that the United States also wanted to cool tensions between the two countries.

The president dispatched Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Martin Indyk and me to meet with Sultan Qaboos to deliver the message on America’s behalf directly to Khatami. It was our judgment that the sultan was the best-placed leader in the world to get a message directly to the Iranian president.

Indyk and I met with the sultan at his chateau outside Paris in June 1999 at Fontaine Le Port along with his very capable Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi. Qaboos immediately agreed to be the intermediary to deliver our message. We had an answer back from Tehran in September. It was another example of the Omani monarch’s skillful touch.

My last meeting was in 2000, when I accompanied President Clinton on his visit to South Asia. On the way home, Clinton made a short visit to Muscat to see the sultan himself, becoming the first U.S. president ever to visit Oman. Qaboos accommodated Clinton on short notice and offered useful advice on how to deal with Syrian President Hafez Assad, his next planned interlocutor in Geneva, Switzerland.

I have not met the sultan since, but I have visited Oman many times since, including its remote western province of Dhofar. Each time I found the Omani people very pleased with their leader. President Obama turned to the sultan and Oman to open the door to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the nuclear deal that has been thrown aside recklessly by his successor.

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.