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Oman’s Sultan Was a Valuable Friend to America

By: Judith Miller
January 12, 2020
WSJ Opinion

Few Americans have heard of Qaboos bin Said al-Said, the sultan of Oman. But when he died Friday at 79, the U.S. lost an invaluable interlocutor. In nearly 50 years on the throne, Qaboos time and again helped presidents navigate delicate diplomatic and military challenges.

The sultan kept such a low profile that the adjective “reclusive” was almost obligatory in articles about him. But when President Obama’s efforts to restrict Iran’s nuclear-weapons program stalled in 2012, the interview I had long requested was suddenly and mysteriously granted. Within days, I was seeing him for a second time—the first was in 1997—at Hisn Al Shomoukh palace, some 90 miles from Muscat, the capital.

Not one for small talk, he came straight to the point: Iran was seeking a way out of its isolation and wanted to be free of sanctions. “No one can live on his own in today’s world,” he told me in fluent, slightly British-accented English. “They know they are mistrusted and must convince the world of their peaceful intentions.”

Mr. Obama agreed. In 2013, U.S. and Iranian diplomats met secretly in private villas on the Omani coast, where they laid the groundwork for the agreement signed in 2015. An Omani official told me before Qaboos’s death that the sultan was deeply distraught when President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement.

Qaboos’s diplomatic efforts were broad-ranging. He encouraged efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians and kept Oman’s embassy in Cairo open after 1979, when other Arab leaders shunned Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel. While other Arab leaders kept their dealings with Jerusalem secret, Oman welcomed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, the first such visit in the Gulf. Oman and Israel established trade offices in 1996, although Oman closed them after the Palestinians began the Second Intifada in 2000. In 2018 the ailing sultan welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muscat.

Despite his close ties to Iran, in April 1980 Qaboos let America use the island of Masirah to stage a rescue mission for the 53 hostages from the U.S. Embassy Tehran was holding. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Qaboos let American forces pre-position military equipment in the Omani desert. That paid off in 1991 when it enabled Washington to shave months off the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Omani mediation and financing have helped free American and other Western hostages from Yemen and Iran.

Qaboos’s reign began in 1970, when he deposed his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, in a bloodless, British-backed coup. At the time, Oman was a backwater with about six miles of paved road and widespread illiteracy and malnutrition. The next half-century saw it develop into a developed, stable country with modern roads, schools and hospitals. Our 1997 interview came three months after the enactment of the Basic Law—an Islam-based constitution, complete with a bill of rights that guarantees press freedom, religious tolerance and equality of the sexes.

In both our meetings, he stressed his desire to move Oman—now a nation of 4.6 million, a majority of whom are Ibadi, an Islamic sect that predates the Sunni-Shiite split—toward greater democracy. But in 2012 he stressed the need to move slowly, so as to avoid the Arab Spring destabilization that doomed the presidency of his Egyptian friend Hosni Mubarak and helped trigger the Syrian civil war. Although Qaboos established a parliament and supreme court, most power remained in his hands. An absolute ruler, he retained the posts of sultan, prime minister, finance minister, and defense minister and commander of the armed forces.

Charming, witty and shrewd, the sultan said in 2012 that he had become largely vegetarian. He spoke passionately about music, architecture and his desire to prevent Oman from losing its distinctive character and religious exceptionalism. His opening of the Royal Opera House Muscat in 2011 had helped make Muscat a tourist destination. But despite his desire to reduce Oman’s dependence on oil, of which it produces less than a million barrels a day, he encouraged only high-end tourism. The country has no cheap hotels.

Qaboos’s cousin and successor, former Culture Minister Haitham bin Tariq al Said, vows to continue the sultan’s policies. Still, Frances D. Cook, a former ambassador to Oman, says, “The U.S has lost not only a unique Middle Eastern leader but also its best friend in the region.”