How Oman became the Middle East’s indispensable nation

Bilal Y. Saab writes: To many Omanis, it is offensive to openly contemplate life after Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the widely admired albeit absolute monarch who has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since July. But policymakers elsewhere in the world have no choice but to do just that. The 73-year-old Qaboos is said to have colon cancer and rumors suggest he may not be around for too long. The Omani royal court has said he is recovering from successful surgery, and some say that he will return to Oman in time to attend the annual National Day military parade on November 18. But dark clouds of uncertainty nevertheless hover over the country’s future. And given Qaboos’ importance as a strategic partner for the West — and for Washington in particular — it’s only natural to wonder what will transpire after he is no longer in charge in Muscat.

Oman tends to feature far less in international discussions about the Middle East than other countries in the region. But that is mostly a reflection of its deliberate preference for avoiding the spotlight. Indeed, Oman has long had tremendous strategic significance for Washington — although, unusually for the region, not because of its oil. Rather, it provides a rare regional example of domestic tranquility, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance, and skillful diplomacy.

The country benefits greatly from its geography. Oman controls the southern half of the Strait of Hormuz — which includes the waterway’s main deep-water channels and shipping lanes — through which approximately 30–40 percent of the world’s oil supplies pass (the other half of the Strait is controlled by Iran). Oman also has an extensive coastline that faces the Indian Ocean, which has allowed the country to become a regional trading hub and spurred a more open society. In recent years, Oman has built the second-biggest dry dock in the Middle East at the strategically important town of Duqm, with quays stretching for 2.5 miles. Given its location, Duqm has a vast advantage over Dubai, a rival regional trade powerhouse: Duqm is not along the Strait of Hormuz, which brings enormous savings in insurance and fuel costs because of Iran’s tendency to threaten to close off the waterway for political reasons.

Oman is also an island of religious moderation and tolerance in the region. The country is religiously distinctive from its neighbors: It is the only one in the Arab world with a population that predominantly adheres to Ibadism (a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia); it is also the only Arab country that has developed truly tolerant religious traditions. It is common practice in Oman, for example, for different Muslim sects to pray in one another’s mosques. Amid the violent hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims elsewhere in the Arab world, Oman offers a model of peaceful coexistence. [Continue reading…]

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