DESCENDING INTO AN ARC OF INSTABILITY:
However, a possible crisis is emerging in Oman due to the failing health of its ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said. Qaboos is 75, with a 45 years reign under his belt and his policies have proven to be popular in spite of the lack of a democratic government. But Qaboos lacks an apparent heir and in spite of much concerns the issue of succession has been left open by the Sultan till now. Though the three sons of his brother are considered the strongest contenders for the throne, the Sultan’s appointing of his cousin Sayyid Asaad as deputy prime minister has made him another favorite for the throne.
The second decade of the 21st century has seen a new Cold War emerging due to evolving power politics with the Indian Ocean and primarily the Middle East emerging as a major theatre. The US is taking a major interest in the region in order to offset a rising China and a resurgent Russia. Similarly, India is flexing its muscle in order to achieve “Great Power” status while Iran is also expanding its sphere of influence in the region.
In such complex situation a transfer of power holds a higher risk of a foreign power interference in a bid to install a ruler of their own choosing. Sultan Qaboos himself has been alleged to have successfully taken over Oman on the backs of British power players.
Sultan Qaboos, according to reports, is confronting poor health since 2014. He went for few months to Germany for treatment and since his return, he has been relatively recluse from public life in the last four years. There is a growing sense of uncertainty among regional and global political players pertaining to the future of this ‘oasis of peace’ in the Middle East because Sultan Qaboos has no apparent heir who could take up the helm of affairs upon his death.
Various risk assessment studies have been projecting varying degrees of potential scenarios in post-Qaboos Oman and its impact in the larger, chaotic Middle East political theater. According to the Omani constitution, the council comprising of the family of Al Bu Saidi will sit and decide on the name of successor upon the death of Sultan Qaboos. In the event that they failed to reach a consensus, the next possible play in choosing succession are envelops left by Sultan Qaboos in two distinct locations in the country which possess the name of the heir of the throne.
However, the succession to Sultan Qaboos would not be as simple and stable as this sounds. The contemporary political architecture of the Omani state comprises of three important pillars – the tribal sheikhs, the security establishment and the business community. It is likely that in absence of an apparent heir, Sultan Qaboos may opt for a candidate in these pillars. In an event if he doesn’t, then these pillars are likely to support and exert their meaningful influence on the family for a particular candidate or may opt for an entirely different candidate, from the next generation member of the Al Bu Saidi family.
Moreover, there is a probability that Sultan Qaboos is strategically maneuvering the question of potential successor because once the potential successor is announced, regional and international players like Iran, India, Saudi Arabia and the United States are likely to exert their influence to gain favor from the potential successor or may coerce him to their bidding in Oman’s foreign policy.
But, in absence of a potential successor, and lack of grooming of one under Sultan Qaboos leadership, the worst-case scenario is that Oman is very likely to be descended into a state of confusion and subsequently descend into political instability upon the departure of Sultan Qaboos.
Key Players and Their Interests:
This may provide a window for the vested interests of Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and the United States which are vying for influence and considerable control in Oman’s largely independent foreign policy. For India, Oman is integral part of India’s grand strategic vision for Indian Ocean region, which India considers its backyard, and where China is increasingly asserting itself politically and militarily through diverse economic projects under its Belt and Road (BRI) initiative.
India recently conducted its eleventh bilateral military exercise with Oman in December 2017, in which India deployed its new state-of-the-art P-81 long-range reconnaissance aircraft along with the Talwar-class frigates INS Trikand and INS Teg. This exercise has been a significant feature in India-Oman international relations since 1993. Aside from military aspects, the extensive relations between India and Oman also covers areas such as cyber security and counter terrorism. Indian trade with Oman is also significant, $I.2billion worth good go from Oman to India, while $1.3billion worth of goods return every year. Oman has also signed a deal to procure the Indian small arms system (INSAS), built by India’s state-run Ordnance Factory Board.
Iran, an assertive regional power house, is another nation with which Oman enjoys cordial and strategic relations. Oman was the first country whose Central Bank, Bank Muscat, opened its branch in Tehran in post-sanctions scenario. It was the first foreign bank to enter in the Iranian market. Even at the height of sanctions, the annual bilateral trade between Oman and Iran reportedly grew by some 70% to $873 million and by the end of 2015, it reached to $1 billion. In 2016, Mohammad Reza Nematazadeah, Iran’s Minister of Industry, Mines and Trade, reportedly estimated that bilateral trade between both countries would reach $4 billion within five years.
Furthermore, Oman did not downgrade its relations with Iran in the aftermath of execution of a Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia in early 2016. Oman also played a critical role in acting as a go-between for the western powers and Iran during the recent nuclear deal in 2015. Additionally, for the United States, Oman is critical for its foreign policy objectives as Oman is situation at the southern side of Strait of Hormuz. It ensures the provision of air bases and logistical hubs for American and British militaries and its port at Duqm possesses the capability to handle US aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.
Besides its strategic relations with Iran, Oman also maintains a substantial degree of profound relations with Saudi Arabia. It is a member of Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council and it actively supports the Hadi-led government in Yemen, although some alleges that it also logistically supports the Houthis. Like Pakistan, Oman eventually became the 41st member of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).
China is also a major player. Chinese company Ningxia China-Arab Wanfang has signed a project to develop a $10.7 billion industrial city near the port of Duqm. China is already the biggest trading partner of Oman as it imports $10.8billions worth products from Oman, which include crude and raw petroleum. China has invested heavily in projects like the 265 km long Al Batinah expressway national high-speed railway network, with a $15 billion budget. The Engineering Company of Shandong has taken up projects to modernize the Salalah port. In addition, China also has invested more than $15 billion in the Sohar Port. With all this investment China would not like to see Indian or Iranian dominance in the maritime affairs of Oman.
US presence in Oman can also not be ignored at any rate either. The US Air Force is a major current tenant of the RAFO Thumrait Air Base, located near the Salalah Port in Dhofar. Though US has a small bilateral trade with Oman, but it has been using this base extensively for its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Way Forward for Political Stability:
Analyzing the whole situation, Pakistan must work to establish strong maritime strategic alliance with Oman. Pakistan has its Joint Maritime Information Coordination Centre (JMICC) situated in Karachi which should be engaged in crafting such an alliance. Moreover, special attention is required in the specific areas like Maritime Terrorism, Piracy, Organized Maritime Crime, Illegal exploitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone (in particular fishery crimes), Marine Pollution, Search and Rescue. Moreover, JMICC should also work with the Oman naval administration, civil society, communities and industries for enlightening about maritime awareness.
The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa has met Oman’s Minister for Defence Sayyid Badr bin Saud bin Harib Al-Busaidi and matters of defense and security cooperation have been discussed. Oman is in the limelight of global oil transportation, as on its geopolitical disposition there are major supply routes, which will facilitate fast increasing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) business and merchandise trade, both intra- and inter-continental and Pakistan will only be beneficiary if the whole strategic partnership is forged under the right pretext.
Provided Oman’s international relations and potential political upheaval contexts, a viable solution is that Pakistan must seek to assertively forward the idea of deployment of a special platoon of this Islamic Military Alliance to deter any potential unrest and ensure that the process of selecting a successor would conclude peacefully. The stakes are high at this moment in Middle Eastern history. Oman is one of the few countries which is largely safe from the death and destruction ravaging other Middle Eastern countries in the region. The stability of Oman is also important for Pakistan and global comity of nations because of its strategic geography. Global energy security could be ensured with the continuation of political stability in Oman.