In 1970, with British help and support, Qaboos bin Sa'id overthrew his father and took the reins of powers in the Sultanate of Oman. Sultan Qaboos was an enlightened monarch, and firmly guided the xenophobic and isolationist state back into the modern world. Oman has since been a model of neutrality and tolerance, often acting as a bridge between regional adversaries (it is no coincidence that Oman served as the initial go-between for U.S.-Iran talks). Nevertheless, when push came to shove, Oman has done what is needed to combat terrorism. U.S. aircraft based in Oman launched some of the initial airstrikes against the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Oman is also strategically important. For all Western policymakers fret about Iranian activities in the Strait of Hormuz, they often forget that Oman occupies one side of the important waterway. Should Iran gain a toehold on both sides of the Strait, the calculus of Persian Gulf security would change.
Alas, the status quo cannot last forever. Sultan Qaboos is aging. A "confirmed bachelor," Qaboos has produced no offspring. Succession looms. And, perhaps never closer than now. ForeignPolicy.com today has an interesting piece speculating that Qaboos, who will turn 74 next week, may be on his deathbed. The Sultan has in recent weeks sought to dispel the rumors that he suffers from terminal colon cancer, but his frail appearance and his subsequent cancellation of his forthcoming national day appearance have added fuel to the fire.
In theory, when Qaboos dies, a new leader is supposed to be chosen by consensus among the leading factions of the royal elite. But if there is no consensus, then a letter that Qaboos will leave should help determine that successor. The problem is that surrounding countries have everything to gain and nothing to lose by disputing the authenticity of such a letter or by putting forward fraudulent copies favoring their own proxy. While it's doubtful that Oman will make as radical a political shift as it did as a result of the last succession, the failure of the White House to adopt a proactive strategy toward the region does put its future in doubt. While Washington shouldn't necessarily muck about in Omani royal politics, it is a vital interest to protect the integrity of the process and prevent Iran from doing so.
There are a few nightmare scenarios. One is that a pro-Iranian ruler will become Oman's next leader. Another is an outbreak of fighting. This is farfetched, of course. Just as Saudi troops invaded Bahrain to prevent a Shi'ite triumph over the Khalifa ruling family, it would not sit idly while another friendly monarchy fell to what it considers hostile forces. Then again, Oman is neither Sunni nor Shi'ite, and so long as the monarchy isn't threatened—and it won't be—then Saudi Arabia might choose more subtle ways to interfere.
Herein lays another danger. Should both Iran and Saudi Arabia begin supporting proxy figures or movements, it might not be long before this undercut Omani stability in other ways. After all, Oman has been a pillar of stability for decades, but then again so was Syria; at least since Hafez al-Assad staged his 1970 coup. Oman could also face the resurgence of regional tension; it wasn't too long ago in the scheme of things that it fought an insurgency against communist rebels in Dhofar.
Let us hope that Qaboos overcomes his current health crisis but, realistically, septuagenarian leaders do not last forever. The United States should hope for the best in Oman, but it's long past time when U.S. officials should plan for the worst. Alas, planning for the worst case is something to which too often American strategists across administrations seem adverse. We should not be. Oman is too important to lose.