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Death of a sultan: Oman matters, so why such a slow US response?

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Stuck out in the periphery of Arabia, Oman may be a long way from the United States but it is, or should be, central to Washington’s concerns about Gulf security. True, not much happens there — the capital, Muscat, is pleasantly sleepy — but that is, in part, a consequence of the firm hand of its ruler, the Sultan.

The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq have drowned out the arguably almost as consequential death of Sultan Qaboos, who ruled Oman for 50 years, and his replacement by an untested cousin, the new Sultan Haitham.

The importance of Oman to the West was highlighted by Britain’s promptly sending Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to offer condolences. Prince Charles may not have better things to do (other than to sort out the royal crisis involving Harry and Meghan) but Johnson certainly has. This was clearly more than an occasion for monarchies to show support for each other.

Washington’s response has been slower. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone to his Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, a maestro of decades of Gulf diplomacy, to offer condolences. The statement ended with the sentence: “A senior U.S. delegation will travel to Oman to pay our respects.” Last night, the White House announced that 

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette will lead the delegation, set to arrive Wednesday after the three-day mourning period has ended.

To the amazement of Gulf watchers, Oman is — or at least has been — a significant player on a range of issues. A year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew in, arguably stealing the thunder of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who may have thought they were the arbiters of when Israel would be publicly acceptable to invite for a visit. During the Obama administration, Oman facilitated the early dialogue between Iran and the United States on what would become the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement. Forty years ago, Oman played host to the eventually unsuccessful bid to rescue the American embassy hostages in Tehran.

The role continues. The steadily growing port facility at Duqm on Oman’s Arabian Sea cost, which is making Oman a significant player in international trade, also has facilities to handle visiting U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Duqm lacks the bright lights for shore leave of Dubai, inside the Strait of Hormuz, but gives the U.S. Navy more options in coping with Iranian naval threats while still safeguarding oil exports from the Gulf.

In today’s Middle East, Washington still needs Oman — and the almost untested Sultan Haitham, needs friends. Although he served as a diplomat and foreign ministry official earlier in his career, his most recent testing has been as minister of heritage and culture. Omani noses were put out of joint earlier in the Trump administration when the president visited Riyadh in 2017 for a Gulf summit and his schedulers couldn’t find time for him to meet the Omani representative.

Regional players likely will be testing Oman in the next few months. The U.S., for its own interests, needs to ensure there is continuity between the Sultans’ reigns.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Arabian Gulf Benjamin Netanyahu Foreign relations of Oman Middle East Mike Pompeo Oman Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said

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