For the past several weeks, the world's attention has been fixed on a Geneva luxury hotel where Western negotiators and their Iranian counterparts have flitted in and out in search of a deal to end the stand-off over Tehran's nuclear program. But the real action, it turns out, took place 3,000 miles away in the Omani city of Muscat.
Working through the Sultan Qaboos-bin-Said, the ruler of Oman, U.S. diplomats have secretly huddled with a team of Iranian diplomats since 2011 to carry out bilateral talks aimed at securing an agreement to put the brakes on Iran's nuclear ambitions. While negotiations in Geneva appear to have generated all-important consensus among Western powers, the meat of the agreement looks to have been hammered out in Muscat, far from the prying eyes of the international media gathered in the Swiss city.
That subplot -- secret negotiations carried out in a little-known Middle Eastern capital known for the production of exceptionally aromatic frankincense -- has added a level of subterfuge to what is already one of the biggest diplomatic developments in recent memory. That a landmark nuclear deal could be worked out in secret is perhaps not surprising but it does cast the spotlight on the man who shepherded the agreement. Just who is Sultan Qaboos?
Writing for Foreign Policy, Robert Kaplan described the sultan as arguably "the most worldly and best-informed leader of the Arab world." The rare world leader who plays the organ and the lute, Qaboos is a quiet, highly competent steward of his small Middle Eastern nation. An Anglophile, Qaboos was educated in Britain -- the elite Sandhurst officer's school, after which he served in the British Army.
Qaboos, an 8th generation descendant of the founder of the royal line of Oman, overthrew his reactionary father in a bloodless coup in 1970, and since then he has cemented Oman's role as a key bit-player on the world stage. Following the example of his ancestors dating back several centuries, he has maintained good relations with the United States. A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks revealed that in 2009 Qaboos offered his services as "as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran -- if kept quiet." American diplomats clearly took the sultan up on his offer -- or a similar one shortly thereafter -- and the announcement in Geneva serves to highlight the ways that a little-known politician can be instrumental in a major diplomatic breakthrough.
And there's good precedent for Qaboos's orchestrations. By helping secure the release in 2011 of three American hikers captured in Iran, the sultan proved that he was a man that could deliver results. And, as early as this summer, rumors of Oman's role in the nuclear negotiations with Iran began to surface. Those talks began with mid-level diplomats and, beginning in March of this year, shifted to include a group of high-ranking officials hand-picked by President Barack Obama.
Qaboos, an understated and somewhat frail man with a neatly-trimmed silver beard, is known for his careful, calculating style of foreign policy. In a world where the United States and Iran are in opposite corners of the ring, Oman has remained neutral, and its leader poses for photo-ops with the same broad smile -- be it with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani or former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 1979, Oman was the only Arab state to recognize Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, and by the following year, Qaboos inked an agreement with the United States that provided American ships and planes access to Omani military facilities. But despite cozying up to the United States, Qaboos has managed to remain an effective intermediary with Iran.
"The vulgarity of Dubai and the brutality of Iran are simply not his style," writes Brian Whitaker, a former Middle East editor for the Guardian. Instead, the sultan has managed to navigate the treacherous waters of Middle East politics with a quiet grace. According to Kaplan, both Israelis and Palestinians see Qaboos as a man fully aware of their perspectives and grievances. This elegant balancing of the bloody conflicts that plague the region have allowed Qaboos to position himself as a key diplomatic go-between for Western powers. The fact that he also has a highly respected symphony orchestra and composes his own music only adds to the mystique of Qaboos as a kind of Middle Eastern Renaissance man.
But even if he has an air of cultivation, there is no getting around the fact that Qaboos is a despot, if an enlightened one. During his 43 year-rule, he has modernized the country's infrastructure, improved the education system, worked towards expanding women's rights, and implemented regulations protecting the environment. But the sultanate has very limited freedom of press and virtually no freedom of association. Political freedoms are minimal, and the sultan retains absolute authority. Though the country saw a few sporadic protests, Oman largely avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Protesters claimed they were not standing up against the widely-admired sultan, but other "corrupt officials." The demonstrations resulted in a wave of arrests of human rights' activists, however, which were part of a broader crackdown on dissenters against the ruling class.
Since then, the protests have died down, but now the country faces a more immediate problem. Though briefly married to his cousin, Qaboos is single, 73, and without an heir. The lack of a successor raises questions about the long-term viability of the current regime. Oman's neighbors are asking the same question. When Oman unmasked a spy ring run by United Arab Emirates, among the issues the spies were gathering information on was the question of Qaboos' heir. Unhappy with Oman's neutral stance toward Iran, it's a question of deep importance to the UAE.
If the Emirates ever needed a confirmation of Qaboos' influence, they got it this week in Geneva.
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