Sultan Qaboos returned home in March, following an eight-month stay in Germany for treatment of an undisclosed medical problem. The uncertainty surrounding the health of the sultan, who has ruled with absolute power since 1970 and has no biological heir, contributed to understandable anxiety in Oman. His return triggered spontaneous public celebrations, but many Omanis are skeptical that he is as healthy as his spokespeople claim, and his obvious physical frailty has reinforced suspicions that he is suffering from cancer.
It has long been understood that the end of Qaboos’ reign would bring a heightened risk of political instability, not least owing to a lack of clarity regarding the succession process, which creates the potential for a destabilizing power struggle. But the risks associated with royal succession have been heightened significantly by external developments that only became fully apparent after Qaboos left for Germany in mid-2014, namely, a steep fall in global oil prices that has put a severe squeeze on state finances and the significant escalation of the civil war in neighboring Yemen. Against that backdrop, the potential for dangerous social unrest, palace intrigue, and missteps by a new leader would be especially high in the event that a transfer of power becomes necessary in the near term.
Oman has resisted pressure to participate in a Saudi-led campaign to defeat a Shiite insurgency in Yemen, which leaders in Riyadh have framed as a proxy battle against Iran. For both security and economic reasons, Oman has invested a good deal of energy in building positive relations with Iran, and officials in Muscat fear that an escalation of the conflict in Yemen will accelerate the flow of refugees into Oman, with negative implications for the government’s already strained financial resources and the risk of infiltration by Islamist radicals, who have taken advantage of the upheaval in Yemen to establish a toehold in the Gulf region.
It is debatable whether an inexperienced ruler coming to power in Oman would be able to similarly withstand pressure from Saudi Arabia to fall in line behind the GCC heavyweights. But if UN-brokered peace talks currently taking place in Geneva fail to bear fruit, the logic behind Oman’s non-military strategy will be undermined, and even Qaboos might be forced to concede that direct action is required.