Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 2

Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, the new Sultan of Oman (source:

Oman’s Ability to Balance Competing Priorities Will Help Shape the Gulf in Coming Years

Brian M. Perkins

During the fraught aftermath of the airstrike that killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, another key development with broad implications for the Middle East was unfolding. The death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said on January 10 comes at a pivotal moment for both Oman and the region. The longstanding question of succession was answered quickly and smoothly when the late ruler’s cousin, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, was confirmed as the sultanate’s new leader. While the ruling family announced his appointment with little debate or turmoil, tensions in the region coupled with the country’s declining economy will undoubtedly test the new sultan and his ability to fulfill his predecessor’s legacy of peaceful neutrality.

Oman has long positioned itself as “friend to all, enemy to none,” deftly managing to maintain close and largely cordial ties to Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States. Haitham has vowed to continue along this path, but with Iran-US tensions at an all-time high, the continuing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) blockade against Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s designs in the region, external actors are likely to view the timing as an opportunity to overtly and covertly sway the country’s political stances.

The UAE, in particular, has long been involved in attempts to exert influence over Oman and was caught operating spy rings in 2010 and 2019. The most recent incident resulted in five Emiratis and one Omani citizen in the strategic Musandam governorate being arrested and imprisoned (Middle East Monitor, April 10, 2019). The UAE has increasingly pursued controversial and aggressive policies in Oman’s strategic border areas, most notably in Musandam, which is Oman’s peninsular province that lies on the strategic Strait of Hormuz and is cut off from the rest of Omani territory by the UAE. Emirati land purchases in Musandam and other strategic locations were a major factor in the decision to issue a 2019 Royal Decree banning “ownership of real estate and land for non-Omanis in Musandam, Buraimi, Dhahirah, Al Wusta, Dhofar (except Salalah), Liwa, Shinas, Masirah, Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams” (Oman Observer, November 28, 2018).

Outside of Musandam, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have engaged in highly controversial activities in Yemen’s al-Mahra governorate, which shares a border as well as deep tribal and cultural ties with Oman’s Dhofar governorate. Al-Mahra has been insulated from the war in Yemen and the Saudi and Emirati presence in the region is largely seen as an attempt to develop a pipeline through al-Mahra to the Indian Ocean. Their presence undermines Oman’s security along its border (Terrorism Monitor, March 21, 2019).

For Iran, Oman is a longstanding and essential partner as the country shares control over the Strait of Hormuz, counterbalances Saudi and Emirati power, and is a growing economic partner. Thus far, Oman and Iran have demonstrated an interest in maintaining this relationship as Omani and Iranian diplomats have traveled to Muscat and Tehran, respectively, for multiple meetings since the start of the year. Iran will likely attempt to pull Oman closer while seeking to prevent deepening ties with Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

The United States cannot afford for either Iran or Saudi Arabia and the UAE to find a way to gain undue influence over the sultanate as it could mark the unraveling of a key counterbalance in the region. In 2019, the United States won an important strategic port deal with Oman that will allow the U.S. Navy increased access to its ports, most notably the large Duqm port, several hundred miles south of Muscat (Middle East Eye, March 24, 2019). While this deal is essential to the United States’ ability to project strength and respond to hostilities in the region, the Trump administration has seemingly slighted Oman on several occasions in the past few years and could increasingly attempt to push Oman to choose a side, which could alter the country’s diplomatic approach.

Haitham will have to balance the competing priorities of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and the United States, all of which hold some form of political or economic leverage over the sultanate. For instance, in an extreme case, Oman has been forced into a bind over the GCC blockade of Qatar and could be similarly punished, but with even more devastating effects. Meanwhile, the country’s budget deficit continues to grow each year, and with little prospect for drastic improvement, the population will continue to grow increasingly unsettled as they look to the new sultan for answers. Oman has not experienced prolonged or substantial unrest recenty, but protests in 2015 demonstrated rising discontent over the economy and failure to reform government policies. The stability and balance of power in the Gulf will undoubtedly have much to do with how well Oman is able to persist in the diplomatic role it has held for decades while staving off any domestic unrest due to its poor economic performance and rising youth unemployment.


What the Death of the Iranian Commander in Yemen Would Have Meant

Brian M. Perkins

The United States’ bold airstrike on Iranian Quds Force Commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani, was portrayed as a response to an imminent threat in Iraq. The attack, however, came on the same day that the United States attempted to kill Abdul Reza Shahlai, the Quds Force commander responsible for Iranian involvement in the war in Yemen. The unsuccessful strike is likely to be viewed as a significant missed opportunity, but even if it had been successful, it would likely have had little effect on the situation on the ground.

The attempted strike in Sanaa could prove to be the United States’ last, best chance to remove Shahlai from the equation for two primary reasons. First, the attempt on his life will likely result in a tightening of his operational security. Second, the United States has played a diminishing role in the war in Yemen and does not have forces in Houthi controlled territory. The likely calculus was that the attack on Solemeini would overshadow the death of Shahlai, who the United States has been tracking for years, and would elicit a different response as a coordinated effort than a more prolonged series of targeted attacks on Iranian figures. The aftermath of Solemaini’s death has prompted both sides to err toward de-escalation, and another attempt on Shahlai any time soon would certainly cause another flare up.

Shahlai remains alive, and for the time being, will continue to manage Iran’s complex relationship with the Houthis while interfacing with other allied Iranian proxies elsewhere, namely Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the Houthi media outlet al-Masirah is based. If the strike had been successful, it would not have been a decidedly devastating blow to the Houthis’ capabilities as the networks he helped build are already firmly established. Further, few believe Shahlai, or Tehran for that matter, is entirely directing Houthi operations. The Houthis, while closer to Iran than ever, have never shown a proclivity for taking actions that do not primarily serve their own unique agenda. Unlike Iranian proxies in Iraq, the Houthis have less of an appetite, and would have had fewer avenues, to retaliate against the United States aside from punishing Saudi Arabia if Shahlai had been killed.

Shahlai is far from the only Iranian training and advising the Houthis in Yemen, and conflicting reports suggest another Quds Force operative, Mohammad-Mirza’i, was killed in the attempted strike on Shahlai (Middle East Monitor, January 13; FARS, January 5). It is unclear exactly how many Iranian operatives are currently in Yemen, but some estimates suggest upwards of a hundred Iranian and Hezbollah personnel have been deployed to the country. [1] Iran and Hezbollah have established firm communications, training, and smuggling networks that would not be undone by the death of a single commander. In fact, the Houthis seemingly have a direct line to Hezbollah, which has clearly advised the group on its media-related affairs and has even benefitted from Houthi-led fundraisers (Al Arabiya, July 7, 2019).

The benefits already derived from Shahlai and the rest of the Iranian/Hezbollah personnel would persist even if the Quds Force commander were to be killed, and the Houthis who have been trained have already gone on to train their own cadres. The technological and strategic capabilities will likewise continue unless there is a concerted effort to drive a wedge between the Houthis from Iran or push tenuous ceasefire talks forward. A future, successful strike against Shahlai, however, would result in another flare up that would likely have more significant ramifications outside of Yemen, such as retaliatory incidents against U.S. interests in Iraq.