OMAN’S MINISTER of Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah looks at his mobile phone at the foreign ministers of the Arab League meeting ahead of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, in the South Sinai governorate..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, beloved by his countrymen, returned Monday to Muscat after a prolonged absence in Germany where he underwent medical treatment. The sultan is not only their absolute ruler, he is the only leader most Omanis have ever known over the four decades of his rule. His countrymen have reason to rejoice at his homecoming; besides being a revered leader, his country faces unprecedented challenges.
Oman’s population of about 3.5 million people live reasonably well. Although no longer a significant oil and gas producer, Oman has maintained a largely middle income economy with well-functioning governmental services. In short, despite all the flux and change all around it, Oman has remained an oasis of stability and relative calm.
It is far from certain that this can continue.
On its west, Oman has a virtually open border with Yemen, which is in an early stage of a civil war and which has essentially no central government. Yemen’s population of approximately 27 million is regarded as the one of the highest armed per-capita in the world, second only to the US. Yemen has long been among the poorest in the world. Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to withhold its annual financial aid to Yemen has caused widespread food insecurity beyond the ongoing violence between the Houthis and al-Qaida forces.
Oman, and indeed its Sunni neighbors, must take careful note of these threats. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE share borders with Oman and any compromise of Omani sovereignty can position members of radical groups near to or even in these neighboring countries and cause further destabilization to the region.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, an umbrella group of the Sunni counties of the region, agreed in 2011 to fund an ambitious program of security and infrastructure worth around $10 billion. Although largely not implemented, this should be immediately revived to fund a range of security measures including the Yemeni/Omani border. Additional security measures are also vital if Oman is to avoid a major refugee influx.
This is the time for Oman’s neighbors to step forward and assist in assuring its stability and the strategic depth its geography represents.
Sultan Qaboos could not have returned at a more critical time.Eli Epstein, a New York-based businessman with long-standing experience in the Middle East.