Viewed from outside the region, the attention generated earlier this month by the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the ruler of Oman, may seem puzzling. Almost every obituary described Qaboos’s quiet, yet outsized, role in regional diplomacy. Less obvious for some may be why Oman was able to claim such a role in the first place.
Qaboos himself deserves much of the credit. A quietly charismatic figure, he inherited absolute political power but only relatively modest wealth (Oman’s oil resources are a fraction of those available to other Gulf countries), and used these to transform a place known for its remoteness and lack of development into a modern nation.
Some of it, however, was also geography. Tourists making their way through the old souk of Muscat, Oman’s capital, do so in the shadow of a 16th-century Portuguese fort that is still used by the Omani military today. A couple of centuries after the fort’s construction, the British turned up concerned – like the Portuguese before them – with safeguarding their route from Europe to India.