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The Death Of Middle East's Mediator, Omani Sultan Qaboos


Now we'd like to tell you more about a key stabilizing figure in the Middle East who died on Friday just as relations between the U.S. and Iran are in turmoil. Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman was the longest-serving leader in the Middle East. He ousted his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. But since then, he's played an important role in the region, including bringing Iran and the U.S. together for covert talks during the Obama administration, which paved the way for the 2015 nuclear agreement.

So we wanted to hear more about who Sultan Qaboos was and the legacy he left behind. We've called up Elizabeth Dickinson for that. She works for the International Crisis Group as a senior analyst. She was based in the Arabian Peninsula for eight years.

Elizabeth Dickinson, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: Really a pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: So first, how is the sultan being remembered, both by Omanis and people elsewhere around the world?

DICKINSON: Well, Sultan Qaboos is really a sort of towering figure in history - particularly the history of Oman, but also really the history more broadly of a region that has changed dramatically. I mean, when he came to power in 1970, there were about six kilometers of paved roads in Oman. Today, it's a modern state with, you know, wide highways and infrastructure and schools and hospitals and universities. So he really sort of built Oman and achieved what it took centuries for other industrialized countries to achieve.

MARTIN: I understand that he did a number of sort of concrete things to help bridge gaps. Like, for example, I think many Americans may remember the three hikers who were detained in Iran in September of 2011. And it's my understanding that he paid their bail to secure their release, which the U.S. government was certainly not in a position to do. Or, for example, he offered discreet places for American and Iranian negotiators to meet privately to try to advance, you know, the agenda, mainly the nuclear deal. Is that true? Am I accurate here?

DICKINSON: That's exactly right. So I think the understanding that the Sultan had was that Iran was a regional power, and the United States was a regional power in the Middle East. And really, I think the vision that His Majesty had and was successful to some extent was to bring these two adversaries together. Because in his view, according to those who are close to him, there could never really be true peace in the region unless these two regional powers were really brought together.

So the loss of his presence is certainly something that will be felt very acutely in the crisis, particularly between the U.S. and Iran.

MARTIN: He did not leave any direct heirs, as I understand it. So who is his successor? And is there someone who can fulfill the role that the previous sultan had been playing?

DICKINSON: So the new sultan is Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who is a cousin of this former sultan. And his first pledge was to continue, essentially, the policy of Sultan Qaboos. Now, I think really in many ways, it's about steering this ship steady in a region that's full of, you know, waves and hurricanes and storms.

As I said before, you know, Oman was cosmopolitan before the word even existed. It's a country that has had access and continues to have interactions with so many regions of the world because of where it sits at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula. So steering that steady course is really, I think, embedded into the Omani DNA.

To me, the legacy of Sultan Qaboos is that he's a man who knew war and knew peace, and he knew that peace was actually harder than war, and he chose to pursue peace. I think that's how he'll be remembered, and I imagine that that's the legacy that the new sultan will seek to carry forward.

MARTIN: That's Elizabeth Dickinson. She's a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. We actually reached her in her new assignment in Colombia.

Elizabeth Dickinson, thank you so much for talking with us.

DICKINSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.