27/09/2020

Senior delegates visit country important to UK strategic interests in region

The critical importance of Oman to Britains post-Brexit foreign policy, which includes plans for a major naval base, has been underlined by the UK sending its most senior delegation to the commemoration ceremonies marking the death of the countrys sultan.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said died from cancer, and has been immediately replaced by his first cousin Haitham bin Tariq al-Said in what appears a smooth succession.
Boris Johnson, Prince Charles, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, and the chief of defence staff, Gen Sir Nick Carter, all flew to Muscat to attend the first of three days of ceremonies. The Queen had met Qaboos many times over the years.
Government buildings in the UK were also instructed to fly flags at half mast as a mark of respect.
Although Oman only has a population of 5 million, its position on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula overlooking the Gulf has given the country a strategic importance to the UK stretching back two centuries. Close to the strategic Strait of Hormuz waterway, Oman is openly described by defence officials as central to the UKs projection east of Suez in a post-Brexit foreign policy.
The seniority of the UK delegation is a reflection of Britains commitment to Oman and the importance of retaining UK defence capabilities in the country. Others present at the ceremonies included the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
Last February the Ministry of Defence revealed it had gained access to the new Duqm Port complex south of Muscat with a dry dock capability able to accommodate submarines and the UKs flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is the largest and most powerful warship ever built for the Royal Navy. The UK is also building a training exercise base, and the two counties conduct regular and expanding joint military exercises.
A British intelligence services communications hub is also reported to be based in Oman, but this has never been confirmed by the UK government.
British intelligence services played a major role in 1974 in a secret counter-insurgency to defeat the Sultans internal enemies. Senior figures in the British military such as Sir Jock Stirrup, a former air chief marshall, cut their teeth in the counter-insurgency. The royal family have repeatedly visited Oman, including Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
The sultan had no heirs, and the identity of Qaboos chosen successor was retained in a sealed envelope that the Oman royal family only opened in front of the TV camera after his death. It is believed there are other copies of the sealed envelope in different places within the country.
The choice of successor to the sultan is critical to future UK policy in the Middle East; had someone who was hostile to the UK been selected it would have been a catastrophic blow. But in the event, the appointment of Haitham, the culture minister, was a relief to the UK since he represents continuity and has wide experience of foreign affairs. He was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford, and is a huge fan of English Premier League football.
Bournemouth football club has been despatched to Oman to help the country improve its soccer skills. The Oman national team has improved markedly since its lowpoint when it lost 21-0 to Libya in 1966.
Qaboos had managed to combine his role as a host to British forces with Omans international reputation as a discreet base for mediation, which led British ministers to describe the country as the lynchpin of the Middle East.