By Sigurd Neubauer
In his first interview since stepping down as Oman’s long-time foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi discusses his humble origins in Salalah, and the pan-Arabist inspiration Gamal Abdel Nasser provided the youth of the 1950s before partnering with Sultan Qaboos to craft the country’s foreign policy.
His demeanor is calm and collected.
For nearly 50 years, Yusuf bin Alawi, 77, served as a top diplomat for Oman, and from 1997 until his retirement in 2020, as its foreign minister. As a trusted confidant of Sultan Qaboos Al Said (1940-2020), the founding father of modern Oman, the two men helped transform a sleepy Arabian monarchy into an international diplomatic leader which continues to serve as a bridge between the United States and Iran and between Israel and the Arab world.
In his first interview since stepping down in August 2020, we began our conversation about bin Alawi’s legacy and how his story began in what in the 1950s was a small city in southern Oman: Salalah.
At his gracious home in the capital of Muscat, the walls of his reception room are decorated with various paintings, including one of bin Alawi standing next to Jerusalem’s Haram Al-Sharif mosque.
Bin Alawi knows the holy site well – where he publicly worshipped in February 2018 – has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories numerous times over the decades, including for the funeral of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.
He opened the conversation by expressing his deep admiration for Qaboos, even though it has been over the two years since his passing.
Bin Alawi’s heartfelt admiration for Qaboos, who became the Arab world’s longest serving monarch, governing the Sultanate from 1970 until his death in January 2020, was striking yet it also represented nostalgia for a bygone era.
The two men, who together would establish Oman as a diplomatic champion in the pursuit of peace among the competing geopolitical powers of the broader Middle East, had developed an unlikely partnership born out of the country’s civil war in Dhofar.
On the role of the United States in the world today, the former top diplomat exhibited clear candor in what he described as a long-term trend of declining American presidential leadership, which he called “a shame”.
In the 1970s, when bin Alawi began his government service, “the people of the Middle East – and elsewhere – looked up to the American people and its government,” he adds.
Bin Alawi, who first visited Tehran a month after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, where he delivered a letter from Qaboos to Ayatollah Khomeini, would regularly return over the ensuing eight to nine months carrying letters from the Omani monarch.
“I first traveled to Iran to express Qaboos’ support for the Iranian people,” bin Alawi says. He adds that Khomeini knew little about the outside world as the cleric had spent most of his life surrounded by books.
Decades later, Oman would facilitate the diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Iran, which eventually led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015.
In 2019, then President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA.
When asked about what he thinks of the apparent inability a new agreement being reached between the world powers and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, bin Alawi describes the lack of progress as “unfortunate”.
But discussions surrounding Iran’s nuclear aspirations began much earlier when he met in the early 1980s with senior Reagan Administration officials at the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Room on the seventh floor.
“Qaboos made a revolution in Oman,” Bin Alawi explains, “which aligned with our views”
“Israel’s problem with Iran developing nuclear weapons,” Bin Alawi says, was that “Tehran didn’t’ accept it [its right to exist], otherwise a nuclear armed Iran would just have been like India or Pakistan.”
The Shah of Iran, bin Alawi describes as “a King’s King.” Iran, he says, sees Oman as a great nation.
“Great nations maintain relations with other great nations,” bin Alawi adds while underscoring that the Shah didn’t recognize most of the Gulf states.
“We’re not rich, which is a good thing,” he says about Oman while comparing his country to Bahrain and its lack of wealth, which stands in contrast to the remaining four Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies.
The Dhofar rebellion
Discussing the origins of the Dhofar Rebellion (1963 to 1976), bin Alawi explains that it took place during the Gamal Abdel Nasser era in Egypt and at the backdrop of Suez Crisis in particular, which was seen in Oman and in the general Arab world as an “invasion”. These dynamics, the former top diplomat explains, sets the stage for what would become a rebellion, but it was initially directed as a fight against the British troops stationed at their Salalah Air Force base.
Bin Alawi returned to Oman in 1970 upon the invitation of Sultan Qaboos. Image credit: Chatham House
At that time, there were 70 or 80 students at the local school that bin Alawi attended who mostly threw stones at the troops when they entered and left the base.
In 1956, the youngsters, bin Alawi amongst them, were 12 or 13 years old, and they were all inspired by Nasser’s pan-Arabist broadcasts from Cairo.
The former top diplomat, however, describes the rock throwing attacks targeting the British “not as revolution” but rather it was about “not liking the British,” a widespread sentiment in Salalah at the time, he explains.
“The rebellion was organic and leaderless,” he asserts.
Responding to the unrest, Sultan Said bin Taimur al Said, Qaboos’ father, ordered the parents of the youngsters to stop their children from attacking the British.
“The locals wanted the French, Israelis and Americans to withdraw from Egypt, which is what motivated them,” he says.
Following the completion of primary school, the youngsters at the time, including bin Alawi, traveled to other Gulf countries and to Kuwait, in particular, to further their education. A center for political activism was established there, he says.
Political activity and Arab nationalism
Bin Alawi left Salalah in 1958 for only to return in 1970 upon the invitation of Qaboos who had taken power in a bloodless coup against his father.
In the decade since leaving Oman, but before returning in 1970, Bin Alawi traveled to Egypt, Iraq and Syria where the Arab revolutionaries operated at the time.
Bin Alawi describes his travels as an “easy living in those times”.
He didn’t learn fighting while traveling, but it was a time of enjoyment, the former top diplomat asserts.
Along with his friends and companions, bin Alawi rejected at the time what he calls “all foreign ideologies” such as communism, socialism and other types of Marxists inspired ideologies. Instead, they only embraced Arab nationalism.
“It was about young people traveling together, having fun – it was organic – as opposed to organized,” he explains.
While traveling, bin Alawi listened to the radio broadcasts by Nasser and others, which he describes not only as “highly enjoyable”, but they became a favorite activity. He became particularly fond of reading Muhammad Husain Haykal’s weekly column in Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, which published every Thursday.
Haykal’s columns, bin Alawi says, was read by 70 percent of the public in the Arab world at the time.
Through his travels, he came to know others from Salalah – many of them socialists – who jointly collected money to help the poor people in their native city.
Many of the poor people had established themselves in the mountains of Dhofar. In 1964, they had decided that they wanted to overthrow Sultan Taimur. Similar movements existed in northern Oman, which unnerved the British. These dynamics, bin Alawi asserts, is why the British supported Qaboos’ ascent to the throne in 1970.
In the 1960s, the anti- Taimur groups were leaderless and unorganized.
After Britain withdrew from Aden, Yemen in 1967, South Yemen, with Soviet support, became a socialist state. The Soviets began training the socialists in Aden, including by giving them weapons.
It was at this point, bin Alawi says, that he separated himself from the socialists.
During this contentious era, “hundreds came down from the mountains of Dhofar to establish a national militia to fight along with the armed forces of Oman as they joined the government,” bin Alawi explains.
In the process, he played a key role in persuading the mountaineers to join Oman’s national reconciliation process.
Qaboos acknowledged his contribution.
It was at this point that bin Alawi started his diplontic career when he was appointed Second Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1973, he was appointed ambassador to Lebanon, a job he only held for four months. At the time, Palestinian groups were fighting in Lebanon, he explains.
Upon his return to Oman, bin Alawi was appointed Undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which as an organization was professionalized to resemble those of other countries.
His quick ascent in the Foreign Ministry was made possible because of the close relationship he had forged with Qaboos, and because of the political role he had played to convince the mountaineers in Dhofar to join the government. Many of his former comrades from Dhofar became ministers as well, he explains.
“Qaboos made a revolution in Oman,” bin Alawi explains, “which aligned with our views”.
“His revolution was to modernize the country,” he adds, “which included inviting the young and educated Omanis who had traveled abroad for better opportunities to return to their homeland”.
Next, Qaboos established a committee of Omanis living in the Gulf countries.
In 1971, the young leader also established a committee of eight people, one of which was bin Alawi, which wrote messages to all Arab leaders about what was happening in Oman at that time while requesting their assistance.
The various Arab leaders responded in kind by sending delegations to meet with Qaboos, he explains.
In parallel with Qaboos’ outreach to Arab leaders, a roadmap was established to launch a national development plan for Oman. It included the ministers of Labor and education, along with activists such as bin Alawi.
The committee, of which bin Alawi was a member, had been granted a private plane by Qaboos which they used to travel to the various Arab countries which had responded to the letters they had sent.
It took four weeks to visit all of them. The first visit was to Saudi Arabia.
“King Faisal al Saudi was very pleased that we visited the Kingdom,” he says, whom bin Alawi briefed on the developments in neighboring Oman.
“This is how Oman became a member of the Arab League and then the United Nations. We established diplomatic missions in Cairo, London and Riyadh. At the time, the only foreign representation in Oman was a British Consulate General and the Indian Consulate,” bin Alawi explains.
“We were not prepared nor organized,” bin Alwai says as he describes the early days of Oman’s diplomacy.
It took four weeks to travel because the committee of eight didn’t have an organized travel plan but visited each country according to what order they had responded to its letters.
Bin Alawi describes King Hussein of Jordan as “a great leader who became one of the first to visit Oman”.
The building of a nation
Oman’s population in the 1970s was around five hundred thousand, and “there were hundreds like me,” bin Alawi says when describing his activism.
Domestically, the priority at the time was to fight the communists in southern Oman, bin Alawi adds.
After that, the priority was to establish schools. In the early 1970s, there were only two to three schools in Dhofar.
As the nation building continued, hospitals were built and a road network linking Muscat to the country’s various provinces was established.
In 1975, an airport was built. The government then went on to build homes and office buildings for its population. During this time, government fought hard to maintain the people of the country and to secure the country’s borders.
Returning to the role Qaboos had played in modernizing the nation, bin Alawi describes how Taimur had wanted to provide his son with a first-class education, which is why he was sent to the United Kingdom where he studied civil service and studied at the Sandhurst military academy.
Qaboos later joined the British forces in the then occupied West Germany. After that, Qaboos traveled around the world.
“When Qaboos returned from the UK, nothing existed in Oman,” bin Alawi says, “He had his own vision for Oman and how he wanted to build the country”.
Bin Alawi doesn’t mince his words.
“If Qaboos wasn’t adequately educated, Oman would not be what it is today.” Bin Alawi also explains that Qaboos had developed his life-long love of opera and classical music from his childhood.
“Qaboos was determined to maintain the image of Oman as an empire, which is why he established museums and two consultative assemblies, the Majlis al-Shura and the Majlis al-Dawla, which were built for generations to come. This is how his thinking developed.”