The country’s stability and its good regional relations are based on non-intervention policies in place since Qaboos took power. Without heirs or successors, what will happen after?
- Friday, 10 June 2016
In a region that is fractious, unstable and rife with conflicts, one country appears to have emerged unscathed by the chaos: Oman. It is telling that the country has not only avoided the ramifications of the Arab Spring but has also shied away from the tense state of polarization that is hijacking the entire region. In contrast to the rest of the Gulf monarchies, Oman’s position on regional issues has been peaceful. But behind this unique position lies a hidden and active role of which many are unaware.
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As part of the revolutionary wave, a series of demonstrations erupted in Oman. The masses were calling for better living standards, including salary increases, a lower cost of living, more jobs, less corruption and more democratic representation. Nevertheless, these protests were peaceful and showed respect for the sultan. In return, Sultan Qaboos accepted the petitions and undertook a number of steps to contain the unrest.
His initial response was a reshuffling of the governing cabinet. He also promised that the legislative council would be given more powers. Among a variety of moves aimed at absorbing the frustration of the youth, the Diwan of Royal Court decided to set up an independent authority for consumer protection. The sultan, for his part, pledged to create 50,000 government jobs and provide a monthly benefit of 390 dollars (€351) to the unemployed. In short, the sultan managed to survive the tumult of the Arab Spring. But another, more dangerous challenge has emerged in the region: polarization.
In concert with deep transformations in the region, an extraordinary state of polarization (basically sectarian) has been mounting between two camps: Iran and its Shiite regional allies (e.g., the Syrian regime and Hezbollah), and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations (e.g., Turkey). The Gulf States view Iran as an ideological threat, while Iran claims that its detractors are fuelling sectarian conflict and twisting the compass away from the real danger: Israel. This dynamic has been escalating and threatens to erupt into a wideranging sectarian conflict. Following Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in early 2016, attacks were staged on the Saudi Embassy and Consulate in Iran. As a result, Riyadh and its allies downgraded diplomatic relations with Tehran. March 9 witnessed the latest in a series of clear demonstrations of military power when Iran test-launched two ballistic missiles. A few hours later, Saudi Arabia conducted a massive military exercise that included troops from 20 Muslim and Arab nations (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Senegal, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Kuwait, the Maldives, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, the Comoros, Djibouti, Malaysia, Egypt, Mauritania and Mauritius).
In the midst of these developments, Oman has become a peaceful oasis, resting above the fray. When the other Gulf States opposed the US-Iran deal, Oman not only supported it but also hosted secret talks between the two governments. Oman’s neutral position gave it the unique advantage of being a mediator in international issues. The country played an instrumental role in freeing three American hikers arrested by Iran on espionage charges in 2011. This helped Sultan Qaboos succeed in maintaining the trust and confidence of both the Americans and the Iranians, and allowed him to bring them both to the table, behind closed doors.
In July 2012, Oman hosted the first meeting between the Americans and Iranians. Nine months later, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns secretly met with his Iranian counterpart Majid Ravanchi in Muscat. Clandestine meetings continued, and Omani envoys relayed important messages between the United States and Iran, containing the terms of negotiations. The successful conclusion of the nuclear deal thus hinged on an unseen Omani role.
But this role is nothing new. A number of other incidents demonstrate that Oman enacts an independent policy and inhabits a unique position compared to the rest of the Gulf countries. As a case in point, Oman hosted secret talks in Muscat between the two rival factions of the Iran-Iraq War. And in Yemen, where Huthis have taken control of the capital, Oman is the only Gulf country whose embassy remains open in Sana. Oman did not take part in the Saudi-led Decisive Storm, a military campaign against the Huthis and Saleh loyalists. Instead, it kept channels of communication open with them. Oman also played a pivotal role in the handing over the body of a Moroccan pilot whose jet crashed in territory controlled by the Huthis. Unsurprisingly then, Muscat has become the logical destination for any potential negotiations between warring parties.
Beyond the Yemeni debacle, Oman has also leveraged its neutrality to develop relationships of trust with all sides in the Syrian crisis. This has enabled the sultanate to serve as a mediator, a role that no other Arab or Gulf country could play. When almost every Arab and Gulf country boycotted and attacked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Oman maintained its relations with the Syrian regime. In August 2015, Syria’s foreign minister met with his counterpart in Muscat. And in October of the same year, the Omani foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi, met with Assad in Damascus.
In 2015, the sultanate also stepped in as a mediator in order to help contain a relatively unpublicized sectarian crisis between Ibadi Amazigh and Arab followers of the Maliki School in Algeria. Oman’s distinct position emanates from the unique situation of its national interests.
Although Oman is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it shares ownership of the strategic Strait of Hormuz with powerful Iran. Moreover, with the current drop in oil prices, maintaining relations with a large provider of natural gas has become a strategic advantage, especially since Oman is less oil rich than other GCC States. Thus the strategic relationship between Oman and Iran has strengthened remarkably. The two countries are in the process of developing an underwater natural gas pipeline and a joint military exercise was recently conducted in January. By and large, Oman has disputed the absolute hegemony of Saudi Arabia in the GCC. And it appears that severing ties with Oman is not an option for the Saudis. Their tolerance of Oman stems from a number of factors. First and foremost, Oman’s foreign policy is not fully pro-Iran, but rather neutral. It avoids taking sides. Second, Saudi Arabia can’t abandon Oman because it is a natural component of the Arab-Gulf structure, with entangled interests and connections both regionally and globally. Third, if the Saudis were to lose Oman, they would certainly dread the prospect of the sultanate allying with Iran.
It is also worth noting that Oman’s official religious identity is Ibadi (almost 70% of the population) which is one of the most tolerant branches of the Islamic faith. Following its Ibadi precepts, Oman tends to move toward balancing the interests of all parties and avoiding claims of the supremacy of one sect over another. Oman views the escalation of sectarian strife between the Shiites and Sunnis as a catastrophe for greater Islamic world.
Nonetheless, the peaceful approach of Oman is not always well received by its fellow Gulf States. Many Yemenis accuse Muscat of backing the Huthis and acting as Iran’s stooge. Saudi Arabia has also long been irked by Oman’s relations with Iran, which the Saudis view as undermining efforts to isolate the Iranians. Importantly, the future of this peaceful oasis is in disarray. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who took power in 1970, has no children or brothers and has yet to name a successor. With this in mind, the absence of the strong man of Oman could lead to a considerable power vacuum.