By: Hamad Althunayyan
Rai Insights Contributor
WASHINGTON, D.C: It all started in 2009 when Mr. Ismaily, a trusted confidant of Sultan Qabbos of Oman, conveyed to a U.S. State department official that Muscat could help facilitate a deal with Iran. It ended when the Nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 was reached in July 2015. However, Oman’s role in these talks infuriated many officials in the other Arab Gulf Countries behind closed doors. Several media figures in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states attacked the Omani position toward Iran, and made the question be: why is Oman betraying its fellow GCC members? In this article, let me tell you why I think this is an inaccurate assessment of Oman’s stance in the region on different levels. I contend that these criticisms lack the understanding of Oman’s regional history.
Historical-context of the region matters. While Saudi Arabia was providing money and weapons to rebels fighting the Omani Sultanate during the 10 year-long Dhufar revolution, the Shah of Iran supplied Oman with thousands of armed soldiers to protect the regime. Iran supported the UN membership to Oman back in 1971 when Saudi Arabia abstained. Even though Oman joined the Arab League in 1971, the Saudi government voiced their reservation over this decision. Clearly, it is important to consider the historical background of the region in order to understand Oman’s external behavior. However, this is not to be mistaken with the notion that Oman prefers Iran over Saudi Arabia.
Oman and Saudi Arabia have come a long way in overcoming their mistrust and disputes over policies and territorial borders. After gaining UN membership, Sultan Qabbos of Oman started a constructive dialogue with Riyadh that enhanced the cooperative position between the two countries. The Omani government realizes that it needs Saudi Arabia not just to balance Iran, but also to maintain the GCC block together. A WikiLeaks document shows that Omani officials are always wary of Iran’s unpredictable behavior in the region. Explaining the Omani-Iranian relations, an Omani diplomat told me “you need to keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. This indicates that the Omani’s contemporary historical experiences persuaded them to adopt a policy of regional balance with no alignment.
“Oman is Oman”, a senior Kuwaiti official conveyed this to me. Oman did not cut-off relations with Sadat’s Egypt following the 1979 Camp David treaty with Israel, while the other five Arab Gulf countries- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar- did. Oman remained neutral during the Iraq-Iran war and asked the two countries to settle their disputes peacefully. Some of the other Gulf countries, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, supported Iraq in this war. Many criticized Oman’s refusal of the Union proposal between GCC members. However, ironically, it was Oman who advocated for a coherent regional defense framework when the GCC was established in 1981. Other GCC states blocked the Omani proposal back then due to concerns over antagonizing both Iraq and Iran.
Oman’s behavior in the region and even their recent role in the Iran nuclear talks was not intended to antagonize Saudi Arabia. The foreign policy of Oman’s Qabbos was founded on the principles of “nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, respect for international law, strengthening relations with other Arab countries, and following a nonaligned policy”, as the political scientist Kechichian notes.
With these principles under consideration, we can understand why Oman was persistent in making Iran and the U.S. negotiate. In fact, the Omani mediation efforts can be traced back to 1999 between Clinton administration and president Khatami. Oman has always tried to narrow the gap between Iran and the West out of fear of a regional war that would not exempt Muscat from the consequences. As an ally to the United States and a neighbor to Iran, Oman would face hard choices if the two went to war against each other. This is alongside the risk of disrupting oil flow from the Strait of Hormuz, where one-third of oil supplies pass through. This explains why Oman opposed the GCC “union” directed against Tehran. But, this also tells us why the Omanis oppose Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and their condemnation of the attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Iran.
The Omani foreign policy is the product of Sultan Qabbos, but he laid out principles that will carry-on in the foreseeable time. However, the future of Oman’s cautious foreign policy of regional balancing is still uncertain. Indeed, the persistence of their foreign policy’s principles will be tested as they navigate between economic challenges and uncertainty over political succession. For now, however, they seem open to inducing a cooperative regional behavior and overcoming historical setbacks.
History is history, but the lessons will not be forgotten. Policy decision-makers in GCC capitals should account for these lessons in their policies to reach efficient cooperative behavior among its members, and to overcome matters of uncertainty.
*Hamad Althunayyan is a PhD Researcher in Political Science at University of Maryland- College Park. He earned his BA in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University and MA in International Relations from American University – Washington, DC.