Since Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said’s ascendancy to power in 1970, the Sultanate of Oman’s foreign policy has been distinct. Despite being a founding member of the mostly anti-Iranian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman’s international policies have been informed by a doctrine of neutrality and an impartial approach to global affairs and developments.
Strategically located along the Arabian Peninsula’s south-eastern corner near the Strait of Hormuz, through which thousands of tons of oil reach world markets daily, the Sultanate sits at a location of paramount importance to navigation and the global economy. This geography heavily shapes Oman’s delicate geopolitical position based on a relatively independent foreign policy that does not follow the blueprints set forth by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Oman’s main priority is to maintain friendly relations with all its neighbors and major players in global politics. The Sultanate was the first GCC member-state to resolve all its border disputes with neighbors and since 1970 Oman has never severed diplomatic relations with any government in the world.
Such an approach has enabled Muscat to actively facilitate negotiations in the Middle East. Maintaining this unique position has required Oman to distance itself from others in the GCC at certain times. Muscat has refused to align with its fellow Arabian Peninsula monarchies on a host of foreign policy endeavours such as the Arab coalition’s war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen, backing Sunni rebels fighting the Syrian regime, taking diplomatic action against Iran, blockading Qatar, and intervening militarily in Libya and Bahrain’s internal crises during the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
Through its carefully constructed foreign policy that is mostly neutral, Oman has established a reputation as a trustworthy peace broker in the Middle East with a host of regimes across the ideological spectrum often welcoming its mediation in various conflicts. Historically, Oman played an important role in facilitating the peace process between Tehran and Baghdad amid the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Additionally, Muscat’s contribution was crucial in the liberation of two American hikers who were detained near the Iraqi-Iranian border in 2010 and were eventually freed thanks to Oman’s diplomatic intervention. Similarly, numerous Westerners detained by various factions in Yemen have also been liberated from their captors via Omani mediation.
Due to Oman’s working relationship with Tehran, Muscat has served in the past as a facilitator of discussions between the United States and several Arab states on one side and Iran on the other. Oman’s service in this capacity culminated with the Sultanate holding the preliminary, secret talks in the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which strengthened Oman’s role as a mediator. The Sultanate is viewed as a credible partner within both American and Iranian circles. However, Oman wants to guarantee that its relations with both Washington and Tehran are not jeopardized by other Gulf states’ geopolitical interests. This is why Muscat is allowing the opening of new US and UK bases on Oman’s strategic coast as part of an expansion of defense and security ties with Western powers.
Regarding Syria, the Omanis have maintained their characteristic neutrality throughout the past eight years of civil war between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his enemies. It was hardly any surprise earlier this month when Yusuf bin Alawi, the Omani State Minister for Foreign Affairs, met Assad as well as Alawi’s Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem in Damascus. Since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, this was Alawi’s second visit to the war-torn country. Officials in Damascus have always seen Oman as a benevolent Gulf state and a trusted party which has embraced “supportive positions towards Syria at various Arab and international forums.”
Similarly, on the Palestinian file, Oman has been ahead of the curve among GCC member-states in terms of pushing for an opening with Israel while also taking steps to show support for a Palestinian state that no other government in the Arabian Peninsula has done so far. Specifically, Muscat’s announcement last month that the Sultanate plans to open an Omani embassy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. That Oman made this announcement shortly after the “Peace to Prosperity” summit in Bahrain (which Oman did not attend) spoke volumes about Muscat’s continued independence from the “Riyadh consensus” within the GCC.
With respect to Yemen, Oman is considered by all parties “a diplomatic arbiter,” having met with the UN special envoy to the country, Martin Griffiths, and the Houthi negotiator, Mohammed Abdulsalam. From the onset of the civil war, the Sultanate has maintained a strictly neutral stance. Questioning the ability of the GCC coalition to defeat the Yemeni Houthis militarily, Oman has pursued a strategy of “constructive engagement” and is a proponent of implementing the Stockholm Agreement. To date, Oman’s approach has been relatively fruitful, as Muscat has successfully negotiated the release of prisoners from Houthi militants and has hosted intra-Yemeni peace talks.
Oman is regarded by the warring factions as a trustworthy partner which could play a key role in resolving the conflict in Yemen.
Oman is regarded by the warring factions as a trustworthy partner which could play a key role in resolving the conflict in Yemen. Indeed, it has vested interests in resolving the war, as it fears a refugee crisis, economic difficulties, and the threat from extremists who could take advantage of the power vacuum that the civil war has created. In addition, having openly expressed its disagreement with the UAE’s foreign policy, Muscat is suspicious of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which is closely linked to the UAE, and does not want to be trapped by another “UAE-aligned state,” should it be established. As an Ibadi Muslim-majority country without vying sectarian interests, the Houthis have openly expressed their preference for Oman as a mediator.
Significantly, Oman opposed the onset of a war after Ali Abdullah Saleh’s assassination, and has since the beginning of the Saudi-led coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015 refused to take part. Finally, Oman’s role in efforts to achieve peace in Yemen have also been viewed favourably by the current internationally recognized president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s side, which trusts the Sultanate due to its “consistent track record of negotiating with the Houthis.”
As expected, Oman’s approach to foreign policy has often raised the ire of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Sultanate’s close relations with Qatar and Iran, for example, could potentially undermine its mediating efforts and hurt its credibility. While Oman’s absence from Operation Decisive Storm has been tolerated, in the future, Muscat’s actions could adversely impact its relations with its GCC allies. Consequently, Sultan Qaboos’ successor might be pressured to reorient Oman’s diplomacy away from Iran and closer to the GCC.
Muscat’s ties with Israel are also in the limelight, particularly following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in October 2018. Yet the Sultanate’s leadership has denied that normalization of bilateral ties is on the table unless a Palestinian state is established.
Overall, it remains to be seen how Oman will be able to preserve its foreign policy independence and continue to serve as a facilitator of diplomatic interactions in the Gulf region, while also maintaining relations both with the GCC member-states and Iran. The region is heating up and the challenges to Oman will grow as various players in the region become less flexible and increasingly maximalist in their foreign policy agendas.
Theodore Karasik is the senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Follow him on Twitter: @TKarasik.
Andreas Paraskevopoulos is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.