Following normalization of ties between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel in September, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a Middle East tour in order to coax other Arab states (in particular Oman and Sudan) to follow suit. Since then, the US has been exerting increasing pressure, successfully coercing Khartoum into normalization in exchange for removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror, which has acted as a barrier and impediment to direct foreign investment despite the official lifting of sanctions under Obama.
However, it is not only Washington that has been exerting pressure. As part of the UAE’s wider consolidation of its new partnership with Israel, and as part of asserting itself as a growing regional power, Abu Dhabi has begun to wield its new relationship against its neighbors.
On October 13, the UAE based Arab News published an article titled “Debt Crisis and Effects of Corona Threaten Oman Neutrality.” In light of restrictions on media in the UAE, it is hard to imagine such an article, that might impact bilateral ties, would have been published without the necessary approval. Although there have been private tensions between the two states over a number of issues throughout the years — notably the uncovering in 2011 of an Emirati spying network in Oman targeting its government, military, and relations with Iran — there has traditionally been a mutual desire to keep these differences behind closed doors.
The article revealed much about UAE attitudes towards Oman, and its approach to the Qatar blockade, normalization with Israel, Iran, and Yemen.
Normalization as a Solution to Oman’s Economic Troubles
Although many analysts have suggested that Oman’s economy is being battered by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices, those inside Oman have been cautious in their language. While acknowledging the sharp economic downturn, few are calling it a “crisis.” Oman itself has not made an official request for financial aid from its neighbors (although it has tentatively discussed wider Gulf initiatives to offset the impact of low oil prices) and has adopted a string of economic measures to contain the impact of the virus and ease the pressure on Omani companies.
The administration in Muscat still believes that its almost completed projects, which include its geo-strategically located Duqm port and new state-of-the-art airport, will facilitate a rapid recovery once the virus is under control. The presumption of an economic crisis in this case is uniquely a UAE perspective and not, for the time being, an Omani one.
The Arab News article argues that Muscat might find economic relief through normalization of ties with Israel.
On the basis of this presumption, the Arab News article argues that Muscat might find economic relief through normalization of ties with Israel. While not many details are listed as to how normalization might provide relief, the assumption is that Washington would offer a financial “pay-off.”
However, given that the US itself is riven with its own economic crisis, and given that the UAE itself is struggling to contain the economic impact of coronavirus, the suggestion that normalization might offer economic relief is difficult to fathom. Moreover, Oman already has a unique economic relationship with the US and a bilateral arrangement that is set to expand irrespective of normalization.
It is noteworthy that the article proposes normalization as a solution. This reflects a wider push by the UAE to pressure its neighbors into following suit and presents the idea of integrating Israel’s economy as one that serves to benefit the wider region. While this has no grounding in reality, the UAE has sought to present those resisting normalization as countries who insist on preserving the instability in the region.
In other words, the reference to normalization as a solution is part of Abu Dhabi’s wider communications strategy that is directed not towards the masses within the region, but to Washington and Europe as the UAE presents itself as the “reasonable, progressive” nation in a region still beset by “old prejudices.”
For now, Oman has made it clear it will not join the UAE in normalizing ties.
The Threat of Financial Aid From Qatar
The article alludes to the prospect that if Oman were to seek financial aid from Qatar, then Abu Dhabi would consider Muscat as an ally of Doha and thereby an antagonist to the “Quartet” (the states behind the Qatar blockade: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt). That is to say, Oman would no longer be considered a neutral party.
The UAE has long been accused of maintaining the unity behind the Qatar blockade amidst rumors that Riyadh has, on occasion, sought to consider reconciliation to tame the PR onslaught that has stalled investment in Saudi Arabia. While the kingdom continues to attract significant interest, generally unaffected by the controversies over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and Saudi foreign policy, investors are still holding off out of concern for reputational risks and waiting for such a time whereby the controversies no longer dominate the headlines.
The UAE has continued to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to crushing political Islam sentiments in the region and their alleged prime sponsor, Qatar.
If members of the Quartet have shown hesitation, the UAE has continued to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to crushing political Islam sentiments in the region and their alleged prime sponsor, Qatar.
Not only does the Arab News article refer to Abu Dhabi’s position on this, but it also refers to Riyadh’s. Saudi Arabia is not traditionally outspoken on issues relating to its neighbors irrespective of what differences might exist. The presumption that the UAE would speak on its behalf suggests that either this is truly the view of Riyadh, or Abu Dhabi is assured of its influence over Saudi foreign policy.
Since the publishing of the Arab News article, Qatar has granted US$1 billion in financial aid to Muscat. Abu Dhabi now finds itself in an awkward situation. Either it follows through with its suggestion that Oman now be considered an antagonist, or it offers its own financial aid in a bid to prevent Muscat potentially leaning more heavily on Doha. Given Qatar is keen to take every opportunity to enhance its ties amidst an enduring blockade by the Quartet, the UAE’s ability to squeeze Muscat is limited, and it is likely that it will prefer to keep the peace and provide financial aid if only to keep Oman neutral.
The Iran Factor
The same article suggests that while the UAE and Saudi Arabia have their own economic issues, and have altered their policy of providing financial assistance, any potential request from Oman would be complicated by its policies towards Iran and Yemen.
Oman has been the prime mediator between Washington and Iran, and other disputing parties in the region. After Sultan Qaboos’ death earlier this year, condolences were sent from Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu, the Houthis, Doha, the UAE, and beyond—revealing the extent to which Oman is seen as a genuinely neutral party in the region. The article, however, suggests a perception in Abu Dhabi that Oman is too close to Tehran.
UAE analysts remarked that Abu Dhabi was equipped to become the prime mediator in any prospective talks on a new nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington.
In reality, the UAE itself has been pursuing a role as a mediator with Iran. When the UAE and Iran’s foreign ministers engaged in a telephone conversation in August this year, UAE analysts remarked that Abu Dhabi was equipped to become the prime mediator in any prospective talks on a new nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington.
The obstacle to the UAE securing such a position is that Oman is a reliable mediator with a proven track record and viewed positively by both Washington and Tehran. The second potential mediator is Qatar which, as a result of the blockade, has improved its ties with Iran in recent times and is already the conduit for communications between Israel and the Palestinian factions. Qatar is also hosting the Afghanistan peace talks.
The UAE’s contention over Oman’s relationship with Iran therefore has little to do with the actual substance of the relationship. Instead, it has everything to do with Abu Dhabi’s frustration that for all of its investment in ties with Washington and its maneuverings in the region, Oman continues to maintain a level of independence that is capable of hindering the UAE’s new-found regional power, and that could also circumvent the UAE’s influence over Washington.
Discontent Over Yemen
The article’s suggestion of the UAE’s discontent over Oman’s role in Yemen is especially noteworthy. Oman has hosted talks over prisoner exchanges between the warring factions and regional powers and is the only regional country that can effectively communicate with all sides in Yemen, including the Houthis. Analysts have speculated, however, that while Oman remains neutral, it is especially uneasy over the UAE’s maritime entrenchment in Yemen’s south and its support for the Southern Separatists.
The concern lies not with the intentions of Yemen’s factions, but in Abu Dhabi’s wider ambitions that have already seen it become more assertive in claiming that the northern province of Musandam should be Emirati territory, not Omani.
The concern lies not with the intentions of Yemen’s factions, but in Abu Dhabi’s wider ambitions that have already seen it become more assertive.
There has been much speculation that Oman’s unique relationship with Iran has facilitated the Houthis entrenchment. However, while the UAE may suggest that Muscat is playing a dubious role, the bigger picture indicates that this does not affect Abu Dhabi. The UAE is not interested in restoring the internationally-recognized Yemeni government as much as it is keen on propelling the Southern Separatists and carving out its own enclave of influence on the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the island of Socotra. The constant Houthi threat facilitates the UAE’s ongoing expansion.
The crux of UAE disgruntlement over Oman’s role in Yemen is that it continues to remain an enduring force recognized by Yemen’s parties as a true neutral and, among many factions, the preferred mediator. Muscat has respected Riyadh’s assertion that it oversees the political process and harbors the internationally-recognized government. Yet, it is likely that Oman will facilitate the required negotiations with Tehran and the Houthis, ensuring its relevance in spite of Abu Dhabi’s frustrations.
The UAE’s Growing Influence
Irrespective of whether the Arab News article truly reflects the stance of UAE policymakers, the reality is that as normalization gathers pace, Abu Dhabi is increasingly keen to wield its new relationship with Israel to amplify its standing and influence in the region and assert itself on its neighbors with US backing. The question is to what extent the UAE truly believes that Washington and Tel Aviv will buy into Abu Dhabi’s vision for the region. Tel Aviv still believes it needs Qatar to liaise with the Palestinian factions. Washington still leans on Oman to communicate with Iran and manage the volatile shipping routes and security on the Hormuz Strait. The UAE is ill-equipped to supplant either on these issues which are of paramount importance to Washington.
As it grows in power and influence and begins to operate in the open, the UAE will need to deal with a very different set of dynamics.
Moreover, the UAE’s rise has been facilitated by its operating in the shadow of Saudi Arabia. As it grows in power and influence and begins to operate in the open, the UAE will need to deal with a very different set of dynamics. It may well find that Riyadh and Cairo do not take kindly to being “led,” and that popular opinion generally does not side with authoritarian regimes that deploy their resources to impose authoritarian regimes elsewhere, be it in Libya, Syria, or Yemen.
Oman for the time being is insulated from UAE pressure. For all of the UAE’s foreign policy in Yemen, the conflict shows no signs of abating and the Southerners that Abu Dhabi is gambling on remain deeply divided over UAE backing for the Southern Transitional Council. Muscat has alternatives to its neighbors should it require financial assistance and Washington is keen to explore measures to ease the economic pressure on Oman.
Lastly, Sultan Haitham appears set on maintaining the policy of neutrality of his predecessor, the late Sultan Qaboos. Muscat has no desire to become embroiled in the never-ending regional chaos and continues to leverage its neutrality effectively to remain relevant and independent enough that it does not need to bow to the demands of any external influence.
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