The death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said in January 2020 triggered many speculations as to whether the new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Indeed, the country’s international high-profile image has been attributed to Qaboos’ half century-long reign and excellent personal relationships with regional and world leaders. However, despite the new Sultan’s commitment to continuing the nation’s policy of strategic neutrality, many observers fear that the current challenges of a global pandemic coupled with low oil prices – which greatly affect Oman’s economic outlook – could have an impact on its foreign policy activities and force Sultan Haitham bin Tariq to focus on domestic issues.
A neutral stance towards regional conflicts has been the trademark of Muscat’s foreign policy for 50 years. The late Sultan Qaboos skillfully pursued strategic nonalignment before and after the Cold War, placing the country in the position of an impartial and respected broker between Arab states, Iran, and the West. During his reign, Sultan Qaboos cultivated a perception of Oman as an independent player with strong ties to all regional powers while avoiding their rivalries.
Oman has successfully avoided being caught between Sunni and Shiite divisions and quarrels, and instead has acted as a mediator and conciliatory factor in the region.
Oman – where most citizens follow Ibadi Islam – has successfully avoided being caught between Sunni and Shiite divisions and quarrels, and instead has acted as a mediator and conciliatory factor in the region. But despite numerous domestic challenges, last fall Oman made bold diplomatic moves in Syria playing an increasingly important role in the war-torn country.
Although the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in the organization due to its deadly crackdown on an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in 2011, and most of the Gulf countries withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus while supporting the opposition forces in Syria’s civil war, Oman has refused to join fellow Arab countries in targeting Assad and has maintained diplomatic relations with Damascus.
In March last year, Oman was the first Arab Gulf state to send an ambassador back to Syria. Previously, the Syrian Foreign Minister made three visits to Muscat, in 2015, in March 2018, and last January 2020 when he offered condolences for the death of Sultan Qaboos.
A neutral stance towards the Syrian conflict could now bring a great benefit to Muscat, as the country may become a valuable diplomatic player in restoring the bridges between Syria and other Arab states. After Assad recovered control over most of Syria with support from Russia and Iran – the arch foe of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – some Arab states have been seeking reconciliation with Damascus, aiming to limit the influence of non-Arab powers and gradually shifting their priorities and interests in Syria as they become increasingly concerned over Turkey and Iran’s growing role.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain re-opened their embassies in Damascus in late 2018 in a diplomatic boost to Assad, and the UAE has a Charge d’Affaires there as well.
Some analysts warn that Oman’s diplomatic approach to Damascus, should be played with great caution. Muscat’s closer ties with Assad may affect its relations with the US, as Washington has already imposed sweeping sanctions on Syria.
Yet, Edwin Tran, Geopolitical Analyst at Encyclopedia Geopolitica , told Inside Arabia that Oman’s engagement with Syria does not change anything. In his opinion, official meetings between Syrian and Omani top officials in past years triggered little in the way of a US response. In fact, Oman has played similar roles in other conflicts. According to him, even as Oman was warming up to Iran in the latter years of the Iran-Iraq War, the US actually strengthened its relations with Oman through a military presence in the country. Considering how Oman is known to operate, so long as it’s not outright supporting Assad but instead promoting itself as a supporter of peace developments and stability, Tran thinks that Oman has little to fear as far as a US reprisal is concerned.
Other analysts like Giorgio Cafiero and Brett Sudetic believe that the United States’ Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act could pose a challenge to Oman as it seeks to aid in the reconstruction and redevelopment of Syria. US President Donald Trump’s 2019 “Caesar Act” is a law sanctioning the Syrian regime and the companies profiting from the Syrian conflict by engaging in reconstruction activities in the country.
“Like with Yemen, if Oman frames its actions with a humanitarian emphasis, I don’t think there will be large issues in navigating these waters.”
In Tran’s estimation, however, Oman’s ties to Syria have little influence on its relations with the US, and things are even more in flux as the US transitions away from the Trump administration to a Biden one. He thinks Omani officials will probably work with their US counterparts to ensure that their reconstruction efforts are in line with US policy. “Like with Yemen, if Oman frames its actions with a humanitarian emphasis, I don’t think there will be large issues in navigating these waters,” Tran told Inside Arabia.
Although Oman does not host any permanent US military base – only military facilities at Thumrait and Masirah Island – and does not have high military purchase deals with Washington like its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors, it is still a valuable military partner due to its strategic position, as it grants access to US navy ships.
Moreover, Oman hosted talks between the US, the EU, and Iran prior to reaching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement in 2015 and brokered initial talks between NATO, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan over the future negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Oman has also played a very constructive and conciliatory role in Yemen and the ongoing (though lessened) Gulf spat between Qatar and the Quartet states.
The Gulf states’ return to Syria is therefore in strong correlation with their geopolitical aim to deter Tehran and Ankara while attempting to reintegrate Syria back into the Arab fold. Greater Gulf Arab engagement in the country would also hurt Turkish expansionist ambitions and in doing so, they would have full support from the Syrian regime which has become increasingly hostile towards Turkish interference in the northeast of the country.
The Gulf states’ return to Syria is in strong correlation with their geopolitical aim to deter Tehran and Ankara while attempting to reintegrate Syria back into the Arab fold.
While the Assad regime hopes that rich Gulf countries would play a significant role in the reconstruction of the devastated country, the US and many European countries strongly oppose this scenario, if Assad remains in power.
Russia, conversely, aware of the lack of financial recourses, has expressed support to increased Gulf presence in Syria, as Moscow awaits reconstruction funds and expects economic gains after its military intervention. It would therefore be no surprise if Muscat seeks to monetize its close relations with Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Tehran, and Damascus.
However, while Russia, Gulf countries, and Iran all pursue similar interests, some analysts speculate it is quite possible that they would enter into fierce competition since Russia will certainly not allow Iran nor Gulf countries to take a considerable piece of the Syrian pie. This is especially true for the Syrian oil sector, which has already become the major apple of discord between Russia and the US. The entrance of the Gulf countries, which have long viewed Syria as an important oil pipe route towards Europe, could further complicate this.
The ongoing chess game over Syria looks to be a great diplomatic opportunity for the new Omani ruler. Tran thinks that Oman will likely attempt to organize negotiations and dialogue between the parties involved in Syria’s conflict. According to him, Oman is good at managing these talks from the shadows. If successful, it would be an important foreign policy victory for Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, proving that he is more than capable of carrying on Qaboos’ legacy.