Oman Plays Its Own Tune in Foreign Policy

Published August 22nd, 2021 - 06:23 GMT
Haitham bin Tariq al Said
Haitham bin Tariq al Said, the new Omani Sultan. (AFP File Photo)

On first sight Oman doesn’t seem to possess anything spectacular save for its natural mountainous beauty and surroundings at the tip of the Gulf overlooking the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a hazy place, a small-sized country with medium resources that looks just about to be eaten up by its powerful neighbors.

Yet Oman is a political juggernaut, playing a deft and skilled hand in international affairs and foreign policy and it has been playing that since the early 1970s, becoming better in its role as the years have gone by, bringing people together, mediating, lowering the tempo of fratricidal partners and generally seeking to put its good offices for a better tomorrow.

Among a tense Middle East with its hot spots, war jugulars and brewing conflicts, Oman sought to bring a moderating role. Through its quite diplomacy and persistence, it has built itself a name for raising above politics so to speak, while walking in a quagmire and a potential minefield of warring states, parties, proxies, ideologies and different point of views.

Oman situated itself as a friend of everyone: The Iranians, Saudis, Yemenis, Houthis, Emiratis, Syrians, Palestinians and yes, the Israelis, Americans and even the Russians. With Oman, everyone needed to be put on board kicking and screaming, regardless of how they felt, what they felt and in spite of the brewing animosities in between them.

Thus Oman played a vital “back channel” between the US and Iran that lead to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal signed between Tehran and the 5+1 powers. This is something that was very much appreciated by the then US Secretary of State John Kerry. And right from the start it played a major role in seeking to put the Yemeni conflict to an end by mediating with the Saudis, Americans and Houthis and including the so-called legitimate government of Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi.

Although the warring factions are still making the job of the Omanis harder, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the United Nations who are actively in humanitarian assistance in the country expressed much appreciation for the role of Muscat that started in 2015 when the Saudis begun its war on Yemen through its Operation Decisive Storm that involved 10 Arab countries.

But this quiet diplomacy continues relentlessly despite disappointments. Today both the Saudis and Americans feel if anybody can bring the Yemeni war to an end it would be Oman who had built a trusted relationship with the Houthis. Last June 2021 an Omani delegation went to the Houthi-controlled Sanaa based on talks between the Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Al Busaidi and Blinken.

In turn, the Houthis under their Chief negotiator Mohammad Abdul Salam said his delegations were invited to Muscat to complete the talks with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Saudis. Busiadi travelled also to Riyadh and met with the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud.

This was also underpinned by the visit of Omani Sultan Haithan bin Tariq Al Said to Saudi Arabia. This is the first ever visit by an Omani ruler to the Kingdom and certainly signals a change in relations between the two countries. The previous ruler of Oman Sultan Qaboos bin Saud who governed the country for almost 50 years sought a policy of neutrality and was always aware of keeping Riyadh at bay and continue to seek relations with Tehran, a policy that first started during the rule of the Shah long prior to Iran’s 1979 Revolution.

His cousin Sultan Haitham, and who took power in in January 2020, seeks to maintain the policy of neutrality with regards to regional and international powers, but obviously with the Saudi visit things may appear to be changing somewhat but this may relate to the domestic economic crunch Oman is experiencing because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the desire to attract aid not from Saudi Arabia but also from the United Arab Emirates which borders Oman and in spite of relations with Iran.

While Muscat’s relations have always been somewhat of a strain regarding Riyadh and Abu Dhabi simply because of the desire to demonstrate a greater independent foreign policy, Oman under its previous ruler, and now under the current Sultan seeks “equilibrium” and “balance” in its approach. A clear perspective to that was the normalization process that has been going under the previous Trump administration between Israel, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Sudan and Morocco.

Oman blessed these moves, especially between Israeli and the UAE, despite the country didn’t “normalize” with Tel Aviv, and said the relations it has with the Jewish state was already sufficient. Analysts then suggested that the price for its, at least verbal support for the Abu Dhabi deal with Israel, was the securing of a $2 billion loan from the First Abu Dhabi Bank.

This proved one of the better episodes for Oman-UAE for relations, which despite their economic closeness and the fact that Abu Dhabi is a crucial Omani trading partner, on the foreign policy angle Abu Dhabi, and generally, continues to be upset with Muscat because the later likes to forge an independent foreign policy and despite the fact it has been a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council since its foundation in 1981.

The last tiff has been when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an economic blockade on Qatar starting 2017. Oman refused to join the blockade but on the contrary increased its economic relations with Doha in the next three years where trade between the two countries shot up by 100 percent.

However, Oman played it coolly when Doha asked it to intervene and attempt to solve the despite. Its politicians refused to take a high-handed approach to the dispute saying that would be interpreted as interference and would know doubt upset the Saudis and the UAE which it didn’t want to do. This was because these two countries were already deeply involved in Yemen, and – albeit supporting different sides – and Oman didn’t want to upset the possible mediation it was already involved in that involved different parties as well as Iran.

For Oman, it was already involved in complex relations with different sides, parties and states, taking bald steps while playing one party against each other. Of course, this no way meant it was disingenuous, but Muscat was involved in a wider perspective to relations, peace-making, economic development and appeal and so on.

Take for example Israeli Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat in 2018. It was as bold invitation and sojourn, the Gulf states had not yet embarked on normalization with Tel Aviv, but it carried many indications. Nothing outwardly came out of the visit but it carried serious implications and underlying trends and showed a long continuum of diplomacy between Oman and Israel. This is because Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin secretly visited Muscat in 1994 and the Oman Foreign Minister came to Israel in 1995 and that trade offices were set up between the two countries in 1996 – incidentally, Qatar did the same - only to be closed in the year 2000.

Its twists and turns in foreign policy that is pliant and suits the times, being called pragmatic, flexible and necessary for the geo-politics of the region and the world. What it showed, and despite the monarchical nature of Oman, it needn’t be put in one political camp or allied to the other. It can be accommodating just as much with the Russians as it is with the Americans, the Iranians and the Saudis, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Above all, it showed Muscat can play different roles that would be acceptable to different parties like Iran, Houthis and Syria, all of whom are opposed to Israel but can either understand the Omani action to Tel Aviv or turn a blind eye to it because this is what you do in politics, international relations and foreign affairs for furthering different interests and point of views and hopefully benefit, all in their mind.

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